‘Strange’ Magic: An Interview with ‘Love is Strange’ Director Ira Sachs

Ira Sachs' moving new film boasts career-best work from his lead actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a partnered couple.

I confessed to Ira Sachs that after watching the trailer for Love is Strange I thought I might actually skip it because it looked so corny. And can you blame me? The trailer features a collection of quirky, endearing moments between the characters played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who appear doing paintings, having tiny arguments about missing glasses, playing the piano and sipping wines of various colors, all of this accompanied by quotes that call it “beautiful”, “marvelous” and many other adjectives that borderline on too precious. “You were expecting a hokey little drama about a cute old gay couple?” he asked. I replied I did. “Then you must have not seen my other films” he continued, before I explained that it was precisely the opposite.

In fact, I’d seen all of his work, and was surprised that the filmmaker behind The Delta, Married Life and especially Keep the Lights On, was making what appeared to be an overly sentimental flick. I explained to him that Keep the Lights On made me consider never dating again which made him laugh as he explained, “I think Keep the Lights On is actually a film of self-discovery, it talks about the possibility of learning how to date again”.

It took me a second to realize that this actually made sense, for all of Sachs’ works offer a glimmer of hopefulness within their bleakness. Sachs has become a specialist in studying the fragility of romantic relationships, in the seductive Married Life he even suggests that some people will resort to murder in order to get rid of unwanted lovers. In this sense, Love is Strange fits perfectly within his darker works, as it tells the story of longtime partners Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who finally get married only to become victims of ludicrous socio-economic injustice, as George loses his job as a music teacher in a Catholic school, for taking a position that goes against the rules established by the archdiocese and they end up being forced to move out of the apartment they can no longer afford.

Ben and George suddenly become unwanted guests in the homes of their relatives and friends, and as they try to keep this from destroying their marriage we see shades of what has always made Sachs’ work so fascinating: the sincere, always present humanism, that sometimes tricks us into believing it’s cruelty.

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In Keep the Lights On you dissected a relationship that was doomed from the inside, in Love Is Strange it’s external circumstances that keep Ben and George apart. Can you talk about the dichotomy between both movies and the fact that they could very well be companion pieces in a way.

Hmmm. That’s interesting. Maybe one’s a tragedy and one’s a comedy. I’m not a dramaturg so I can’t necessarily say that I did this… but to me Love is Strange is in line with the remarriage comedies of the 1930’s, films like It Happened One Night and Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, which are all stories about a married couple who for various reasons splits up and then has to get back together again. And that’s a pretty classic form of a comedy, what you realize in the middle is you have a window to view their love and understand how they are intimate with each other in the way in which they overcome an obstacle. In Keep the Lights On the obstacle is each man in himself, the obstacle is internal. The difference is — and it also reflects the changes I’ve had in the last few years — is that Ben and George are both men who are comfortable with who they are, they are not in conflict in the same psychological way that the characters in Keep the Lights On are. In a way they’ve matured, I was in psychoanalysis for 17 years and in a way I’ve only now realized that it kinda worked. I’m not experiencing the same kind of internal strife that I experienced for decades and I think that makes me easier to be around and it makes the film easier for audiences to connect with.

We also don’t see romance between mature people onscreen at all anymore…

At all.

Was this hard for you to write about? I can think of maybe a handful of films about similar topics, like Away From Her and Amour and they’re all very sad.

Funny, I’m in the office of my publicist, who was also the publicist for Away From Her so I’m looking at a giant poster of Julie Christie (laughs)… I had a lot to draw upon, which is certain people that I know, certain relationships I’ve observed. I’ve always worked from a very personal place and both Mauricio Zacharias my co-writer made the film in honor of our parents… because at a certain point in your life you begin to realize that your parents are people. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to get there and I think in the film Marisa Tomei stands in for us, this is a film about three generations, about the perspective each of us has on love given the chapter we’re in and she very much represents the middle and those questions of expectations and doubts that people so often have in the middle of their lives. Then we have this young boy, Charlie Tahan, who is very much learning about love for the first time, he’s just beginning to grow up.

With very few elements you let us know that Ben and George have had an entire life together. How are you able to show this kind of “life” onscreen?

