Writer/Director of the film Little Men,
scheduled to open in Boston on September 2, 2016.
by Charles Munitz (aka BADMan)
The following is based on an interview I did with director Ira Sachs in Boston in May 2016 while he was in town for an advance screening of his new film, Little Men, starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Alfred Molina, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri.
Among other things, Sachs had previously directed the celebrated 2014 film Love Is Strange (2014) starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow.
CM (Charles Munitz): This is a lovely drama, on a small scale but very potent. I also found that to be true with your recent film Love is Strange.
IS (Ira Sachs): I trust that there is drama in our lives. If you are precise about the things that are very big in people’s lives, even though they appear small to others, then they resonate to an audience in a big way. It’s not coincidental that Chekhov is the author of the play that’s produced in the film (Greg Kinnear plays an actor who is in a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”) because Chekhov gives you permission to focus on the everyday; I believe that is where people reveal themselves in the deepest ways.
CM: Would you regard Chekhov as a major literary influence?
IS: Yes, I would. But, for me, even more than theater, the novel has been really important. I think of authors like Henry James who is in a way just telling stories of everyday lives, portraits of people in their communities and their relationships. It requires a kind of artistic rigor to tell these everyday stories in a very honest and focused way.
CM: Can you talk a little more about how you go about that and how you apply that rigor in your directing and in your writing?
IS: From the writing standpoint, I inherently and instinctively have a sense of dramatic movement. Things have to happen, stakes have to be created. Patricia Highsmith (American novelist, 1921-1995) has been a big influence because one the things she does so well is to create suspense from the very first page. I have read and absorbed enough narrative work to have a strong sense of that. In my own work, I know where the drama is, but a lot of people who read the script don’t see it immediately.
CM: You mean that they think what happens is too trivial?
IS: Now that more people have seen my work they’re beginning to believe that the drama is actually there, even though it may not at first seem to be. So I’m beginning to be able to make movies more often.
CM: How has that confidence-building operated within an industry that seems to demand distinctive statements and big themes?
IS: There are enough people who like what I’m doing and believe it will make its mark. Whether it will make money or not is another question. This film itself provides a kind of metaphor for the independent artist; the dressmaking shop (a central plot point in “Little Men”) could, in some sense, represent independent film itself which has limited financial value, does not flourish within the system of capitalism, and yet is an important part of the culture. That said, though I’m an independent artist I’m also a salesman. When I go to a festival it is a very intense experience, particularly when you premiere a film in a place like Sundance which is actually a market despite being called a festival. You bring your wares into the marketplace and buyers will either want your pair of shoes or not. And frequently they just want your pair of shoes because they think it will make a profit. Beneath the surface that kind of extraordinary drama goes on continually at Sundance. The same thing happens with a script. It may not be apparent to people on the outside where the drama is, but I know it’s there. Then it has to be realized and made evident. In this film, the editing process became very crucial to that end, and, as well, to achieve a kind of aesthetic purity and refinement. I think of this film as narratively modernist, with a clean line and a lack of adornment, unembellished, straightforward, and, though dramatic, in many ways minimalist in its approach.
CM: How did you arrive at the perspective of the narrative, the story of the two boys as central?
IS: Through Ozu (Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963)), the Japanese filmmaker. He made two films – I Was Born, But (1932) and Good Morning (1959) – about children who go on strike and I thought that was a good plot. Films need plots and this film was about two kids who go on strike against their parents. And they we had to figure out why. (CM: Another central plot point of “Little Men”)
CM: So how did you come up with the why?
IS: My co-writier Mauricio Zacharias who is from Brazil and I often get together and talk about movies, life and memories. And life , in this case, was presenting us with a story – because his family was in the process of try to evict a woman who owned a shop in Rio. And, as I received the chapters of this story, so to speak, over coffee, I thought there were clearly two sides to it, and it speaks to human life and it speaks to the problems of money. Money and love are where you find drama, and where you present character.
