Interview: Ira Sachs on “Little Men”

Posted on August 13, 2016 at 6:35 pm

Copyright 2016 Magnolia
Copyright 2016 Magnolia
Ira Sachs is one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my favorite people to interview. So it was a very great pleasure to speak to him about his new film, Little Men.

The last time we spoke, you were still a fairly new father. The parents in this film really struggle with their middle school children, especially when they decide to give their parents the silent treatment.

I actually think about the challenges of what it is to be a good parent and that’s something I totally empathize with Greg Kinnear’s character in “Little Men.” And I had thought even the last couple of days how challenging it is not to impose yourself and your own experience and your own ambitions on your children. So what I hope is that my kids in middle school can talk to me and I can listen, but it seems really a hard one. Like to maintain conversation with your kids, to be able to continue to be in dialogue with them. It’s what Greg Kinnear is not successful at in in this film on some level and why he regrets his own choices as a parent. He tried to cover up the tough stuff and I think kids pick up too much for you to do that. When I see parents who are not tortured by the teenage years is because somehow they were able to establish some version of that, some intimacy. Intimacy with your kids is not a given. And probably also to let your kids have their privacy, like not assume that everything is part of your story, and let them have their own stories, that’s what I think my parents did really well.

Tell me about my favorite scene in the movie which was that fantastic apparently improvised scene in the theater class.

Thank you. And thank those actors and kids. Michael Barbieri who plays Tony had gone to the Lee Strasburg Institute to study acting from when he was nine years old and when we shot the film he was 13. That is his acting teacher so they had this kind of warm familiarity. What was important to me in that scene was that the character Tony, his dream is to go to Laguardia High School for the performing arts as an actor and I wanted the audience to know how talented he was so that they could hope for him that he could achieve his dreams. I will tell you that Michael Barbieri has been accepted to Laguardia High School so he will be going there in the fall. That scene reminds me actually of “The Carol Burnett Show” in the sense that the wall drops for a moment and you feel totally included in what’s going on in the performance. I saw clapping during that scene is that that scene really lets the audience in, in a really entertaining way.

And your husband went there, right?

My husband also went there, yes. In a way art has the ability to transform lives in many different ways including a shift in kind of class experience that it can give access to. I

I loved it when Tony said he was reading the Eugene O’Neill play “Ah Wilderness.”

I’m glad you noticed that because I wrote that line and I think it’s one of the funniest in the movie personality. It’s the seriousness of kids. I was a theater kid. I was involved in the Memphis theater growing up and I remember how seriously we took ourselves and how we wanted to be good and all that. Michael has had a very interesting year since this film premiered. He was cast in “The Dark Tower” with Matthew McConaughey and he was just cast in the “Spider-Man” Reboot playing Spider-Man’s best friend. So he’s gone from never acting in a movie to spending eight weeks on a Marvel set and that’s because there’s something inherent, some star talent there.

Greg Kinnear’s character is an actor appearing in a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Why choose that play as a counterpoint to your story?

Chekhov is the playwright who gives me the permission to focus on the intricacies of everyday life and believe that if I do so with enough rigor and compassion that the stories will be monumental. Really I think that I don’t make small films, I make big films but I made them about the intimate things that happen between people in their everyday lives.

I like the way your films have nice people who have mostly good intentions and but who end up hurting each other. You do it in a very balanced way. And there’s a lot about real estate too I noticed in this one and in your last film, “Love is Strange.” That’s another areas where you Chekhov are alike.

Yes, totally. That’s also Henry James and Edith Wharton and Shakespeare. I mean the questions of home and property and holding on to what they have are the stuff of literature forever really. Oedipus has to go walking, he’s thrown out. These questions are timeless and meaningful. The moral ambiguity I would say, is something that I tried to construct from the screenplay forward. It was important not to stack the cards in anyone’s favor. So the landlord would not be super rich and the tenants would not be super poor. Yhey were both in fact pretty much middle-class families that are fighting for whatever space is left. And I think that creates the kind of suspenseful situation for the audience because they don’t know who to root for.

What I love about Paulina Garcia’s performance is she doesn’t shy away from the ugly, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat her character. This is a woman who is really pushed into the corner and just trying to fight. She’s also trying to protect her son and her livelihood. And she just continues to make some choices, and she continues to make the wrong choices strategically. I have great empathy for that. She used the tools that she has. She is also an actress who is able to sort of inject drama into a scene, you know as soon as you see her that something is off in the story and I think you’ll get unsettled and that’s what the film wants to do because everything unravels in the course of the story.

In the middle of the movie, we see a scene from the Chekhov play. What it was like to essentially direct Chekhov in the middle of all this?

