Love is Strange is the fifth feature by the gifted New York independent filmmaker Ira Sachs. Like his previous film, the beautiful, emotionally muted Keep the Lights On, the movie was written in collaboration with Mauricio Zacharias, and it takes place in Manhattan.
The new work mediates on love and desire, with politics, money and real estate as complicating factors. Steeped in ritual, the movie opens with a wedding of long-time partners, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who have been together for nearly four decades. Their marriage carries political and personal consequences after George loses his job, and financial necessities force the two to sell their apartment. The two are separated, and Ben, a painter, goes to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), a filmmaker who lives with his wife, Beth (Marisa Tomei), a novelist, and their teenaged son, Joey (Charlie Tahan).
Sachs intertwines the melancholy and emotional tenderness, illustrating the pain, sadness and exacting strangeness of relationships. In this interview, he talked about his life and art.
Patrick McGavin: I was curious how conscious you were during the writing of how your story parallels that of the great Leo McCarey film, Make Way for Tomorrow?
Ira Sachs: I love the film, and it was one of many films that we watched in the course of writing the film. We read about this case in the Midwest where this man had been fired from his job at a Catholic high school because of his marriage, and somehow that seemed a good starting off point for our story. We wanted the film to be about both love and real estate.
We also spent a lot of time watching Ozu, and all of these films about domestic life, families and generations, something for Mauricio [Zacharias] and myself, as middle-aged men watching our parents grow older and for me watching my kids grow up, the perspective was really significant.
PM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this was your first time not shooting in 35mm or Super-16mm.
IS: This was the first time shooting in digital, and it was scary and fine. I had a great cinematographer [Christos Voudouris], who works a lot with digital. We shot with an Alexa camera. I tried to not think of it as so different as shooting on film. I wanted to stay as rigorous as though we were shooting on film. In this film, we were working more often 50mm lens, the lens of the human eye. In my other films, which in many ways are films about alienation, I was working with a longer lens and seeing people within space. Here the intimacy was really central. Accessibility was really important to the emotion of the story.
PM: The block and staging was also influenced by Ozu.
IS: I wouldn’t say Ozu was the significant visual key to our image making. Actually Maurice Pialat was. A nos amours was really important to how we approached scene-making in this film. What you get from Ozu is, there was a confidence in pace and a real belief that the ordinary is capable of being extraordinary. We live in America, with this sense that things need to be big. What I was hoping to make was a kind of epic in miniature. It was a multi-generational family story. The Magnificent Ambersons was important to me, as was Hannah and Her Sisters, in the way that it was a look at a lot of different lives in the context of one story.
It’s a film about education and impact, in the subtle ways we influence each other, moment to moment and generation by generation. I always knew it would be a film that finds its rest on how it influences this one boy. In some ways I think of it as a coming of age film. It’s certainly a film about transformation, a film about union. It’s a love story. There’s a classic book by Stanley Cavell called Pursuit of Happiness; this is a remarriage comedy, a classic remarriage comedy, and that’s the structure of the film.
PM: The actors have such a bond, a direct rapport. Did you write with them specifically in mind?
IS: I never write with an actor in mind. I am way more influenced by people I know that actors I’ve seen. I know all of these characters, particularly Ben and Kate, writers who are trying to balance their lives as mothers and creative people. Ben was very inspired by my great-uncle’s partner, a man who was a sculptor who died at 99, and who started his last piece at the age of 98, of a kid with a backpack on. It remains unfinished.
When I met John Lithgow, I met somebody I hadn’t seen in any of his roles. I saw somebody who was more refined, more relaxed and more passionate that I feel he has ever been asked to do before. I wanted him to do a realistic performance, and we talked about Seventies cinema, the quality of being both present and able to disappear. John and Alfred challenged each other as performers to stay in that register.
PM: Is this film an analog to Keep the Lights On?
IS: I think it’s an analog that I came out of the experiences of being somewhat like a new man. I think my interests and my ability to love is different than it used to be. In a way the film is now seen as very much timed to these political events. The timeliness of the film is less around these particular political interests and actions, but more it’s an optimistic film about love I couldn’t have made as a gay man 10 years ago. The impact of politics is actually very personal. I’m feeling different about myself because the world is changing. This is not a film about self-discovery, and all of my other films were, because I was deeply in that process personally.
PM: Do you think there’s such a thing as a gay aesthetic?
IS: You mean like George Cukor?
PM: No more like what we associate with Jewish ideas, like Bellow or Roth, the cultural outsider, somebody whose life is always about assimilation or rebelling against that.
IS: I’ve had a couple of discussions with Jewish writers, because as Jewish men, they’re interested in the film. I claimed it’s a Jewish film, but it is also a film made by a queer man. My take is sometimes the sensibility and the use of those terms is a form of closeting. You get away with describing your films as queer as a way to distance your work from being gay. I feel like I did that, for many good reasons, and that there was a 15-year period where there were no gay characters in my work. I’m also dealing with an industry. People are embracing this film [now] but certainly not when we were trying to make it.
PM: Was it difficult to get the film made?
IS: Twenty-six individuals came together to pay for this film, and they were not stupid.
PM: I noticed you have an unusually large number of producers listed in the credits.
IS: Those are the people who made the film possible. More than half were retired lesbian businesswomen who, I think many of them saw a story of same-sex marriage and love that they connected with. They were business people for a reason and saw this was a film that could connect with a wide audience. This is the first film of mine that is in the black before it hits the screen. I feel like those women are smart.
PM: Are you working on anything now?
IS: My co-writer Maurizio and I are working on the third of what we consider a New York trilogy: a children’s film, about two boys who become best friends and for various reasons take an oath of silence and stop talking. We’re writing it now, and I’m going to shoot it next summer.
PM: Did you grow up in New York?
IS: I grew up in Memphis and I went to Yale as an undergraduate. I graduated in 1987, and I moved to New York. I applied to film school at UCLA, USC and NYU, all of whom resoundingly rejected me, and I took that as an opportunity to start making films. I made my first short [Lady]. My first feature, The Delta, we shot in 1995, and it played Toronto in 1996 and Sundance in 1997.
I just read this quotation from Lauren Bacall in her obituary: “I spent my childhood in NY riding on subways and buses, and you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”
I’m with Betty on that one. It’s not my God-given right to make movies. I go back to John Cassavetes, or Orson Welles, because what I’ve tried to do is forge a truly independent career. It doesn’t mean I don’t have dependency. I need the systems and I need them to work for me, but I don’t have expectations. I don’t think I’m owed anything. I fight for the right.
The fact I’m still here is being noticed.