CM: This is what makes it such an interesting tragedy – that all of your characters are, in some sense – sympathetic. There are no villains.
IS: That’s the difference between drama and melodrama – which is also interesting to think about regarding the sexuality of the children, of the two boys, which is not defined in the film. In the script it shifted at different moments, but it became very clear to me that I couldn’t impose the future of who these boys were going to be.
CM: You weren’t going to turn them into lovers.
IS: I wasn’t going to turn them into lovers, and I wasn’t going to define what their future was, though I think it’s a question the film raises. Who do these people become both as artists? and Is Jake gay? are questions the film raises but doesn’t answer.
CM: There’s clearly a bond between the boys but it really doesn’t seem to matter whether one thinks of them, or either one of them, as gay.
IS: It’s a romantic friendship, and I think that romance can be asexual but can still be considered romance. I think we all know that feeling. In general, I try not to impose too much additional upon the script once I find the basic elements that can serve as the backbone.
CM: And the story is fairly simple, though there are dimensions to it.
IS: Actually, it’s not so simple as it looks! Getting the pieces to work together is the craft.
CM: I didn’t see Keep The Lights On but I read the plot summary and I thought this is complicated!
IS: That film’s logline is a relationship from the first day to the last, so actually it is not too complicated. It had a beginning, middle and end. The idea that life is complicated underlies the story, which helps to bring out more dimensions by association within the strong central story line.
CM: And the log line for this film is kids go on strike?
IS: Yes, and it’s about the history of their relationship.
CM: What’s the trajectory for the release of the film?
IS: It’s been at Sundance and then in Berlin and a bunch of summer festivals before its conventional theatrical release.
CM: Wonderful actors!
IS: Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear both are wonderfully able to convey the history of their relationship as a couple in an interesting way.
CM: And the kids – Michael Barbieri – this kid’s gonna be a star!
IS: Yes, he’s just doing a film with Matthew McConaughey (“The Dark Tower” (2017)), so he’s already off.
CM: You can really see this as the beginning of a career. And Theo Taplitz was also very affecting.
IS: When I cast them I thought of one as from a Scorsese film and one as from a Robert Bresson film. And I used them as such. One I wanted to let go and one I wanted to contain visually.
CM: We see that there was a choice that Max, Brian’s recently deceased father, made and that this has a deep and human influence upon the two boys.
IS: The film recognizes friendship as a form of family and that sometimes it trumps other relationships. As a fifty year old man, I’ve come to believe that relationships are lived on the day-to-day. They can actually be lost in an afternoon. Things can really shift in our lives in a way that I get more familiar with as I get older. My films at this point are interested in that flow of life.
CM: The vulnerability…
IS: The vulnerability but also just the brevity. I think what cinema does so well is to capture and to hold these very brief moments between people. That’s what the camera does, unlike the pen. That is what I always hope my stories enable – to watch people in their intimate moments. I don’t rehearse my actors because you can’t repeat an intimate moment; it has to be lived and to be discovered in that moment. Trying to create an opportunity for that to happen and to get it recorded is part of my job.
CM: How did you come to filmmaking?
IS: I was involved as a kid in something called the Memphis Children’s Theater – I grew up in Memphis – a nice Jewish boy from the South – and this theater enabled me to cross boundaries. So I started directing plays as a kid. And then when I was in college I was a theater director but I was also a cinephile, watched a lot of movies, and made my first film around then. I didn’t go to film school. Basically I’d seen a lot of films and I made a faux Cassavetes (John Cassavetes, 1929-1989, American actor and film director) film right out of college. I was unformed, though the film has a lot of nice qualities. I found an advantage at that point in not going to film school by just doing what I’d always done; I’d always been an artist and I didn’t have anyone to tell me I couldn’t be. There was me up against Cassavetes and Pialat (Maurice Pialat, 1925-2003, French film director) and Pina Bausch (1940-2009, innovative German choreographer) – I said to myself ok I’m gonna try – and that was an important moment.