Ira Sachs’s shelves contain a multitude of film books, but two volumes jump out as a reflection of his filmmaking: an illustrated monograph of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German epic Berlin Alexanderplatz and a tattered copy of The Films of Joan Crawford. If Sachs’s first two films, 1996’s The Delta and 2005’s Sundance winner Forty Shades of Blue, nod to Fassbinder, his latest endeavor, Married Life, tilts closer to Crawford.
“Some people are surprised that the movie is not an ‘art film,'” says Sachs, who garnered much esteem among cineastes for his first two movies, both set in his hometown of Memphis. “[Otto] Preminger is as much a part of my head as Hou Hsiao-hsien. They’re all just there,” he explains. “This film has a simple relationship to other movies instead of a fetishistic one. It’s not a postmodern film.”
And yet Sachs admits that Married Life “is playful in its attempt to mix several genres.” Equal parts dark comedy, thriller, melodrama, and intimate chamber piece, the film follows a reserved middle-aged man (Chris Cooper) who has fallen in love with a younger woman (Rachel McAdams) and resolves to kill his wife (Patricia Clarkson) to spare her the humiliation of a divorce. Into this love triangle steps the film’s wry narrator and the protagonist’s best friend (Pierce Brosnan), a supreme cad with his own Machiavellian desires.
Based on a 1950s British pulp novel called Five Roundabouts to Heaven, Married Life takes place during the late 1940s in the Pacific Northwest—and rather than fulfill the book’s mystery conventions, “we used genre to tell a humanist story,” explains Sachs. If Hitchcock is an influence, it’s less in his mastery of suspense than in the humor of a film like Shadow of a Doubt. “I kept going back to that film, and wishing for the purity and lightness of that story,” he says. “It’s also very serious, but the seriousness is so effortlessly conveyed.”
Married Life skillfully oscillates between the comic and somber, witty and heartfelt, stylized and affecting, in a way that the film’s makers hope will take the viewer by surprise.
“The artifice actually fools you into this very safe place,” explains Israeli-born co-screenwriter Oren Moverman, whose recent work on Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There also mixes the innovative with the emotional. “If you’re watching at a distance with a certain amount of ease, you’re a lot more susceptible to be opened up to emotional moments.”
Though Sachs and Moverman acknowledge that the story is heightened—murdering a loved one out of kindness is not the stuff of reality—they set out to make the story as empathetic as possible. Moverman cites a quote from the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria that guided them: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
“At one point, that was going to be the opening,” adds Sachs. “It is a great quote; it’s how we approached everything. The other is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—it’s the greatest title ever; I think it’s better than Imitation of Life. And I think this film is more about ‘the heart is a lonely hunter’ than it is ‘imitation of life.’ “
Sachs also credits the actors for helping bring the story out of the past. “They bring texture to the broader, exaggerated, darkly comic story, which is over the top—but their approach is incredibly realistic.”
At one point early in the writing, Sachs and Moverman considered updating the story, but as Moverman says, “We wanted the communications to be more old-fashioned; we didn’t want people to be picking up cell phones.” Sachs explains further: “It goes back to this feeling of the characters being able to express something to each other,” he says, and the “existential trap of what you keep in your head and what you don’t share with people.”
Now that the writers’ strike has ended, the two are continuing to collaborate. “We’re hardworking Jewish boys,” Sachs says. The two first met through Mondovino director Jonathan Nossiter, “because he thought we looked alike,” says Moverman, who moved to the U.S. 20 years ago and currently lives in New York with his wife and two kids. At a rough-cut screening of Moverman’s 1999 scripted feature Jesus’ Son, Sachs adds, “People congratulated me on the script—so I knew there was a doppelgänger out there.”
Their new project is called The Goodbye People, based on a novel by Gavin Lambert, a British gay screenwriter who lived in Hollywood during the ’60s. “It’s about love, sex, drugs, and movies—but mostly it’s about intimacy,” says Sachs. “The biggest difference for me is that it’s about intimacy more than secrecy. I think the crux of my other films has been deceit.”
Sachs admits that this penchant for secrecy comes from growing up as a gay man: “It has to do with learning about sexuality without speaking about it.” And while the title of his new film may suggest a heterosexual coupling, Sachs says it’s meant to resonate with anyone in a long-term relationship. “I’ve been in married life before,” he says, “and I think the film touches on very universal things: What do you know—and what don’t you know—about the person sleeping next to you? And how can you accept that mystery? Because you’ll never know everything.”