A combination of being specific in our writing as well as casting very well. I think a lot of writing is figuring out what real estate you have to work with and you try to define the set of characters in a very specific way but also recognizing that you can’t say everything about everybody, so you’re talking about aesthetic economy and really what you’re doing is utilizing your creative instincts to give the audience what they need. The other thing is I’m working in New York and it’s very much a New York story and I benefit from having this set of actors here in the city who are so extraordinary and it helps when you create an ensemble that’s real, people like Cheyenne Jackson and Adriane Lenox or John Cullum, these very textured actors come in almost, again, like a 1930s film, they’re character actors that you find that are able to nail it.

Can you talk specifically about Alfred and John’s contributions to their characters?

I love those guys, even more because we’ve gotten to spend the year together after we shot the film and I got to really know them in a different way. I feel inspired by John and Alfred, somewhat like Ben and George in the movie, they’re very passionate individuals who are living full creative lives to the greatest extent possible and that’s something to learn from. They shared a history before we shot the movie, they’ve been friends for 20 years and they both have lived most of their adult lives in Los Angeles and been in long marriages and also they’re thespians of a certain generation, so they shared London and New York and friends from way back… it was almost as if they were two kids who had been in summer camp together and thirty years later they have a lot between them. So we had all that to access and their love became very genuine.

And it shows beautifully. Let me gush for a second, because I love Marisa Tomei and performance after performance she keeps surprising me and her character in your film reminded me of those characters in classic Japanese films who invite us to make a pause and meditate on what we’ve seen so far and where the story is going next. You did something similar with Paprika Steen’s character in Keep the Lights On, as in how we have two women in very male-centric films, who you use for this key role…

Well, you’re saying the right words, only that Yasujirō Ozu specifically is the most important filmmaker to Mauricio and I as a collaborative writing team. We had a chance to see ten or twelve of his movies on the big screen, just as we were starting to work together and it was revelatory in terms of his ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. I think it was our goal as writers to be very detailed and honest about everyday lives but to do so with enough attention so that they become something bigger and resonant for an audience.

Something that really caught my eye in the film was the cinematography by Christos Voudouris which is breathtaking in a very subtle way. You find yourself wanting to stop and go back to see the camera moves all over again, I kept thinking of Gordon Willis’ work in Annie Hall throughout the film, what were some of the visual references you used with the director of photography?

I would say in terms of Woody Allen, the kind of delightful romanticness of Manhattan was something we discussed, but we were more focused on Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives. I always thought of Keep the Lights On as my Annie Hall to be honest, a relationship from beginning to end told over a series of scenes that cover years at the time… but there’s something about that mid-period Woody Allen that sticks with me in terms of being about multi-generational stories being told in New York apartments and I wanted to do something like that. Visually Maurice Pialat was our most important reference, he’s like the Cassavetes of France, he’s the godfather of all contemporary French cinema. My cinematographer and I spent a lot of time looking closely at visual strategies that Pialat used in his work.

The film includes plot twists related to housing, lack of retirement financial security and the hypocrisy of Christian institutions, yet it doesn’t really comment on them, instead focusing on the characters. How do you stay away from making a political film with such controversial elements?

I think my job is to be accurate about the time that I live in but to tell stories about characters in ways that are timeless, that speak to basic human truths and relationships and I try to be both in my time and outside of it. I think of it as a little bit like an analyst, who is empathetic to his characters but also keeps some distance. All those things make my focus on questions of intimacy, loss, culture changing lives, that’s all very true and I’m personally an example of that. I don’t think I could’ve made this film five years ago, not just because of the laws but because I wouldn’t have felt the same I do now as a gay man about my life and my feelings about love. Those two things are very entwined, we can’t be separate from our time.

There is already awards buzz for the film and the actors. Does that ever excite you?

I’m excited that people will get a chance to see the movie and I’m excited about the anticipation and of course about the response, which can be both from audience members and critics. It’s a conversation I’m having that I’m sharing with a big group of people and that’s very rewarding. I’m focused on doing my job and getting the movie out there and I’m also focused on working on my next film, which I’ve always thought is the best way to release a film is to be deep in the next one at the same time. Fassbinder has a great quote “I’ll fix it in the next one”, that forward thinking is magnificent and brave and bold and independent.

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Released by Sony Pictures Classics, Love Is Strange is now playing.

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