Ira: To be honest it was not the same as what I wanted to achieve in the acting class, where I really wanted you to know this kid had brilliance as an actor. That was not so important for Chekhov. I feel like every small production of Chekhov in a basement in New York City is not stellar but I wanted it to be a good and respectful and I wanted you to understand his investment in it was real and serious.

I think that came across, I thought the detail that really nailed that was the set. It looked exactly like a thoughtful, creative, no budget set. A lot of artistic integrity behind it and no money.

And that’s exactly what it was. We didn’t have a lot of money to put into that scene but wanted it to be very good.

The credits show you’ve got an army of associate producers.

Most of them are people who generously supported the film with their investment. So it’s part of the way that I was able to continue to make films and also to do so truly and independently so that I don’t have one single financer. Instead I have a group of investors who come to the film with lots of different reasons for being involved and believe in me and my autonomy creatively. So it allows me to make very instinctual films.

I’ve begun to think it’s a dress shop like the one in the story and the film can serve as a metaphor to the place of personal and art cinema in our culture in the sense that the numbers don’t really work if you consider capitalism the defining arbiter of value. But if you consider value to be a number of other things including aesthetic, political, social, artistic, then there is a real need and purpose for films like this. But it’s a challenge within the larger structure to hold on.

I run a nonprofit called Queer Art. It was kind of a hobby for six years and then two years ago we formally began to file the 401(c)(3). We support LGBT artists in all disciplines, writers and filmmakers and poets and musicians and really what I believe is if you set up the apparatus which can support the individual artist that’s as significant as a building or putting money in any one film. It’s like a larger apparatus that kind of works the kind of help protect individuality. That’s why it is important for me that films like this find an audience because I think when people see the film they connect to it in a really personal way.

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Little Men

Posted on August 13, 2016 at 5:35 pm

Copyright 2016 Magnolia
Copyright 2016 Magnolia
Writer/director Ira Sachs makes small, exquisitely observed, films that are cinematic chamber music. He does not follow the reliable movie formulas about how many minutes into the running time you introduce characters, the challenges those characters face, the small conflict, the big conflict, and the resolution. He does not exaggerate to let us know whose side we are on or even what we are hoping for. He just allows us for a little while to be a part of the lives of basically good-hearted people who, like good-hearted people in real life, mean well but cannot help hurting each other. At first, the stories may seem slight. Sometimes the most important developments happen off screen. But with increasing confidence and understanding, Sachs has provided us with some of the most reliably worthy movies for grown-ups, including “Love is Strange,” and now “Little Men.”

“Little Men,” perhaps a reference to the Louisa May Alcott book of the same name, is an inherent contradiction. In this film, at least two of the characters it refers to are at that moment of inherent contradiction, middle school. As it begins, Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) is home alone when he gets a phone call. His grandfather has died. Soon, Jake and his parents, an actor named Brian (Greg Kinnear) and a psychiatrist named Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) move to his grandfather’s Brooklyn brownstone, an apartment over a dress shop owned by Leonor (Paulina García), an immigrant from Chile, who lives nearby with her son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), who is Jake’s age. Leonor greats Jake and his family warmly, if a little warily. And the two boys hit it off immediately and quickly become good friends. All three parents (Tony’s parents are separated) support this friendship, even as their own relationship starts to fray. Jake’s father had not raised Leonor’s rent in many years, even though rates had gone up as the area gentrified. Brian, currently rehearsing Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” does not make much money as an actor, and he is painfully aware that the family depends on Kathy to pay the bills. So is she. Brian’s sister is also pushing him to raise the rent because she is co-owner of the property.

The Jardines’ relationship with Leonor is not quite businesses and not quite friendship. In a way, Brian is a “little man” himself. He knows Leonor cannot afford to pay more and has nowhere else to go. He wants to be a good guy and fair to everyone, and that makes him feel ineffectual.

Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias understand the intensity of middle-school friendships, even when the people involved have little in common beyond being the same age and not quite fitting in anywhere else. Jake is quiet, a loner, happy to stay in his room and draw all day. Tony is outgoing, confident, and ambitious. He wants to be an actor, not because it would be fun to be on television and be famous but because he is serious about acting. In the film’s most uninhibited and joyous scene (filmed in Barbieri’s real-life acting class), Tony and his acting teacher do an improvisation exercise that has them shouting and mirroring one another. And we also see the boys gliding together through Brooklyn on roller blades and scooter, the exhilaration of being young and finding your first real adventure.

And we see Leonor, Brian, and Kathy trying to find some common ground with increasing frustration and impatience. Each scene is a small gem, a particularly apt metaphor because each shows us a different facet, a different face. If at first it seems discursive because it does not follow the traditional beats of cinematic storytelling, we see as it unfolds that Sachs is very much in control. His films reward us with patient, layered storytelling that reveal how large, and large-hearted, a small story can be.

