Filmmaker Ira Sachs’ last few films have been highly personal and beautifully realized experiences in cinema that often feel slightly European in their execution, but also uniquely American in their subject matter. And they almost always deal with a relationship in crisis and/or turmoil. His latest work, LOVE IS STRANGE, both fits that mold and doesn’t. The crisis in this case is from the world outside an otherwise fully functional relationship between two men (played beautifully by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina), who have been partners for nearly 40 years. And almost immediately after they decide to make it official and get married (now that they’re allowed to in the state of New York), their lives suffer a series of unfortunate incidents that causes them to have to live apart for a time.
Sachs’ previous works include FORTY SHADES OF BLUE, MARRIED LIFE, and his 2012 film, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, which was also co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. We had a chance to sit down in Chicago recently to discuss just how personal LOVE IS STRANGE is to him and maneuvering the ins and outs of any film about a couple in trouble. Please enjoy my talk with Ira Sachs…
Capone: Good to see you. We met for MARRIED LIFE.
Ira Sachs: MARRIED LIFE. Yeah, I was there with Chris Cooper. That was seven years ago.
Capone: I guess that’s true. I’ve been doing this longer than I thought.
IS: Yes. It was 2007. I was on the Sony tour. You’re lucky, Chicago is still on the tour route. And that’s because of you guys. You’re still impactful in a way that the numbers from Chicago still matter.
Capone: That’s good to hear.
IS: Oh yeah.
Capone: So, if I’m reading between the right in this story, you’re basically saying that once people get married, that’s when all hell breaks loose.
IS: [laughs] No, no. That's what all my other films are about.
Capone: I know; I’m kidding. Your other films were just about the corrosive power of relationships in general, but with this one, literally, once they get married, they can’t catch a break.
IS: Yes. I think that is true. But I think stories have to have drama and they have to have plot and they have to have conflict. With this film, it actually has the structure of both a classic love story in the sense that there’s two people together who overcome an obstacle, but it’s also the structure of a classic comedy. There is a wonderful book called “Pursuits of Happiness” by Stanley Cavell, a film critic/theorist who wrote about the re-marriage comedies of the 1930s. And if you think of HIS GIRL FRIDAY and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and PALM BEACH STORY, these are all films that are predicated on the idea that you have a couple that is together, that are married who are split up, and the whole film is about them trying to get back together again. To me, you learn a lot within that drama.
Capone: So you’re saying really this is a romantic comedy?
IS: It is a romantic comedy.
Capone: The saddest romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.
IS: I think it’s a romantic comedy.
Capone: There’s a difference between autobiographical and personal, and your films have always felt personal, even if they haven’t been autobiographical. In what ways is this story a personal one for you?
IS: Profoundly. And I think primarily in terms of tone and perspective, in the sense that it wasn’t until my 40s that I actually did feel that it was possible for love to blossom, and I have an optimism about the potential for both family and relationships that is hard won, and then all my other films reveal that struggle. Have you seen KEEP THE LIGHTS ON?
Capone: I’ve seen them all since 40 SHADES OF BLUE, yeah.
IS: That’s very nice. That means a lot to me.
Capone: KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is wonderful.
IS: That film ends with an awakening, with a transition, and I think that speaks very much to my own transition. What I’ve noticed is that people talk about this film being very politically timely, and 700 people got together yesterday in Chicago to support a man who got fired from his job as a choir director from a Catholic church here, which is kind of incredible.
But I think really the way that the film is of this moment is that when laws begin to change, then lives begin to change, and my life has changed internally as the world has changed, and so I think this conveys that. I also think that this is a film about perspective, and I’m a middle-aged man, and this is a film in which I identify with Marisa Tomei’s character to a great extent who is able to look at her parents’ generation and realize that they are not going to be around forever. For me, I have two kids and realizing they know nothing. [Laughs] So I think these perspectives are different. I think my other films were about me trying to come of age, and that’s no longer who I am, and that’s not who Ben and George are, and that's also now who John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are. These are people who know themselves.
Capone: As a middle-aged man making a film about men that are well beyond middle aged, is this you saying “This is what I’d love to have when I get to be that age?”
IS: I don’t want their relationship, but there are elements of it that I can aspire to. And I do want their confidence. I want that from Alfred Molina and John Lithgow also. When I think of John performing every night as King Lear.
Capone: Which he’s doing right now in New York.
