PPH @ LFF: Interview | Ira Sachs, director of Keep The Lights On

When the London Film Festival was on recently, I interviewed Ira Sachs, director of New York-set drama Keep The Lights On (which is in UK cinemas now, released by Peccadillo Pictures). He was a thoroughly lovely bloke, and we covered numerous topics, from the autobiographical elements of his film, to his extensive use of the music of the late Arthur Russell on the soundtrack, to the theme of excavating gay subculture that runs throughout Sachs’ work. An edited version of this interview (with an extended introduction) has been published on the excellent website The Quietus, but what follows is the unabridged transcript. Enjoy:

PPH [in bold]: This is quite a departure from your previous films – I’m just wondering how you came into this project.

Ira Sachs [in regular]: I think it’s different because it’s less repressed… which doesn’t mean better! It’s not a film that utilises metaphor; it’s a film about transparency. So the subject is very much an inverse. And yet, similarly to my previous work, it’s a film about what people hide. I wanted to make a film about shame, but do so shamelessly. And I hope I succeeded in doing that. And I think in a lot of ways you can see the arc of both characters to grow to accept themselves in a different way, and be comfortable with themselves in a different way that mirrors my own experience as a filmmaker and as a person. So I think those are all reasons why this film is, I think, my most accessible, emotionally. It’s certainly the one that is most, on the surface.

Can you discuss the film’s autobiographical elements?

Well, I ended a relationship in 2007, and on the last day of the relationship, I was aware that ten years before there had been a very first day. That doesn’t always happen with relationships; there was literally a moment when the whole story was over, and it had been quite a story! So I knew there was a drama there and I knew it was also a film that if I told it with enough detail and specificity, that it would actually resonate to a wide audience. Like somehow with a memoir, if you get the details right, then it relates to people who have no connection to the details. But they have connection to the dynamic of the two characters.

And I was also aware that my first film had had gay characters in it, and then for fifteen years, I didn’t have a gay character in my work… and I think that’s there are lots of reasons for that. There are these different closets that we go into. I came out of the closet at 16, but there’s many other closets that an individual might enter; for me, that included sexual spaces I couldn’t share with other people, issues with addiction that were other dark corners that I tried to hide. And professionally, you want to be accepted, so you start to shift the stories you tell – you want to be accepted economically too, to sustain a career. These are all questions which tend to guide you into certain places.

The characters are very raw and real – can you talk about the casting process?

I feel very proud. People sign up for something and they don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s nice when it turns out well, and that they’re being recognised for it – it makes me happy. I met Zach first, I was friendly with his agent who set us up for lunch. I loved how much he loved Paul, which I though was really important. The film needed empathy for Paul, and understanding, and certainly Zach brought that to the table.

Erik was much harder to cast, it took a bit longer. I send the script to one agent in LA who came back and told me that he loved the script, was very excited about the movie, but no one in his agency was available for the part. So there was a resistance to ultimately what doesn’t seem to be a very radical film, but somehow on paper the explicitness of the sexuality was challenging in the context of American cinema and American moviemaking. I heard about Thure Lindhardt who was described to me as the bravest actor in Denmark and also one of the best. He’d already done three or four films with the lead, and he’d just played Hamlet which is interesting… [this film] is about a Danish man who can’t make a decision [also]. I think making ambivalence compelling is difficult, and I think he does it very well.

How did you find him, contact him?

I had a friend who was a screenwriter in Denmark.

Zachary Booth (left) and Thure Lindhardt

Because the character wasn’t written as a foreigner, originally.

But in Forty Shades of Blue, a film I made earlier, that character was a blonde American woman; first it was going to be Julianne Moore, then Maggie Cheung, then it ended being Dina Kurzun, who I’m actually going to see tonight, she’s in London. I actually think of filmmaking, fiction or otherwise, as a form of documentary. So I’m always just trying to find people who interest me who fit into a story. You can’t fake acting; you are who you are. So Thure was very interesting to me.

The Paul character [played by Zachary Booth] is quite elliptical – he comes into Eric’s circle. We don’t see him coming out or leaving his girlfriend. Was that to accentuate the helplessness of the Erik character?