Parents should know that this film has a sad (offscreen) death, family stress, drinking, smoking, some strong language, and issues of income inequality.

Family discussion: Should the boys’ friendship be affected by their parents’ dispute? Who was right and why?

If you like this, try: “Love is Strange”

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Love is Strange

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Love is strange.  As this movie opens, a deeply devoted couple of more than three decades wakes up and prepares for a big, important, emotional, happy occasion.  They bicker a little bit, but it is clear to them and to us that these are reassuringly familiar rhythms for them, almost a contrapuntal love duet in words.  Later in the film, two people who admire and care for each other deeply but are getting on one another’s nerves, converse in terms that are genuinely thoughtful and polite, and yet it is clear to us and to them that they are seconds short of wanting to throttle each other.  One of them will tell his husband in a phone call, “When you live with people, you know them better than you want to.”  That is, unless you share a true, romantic love.  That’s what’s strange — how it is that other people’s quirks that would annoy us if we spent too much time together somehow seem endearing when it is someone you love.  Love is what makes us not strange to the special people who truly understand us.

Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Classics

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, a comfortable but far from wealthy couple who have lived happily together in New York, in a life rich with art, culture, friends, and family.  Ben is an artist.  George is a choir leader in a Catholic school.  As the film opens, it is their wedding day.  Gathered in their apartment afterward, they are toasted by their loved ones, including Ben’s niece-in-law, Kate (Marisa Tomei), a writer, who makes a beautiful speech about how seeing them together, when she was dating their nephew, showed her what a loving partnership could be.

But their marriage is too much for the bishop who oversees George’s school, and he is fired.  Ben and George go into financial free-fall.  They can no longer afford their apartment, and they call on their friends and family to help them while they try to find something less expensive. Everyone wants to help, but this is New York, where space is very limited, and no one can take them both. (A niece who lives in a large house in Poughkeepsie keeps offering, but no one considers that an option.) Ben goes to stay with his nephew, a harried documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Kate, and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). He will be sleeping in Joe’s bunk bed. George will be sleeping on the sofa in the small apartment of friends, another gay couple, both cops, who have an active social life.

What “Brokeback Mountain” did to convey that movie romances between gorgeous, glamorous movie stars do not all have to be heterosexual, this film does even better for showing us that the real love story is the one that stretches over decades. Lithgow and Molina exquisitely capture the intimacy and interdependence that only those in very long-term relationships understand. They lightly touch on past disappointments, even betrayals. They tenderly support one another’s vulnerabilities.

The brilliant timing and wit of the scene where Kate is trying to get work done while Ben is cluelessly trying to be a good guest by making social chit-chat is a highlight. Tomei is outstanding, as always. Tahan is marvelously open as a good kid who understandably feels crowded to have a 70-something uncle in his bunk bed. Writer-director Ira Sachs has enough respect for his characters and his audience to allow everyone to be nice. There are no bad guys here (except for the off-screen bishop). But that just makes clear how precious those moments are when we experience the love of those to whom we are never strangers.

Parents should know that this movie is rated R for language only.  There is a sad death.

Family discussion:  What would you advise Ben and George to do?  This movie shows small moments many movies overlook and skips the big moments many movies would include – – why?

If you like this, try: writer/director Ira Sachs’ other films, including “Married Life,” and the classic 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow.

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Interview: Ira Sachs of “Love is Strange”

Posted on August 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

LOVE-IS-STRANGEIt’s hard to imagine that there will be a more tender love story on screen this year than John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in “Love is Strange,” from writer/director Ira Sachs.  They play a long-time couple who get married after decades together but then end up living separately when they can no longer afford their apartment.

One of my all-time favorite interviews was with Sachs for his film, “Married Life,” so I was doubly thrilled to have a chance to talk to him about this bittersweet new film.

I love opening scene, as the couple wakes up and engages in the kind of shorthand bicker/banter characteristic of a very long-term relationship.  How did you capture that?

I would say that the film was inspired by a lot of different couples, including my mother and stepfather who have been together for 43 years. And just being around her, that fundamentally works and that they still love each other and they’re wonderful partners to each other. But it’s real, so it’s imperfect and it has all the momentary challenges of living an intimate life with someone.  That is a big inspiration for me. And also John and Alfred and their own years of marriage. I think that’s where they found their deepest resonance in terms of the characters in their own lives.

 One thing that I like about the story is that everybody’s nice.  There are conflicts, but there’s no bad guy in the movie.

Robert Altman is a very big inspiration for me and also novelists like Henry James, .people who actually try to look with empathy to everyone in their world.   I am what you could call a very democratic director. And to me that’s kind of my job which is to be understanding of people and to be attentive to their foibles and their uniqueness.  The more that I position myself like that as a director of the more depth the work can have.

