Ira Sachs on Little Men: "I don’t think this story could be told in 1880 as well as in 2016. People seem to be responding to the movie because they’ve lived it."
Ira Sachs’ last two films, Keep the Lights On (2012) and Love Is Strange (2015), are set in New York City, the place he calls home. The movie sets and locations are unmistakably of the city, but what makes them feel truly New Yorker is the sense of raw authenticity and urban angst that drive his beautifully realized characters. “Realness” is the word. Sachs’ characters and stories feel extraordinarily real. His latest feature, Little Men (2016), is a story of young love revolving around two teenage boys who, thanks to the brilliant first-time actors embodying them, feel startlingly candid and sincere.
Following the death of his grandfather, Jake (Theo Taplitz) moves with his parents from Manhattan to the deceased’s Brooklyn home, which they’ve inherited. There, Jake meets Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose mother, Leonor (Paulina Garciá), runs a dress shop out of the same building’s retail unit. They become fast friends, but when Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), quintuples Leonor’s rent, tensions between the families boil over, and the boys friendship begins to buckle under the weight of the dispute.
PopMatters sat down with Sachs during his visit to the San Francisco International Film Festival back in April to talk about Little Men, his approach to filmmaking, the transformative effect of gentrification on New York’s old neighborhoods, and discouraging his young lead from pursuing an acting career.
* * *
With each movie, you seem to be growing more assured as a filmmaker.
I think I’m more relaxed, which doesn’t mean I’m less rigorous. I guess I’ve also learned a lot of particular skills that continue to come in handy, like how to create a world for these characters. A lot of what my films convey is authenticity, and I have ways of going about doing that. If you see a bunch of kids in an acting class [in the movie], then those kids are all really in acting classes; if there are a bunch of kids playing soccer, they really do play soccer. Theo enters a world that’s there for him, and I think that makes it a bit easier.
What made Theo good for the part?
He’s a very emotionally insightful young man. We’d have conversations and I was just talking to a really bright actor, not a kid. I think that insightfulness makes for a very good actor. I tend to cast people that I’m interested in as people, not just as actors. If they’re interesting to me as people, they’re probably going to be interesting as characters. I have a method of working with actors. We don’t rehearse. I think that creates a sense that what you get is what you see. You don’t know in advance how the moment is going to go, and I think that gives a spontaneity to the performances.
When I’ve spoken to Richard Linklater in the past, he’s always emphasized that he rehearses everything and that there’s absolutely no room for improvisation. It’s the complete opposite of your approach. You’re both wonderful filmmakers, but I do think the differences in your respective methods definitely shows on screen.
It is different. I just saw Everybody Wants Some (2016), and I think he’s a much more literate director. It’s the language, the dialogue. My film doesn’t have that theatricality, I guess. Sydney Pollack was a mentor of mine, and he said that I didn’t have to rehearse [with my actors]. I began to discover what that adds to a scene, to discover it together in front of the camera.
With Love is Strange and now Little Men, you’ve used gentrification in New York as a major theme. What is it about home displacement that fascinates you as a storyteller?
My films are pretty much about two things: intimacy and money. All of them. Those two subjects are places where people’s character is revealed. I think real estate is an embodiment of the challenges of capitalism and having what you need or not having what you need. It’s one of the most basic and profound necessities to have a space, a home, a building. It’s very rich in terms of dramatic possibility.
I moved to New York in 1988. I moved to a corner of Brooklyn which was in an Italian neighborhood on a Dominican block, and I was the white, gentrified college kid coming into town. Within two years, all of the Dominican establishments were gone. We all lived in this melting pot, but we didn’t necessarily melt together. That was part of the inspiration for the film. It’s the evolution of cities and lives. I don’t think this story could be told in 1880 as well as in 2016. People seem to be responding to the movie because they’ve lived it.
Ira Sachs (photo from Magnolia Pictures press kit)
We talked about the differences between your directing style and Linklater’s, but I think a virtue you both share is that your films never feel like they have an overt dramatic agenda. Nothing feels contrived or manipulative. Your drama feels . . .
I was in psychoanalysis for seventeen years, so I’m interested in how things reveal themselves in unexpected ways by placing things one next to another. I always say to young filmmakers, “never point.” As soon as I feel "the hand", I try to soften those moments. I wouldn’t say I have things I want to say in my movies--I have things I want to talk about.
Often, a film’s best moments are the result of tinkering, minor adjustments that somehow make a scene one hundred times better. Was there an instance of this during the making of Little Men?
This film, in a way, is one of the hardest I’ve done, editing-wise. I worked with two great editors, Affonso Gonzalves and Mollie Goldstein, and we really didn’t finish the cut until a week before it premiered. It’s a very precise film. Each shot matters. The script ends differently than in the movie. We attempted a Hollywood ending for these two boys, and it didn’t feel authentic to the movie. The sequence of storytelling in the last four minutes of the film, which is non-verbal, Eisensteinian . . . we rearranged the sequence of events.
It changed the emotion.
In many ways, I think this is your most cinematic film despite the inherently domestic, indoor-dialogue nature of the story.
I wanted to make a cinematic film about childhood. I wanted it to possibly be an introduction of the pleasures of cinema to young people. Films like The Red Balloon are really inspiring. My films are not cinematic with a capital “C”--they’re attentive. I have pretty strict and rigorous ideas of how to shoot each film, and that usually comes from a deep collaboration with my cinematographer. In a way, I make my movies with the person who shoots them, and they’re the people, over anyone else, who I make the movie with together. I talked with my cinematographer for this [movie], Óscar Durán, to try to understand strategies that we wanted to put in place.
Would you like to work with Theo again? I think he’s fantastic.
I would like to. But I think being an actor is such a potentially terrible life. Part of me wants to protect [him] from that goal. It’s just a vulnerable place to spend your life. Directing is about rejection also--all life is about rejection. But part of me is like, “Be a director! It’s a much better job!” But he’s a totally wonderful actor, so I’d love to see some of that, too.