Ira Sachs’ last two films, Keep the Lights On (2012), and Love Is Strange (2015), are set in New York City, which he calls home. The film sets and locations are unmistakable of the city, but what makes them feel truly New York is the sense of raw authenticity and urban angst that drive his beautifully realized characters. “Realness” is the word. Sachs’ characters and stories seem extraordinarily real. His latest feature, Little Men (2016), is a story of young love revolving around two teenage boys whose performances, thanks to the brilliant first-time actors embodying them, are 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. 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 meets with Sachs during his visit to the San Francisco International Film Festival 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 film you make, you seem to grow more assured as a filmmaker.
I’m more relaxed, which doesn’t mean I’m less rigorous. 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 Little Men], then those kids are all really in acting classes; if there are a bunch of kids playing soccer, they really are playing 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 of Jake?
He’s a very emotionally insightful young man. We’d have conversations, and I was talking to a really bright actor, not a kid. I think that insightfulness makes for a very good actor. I tend to cast those whom I’m interested in as people, not just as actors. If they’re interesting to me as people, they’ll probably be interesting as characters.
I have a method of working with actors. We don’t rehearse. That creates a sense that what you get is what you see. You don’t know in advance how the moment will go, and that gives spontaneity to the performances.
Richard Linklater emphasizes that he rehearses everything with his actors and that there’s no room for improvisation. His is the opposite approach to working with actors from yours. You’re both wonderful filmmakers, but the differences in your respective methods show on screen.
It is different. I just saw Everybody Wants Some [Linklater, 2016], and I think he’s a much more literate director. It’s the language, the dialogue. Little Men 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, discovering it together with the actors.
With Love Is Strange and now Little Men, gentrification in New York is 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. 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. It’s very rich in terms of dramatic possibility.
I moved to New York in 1988. I moved to a corner of Brooklyn 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 Little Men. It’s the evolution of cities and lives. I don’t think this story could be told in 1880 as well as it fits in 2016. People seem to be responding to this about Little Men because they’ve experienced gentrification.
A virtue you and Linklater share is that your films don’t seem to 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 unexpectedly by placing things in life next to one another. I always say to young filmmakers, “never point”. As soon as I feel the hand pointing out the obvious, I try to soften those moments. I wouldn’t say I have things I want to say in my films – I have things I want to talk about.
Some of the best moments we see in films result from tinkering, minor adjustments that improve a scene. 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 didn’t finish the cut until a week before it premiered. Little Men is a very precise film. Each shot matters.
The script ends differently than in the film. We attempted a Hollywood ending for these two boys, and it didn’t feel authentic. The storytelling sequence in the last four minutes of Little Men, which is non-verbal, Eisensteinian … we rearranged the sequence of events.
That Ending in Little Men changed the emotion.
In many ways, I think Little Men 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 be an introduction to the pleasures of cinema for young people. Films like The Red Balloon [Albert Lamorisse, 1956] are inspiring. My films are not cinematic with a capital “C” – they’re attentive. I have pretty rigorous ideas of how to shoot each film, which usually comes from deep collaboration with my cinematographer. In a way, I make my films with the person who shoots them. I talked with my cinematographer for Little Men, Óscar Durán, to try to understand the strategies we wanted to put in place.
Would you like to work with the young actor Theo Taplitz again?
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 too – all life is about rejection. But part of me is like, “Be a director! It’s a much better job! [than acting]” But Theo is a wonderful actor, so I’d love to see some more of his acting, too.