MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Ira Sachs On LOVE IS STRANGE

Irony is a weapon that’s most effective when wielded lightly, rather than with sledgehammer force. In the engrossing, richly textured indie drama Love is Strange, a Sony Pictures Classics release directed, co-written, and co-produced by Ira Sachs, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), New Yorkers who’ve been lovers for 39 years, tie the knot under their state’s recent Marriage Equality Act. But shortly after their nuptials George loses his teaching job at a Manhattan parochial school because of that institution’s opposition to gay unions. Instead of binding them closer, their wedding now drives Ben and George apart, as their sudden financial hardship forces them to sell their co-op and find separate, temporary lodgings with others.

That’s the setup for what in lesser hands could sink quickly into melodrama. Sachs, however, takes the higher ground, using Ben and George’s tribulations not to manufacture big, flashy scenes, but to observe how the men find grace under pressure. The quiet naturalism Sachs achieves here is part of the style he’s been cultivating since his debut feature, The Delta (1996), a teenage coming-out story that was notable for its low-key performances, grainy 16mm imagery, and slice-of-life documentary feel. It was shot in Sachs’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, as was his next film, Forty Shades of Blue (2005), an ambling drama about a philandering record producer (Rip Torn) and his much younger Russian émigré girlfriend (Dina Korzun). Sachs’ third feature, Married Life (2007), marked a departure in tone and pace; a tightly scripted, noir-ish thriller about passion, infidelity, and postwar middle-class malaise, it was an ensemble showcase for Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams. The director then returned to a more freely flowing, contemporary narrative with Keep the Lights On (2012), a frank, brooding tale of an ultimately destructive love affair between gay thirtysomethings.

The relationship between Ben and George in Love is Strange is anything but destructive; it’s clear that their deep commitment to each other is part of why they are so valued by the friends and family who rally to support them. Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez play Ted and Roberto, neighboring gay cops with a penchant for loud parties and Dungeons & Dragons. Darren Burrows is Ben’s filmmaker nephew Elliot, who’s married to Kate (Marisa Tomei), a writer who works from home, the better to look after their moody teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). In this view of New York, people try to do the right thing; it’s the high cost of living that’s brutal. On a recent swing through Chicago to promote his movie, which opens August 22 in New York and Los Angeles, and then expands elsewhere beginning August 29, Sachs shared his thoughts on the nature of love and the challenges facing independent filmmakers.

Andrea Gronvall:  Why the title Love is Strange, when your characters are anything but?

Ira Sachs:  The arc of a love is unique; each has its own shape. There’s the almost life-long love of the two central characters, but as this is a multi-generational story, we also see the bond between Kate and Elliot, and the beginnings, for their boy, of first love. In each of these accounts, love is “strange” because the details of the individual experiences are not true for everyone else. It’s also complicated because people change, and the definition of love expands with them. The film is about the experience of love, captured in the moment, like in real time.

AG:  Your movie reminds me of the neorealist classic The Bicycle Thieves, in the sense that early on in Vittorio De Sica’s film the loss of the hero’s bicycle is the catalyst for what turns out to be a character study, rather than a plot-driven work.

IS:  Thank you. Neorealism was certainly an influence. Love is Strange is like a neorealist film in that it attempts to make the ordinary extraordinary.

AG:  Also–and I hope you like this filmmaker and won’t mind the comparison—it reminds me of the movies of Olivier Assayas, particularly Summer Hours [where far-flung adult siblings reunite to dispose of the home of their deceased mother]. Your movie has a similar off-the-cuff, life-as-it-happens feel.

ISSummer Hours was a very influential film for me, and for my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias [who first collaborated with Sachs on Keep the Lights On], because it tells a family’s story, and explores the qualities of love and loss—plus, it’s also about real estate! I had a somewhat similar story happen in my own life, concerning the 1905 Memphis home that once belonged to my grandfather. When it got to the point where the granddaughter who inherited it couldn’t afford to maintain it any longer, to keep it in the family she asked me if I wanted to buy it. But that just wasn’t possible.

Mauricio and I started working on Love is Strange in 2012. I had gone through some big changes: I went from living alone to living with my husband [artist Boris Torres, who painted a canvas that is a key element in the movie], two kids, and the kids’ mother. So, like the movie’s characters, I knew something about being cramped.

AG:  Some of your film’s lighter moments arise from living at such close quarters, as when George is bewildered by Ted’s enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons.

IS:  I don’t do traditional rehearsals because they inhibit the kind of realism I want. But we did rehearse that scene; Cheyenne Jackson learned to play the game just for the film. I didn’t know much about it before, but I’ve come to have a great respect for Dungeons & Dragons. All kinds of interesting people have played it—writers like Nathan Englander and David Sedaris, for instance. It requires an investment in narrative, unlike video games, where everyone else does it for you. Cheyenne was great at it; I’m not that quick of a storyteller. Do you play?

AG:  Do I look like someone who plays Dungeons & Dragons? I’m old enough to be your momma!

IS:  [Laughing] Oh, don’t be too sure about that!

AG:  Well, getting back to narrative, it seems to me that many of the gay-themed movies I’ve seen are about both coming out, and coming of age. You know, where the young protagonist is at a crossroads: he’s newly aware, or coming to terms with, his homosexuality, which not only leads him to understanding himself, but also to see that the world is a very different place from what he’s been taught. It’s refreshing that your gay protagonists are at the opposite end of the age spectrum.

IS:  Although some of my movies are about coming out, they all are, in a way, about coming of age, in that they’re films about enlightenment, about self-discovery. I could make Love is Strange because I’m not the same person I was ten years ago.

AG:  You stated in a recent interview with Variety New York film editor Ramin Satoodeh, “The independent film business is dead.”  It’s true that many of the great indie companies from the 1980s were bought by the Hollywood majors, repurposed as the studios’ boutique divisions, and then shuttered. But could you expand a little more on your comment?

IS:  The profit margins just aren’t big enough. There are so many challenges, including marketing. When a movie like mine opens at Sundance, it gets labeled “GAY” in capital letters, but it’s not so easily defined.

There are also the tight budgets and short production windows. I’ll tell you a story about the final shot in the film [where Joey and a pretty girl skateboard on a street toward the setting sun]. I had cast a 14-year-old based on an audition video she sent, where she claimed to know how to skateboard. But on the day we shot that scene, it turned out she couldn’t skate. So here we are on a street that was closed down for us for that one day, and we’re running out of light, and just not getting what we needed, when out of the corner of his eye one of my producers, Jay Van Hoy, sees this pony tail go sailing by. He races to grab a transport van that Alfred Molina had just left, and follows the girl for three blocks before he catches up with her and asks, “Do you want to be in a movie?” And that’s how we got the shot.

AG:  Now that’s a producer.

IS:  He sure is.  I see us as going back to the John Cassavetes model. You make films because you have to. No one can let you. You just go ahead and do it.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
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