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The Interview

Ira Sachs

Portrait of love: an interview with filmmaker Ira Sachs

"What I love about both Ben and George, and what’s kind of unique in some ways, is this portrait of these two very humble, who at the same time have this extraordinary confidence about who they are."

by Gregg Shapiro
After a slight slump, queer cinema is making a strong comeback. In 2014, the movie Love Is Strange (Sony Pictures Classics) is almost singlehandedly leading the way. Directed and co-written (with Mauricio Zacharias) by Ira Sachs, Love Is Strange stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as Ben and George, respectively, a gay couple in New York who have been together for 39 years. The film opens on the joyous occasion of their wedding, surrounded by family and friends. Soon after, the celebration turns to tragedy when George, who teaches at a Catholic school, is fired from his job. Faced with dire financial prospects, the couple is forced to live apart – Ben with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) and George with neighbors (and gay cops) Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Rodriguez) – until they are able to find a suitable living situation. Intimate and poignant, Sachs makes it easy for audiences from all walks of life to get involved with these men, their complex situation and their search for resolution and dignity. I spoke with Sachs about the film during the summer of 2014.

GS: (Gregg Shapiro) When I interviewed you about Keep The Lights On in autumn 2012, you mentioned Love Is Strange. In what ways did it evolve from that time to what it is now?

IS: (Ira Sachs) It’s become something so different when you have these actors and you live it in a different way. I always think you make three movies in the course of making one. You write one movie, you shoot another movie which you think is going to be the movie you’re going to make. The last movie is the one you edit and that’s the movie that lives on. I can’t imagine that the cast was different at that point in autumn of 2012, when we last spoke. If you do your job right you end up with the only people you can imagine playing Ben and George and Kate and Joey and the characters in your film. You’ve given the film over to them in a certain way.

GS: In that previous interview, you said about Love Is Strange that, “It's the first film I'm making about the potential for a relationship to blossom over time, instead of destruct. In some ways it's a projection of what I hope in my relationship now has the potential to grow. That's something that I think is very new in gay life in many ways – at least for me.” With that in mind, how much of Ira is in either or both Ben or George?

IS: A lot [laughs]! As well as people that I’ve been close to that I’ve admired and have learned from. I think when you admire someone, you try to figure out what you’re going to keep of them for yourself. What I love about both Ben and George, and what’s kind of unique in some ways, is this portrait of these two very humble, who at the same time have this extraordinary confidence about who they are. That, for example, was not true of any of my central characters previously. They were not people who knew themselves. Ben and George in a way reflect me because I feel like that that’s where I situate myself. Not that I know everything about myself, but I’m comfortable with who I am in a way that is new. I also hope that I aspire to the kind of passion for life and creativity that Ben has that was inspired for me by a man I knew named Ted Rust. He was a sculptor who died at the age of 99. He was my great-uncle’s partner for 42 years in Memphis. At 98 he was working on his last piece, which was of a young teenager with a backpack. That piece remains unfinished, but he was working on it until nearly the last day of his life. To me, that’s beautiful.

GS: That also echoes with the unfinished painting of Vlad in the film.

IS: Exactly! There were a couple of things that were influential in the writing of the script. One was the piece that Ted never finished. The other was a case in the Midwest where a man, a choir director for a Catholic high school married his partner and was fired as a result. I take things from real life and try to craft them into something different, something cinematic.

GS: I’m glad you mentioned that firing, Ira, because as recently as late July of this year (2014), a music director at a Catholic church in a Chicago suburb was fired for posting something on Facebook about his upcoming wedding to his male partner. It’s an event that echoes, as you said, in Love Is Strange when George is fired from the Catholic school where he works. When do you think this will stop being a story that makes the headlines?

IS: I was actually in Chicago a few nights ago and the couple who you are speaking of came to the movie. I spent quite a bit of time talking to them afterwards. They were really great men and I enjoyed it a lot. We were screening a film that mirrored their own experience so much, that the timing was surprising. One thing that I will say about that case that I think is so beautiful in some ways, or at least makes it a larger picture, is this couple went off to Rome. They got engaged and announced it on Facebook. One of them came home and was fired from his job as a choir director at a Catholic school. The other is a Latin teacher for a public high school in Chicago and he came home and all of his students had decorated his classroom with balloons and streamers in celebration. After the man had been fired, there was a town-hall meeting and 700 people showed up. I think civil rights are paved by these incidents that both contain the negative and the positive. They become movements forward even if personally they become challenges in real ways. But they define a changing time.