IS: And doing this film, and then opening on Broadway in Edward Albee’s play [“A Delicate Balance”] in the fall, and I think he’s turning 70 soon, and I think this is something to learn from. This is the peak. This is the peak of John Lithgow. Hopefully it will last a long time. He’s never been more honest as an actor. I think what he’s allowed to do in this movie is something he’s been never asked to do, which is he’s also been given a lead, and that’s been a long time. But I think it’s actually not just the size of the role, it’s the texture of the performance is in a different register than he’s done, and we can see that he’s actually an extraordinary naturalistic actor.
Capone: Which is I think for some people going to be a huge discovery, because both he and Alfred Molina both have made a quite a nice living as character actors often playing slightly larger-than-life characters, and here they’re so wonderfully pulled back.
IS: Yeah, I would agree. To me, Alfred in BOOGIE NIGHTS is both a larger-than-life character, but also extremely naturalistic. And I think that’s something that I’ve admired in Alfred’s work forever. What’s funny about Alfred, and I know this even more being on this tour, is that he’s so transformative that no one can figure out where he’s from, so people are always like, “I thought he was French.”
Capone: You could plug him into just about any role, nationality, etc.
IS: The other day, they thought he was from France, someone assumed he was from Mexico, and truth is he grew up in London, and his father was Spanish, and he’s lived in LA. So he has a kind of “mutt” quality.
Capone: I would have guessed Spanish just from the name, but I saw him in PRICK UP YOUR EARS many years ago, so I always assumed he was British.
IS: Yeah. But he was raised in an immigrant family in London, and I think that there is that quality and modesty to him as a person as well that is very significant for George, which I love about George. People have asked, “Oh wouldn’t they fight back?” And I was like, “Not these guys.” They fight back by being who they are. They’re not going to change. But they’re not like taking to the streets.
Capone: Fighting back against him getting fired?
IS: Yeah, a lot of people have asked me like, “Why are there not protests?” And I think, that’s not who these guys are, and that’s a privileged position economically for some. A lot of people fight back, but I would say that’s not who these guys are.
Capone: They don’t strike me as the activist type. They just kind of live their lives, and I think in a strange way, he understands the decision in that context.
IS: They are radical men. My husband has learned this term in terms of child rearing, and actually he’s a teacher at a public high school, and I think he learned it at a class on bullying. It’s called micro-aggression, and in a way, this is a micro-aggression by George against the Catholic church.
Capone: Last night, I started to consider the fact that a lot of films I’ve seen about gay couples are about much younger people, and then I extrapolated on that thought and realized, no: most romances that I see on screen are about younger people, straight or gay.
IS: Most films you see!
Capone: That’s where I’m going here. The most radical thing about the movie is not that it’s about a gay couple; it’s that it’s about a old couple.
IS: Unless Helen Mirren is in them.
Capone: Well, yeah maybe. I don’t really see her coupled that often, though. Although she does in her latest film.
IS: She doesn’t couple usually. You’re right. You know, you really go like, “There was that film with Dustin Hoffman...” I actually like that film. Do you remember that? With Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson?
Capone: I’m sure I saw it. I don’t remember the title off the top of my head.
IS: It was cute. They were British, or one of them was.
Capone: Oh yeah. LAST CHANCE HARVEY. And I barely remember the name of it because it hardly played in theaters, thus making your point for you.
IS: I’ll tell you on the other side it’s interesting: try to get a magazine cover with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. It ain’t happening.
Capone: AARP would be first in line.
IS: But literally, if they’re over 30, they aren’t getting the cover of an American magazine, an entertainment magazine. No way. Clint Eastwood isn’t on the cover of anything either. They don’t wanna see that skin.
Capone: It’s interesting, the New York setting seems very specific. I lived there for a little while, but everyone I know who lives there or has lived there has a real estate nightmare story, and there’s a very important scene in this film that’s really where they realize how desperate things are. The firing is bad enough. That scene is almost worse, because suddenly George realizes, “Oh I don’t have a job, and we’re broke,” which in New York, being broke is worse than not having a job. Tell me just about just like setting it in New York, because there are certain things that happen here that I think are very New York specific.
IS: Well, I think they’re New York and yet I just was in Dallas, and a woman came up and told me she and her wife were moving into a new apartment because she had lost her job with the Catholic Family Services, and they had to move in with her sister, and that was pretty amazing. I think economic fragility is as timely nationally as the issue of marriage equality for this film. I think that there is a fragility that many people are feeling, and that is not New York centered. The fight for space, the fight for real estate, who gets to own neighborhoods is very visible, and it’s something I’m aware of. I also just understand that so much of New York life takes place within apartments.
I started writing this film with Mauricio Zacharias in January of 2012, and I went from living alone in my apartment, to living with my husband, our two kids, the kids’ mother, and occasional visiting family members. So I was in the middle of love being very strange and estranged and wonderful, and I think that that was something for me seemed extremely dramatic. I never am interested in looking at individuals in isolation of their community and their place in the world, because in New York, we rely on each other. You do too, I’m sure, here.
