Ira Sachs has become one of our great New York filmmakers. His newest, Little Men, about two teenage boys (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) who become best friends even as their parents face off over the fate of a small dress shop in the ground floor of a Brooklyn home, is just the latest of his explorations of individuals fighting for their identities in a changing city. The director sat down with the Voice to discuss how he and his films have changed, his artistic influences, and his genuinely collaborative filmmaking process.
What was it like re-watching your work during the recent MoMA retrospective?
I hadn’t seen these films in a bunch of years. There are different narratives at work here. I can see how my own life has changed, and I can see how the work itself has changed. But there’s also a pretty clear continuity when you watch the films in a row. I came to a conclusion about how the changes in my life are reflected in the films — not in the topics, but in their texture. The films are happier now. They’re also now very specifically about the conflict between a unified couple and society, whereas the earlier films were often about internal conflicts, usually about a protagonist trying to figure out who the hell he or she is.
At the same time, there’s something essentially emotional about the films that I feel is really rich and separate from me. Partially, it has to do with performance — and I feel I enable the performances, so I can take some credit. But this time, for example, I was really moved by Dina Korzun in 40 Shades of Blue. It’s kind of like a Greta Garbo performance — so expressive. I think there are a lot of similarities, actually, between Dina’s performance in that film and Paulina García’s in Little Men. They’re both totally naturalistic and totally constructed at the same time. They’re methodical, and theatrical.
With Dina Korzun’s character, I love the fact that she’s a Russian woman in Memphis, and yet that element of her character doesn’t really figure into the plot. The movie isn’t about her Russian-ness. It’s a grace note that enhances the character and her inner life, and that’s it.
I will say that when I showed another film, Keep the Lights On, in Poland, Polish women really responded to it. So I don’t know. I’m half–Eastern European, and there’s a certain comfortable relationship to sadness in those films, which is very different from these newer ones. I’m not as intimate with sadness right now, so my films aren’t either.
The last couple of films really feel like they’re about community.
Maybe because I’m more evolved internally now, that gives me a certain kind of ability to be broader in my empathies. A transition occurred in my thirties, which is sort of what Keep the Lights On is about. I began to be a community organizer, and more externally directed.
But it’s a complex idea of community. Often, it causes some of the problems we’re witnessing. In Little Men, Greg Kinnear’s father was so generous and open-hearted that he never finalized the legal situation with Paulina García’s shop — and when he drops dead, he leaves a mess behind. In Love Is Strange, the two married men are forced to live with different family members because everybody wants to keep them in New York — so they wind up with this bizarre living arrangement.
Everything is imperfect. Freedom is a luxury in a certain way — a luxury you hope to have. But what choices do you make when you’re not free, when you’re put in a corner? Like Paulina García’s character in Little Men, and Greg Kinnear’s character: What do you do when the options are fewer, and how do those choices reflect your morality? There’s a scene in The Delta, where the kid has set off some fireworks in a field in Mississippi, and a cop comes and says, “You can’t do that. Did you set them off?” And the kid says, “Wasn’t me.” Immediately denies it. That’s a very autobiographical moment, based on a time when I stole some French books from my high school, and I was asked whether I stole the books and I said, “No, I borrowed them.” But I “borrowed,” like, twenty books.
Wait, that’s actually in Love Is Strange, too.
Yeah! I clearly feel a lot of guilt about the fact that when push came to shove, I wasn’t honest.
I like the uncertainty at the end of this film. With Tony [Taplitz]’s character — he’s at LaGuardia High School, finally, and studying to be an artist. But he’ll probably wind up like his dad, who’s a struggling actor who never achieved his dreams. It’s somehow both open-ended and a vicious circle.
For me, particularly the ends of films, I want to be both open and clear. It’s not all questions, but a sense that the film has been handed back to you, the viewer, and you’re satisfied. That’s also why the ends often take the most work, in terms of editing, in order to get that impact.
In that sense, I love the little detail near the end when Paulina García’s character puts up a “Help Wanted” sign in her store even though Greg Kinnear and his family are trying to kick her out. To them, it’s confrontational. But for her, it’s probably just a sign of trying to persevere as much and as long as she can.