GS: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, as Ben and George, respectively, are both exceptional in the film. Alfred previously played gay in Prick Up Your Ears and John played a trans character in The World According To Garp. How did these actors come to be in the film and what your experience of working with them on Love Is Strange like?

IS: I would say that none of us approached these roles as “playing gay.” That doesn’t really fit to the characters that they portray. Sexuality and homosexuality and being gay is certainly a part of who they are, but it’s only one of the many adjectives. I think that that’s significant. I don’t think in our lives these days we make quite the separations that we used to in terms of thinking that any one single adjective can define us. I would then say, we’re not so progressive. Read Proust. I think the artist’s job is to make a complex portrait of a human being.

GS: On the same token, gay actors are also a presence in the film, including Cheyenne Jackson as Ben and George’s neighbor Ted and Jason Stuart as the wedding officiant. As a gay filmmaker, how important is it for you to have queer performers in your films?

IS: Yes, it is. I think to deny that there are limitations set on people who are open with their sexuality would be false. Those are not limitations that I want to embrace. I believe that there is a need for creation of subcultures. At the same time, as an artist, that’s not my modus operandi. I’m trying to create portraits of the world as full as possible. Also, my other gig is that I run two arts programs here in New York – Queer Arts Film and Queer Art Mentorship, which are both focused on creating opportunities for openly queer creators, opportunities that are not given by the culture at large. There’s so little economic support that sometimes embracing one’s marginality is empowering.

GS: Two of the actors in the film, Darren Burrows who plays Ben’s nephew Elliot and John Cullum who plays Father Raymond, are former Northern Exposure cast members. Was that just coincidental?

IS: It was coincidental. I worked with Darren on a film called Forty Shades of Blue. He was the male lead with Rip Torn. After I cast Marisa (Tomei as Kate), she saw the film and she was the one who recommended that I cast Darren. I love working with him. He’s an extraordinarily natural performer and he fit right in to this world. To me, what is more significant about John Cullum is not the Northern Exposure history, but John Cullum, and Adriane Lenox, who plays the principal, and I are all from Memphis, Tennessee. That also was a coincidence, but a nice one.

GS: As in Keep The Lights On, visual art once again plays an important role in one of your films, with Ben being a painter. Of course, your husband Boris (Torres) is also a painter. Are any of the paintings in the film done by Boris?

IS: Boris painted the work of Ben, the kind of central paintings, the hero paintings that were going to define his talent. He and John worked together for a couple of days in Boris’ studio. John is actually a painter, but he’s more of a Saturday morning painter. But he has the skills to make it very authentic in the story. We also looked at artists in New York who we loved, who were exceptional, who were not famous necessarily in the broader culture. Artists such as Fairfield Porter, and Alice Neel who is a portrait painter that Boris and I love. I think the kind of quiet focus that an artist can have on their own work is empowering. There’s some sort of pride in that that I think is wonderful. The film honors the individual as best it can. I think that’s where the title, Love Is Strange, comes from. That for each of us, love, in whatever form it takes, is unique.

GS: Love Is Strange is getting a warm reception from critics, recently receiving an “A” from Entertainment Weekly, and the Oscar buzz has been consistent for the film. What does all of this mean to you?

IS: It means people are liking the movie. It means people are responding to it emotionally and that they are enjoying it. This is why people praise a film, because they liked watching it. I’m glad I’m not going backwards in terms of my skills and my voice. I look to someone like Ben, and maybe even more now, someone like John Lithgow, who at 69 has taken King Lear. Next spring he’s going to be in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance on Broadway. He’s at one of the primes of his life as an artist, which seems to me wonderful and something to aspire to.

GS: Finally, Ira, as I asked you the last time we spoke, have you started working on or thinking about your next film?

IS: Yes, I’m glad to say. Hopefully we’ll be here in two years having this conversation about the next film. Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, and I are writing the third of what we consider a trilogy of New York stories. This one is about two boys, 10 and 11, who become best friends, and for various reasons, they take an oath of silence and they stop speaking to their families. It’s a film about relationships and intimacy, gay identity, within the context of modern times. It’s also, once again, about real estate, because it hinges on an eviction. I’m trying to start a new genre, which is the New York real estate movie.
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