Ira Sachs has become one of our great American filmmakers. His newest, Little Men, about two teenage boys (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) who become best friends even as their parents face off over the fate of a small dress shop in the ground floor of a Brooklyn home, is just the latest of his explorations of individuals fighting for their identities in a changing city. The director sat down with us to discuss how he and his films have changed, his artistic influences and his genuinely collaborative filmmaking process.
What was it like rewatching your work during the recent MoMA retrospective?
I hadn't seen these films in a bunch of years. There are different narratives at work here. I can see how my own life has changed, and I can see how the work itself has changed. But there's also a pretty clear continuity when you watch the films in a row. I came to a conclusion about how the changes in my life are reflected in the films — not in the topics, but in their texture. The films are happier now. They're also now very specifically about the conflict between a unified couple and society, whereas the earlier films were often about internal conflicts, usually about a protagonist trying to figure out who the hell he or she is.
At the same time, there’s something essentially emotional about the films that I feel is really rich and separate from me. Partially, it has to do with performance — and I feel I enable the performances, so I can take some credit. But this time, for example, I was really moved by Dina Korzun in Forty Shades of Blue. It’s kind of like a Greta Garbo performance — so expressive. I think there are a lot of similarities, actually, between Dina’s performance in that film and Paulina García’s in Little Men. They’re both totally naturalistic and totally constructed at the same time. They’re methodical, and theatrical.
With Dina Korzun’s character, I love the fact that she’s a Russian woman in Memphis, and yet that element of her character doesn’t really figure into the plot. The movie isn’t about her Russian-ness. It’s a grace note that enhances the character and her inner life, and that’s it.
I will say that when I showed another film, Keep the Lights On, in Poland, Polish women really responded to it. So I don’t know. I’m half–Eastern European, and there’s a certain comfortable relationship to sadness in those films, which is very different from these newer ones. I’m not as intimate with sadness right now, so my films aren’t either.
The last couple of films really feel like they're about community.
Maybe because I'm more evolved internally now, that gives me a certain kind of ability to be broader in my empathies. A transition occurred in my 30s, which is sort of what Keep the Lights On is about. I began to be a community organizer, and more externally directed.
But it’s a complex idea of community. Often, it causes some of the problems we’re witnessing. In Little Men, Greg Kinnear’s father was so generous and open-hearted that he never finalized the legal situation with Paulina García’s shop — and when he drops dead, he leaves a mess behind. In Love Is Strange, the two married men are forced to live with different family members because everybody wants to keep them in New York — so they wind up with this bizarre living arrangement.
Everything is imperfect. Freedom is a luxury in a certain way — a luxury you hope to have. But what choices do you make when you’re not free, when you’re put in a corner? Like Paulina García’s character in Little Men, and Greg Kinnear’s character: What do you do when the options are fewer, and how do those choices reflect your morality? There’s a scene in The Delta where the kid has set off some fireworks in a field in Mississippi, and a cop comes and says, “You can’t do that. Did you set them off?” And the kid says, “Wasn’t me.” Immediately denies it. That’s a very autobiographical moment, based on a time when I stole some French books from my high school, and I was asked whether I stole the books and I said, “No, I borrowed them.” But I “borrowed,” like, 20 books.
Wait, that’s actually in Love Is Strange, too.
Yeah! I clearly feel a lot of guilt about the fact that when push came to shove, I wasn’t honest.
I like the uncertainty at the end of this film. With Tony [Taplitz]'s character — he's at LaGuardia High School, finally, and studying to be an artist. But he'll probably wind up like his dad, who's a struggling actor who never achieved his dreams. It's somehow both open-ended and a vicious circle.
For me, particularly the ends of films, I want to be both open and clear. It's not all questions, but a sense that the film has been handed back to you, the viewer, and you're satisfied. That's also why the ends often take the most work, in terms of editing, in order to get that impact.
In that sense, I love the little detail near the end when Paulina García's character puts up a “Help Wanted” sign in her store even though Greg Kinnear and his family are trying to kick her out. To them, it's confrontational. But for her, it's probably just a sign of trying to persevere as much and as long as she can.
That comes from when we started sitting down with [screenwriter] Mauricio [Zacharias] and talking about movies and talking about life. Mauricio's family is in Rio and his parents owned a shop, and the shopkeeper hadn't been paying rent for several years, and they were trying to get her out. Each time Mauricio and I would get together he'd tell me a different episode of the story; this was a two-year process. They were actually in court when she put the “Help Wanted” sign up. That was fascinating to me. I thought: a) There's two sides to this story, obviously, and he's sensitive enough to understand that as well. And b) It's really, really dramatic. This is a very small story that's actually as grand as any, about trying to hold on to the land and property and home.
You have these long musical passages of the kids on their skateboards, just discovering the city around them — which is stylistically unlike you, in some ways.
With Little Men, I wanted to use all the tools of cinema in a very spare and modern way, but not be shy of a score or dolly shots. Particularly around the kids. I think what you feel in Little Men is this opposition between the fluidity of their world and the stillness and claustrophobia of the adult world. But those scenes are a good example of collaboration. I’m the director, and I plan a lot. But I also plan to be inspired by the people I work with. So that partially came from working with Oscar Duran, my cinematographer, and starting to see those shots. And then working with my composer, Dickon Hinchliffe. Once the music came in, we added four shots, because we wanted to give the music room and space.
You’ve worked with Dickon Hinchliffe on a number of films. I remember his incredible music for Claire Denis’s Friday Night and Trouble Every Day.
God, Claire Denis, the hero of our time — so important for my filmmaking generation. When we were doing the temp editing for Forty Shades of Blue, we used Dickon’s score for Trouble Every Day as our temp. And then we said, “Why don’t we call that guy?” And I’ve now been working with him for 15 years. And I have to say, looking at these films again in a row, the music tends to be the most emotional element, without being too manipulative.
How does collaboration work for you?
With Mauricio, we usually start by getting together for six-day weeks and talking about movies and life. That generates a set of characters for us. He writes the first draft of the film, and we go back and forth on subsequent drafts. After we start casting I usually do a final draft. Because I rarely ask an actor to transform. For example, in Little Men, one of the boys was supposed to do capoeira. But Michael Barbieri was not going to do capoeira. He was studying to be an actor, and so we made him an aspiring actor. And that was his real acting teacher playing the acting teacher in the film. I had to be receptive to what the world was showing me in the process.