Capone: I just saw a documentary recently that discussed the marginalization of older people, that once someone is past their prime, they are pushed to the side of society a lot of times. I see that happening once the two men are separated, and they’re put in these other homes, where they’re walked around. It’s painful to watch sometimes.
IS: This is the most important issue that my hero, Ozu, faces in all his films, and I think it is a recognition of when we went from an agrarian state to an industrial world that there was this loss of family in that process. But I would just say, it’s not uniquely American, these questions of generations and responsibility. I just saw “King Lear,” by the way. And I think the questions of what we owe our parents, and what our parents owe us have always been very, very meaningful to me and probably more so now, not just because I’m a new parent, but because I’m watching my parents grow old.
Capone: It’s made almost worse in this film, because you’ve got this talented artist, you’ve got this clearly gifted musician, and they’re not able to share that. No one cares enough to ask them to share it.
IS: I would say that’s true for me as a filmmaker, also. I think that’s where economics gets into it. The larger world is not interested, and that’s just a fact of capitalism. I just wrote this down: Lauren Bacall said this—and this was in her obituary in the New York Times. It says, “I spent my childhood in New York riding on subways and busses, and you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”
Capone: There you go.
IS: There you go. That’ s my motto. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fight and make things happen, and that’s actually the thing that I feel like as an artist is my drive. I want to express myself, and this film was funded by 26 individuals who saw in it a commercial potential and a meaningful story that they thought could work. And I have to say, this is my first film to be in the black before it opens. So these were smart people. But not a dollar came from the city of Los Angeles or Hollywood.
Capone: Talk about getting these two terrific actors.
IS: I cast Alfred early in the process, and he was involved throughout the financing of the film, and John came in towards the end, and they had known each other for probably 20-25 years socially. They both, it turns out, have lived their adult lives in Los Angeles, they’ve both been in 30-year marriages, and they’re both thespians of a certain generation who have crossed between theater and film in London and New York, and they had a world in common even before we started shooting.
What developed on set was they kind of fell in love. I think of it as they were like two kids who had gone to camp together who finally were reunited 30 years later and are in the middle of a conversation. You couldn’t stop them often from telling each other stories or another joke—lots of jokes. Late in the film, there's a scene in a bar where they crack each other up, and they were both like, “When are we going to put that in?” Because that was happening all the time off the set. So I think that they inspired each other, and they also do share history. I think the script did some work for them also in terms of constructing a relationship through the story that the audience buys.
Capone: There are some very deliberate gaps in the timeline and there are certain major events, one in particular, that we don’t see. And it’s great because it actually forces us to figure out what has happened in that space, and you very often will plant important things in those unseen moments. In the beginning when they’re getting ready to get married, we don’t know what they’re getting ready for until pretty deep into that sequence.
IS: Yeah. Well I like to throw people into the middle of things. I’ve learned in a way that a film can be made up in a sequence of middles, and in such it feels a bit more like life. There is this thrust of how lives move that we are privileged to be a part of as an audience, but it doesn’t mean that we control or construct them. And the audience becomes more involved because they are given the space to discover.
Capone: Yeah. It actually reminds me of what Richer Linklater did in BOYHOOD. There are some major events in that kid’s life that we don’t see.
IS: When I saw BOYHOOD, I actually weirdly felt that it was a combination of KEEP THE LIGHTS ON and LOVE IS STRANGE, because it ends on the same beat, and KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is a 10-year epic. In that film, oppositionally to BOYHOOD, the actors don’t change at all. So it’s an opposite approach to a similar question of time and experience.
Capone: The other thing I noticed in the film are these wonderful non-verbal moments between the two men. In any modern romance film or romantic comedy, the body language doesn’t convey that two people even like each other. Here, they’re moving around each other, they’re touching each other sometimes, and it feels homey. Did they just know to do that?
IS: It’s interesting, because I haven’t heard it described that way, and you’re so right, and that’s really a testament to the two of them. I have a certain strategy about how I work, which includes that I don’t rehearse the actors before we start shooting.
Capone: That’s interesting, because you came out of theater.
IS: I know. But that was Sydney Pollock, he gave me the permission to move from theater into film, and that included that I didn’t need to over-prepare. They know their lines, and they know what we’re talking about, but we come to set with a sense that they’re going to be listening for the first time and responding for the first time, and you get this performance. But I think that physicality, they really discovered themselves, and again, I think they really brought their own marriages to it.