John Lithgow plays an artist, a painter, whose work is representational, rather traditional.

My great uncle in Memphis when I was growing up, he had a partner, and they were together for 45 years. His partner was a sculptor who lived to be 99. I was very close to him in the last ten years of his life.  I had to grow up to be old enough to be allowed to be that close to someone of that generation. And he was a man who was working on his last sculpture when he was 98 and it was of a young teenage boy with a backpack.  His whole life he always did classical, religious narrative pieces. And suddenly at 98 he was working on something very contemporary about youth.  That piece remains unfinished.  It’s in clay in a glass at a cousin’s house. I was very inspired by that piece. And the sense of man who or of anyone who is living their life to the fullest for as long as possible and with an openness to new things. And I was actually thinking about this said the other day as I was doing a Q&A with John Lithgow who this summer is doing “King Lear.”  He’s a passionate reader, he writes children’s books, he paints, I’ve grown to be very inspired by John which is not something I knew when wrote Ben, but it’s what I hoped for and I think we have to create our models sometime.  He’s very funny and he’s got humility and confidence and I think those are both very important quality to be an artiste.

Talk to me about Joey, the teenage son of Ben’s teenage relatives.  It was such an interesting choice to end the film on him.

To me it’s film very much about the seasons of life and generations and the circular nature of our time on earth.  This film is centered on an older couple but you could also call it a coming of age film.  And it’s a film about family, however that is defined. To me it is defined both personally and romantically but also communally. And I think that’s something that I hold on to.  I wouldn’t be a filmmaker without my communal family. I wouldn’t think of my last two films without finding a new way that is disconnected from the Hollywood system.   As an artist I returned to my independent models like John Cassavetes, the guy who was never given the right to make the films he made but grabbed them when he could.  In order for my career to be sustained I had to go back in my mind to when I was young.  A lot of what happens for filmmakers particularly is they expect the system to work for them and in terms of these kind of films, that’s not how it happens.

How did the financing come together for this?

Twenty five individuals who responded to the script.  You know my last film Keep the Lights On was financed by 400 individuals so at this point I’m talking about a little bit of a different model because it’s 25 instead of 400. But it’s still a group of individuals who understood the power of the story. Since we’ve made the film three of the women who were key investors of have gotten married to their long-term partners.  All of them were successful business owners, which is why they were able to invest in my film and I think they understood the inherently human quantity of the story.

One of the great powers of the movie that it’s just a relationship that everybody can relate to.  Other than one thoughtless but not bigoted comment from a teenager, the fact that the couple is gay is not significant. 

For me as a gay person I cannot be defined as that alone.  As an artist, I’m trying to understand character in all its complexity so you can’t put one adjective in front of the other. So that is why I hope that I represent people who are fully human.  What we’re trying to do, and this is why a film like “Manhattan” and “Hannah and her Sisters” and particularly, “Husbands and Wives” most of all were very inspiring to us because I think what you try to do is get the details right. We’re not all the same but Shakespeare is still relevant for a reason.  Humanly we’re all driven often by the same needs.

One of the stand-out scenes in the film is when Lithgow and Marisa Tomei are in the same room while she is trying to work and also to be polite when he wants to chat.  You feel her irritation and yet you see both sides.  It is heartbreaking but also very funny!

I have the benefit of working with actors I was initially interested in because of their dramatic chops but what I also had were actors train in comedy.  I really noticed it when we were working on that scene.  Their timing was just so excellent, and it’s kind of brilliant. And those abilities are what give the film its lightness because it talks about things that are very serious and they are dramatic but I think there’s lightness to that these actors bring and then I hope that I bring.   I’m lighter than I was the last time I saw you. I mean “Married Life” was a darker film.  And it’s a film about what is hidden. And that was something that was very compelling to me until I was forty.

That is a dark film.  It’s about adultery and a husband who plans to commit murder.  But it ends in a remarkably sunny way.

We’re all generally struggling lovely people.  If you get down to it there’s something touching about each of us.  I don’t believe in evil, I believe in the creation of evil.

There’s a very tender scene in “Love is Strange” where we get a glimpse of how sweetly this couple support each other. 

They loved each other and they believed in each other.  There was a Hal Hartley film made in the 90s called “Trust.”  I haven’t seen it since then but I remember one of the characters said that love equals respect plus admiration plus trust. And I’ve actually often thought about those three terms as how they intertwine and how they’re also distinct. The respect is different than admiration and trust is yet another thing. And I’m in a marriage that has those things.  But marriage is a legal vessel that this film speaks to  but it’s actually not the subject of this film. The subject is intimacy.

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