Ira Sachs’ previous films have dealt with the dangers of being in love and how it can feel like an illusion, but his latest film “Love is Strange” has him dealing with love in a more positive fashion. It focuses on a gay couple, George and Ben (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow), who have been together for over 30 years. When gay marriage is made legal in New York, they finally get married and are super excited about starting a new chapter in their lives together. But things quickly change for them quite drastically when the Catholic school where George teaches decides to terminate his employment upon discovering he married Ben, and this forces them to spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for cheaper housing.
I very much enjoyed talking with Sachs over the phone while he was doing press for “Love is Strange.” The movie not only chronicles the challenges these newlyweds face, but of the impact that their situation has on the family and friends closest to them. During our interview, I asked Sachs how he goes about keeping his characters in the movie down to earth, why he decided not to get political considering the issues involved, and why he decided this time to make a different movie about love than he had previously.
Ben Kenber: This movie has such a wonderfully organic feel to it. How do you go about keeping the characters in the story feeling so down to earth?
Ira Sachs: That’s a nice question. I try to be as open as possible to my collaborators and to the city and to the situations that are in front of me. I think of directing as not so different to acting in a way in that my job is to listen and respond organically and authentically, and you have to do that 1000 times a day when you make a film. But if you situate yourself in a place which is most open and attentive, you have to be very observant as well. I think it creates something that has the organic feeling you’re describing.
BK: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are both brilliant in this film, and they have been friends for a long time. The rapport they have together onscreen feels just wonderfully natural. Did you have to do a lot of directing with them, or did you just let them loose?
IS: We made a pact, the three of us, that we were going to create a certain kind of texture for their relationship that was going to be different than what either actor had been asked to do in a long time. There was a level of realism and naturalism and simplicity that the roles called for. These are really modest man, Ben and George, but they maintain a confidence as individuals that I felt was very much what I witnessed in John and Alfred, and I wanted the film to share that confidence. So we had this kind of agreement that everything would be kept to a very delicate tone, and both actors are known for their larger qualities in terms of performance. What I wanted to do was rein that in, and I think that allowed for some new things to appear.
BK: What I really admired about “Love is Strange” is it could have been a polemic about intolerance and that, even with gay marriage now a reality in many states like New York, we still have a way to go for achieving equality in life. But this movie is more humane and very objective in how it views the different forces which threaten to tear these two characters apart.
IS: My interest as a director is to depict the intricacies of relationships and of intimacy, and that includes romantic relationships as well as family and community. In this case it also includes the city of New York. I set out to make a romantic film about New York. I’m also as a director at bit of a historian meaning that my job is to be accurate about the time that I live as well as my characters, so the kind of pulled from the headlines quality just gives the film shape in a certain way. I like to think of myself as a neo realist, someone who is interested in making the ordinary of everyday lives extraordinary. For me that should in addition also include some amount of documentation of the details of these characters’ lives in a way that’s very specific.
BK: One performance in particular I really wanted to point out was Charlie Tahan’s who plays the temperamental teenager Joey. It’s always great when you get an exceptional performance from a child actor because they are not always easy to get, and the character has a nice arc throughout the movie. What was it like working with Charlie?
IS: Well, to me he is the revelation of the film because we don’t know him, and what we’re actually discovering is the birth of a great, great actor. I felt like there was conversation when we were shooting the film about Leonardo DiCaprio in (“What’s Eating) Gilbert Grape;” it’s that kind of performance. It’s so open and so honest and so raw and so easy. There’s just this ease and I think that was something that impressed all of us, more experienced filmmakers and actors on set, about Charlie was how naturally it came. He is an experienced child actor. He’d been in “Charlie St. Cloud” with Zac Efron. He was the voice of the kid in “Frankenweenie” so he worked with Tim Burton. He wasn’t plucked from nowhere, but he came in and gave an audition that was breathtaking.
BK: Charlie said you really knew how to write for kids and that you really understood them and what they went through. Did Charlie stay close to the script and was there anything specifically that he added to it during shooting?
