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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Love in the Time of Rent Control: Q&A with "Love Is Strange" Director Ira Sachs

Posted By on Thu, Aug 28, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Left to right: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow and Director Ira Sachs - PHOTO BY CLAY ENOS, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Here's a peculiar idea for a charming end-of-summer movie that just might work: Write and direct an intimate portrait about an older gay couple in Manhattan who finally marry after nearly four decades of loving devotion only to face unexpected economic turmoil soon after.

Sound appealing? Well it should because Ira Sachs' latest film Love Is Strange is that perfect slice of counter-programming that serious yet fatigued filmgoers yearn for in a summer movie season mostly ruled by an intergalactic talking raccoon and lovestruck tweens. 

Veteran character actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, the aforementioned couple, who've still remained very much in love even as they enter their twilight and as their forced out of their apartment when George (Molina) is fired from his teaching position at a Catholic school when word spreads that he's married his lifelong partner. Ben and George are then faced with separation as each stays with family and friends with George on a couch and Ben in a bunk bed as they figure out their next step.

What ensues is a comedy of manners that's less about gay politics and a fractured economy and more about intimate relationships and the pangs of deep love. 

SF Weekly caught up with writer/director Ira Sachs to discuss his latest crowd-pleaser. 

This is a contemporary film about gay men and yet there's no sight of tightly sculpted six-pack abs anywhere. There's a glimpse at some nice biceps but that's it.  Why did you decide to make a movie about two gay senior citizens?

I wanted to make a film about love. I’m more optimistic about love than I used to be and so I wanted to tell a story about a couple who have been together for a long time whose love grew with time and deepened. I wanted to do that about people that I might learn from. This couple is certainly two people that I would want to know.

Do you think ageism exists in Hollywood?

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina had not been offered lead roles in a movie in a long time so I think that says something given the caliber of the two of them as actors. This is a film that was made independently. It was made outside the system. The everyday story about individuals that somehow becomes extraordinary through the film itself is something that is no longer what Hollywood is interested in. 

Has independent film changed since say the glory days of the 90s?

The glory days of the '70s! 

In 2010 I had to reassess everything as a filmmaker to try to figure out how to continue with my career and make independent films because I’d been working on a film for three years that I couldn’t get financed that had everything, all the stars, and it should have been made. I then really went back in my mind to my first film, The Delta, which I made on friends' and family's  cards, and to people like John Cassavetes who made films not because he was allowed to but because he chose to.

I made Keep the Lights On from that sense that this wasn’t my god-given right but it was something that I needed to do. That’s independent film not as a marketing label but as something truly separate and different than the industry. What’s nice about this film is having made it within that environment it’s been embraced in a way that I think it’s going to find an audience and that’s what you hope for. 

What advice would you give to this generation of aspiring filmmakers?

My advice would be to make films about what you know and the people and the worlds that you’re familiar with because that’s something you have that’s unique and is your own. Then I would say be very rigorous with your assessment of what is possible and try to understand the industry as well as the resources that might available to you and have those fall into line with your aesthetic vision. Don’t imagine you’re going to build Noah’s ark if you only have $50 unless you’re going to build it out of Play-Doh and then it might be perfect for this film you want to make. 

Your films never shy away from intimacy whether it be sexual like in Keep the Lights On or a simple embrace under the covers like in Love is Strange. What appeals to you about the shared intimacy between gay men?

It does not go unnoticed for me that my first film The Delta, which I made in ’96, and that I then didn’t have any gay characters in my films again until 2012 (Keep the Lights On). There was this kind of closeting that I think I did. Not that I don’t love the films I made between those two but I think there is an oppressive force that is at play culturally and economically that I wasn’t immune to. Right now I’m really interested in depicting more closely the texture of my own intimate life and that includes my relationship with my husband, my kids and my parents. All of those things are part of Love Is Strange.

As a filmmaker I’ve discovered strategies that aid in achieving that texture. For me that includes not rehearsing. My actors, before we start shooting the film, we talk a lot and we get to trust each other and know each other. I only first hear the dialogue when the camera is rolling and I think that makes for a very risky environment but also allows the possibility for very unexpected things to happen within a moment and that’s what I think is so great about the camera is its ability to capture that unexpected look or sigh or pause and all of that is what I am very attentive to.

Could you talk a little about the casting of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina?

They have known each other for 20 years. When I went to Alfred Molina’s house, on his mantle was a photograph of he and John backstage at the Tony Awards one year when they happened to be there. They had this kind of familiarity but in the course of the movie something else happened which is they became deep friends and really kind of fell in love with each other in a certain way and there was this great intimacy between them that I was a part of but I also observed and I think is in the movie.

I cast Alfred first almost as soon as I finished the screenplay based specifically on his work in Prick Up Your Eyes and Boogie Nights, which are two performances that have always stuck with me because they’re transformative and distinct and real. He’s such a natural. I then cast John Lithgow late in the process, about a month before we started shooting, and I met him and saw across from me someone I had never seen in his performances on screen. There was this very erudite, gentle, intellectual and curious person. That is who I think [his character] Ben is.

This film feels novel in that we get a glimpse into the lives of people who we otherwise wouldn't get the privilege to know. In this case it's these two older gay couple. Do you think there's a difference now in what it means to be a gay man today versus a few decades ago?

I think there is a difference between the men of 2014 and the men of past years. Our parents are different than us. I was very close to a man who died at 99. He was a sculptor. His name was Ted Russ and he was the partner of my great uncle for 45 years in Memphis. He began to work on his last sculpture when he was 98 of a young teenager with a backpack and it remains unfinished still in clay. I learned a lot from him in terms of his passion for life and for art and for people and this film is a love letter to men like him and to my mother and her friends and my 102-year-old grandmother. It’s these people who have this life experience which I feel now that I’m middle-aged I really, really respect who they are and I have a lot to learn from them. 

Love Is Strange opens Friday at the Landmark Embarcadero and Sundance Kabuki

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Jonathan at @jonramos17, and like us on Facebook.   

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Jonathan Ramos

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