Ira Sachs Interview

by Patrick McGavin Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 1:18pm

“Keep the Lights On” is the beautiful, emotionally devastating new film by New York independent filmmaker Ira Sachs (“40 Shades of Blue”). It is autobiographically-inflected piece charting the intricate, complicated decade in the relationship between a documentary filmmaker (Thure Lindhardt) and a closeted lawyer (Zachary Booth).

The movie premeried in the competition at Sundance, and has won prizes at festivals in Berlin and Outfest. Music Box Films is releasing the movie around the country. Sachs talks about the entwining of his life and art.

The movie lives or dies with the casting. How did you decide on the somewhat unorthodox choice of Danish actor Thure Lindhardt in the lead?

Ira Sachs: Given the nakedness of the material, both physically and emotionally, I had a sense that this would be a hard film to cast in America. We are a country of Puritans, and sex is still something that is rarely seen in our films. Early on, I sent the film to an agent I know well in Hollywood. His response was that, “No one in our agency will be available for these roles.” That gave me a good idea of the hurdles I was going to face, and I had a feeling I might have to look outside the US for casting.

At about that time, I heard about Thure Lindhardt, who I was told was “the bravest actor in Denmark,” as well as one of the very best. I sent him the script; he recorded himself performing a few of the scenes. I saw the material, and I cast him immediately. He was it, all the energy, and all the vulnerability, and all the risk I could want rolled into one.

Given how personal, even autobiographical the material is, did you try to find some distance or was the point to simply mediate something more direct or private through its making?

Ira Sachs: I didn’t begin to write the script until I had achieved the two things I need before starting any new project, which is a great intimacy with the subject along with a certain analytical distance. I think without both of those you can’t be a good storyteller. So by the time we were shooting, for me, my own personal experiences were just one of many resources the actors could access in the process of creating their own reality.

Ultimately, I think of every film as a kind of documentary, and what the camera is recording is the present, what happens right at the moment of shooting between the actors in front of the lens. When people leave “Keep the Lights On,” what they remember is the reality of the characters on the screen, not the emotional history that I brought to it as the filmmaker.

For me, part of what’s so powerful about the film is the glancing style you interpolate throughout. It’s almost Jamesian, so much is felt rather than expressed.

Ira Sachs: Henry James is my favorite author, and I’ve read all his books except the two last, and most difficult, ones. To me what I try to do in making a film is to have a strong story with a beginning, middle, and end, but then how you get there needs to be made up of a series of moments that contain as many contradictions as possible. I want as much life in the film as I can get, and that includes all the mess, and all the conflicts. [John] Cassavetes has also been a big influence on me, and Maurice Pialat from France.

These are directors who believe in telling a good story, but the audience always feels when watching their films that the actors have a certain freedom. The characters drive the film, not the plot, and at any moment they could shift its direction.

You shot in Super-16mm, and the movie feels warmer, even sensual. What about your collaboration with the cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis? Again, this is much different film stylistically than the Greek films I know him through, like “Dogtooth” or “Attenberg.”

Ira Sachs: I knew Thimios would be the perfect collaborator for this project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he has the eye of a painter, as much as a cinematographer. His understanding of light and of the frame is instinctual and brilliant.

Secondly, he shoots sex better than anyone else I see working today. Affectionately, and with humor, as well as an openness. For Thimios, sex is just a part of life. The camera doesn’t have to shoot it any different than a dinner scene, or a birthday party. This is a very important theme in the film: it’s a story driven by shame, but we wanted to tell it shamelessly, with all the lights on. What I didn’t know about Thimios until we worked together – and I think is maybe the most important element in his work – is his warmth and kindness. He is someone who relishes life, and he brings that joy to every frame.

All of your films seem predicated on relationships that either cannot consummated or survive, so there’s an underlying melancholy and sadness.

Ira Sachs: Looking back at the four features I’ve made, I see that they are all about the conflict between how a person appears in the world, and what they keep hidden. I am then interested in how that individual conflict affects the relationships one has, and particularly how this secretiveness corrupts romantic intimacy. All my films have also been coming of age films, whether that be for a young man, as in “The Delta,” or a middle-aged one, like Chris Cooper in “Married Life.” I am interested in how we learn to know ourselves. It’s not surprising, I guess, that I spent many years in psychoanalysis. I think if I hadn’t been a film director, the only other job I would have been equipped for is an analyst, in fact. The criteria are quite similar.

My next film, I’m glad to say is about a different kind of love relationship, one between two men who have been together, mostly happily, for 40 years. In many ways the story reflects a new way of being in the world – and a new way of being in relationships – that came for me in the wake of the difficult experiences that Keep the Lights On depicts.

At Sundance, you introduced the largest artistic delegation I’ve ever seen there. It underlined what a labor of love the project is for everybody involved.

Ira Sachs: My co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias and I finished the script in January of last year, and with my fellow producers, Marie Therese Guirgis and Lucas Joaquin, we committed to going into production by July of the same year. In a way, we went back to the idea of “independent” cinema not as a Hollywood genre, as it has become since the rise of Indie Cinema, but as a declaration of a type of production. Truly independent. Free.

But you need a community of support to have this opportunity, and we found that community for Keep the Lights On, from institutions like Sundance and Cinereach, to hundreds of individuals who gave us money for the film, to companies like Kodak and Panavision, who made it possible for us to shoot on film. This film came out of the city of New York, and it was people who wanted to see a film that was honestly about that city, and its inhabitants, that made it possible.

This was the 20th anniversary of the rise of the New Queer Cinema. Do you consider an heir of that movement, or do you belong to your own tradition?

Ira Sachs: We are all products of our time and of our history, and I very much feel that I came of age as a filmmaker in an exciting time where it felt important and necessary to make work that was unafraid of being extremely open and queer. I was deeply influenced by [Todd Haynes’s film] “Poison,” as I was by my experiences in ACT UP, and by the urgency we all felt to make films that mattered, and that were not ashamed. In my life now, my sexuality is less something that separates me, and I think “Keep the Lights On” reflects that change.

Gratefully, whether in Denver or in Tulsa, London or Paris, many of us live in communities where gay and straight no longer live in separate universes. That doesn’t mean that the experience for each of us is the same – there is always specificity in life, and in one’s place in culture – but the truth is the differences now are less pronounced than the were 20 years ago.

In that way, I think “Keep the Lights On” is something very new. It’s not a film that struggles with identity. It’s a film about people struggling with life, and love. Something most of us know well.

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