That comes from when we started sitting down with [screenwriter] Mauricio [Zacharias] and talking about movies and talking about life. Mauricio’s family is in Rio and his parents owned a shop, and the shopkeeper hadn’t been paying rent for several years, and they were trying to get her out. Each time Mauricio and I would get together he’d tell me a different episode of the story; this was a two-year process. They were actually in court when she put the “Help Wanted” sign up. That was fascinating to me. I thought: a) There’s two sides to this story, obviously, and he’s sensitive enough to understand that as well. And b) It’s really, really dramatic. This is a very small story that’s actually as grand as any, about trying to hold on to the land and property and home.
I think of this film as such a New York film, about very New York subjects. And yet you got this from something that happened in Rio.
I’m a New York filmmaker because I bring the city into the film in what I hope is a true way. But I also feel that if I get the details right, it will resonate in any city, and any neighborhood. It’s like when you read Henry James and find it as modern as anything else. I specifically think it’s a film about individuals struggling to hold on to their homes in a city in transition. And I think people may identify on both sides with this story.
But these are all themes that come out when you watch in reflection, or when you look at them in the rearview mirror. The films really begin with plot, and for me, most of them are remakes, on some level.
I’ve heard you say this before — that Love Is Strange is a loose remake of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, or that Little Men is a reimagining of Ozu’s Good Morning.
I often look for stories in other films I love — I look for a storyline, or logline, that can hold up in a different setting and a different set of characters. I always feel like you need the coatrack in order to hang the coats.
We critics love to divide the world of filmmakers into those who are influenced by other films and those who are influenced by life. Tarantino, for example, is a guy who’s inspired by other films. Whereas Jean Renoir, or maybe Robert Altman, are inspired by life. But you’re combining the two streams.
There are certain filmmakers that are about them, and certain filmmakers that are about the world. And the filmmakers that I love are the ones whose films are about the world — whether it be Maurice Pialat or Ken Loach or Chantal Akerman or even Fassbinder.
Your films share this element with Pialat’s: You rarely show the thing, instead favoring the response to the thing. Very often we have to spend a little time figuring out what has already happened before we’ve joined a scene.
Right before we started shooting Keep the Lights On, I re-watched L’Enfance Nue, and I read something about that film and realized that Pialat was a series of “middles.” That’s a nice thing to think about before you shoot: How do you position the audience in a way that they’re always trying to catch up, just a little bit? Which I think leads to further engagement. But it also means that in terms of the script, you’re building a sequence of things that add up to create a narrative effect. You always have to know the emotional arc of your work. That’s what I always tell my students: Things don’t need to have strict screenplay-format chapters, but on some level you have to be a storyteller — and there’s a history of storytelling that has to do with knowing the impact of the sequence of scenes over time.
And yet a film like Little Men still breathes, too. You have these long musical passages of the kids on their skateboards, just discovering the city around them — which is stylistically unlike you, in some ways.
With Little Men, I wanted to use all the tools of cinema in a very spare and modern way, but not be shy of a score, or dolly shots. Particularly around the kids. I think what you feel in Little Men is this opposition between the fluidity of their world and the stillness and claustrophobia of the adult world. But those scenes are a good example of collaboration. I’m the director, and I plan a lot. But I also plan to be inspired by the people I work with. So that partially came from working with Oscar Duran, my cinematographer, and starting to see those shots. And then working with my composer, Dickon Hinchliffe. Once the music came in, we added four shots, because we wanted to give the music room and space.
You’ve worked with Dickon Hinchliffe on a number of films. I remember his incredible music for Claire Denis’s Friday Night and Trouble Every Day.
God, Claire Denis, the hero of our time — so important for my filmmaking generation. When we were doing the temp editing for 40 Shades of Blue, we used Dickon’s score for Trouble Every Day as our temp. And then we said, “Why don’t we call that guy?” And I’ve now been working with him for fifteen years. And I have to say, looking at these films again in a row, the music tends to be the most emotional element, without being too manipulative.
How does collaboration work for you?