IS: Well the script is a blueprint for the emotions you hope to reveal, so actors add everything. I’m quite specific about the script and it is a very written film and it’s constructed through the screenplay, and yet I search for a kind of emotional improvisation on set that has to be very, very fresh and real. So I don’t rehearse my actors before we start shooting. We talk, we spend some time with each other, but I’ve never heard the line said nor have the other actors. What it gives the movie is a kind of freshness. I think two words that should be banned from the set are “subtext” and “motivation” because when you’re speaking to those things, you’re trying to pin down the impossibly ineffable of any one moment.
BK: Another performance I really loved in this movie was Marisa Tomei’s. Not only does she bring a naturalness to her role, but she’s also able to communicate so much without saying a word. What was it like watching her pull that off?
IS: She’s like this quiet storm because she’s so focused as an actress. There’s a scene where she has no dialogue and she’s in bed with her husband and she’s got a lot on her mind, and as a director you just watch and you think, “She’s writing paragraphs for me.” She thinks so much while doing so little. I think what was exciting about this role for Marisa, and I think what makes people connect to it, is that she was allowed to play a woman of her experience and her intelligence, and she wasn’t asked to do anything other. In this case, Marisa is the fulcrum of the story; she’s the generation in the middle. The film is really about these multiple generations: the older couple, Marisa and her husband (played by) Darren Burrows who were very much in the middle of their lives, and Charlie Tahan who’s playing in adolescent learning about love for the first time. But it all kind of centers on Marisa and she is in a way a stand-in for me, the artist who is watching these things and trying to figure out how to act.
BK: Your previous films “Delta” and “Keep the Lights On” tend to deal with love as an impossibility or an illusion among other things, but “Love is Strange” sees it in a much different light. What made you decide to do a story on love in this particular way?
IS: I think I’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years. My previous films were all about characters trying to understand themselves, and they were films of self-discovery. I think it was very much what I personally was involved in, trying to understand who I am and become comfortable with who I am, and that took a long time. In my 40’s things have been different and I feel much more at ease, and I think that has created the possibility of new kinds of relationships. I’m married and my husband and I are raising children, but it’s not just the kind of signifiers that imply change. It’s something much more internal, and I think the film is about the internal qualities of love which are so distinct for each of us.
BK: Since this is a low budget independent movie, I imagine you had very little time in which to shoot it in. How did this affect you overall as a filmmaker?
IS: I’m a producer on all my films as well as the writer and director, and I always create the situation where I have the economic means to create the aesthetic objects that I need so my sets are very calm. I’ve made films that cost $200,000 and I’ve made ones that cost multi-million dollars, and the experience is not too different. If you’re doing your job right as a filmmaker, you have what you need.
BK: Regarding Alfred Molina’s character of George, it’s interesting because the Catholic school he teaches at doesn’t seem to mind his relationship with Ben much until the two of them get married. Later on in the movie, George has a great line where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” What inspired that line?
IS: I think it speaks to the heart of the film. The film is in some ways about education with a small e. What do we teach each other? What is our responsibility? How as a culture do we carry on our values? What do we share in relationships and as parts of family? Also, the film speaks to how loss impacts individuals not just in terms of rights but in terms of experience. You can imagine George as a teacher being somewhat, to me, like what Alfred Molina is as a person which is you want to be your best self around him, and those are the kinds of people that I have known whether it be my parents or… I was very close to a sculptor who was 99 when he died, and at 98 he began his last work which was of a teenager with his backpack, and to me the idea that he was reaching for creative opportunities at that age was something I could learn a lot from. I feel that the film talks about those kinds of educations, and I think that when you’re young you don’t realize that your parents are people and that your grandparents are also. I think this film is about perspective and how we begin to recognize that people in our family are actually human beings with their own stories.
I want to thank Ira Sachs for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.
Photo courtesy of the New York Times. Poster courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.