I think I always knew that there was a protagonist to the film, and yet, it’s the story of the relationship, so there’d be a shift between those two drives. But it was written by ‘Erik’ so that’s the narrative push, his story. Ultimately, about halfway though the film, it really becomes a relationship film, and that really begins when Paul gets sober and he reappears in the film sitting at that table when they’re together after they’ve been apart for a year and suddenly he seems like a different person. To me, that’s a testament to the performance – because he wasn’t a different person, that was the next day – that somehow you sense that he is more comfortable with himself and he’s suddenly visible to the audience in a different way. Like, you actually feel like: ‘I know that guy’. And that happens with the story as well, when in the last third, it becomes about the two of them and everyone else disappears. I’m not so interested in trying to create the backstory of why people are who they are. I hope that the front story answers that through the audience’s interpretation of another individual. You need to buy into the characters in the world they’re in now.

In the film you make extensive use of the music of Arthur Russell. What about his music so suits the film, and secondly to what extent do you feel you’re continuing the excavation of his canon?

Well, excavation is a good word for me; I think the whole film is a form of excavation, of making visible the invisible. And also telling history. I think that’s one of the roles you have as a filmmaker, it’s one of the fortunate roles, you become the documenter of a time and a place and a city and the characters. I saw Wild Combination by my now friend Matt Wolf, which is a great movie about Arthur Russell who was a musician who lived in New York and died in ’93 of AIDS. And I was very moved by both the story and music and I had the idea that I could use Arthur Russell’s music similarly to how Simon and Garfunkel is used in The Graduate or Aimee Mann is used in Magnolia. I just thought, ‘oh I’m going to that with Arthur Russell.’

I worked very closely with my editor Affonso Goncalves  and music editor Suzana Peric, and they spent months just listening to the entire catalogue. What I didn’t realise and what’s been very moving to me is the last song in the film is called ‘This Is How We Walk on the Moon’, and in a way, I think that’s what the film also could be called. And that’s the excavation. The film is about how these two men walk on the moon but it’s also about how – I bet London’s not too dissimilar from New York – we walk on the moon…. And it’s different from when I started to make films. As a queer filmmaker, questions of identity were so central, the coming out narrative, which is no longer – having lived 30-something years ‘out’ – that’s not where I’m struggling. I’m struggling with lots of things, but I think this film is a form of progress.

You mentioned earlier Wild Combination and I noticed some parallels when the characters move out into open space. You’re from Tennessee and Arthur Russell is from Iowa… you both ended up in New York, which is a completely different vibe. To what extent do you think the effect of New York is a life giver and a life sapper?

I think more the giver and the sapper is adulthood, more than the city itself. I think adulthood is hard. And I think all of my films have been about coming-of-age and the struggle of an individual to accept him/herself within their adult self, who they become. I think that’s there’s this internal turmoil… I don’t think New York is necessarily unique in causing that turmoil. On the other hand, I do feel like New York gripped me when I arrived there in a way that it took me until I was 40 to disentangle.

In what ways?

Drugs and sex and love and career and ambition and all those things that were hopeful substitutes of what I was… I think I was a little alone in the struggle of what made life worth living and also what made me worth living it. And I think both these characters, there’s this sense that they’re not enough, that they need something else. I feel less like that, and I think that you still have hunger and drive and needs but I think the enormously compulsive energy of this film – we thought a lot about Goodfellas because I think that’s also a film driven by desire and told with the same energy the characters exhibit, and that was partially what I hoped… to make a film about bad behaviour but do so without judgement and without avoiding the consequences of that behaviour and have the joys and the pleasures that cinematically come with that, so the film would be propulsive in a way.

Could you just talk a bit about the Avery Willard thread? There’s a real sense of the importance of bringing that subculture to life. You talked earlier about being a historian when making fiction…

Well, I think there’s lots of layers of excavation, to use that term. And this is a film that makes important the story of these two men, and yet, it’s within the context of a lot of other stories that the film brings forward. Including the opening paintings, a series of portraits that are actually by my husband Boris Torres, who’s a painter. The character of Igor is based on Boris – so Eric married Igor, which was something I didn’t want to put in the film per se, and yet, there was this sense that there were possibilities in the future. And I think what I wanted to say is that this story is important, but no more important than all the others that are layered into a city. I think one of the last shots of the movie is the two men saying goodbye on the street, with the street going by; I think many people know that moment, like ‘how can something be so important and so unimportant?’ I think the shift back and forth of focus is something I’m interested in.