With Mauricio, we usually start by getting together for six-day weeks and talking about movies and life. That generates a set of characters for us. He writes the first draft of the film, and we go back and forth on subsequent drafts. After we start casting I usually do a final draft. Because I rarely ask an actor to transform. For example, in Little Men, one of the boys was supposed to do capoeira. But Michael Barbieri was not going to do capoeira. He was studying to be an actor, and so we made him an aspiring actor. And that was his real acting teacher playing the acting teacher in the film. I had to be receptive to what the world was showing me in the process.
Do you find yourself having to direct different actors in different ways?
Ultimately, they’re all the same in that you have to figure out what they need to give you what you hoped for. Not what you want — because you never know what you want. You need to be sensitive to who they are individually. Some actors are going to be better on take seven, and some on take two. I don’t rehearse with my actors, for example. I think of the day of production as a form of rehearsal. That’s where my work in theater has been very useful, because I know how to move actors around. And I know how to find space between words, so emotion can appear.
Your films feature numerous excellent performances by kids. What’s the secret to working with children?
I basically don’t cast anyone – professional or nonprofessional, young or old – that can’t already embody the character. For the kids in this film, I had different strategies to working with Theo as opposed to working with Michael. Theo I thought of as a Bressonian “model.” And Michael I thought was from Scorsese. So I needed to give Michael free rein, and Theo I needed to give the right shot. Michael could be more improvisational.
The lack of self-consciousness that you find in children can be wonderfully intoxicating in cinema. It helps not to rehearse them, so that they don’t think in advance about how they’re going to perform, and they can just respond. Directing and acting are very similar in that both of them involve listening and responding. How fresh that process can be is how fresh the film can be, how fresh the performances.
Earlier, you said that you had become a community organizer — how do you mean?
I run a nonprofit that I started as a hobby, with a couple of programs. There’s Queer/Art/Film, a series I run at IFC. I also started a mentorship program called Queer Art Mentorship seven years ago, which became successful enough that we’re now an official nonprofit. It’s an interesting ballast against the self-involved production of being a filmmaker. But all these things feed into each other.
For me, this short film I made called Last Address was an interesting turning point. I was trying to make a film called The Goodbye People, based on a book by Gavin Lambert, a British screenwriter who lived in Los Angeles in the 1960s. It was 2008, and there was the recession. Making independent movies in that system – going out to a company and getting them to fund your movie – was no longer possible. So I took control over the economics without looking outside the community to fund my own work. That film just cost me $2,000, and I funded it myself. But through that, I created a system of production which isn’t connected either to the independent film world or Hollywood. And it’s protected in some ways.
I don’t have one funder. For Keep the Lights On, I had three hundred funders; for Love Is Strange, thirty funders; for Little Men, twenty funders. No single entity has economic or creative control. In that way it’s sort of like what Cassavetes was able to do, in that he spent money he made from other things on his films — except for Love Streams, which was Golan-Globus. And those films feel free because they’re creating their own sense of how aesthetics can be created.
What’s next for you?
Mauricio and I are writing a film about Montgomery Clift for HBO — another New York story, really. And I’m writing a miniseries based on a book by Tim Murphy called Christodora — about the East Village, in the Eighties. So I’m being tapped to write New York stories, but the next feature film I’m working on is about a family climbing a mountain. It’s a loose remake of a Satyajit Ray film! [Laughs] What I love about it as a structure is it’s about an upper-class Indian family who are going on a day trip up to a viewing site next to a mountain. And the question in the film is whether or not a young woman is going to marry a suitor who is going to propose to her. Basically, we’re taking that structure: starting at the bottom and getting to the top, and in the middle there’s a decision three adult children have to make about their mother, who’s beginning to lose her facilities.
Is it different creating something for TV, after working in feature films?
Yes. And I’m not sure it’s for me. We’ll see. I’m not there yet; I’m writing right now. I have to say, my films have already adapted, for better or worse, to certain demands of the non-cinematic experience. So I think the durational demands of a film like The Delta or 40 Shades of Blue, I’m less interested in today. Meaning I don’t assume that everyone is going to be happy living in the world of my film. I feel more conscious about narrative suspense. People would say to me occasionally that Love Is Strange is a leisurely film, and I’m like, “You should have seen my earlier work!” I like to take my time, but these films are shorter. I think 85 minutes is a great length for a film. I wanted Little Men to be economical, in the way that Ozu is, or even in the way that a film like Gun Crazy is.
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