Exclusive Interview with Ira Sachs about ‘Love is Strange’

Ira Sachs photo

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.

Love is Strange movie poster

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.

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Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes, it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me, it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

BK: What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

AM: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

BK: I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

AM: Well, I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also, our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50-inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

BK: I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

AM: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

BK: Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

BK: That’s a very good point. In recent years, we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles which come with it.

AM: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

BK: I once read that you said you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

AM: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

BK: I also read you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about the movie which inspired you so much?

AM: You know, I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

BK: There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did this affect you as an actor?

AM: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

BK: “Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

AM: Well, I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

BK: The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.

I want to thank Alfred Molina for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.