Ira Sachs wants to start at the beginning. We meet on the corner of Delancey and Kenmare, where the filmmaker’s New York story started in 1985. This is where he worked as an assistant to Eric Bogosian while a Yale sophomore, poised between the suburban Memphis of his childhood and big-city adulthood. On a warm August morning walk up through Soho to the Village and Chelsea, past the work spaces and restaurants and apartment vestibules that have defined his adult life, it becomes apparent how important memory and physical return are to both Sachs’s life and work, and how effectively subjective recollection can evolve into objectively rendered art.
Two and a half decades after his arrival, Sachs has finally made his New York movie. Keep the Lights On, which opens this Friday, tells the autobiographical story of a tumultuous 10-year relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker, and Paul (Zachary Booth), an attorney who spirals into drug addiction.
The film focuses on Erik and Paul and the cramped apartments and crowded cafés where their drama unfurls, closely mimicking the real-life relationship between Sachs and literary agent Bill Clegg (whom, through mutual agreement, Sachs only refers to as “my ex,” and whose own story was published as a memoir this year). Yet the city feels like a third character to both the film and the relationship it depicts. In Keep the Lights On, lives are defined by sidewalk encounters and changed over the course of three-block walks to the subway.
Zigzagging up Lafayette Street, Sachs talked of how his films about Memphis—The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue—flowed from the confidence of someone who could tell stories from “right in the center of that city.” “It’s taken me 25 years to feel like I was ready to do that here,” the 46-year-old filmmaker says. He points out the former location of a restaurant where he once waited tables. “I was struggling with myself enough that I didn’t have any distance from my own experience. New York grabbed me too hard, as did adulthood.”
That struggle made its way into Keep the Lights On, which spans a professionally unproductive period from the late ’90s to the mid ’00s when he dedicated himself to a doomed, co-dependent love affair. “He couldn’t get on a plane without me holding the tickets, and I couldn’t write an e-mail without him reading it and improving it,” he recalls, before pointing to a window above Petrosino Square in Soho behind which he once shared an office with filmmakers Kelly Reichardt and Larry Fessenden. Like many postgrads, he tried to create stability during an unstable time of life. “I think of it as the struggle between bohemian and bourgeois. Most of us are somewhere in between—we want both.”
Keep the Lights On directly references late-20th-century downtown art and gay culture, from its Arthur Russell soundtrack to a film within a film about queer-scenester photographer Avery Willard. For Sachs, it was about acknowledging the history of this community of artists, many of whose apartments we pass—as well as owning up to who he is. “Most simply but profoundly, I chose to live an honest life,” he says. “Which I think as a gay person is not a given.” With its naked but never self-indulgent depictions of sex and all manner of addiction, Keep the Lights On is disarmingly, at times exhilaratingly, human. When Erik holds Paul’s hand through an act that directly betrays him, you’re invited not to judge but, thanks to our complete access to the characters, to empathize and identify. It’s a drama of hidden things brought to light.
The Knickerbocker Bar and Grill on University Place is one of several homes away from home Sachs winds past. He points out two tables: one up front where he used to sit with his ex, and another in back where he now sits with his husband, the artist Boris Torres. Across the street—in the film and Sachs’s own life—is where an explosive fight helped point toward an eventual breakup. “This block is the past, is the present, is the movie,” he says. Over on 15th Street, we visit the row of apartment buildings where Sachs’s doomed affair both began and ended, which is also where the director shot his film’s finale. Although he describes grueling nights circling the block waiting for his bingeing ex to come home, he does so less as divulgement than testament, as someone whose experience has fully transformed into narrative.
“All of my films have been autobiographical—it’s all I’ve got to go on,” he says. “But on no level do I think that this is a confessional film. The process of talking allows me to voice the story,” a story that can have value, and be owned, by others—just as the New York of his memory is lapped by the New York of his film, both of which we’ve just lapped on our morning stroll. “You’re going to take what we just did, and you’re going to define it. You’re going to narrate it, you’re going to create the chronology, and I’m not going to be able to read it before you publish it,” he tells me, sounding both wary of and excited by the prospect. “And at that point, you will disappear from it.”