In general, I’m also trying to make a lot of things visible that aren’t visible, including the history of art-making in New York, and counterculture in New York. James Bidgood is the man interviewed in the middle of the film and made a film called Pink Narcissus and he is an underground filmmaker. That history is for me is like super-inspiring and very different than the history of independent film. It’s not the history of sex, lies and videotape and Reservoir Dogs. It’s the history of David Wojnarowicz and Felix Gonzales-Torres and even in a certain way, John Waters. This underground that I feel isn’t economically rewarding but something else comes out of it, and it’s powerful. This film might be just that – I’m not sure that’s it’s economically rewarding but it’s powerful!

Late New York musician Arthur Russell, whose music features prominently in the film

In the film, New York seems to be a character itself – was that by design?

Very much, to the extent that it took me 25 years to do it – I’ve been in New York for that long and hadn’t made a film there. I made a short film called Last Address in 2010 that’s eight minutes long – there’s actually a website built around the film called lastaddress.org. It’s a film about a group of New York artists who had died of AIDS, and I went and shot the last residence they lived in, so it’s just a series of images of their houses, and it dipped my toe into looking at the city as a narrative filmmaker.

But for me, I see a city within a context of a story about intimacy, so you view the city from the inside. I think that’s very much how the city comes out to the audience, it’s how these people live in the city, so there’s very few exteriors, not a lot of wide shots; so you often see houses and restaurants and apartments and bedrooms and I think by doing that, with some sense of flair, to tell you the truth, in the sense that you’re making lots of choices. All the locations ended up being places that were nearly 100 years old – I know we’re in London, but in New York, that’s old. The restaurant where they meet twice, Al Forno, just closed last weekend for good. So I feel like there’s a sense of trying to hold on without being nostalgic – I don’t think it’s a nostalgic film, but appreciative of the history. My cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis who’s from Greece and shot Dogtooth and Attenberg, he’d never been to New York when he shot the film, so there’s this freshness in his eye

He finds the sunlight, somehow, in an extraordinary way for a New York film.

If you see the film now and think, ‘oh it was shot by a Greek guy,’ it starts to make sense because there’s lots of bare walls; there’s a simplicity to it. I think he also shoots sex really well because he’s not uncomfortable with it. So there’s a way in which there’s this warmth in those scenes and also a lack of distinction between those scenes and the other scenes, which to me becomes part of the theme of the movie – that the movie doesn’t suddenly shift nor does it hide when characters are intimate with each other.

It’s very rare for an American film dealing with a gay subject to be so accessible to general audiences – they seem to be put into a subgenre, hidden away. But this one doesn’t find within that, it transcends that. Were you deliberately trying to break that? What do you think the status is of gay films in America?

I wasn’t approaching it that way – I was just approaching it as a storyteller and I think I have a way of telling a story that’s consistent. I think that if I get the details of the particular story right I think it’ll be specific to the characters and also be a good film. I think that these labels – ‘gay cinema’ and ‘queer cinema’ – are significant and insignificant. There’s not meaningless because there is an absence of that kind of representation so they do play some kind of role for people culturally. I think it’s minimizing to narrow a film like this, and for me, my inspirations are certainly people like Cassavetes or Assayas or Pialat, none of whom are gay. On the other hand, I am inspired by certain films that give me permission, like Taxi zum klo, or L’Homme blessé by Patrice Chéreau, or Parting Glances, an early American queer film; and I needed that representation to see it and think that other things are possible.

You don’t see many American films that deal with gay characters this honestly, and it’s really nice to see.

But part of that is that it’s really hard economically – it’s very difficult for a gay filmmaker or a non-gay filmmaker to make a story about gay people and economically sustain your career. So how do people get better? That’s a big question, and I think many people make other choices in order to continue.

The film won a Teddy award – congratulations! There’s a short scene when someone wins a Teddy; a case of life imitating art. How did that feel?

It was funny. It was rewarding because people in Berlin asked me what hotel in Berlin we shot it in and I was very happy to say that we shot it on 16th Street in New York City – so clearly we had done something right! I just read a review that said something about how the film had used the real Berlin Film Festival, and I was like ‘no, we didn’t – got you’! I guess people do many bigger things in terms of making things real – the fact that we were authentic enough was rewarding.

I think actually that I was proud to be in that tradition that the Teddy includes – Derek Jarman won one, Go Fish… various films that were meaningful to me, and to feel like I’m a part of that history is hard-won. So it was affirming, and it was encouraging. I think what I’ve found is to make something that is different and to embrace what is subcultural about my life has been empowering, maybe more so for me than if I chose not to, in the sense that I think that I have a particularly unique position and ability to tell this kind of story more than I would in a story that was less specifically about my own life.

Keep The Lights On is in cinemas now.

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