Director Ira Sachs discusses how he channelled Ray Liotta in Goodfellas and the films of Maurice Pialat into his new work, Keep the Lights On.
Ira Sachs is the Memphis-born, New York-based film director who, over the course of four feature films, appears to harbour a small obsession with the death (and eventual rebirth) of love. Sachs made waves in the UK with his 2005 film, Forty Shades of Blue, an idiosyncratic melodrama about a shambolic country musician (played by Rip Torn) and his love affair with a Russian immigrant.
2007 saw him take a step into more mainstream terrain with Married Life, and his latest film, Keep the Lights On, is the autobiographical tale the fractious relationship between a documentary director and a drug-addicted model. LWLies spoke to Sachs recently about his new work and how he channelled Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.
LWLies: Keep the Lights On premiered in Sundance at the beginning of 2012. Was that a good experience for you?
Sachs: I love Sundance. I probably wouldn't be making films without the Sundance Institute which have been so supportive. Just knowing they exist is meaningful. The atmosphere of the festival is hard for a film that is independent. You're also running into the economics of the industry. The festival is a sales convention. The industry is front and centre. There's a reason I think there are so few films about gay people, even though I think ultimately this is just a relationship film. It gets slotted under the 'gay' heading, because that's how capitalism operates. Also, I was the old guy there. I started going to Sundance when I was about 14 or 15 because my father lived in Park City. I would see all these films. I met Seymour Cassel. That was a high point.
What film was that for?
It was either for In The Soup or a Cassavetes retrospective. I remember seeing my first Cassavetes film in '86 and having my mind blown. The potential of what cinema could feel like was opened up to me. Now I see it so differently. Then it seems like real life, now it seems like theatrics.
Keep the Lights On is a film in which people argue for prolonged periods, which is a very Cassavetes-like motif.
Yes. It's interesting. I look at my film Married Life now and I think that it looks like a genre version of Faces. It actually ends with a scene which is modelled on A Woman Under the Influence where the couple is putting their house back together. For this film, Maurice Pialat was a closer influence. I was watching those films while I was writing the screenplay and working out the shooting strategy. Thimios Bakatakis, who was my cinematographer, was very closely attentive to Pialat.
Were you watching Pialat's films on DVD?
Yes. Did you ever see Pialat's TV series, Le Maison des Bois?
I saw it at a retrospective in New York. It's close – not quite on the level – but it's close to being Proustian in the most successful way. It's not Proust, but it's pretty damn deep.
I've talked to a few directors about this series and they all say it's great.
No, Mia Hansen-Løve.
Ah, his wife! I once mentioned to Assayas that I thought Summer Hours was structured like that film and he told me he adored it. It's super imperfect in that you watch it and it's very 'TV movie'. It doesn't really have that visual confidence of a cinematic piece. Then it just goes for broke in terms of its understanding of the seasons of life.
Is television something you'd be interesting in making?
Eh, no. I tried a couple of years ago to get a job in television, and I didn't. It seemed like a good way to make some money and be working. I guess I sort of crossed over to the other side where I have this strong sense that life is short and I need to make what I can. I like the form of film. I like the pace of the art film. It's a place I'm very comfortable in. And the artistic freedom. I don't actually believe that you have that freedom in TV. But everything has its boundaries.
The 'TV is better than film' thing is a staple of quite a few contemporary arts commentators.
I try to consider these things on a microcosmic level. I've realised that my trying to figure out the macro is a big waste of time. I've become a community activist on some level in New York. I organise a few film series. I don't believe that we are passive participants in culture. I feel like I am more powerful when I stick to the guns that are closer to me.
Has this activism started recently in your life?
I used to be super obsessive on love and feature filmmaking. But I'd had about as much as I could handle. I think that I had my blinders on. And that is what Keep the Lights On is about: a narrowing of life down to just a few elements and how difficult that can be. At the end of this relationship I was in, I suddenly discovered the world again. You could say I turned the lights on.
Yes, you really get that idea in the lovely final shot of the teeming New York streets.
I like films which end with a certain openness. I realised in talking about this film in the context of my other film that they are basically coming of age films. They are about an awakening which a character goes through, and usually it's a process of acceptance about who one is and what one feels.
The similarity between this and your debut, Forty Shades of Blue, is that they both examine the demise of a relationship, but they also look at the possibilities that the future holds.
Yes, they're both about birth and rebirth. And death and rebirth.
During the relationship upon which this film is based, were you keeping a diary or noting events down?
I was. A lot of emails were turned into dialogue. There's a scene where the pair are having a meal together after a year apart and that's based on an email conversation. I didn't remember that until really recently. I worked with diaries to construct the script, and I worked with a really great screenwriter also. He was able to figure out the structure for the story. That was the moment where it becomes something separate from just excavating the past. It becomes a new sculpture that you're building.
You cast the actor Thure Lindhardt to essentially play you in the film.
Yes. But he's better looking that I am, which I've been told by some assholes. The cinematographer of Forty Shades of Blue said to me, 'why do you keep writing protagonists who are less interesting than you are?' Which I found interesting. I just write these people who have this real chip on their shoulders. And I don't. I heard that and it encouraged me to cast someone who was very active on screen. Someone who had very little self-pathos. The character has some pathos built in, but Thure doesn't. It's not how you read him.
Were there any other movie characters you were thinking of while writing?
I was very mindful of films like Goodfellas and Ray Liotta. Weirdly I've always thought about Warren Beatty in Bugsy. These people who're trying to juggle everything. It's interesting and it's kind of a metaphor for the film director. I think Scorsese identifies with Ray Liotta. James Tobak identifies with Beatty. Pialat's We Won't Grow Old Together was another film that was important. That was literally about a director and his bridging in a Haskell Wexler kind of way of reality and non-reality. I like to have scenes in my film which are explosively authentic, and then they just permeate everything else.