Ira Sachs was at the New Zealand International Film Festival accompanying his latest film Married Life. He spoke to screenwriter Shuchi Kothari (Apron Strings, Firaaq) about the film and the reality of making a life as a writer/director.
SK: Married Life is Ira’s third feature and it’s a great achievement, what with a Hollywood A-list cast and global distribution in a difficult market. To begin with let’s talk about its genesis.
IS: For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Married Life is set in 1949 America, a kind of mythical America and is about a married man, a very gentle kind of man, who falls in love with another woman and decides that the pain of breaking up with his wife would be too great for her so decides to kill her.
The film began in 2001 while I was trying to raise funds to make Forty Shades of Blue (Ira’s second feature). I was watching a lot of films from the forties – Betty Crawford and the like – and I decided that if I was someone out to rent a DVD I’d want a film like that. I’d want plot, which those films guarantee. And these old soapish stories had a strangeness to them, which is what all film is about in a way – mystery. I ended up spending a summer reading pulp fiction and found this one book called Five Roundabouts to Heaven written in 1952 by a British mystery writer, John Bingham. From the first page I was drawn to the story and to the things the people were saying, which actually seemed incredibly modern. It reminded me that that period (the forties) was sexual and that people were messy and that things happened.
So I started working on the adaptation of Five Roundabouts with my co-writer Oren Moverman and by the time Forty Shades was made I had this other script ready to go into production. They’re very different films: Married Life is a story driven by story and Forty Shades is a story driven by character. And when I wrote Married Life I wrote a film for well known people [to act in].
When I started making films, I was a little bit rigid about my idea of what kind of films I liked: I thought naturalism was the only thing I could do; I had these ideas about purity. As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed a notion of what other kinds of films are like.
SK: In married life the emotions resonate realistically but the way you get there is very stylised and borderline comedic. Can you talk about that?
IS: The tone of the film is something that took a long time to find. The writing was straightforward, but it wasn’t until we reached a rough cut that we found the tone. The comedy is something we discovered in the editing process. You write one film, you shoot another film, and then you edit a third film. It’s important to accept that process and to not resist those changes as it goes.
SK: I’m not surprised. Stories are discovered on the page, then in performance, and then in the edit, If the tone of the film is something you refashioned in the edit, how did that work in terms of directing performance?
IS: Although it’s stylised in its structure the performances are not stylised. When I direct actors I try to find something that is real and as a director life happens in front of me on location with these actors. The actors took the tone as deadly serious. Patricia Clarkson said, “Ira might have been making a comedy, but in my mind we were making a Berkoff film”. There is a rawness to the emotions that these actors pull off.
SK: During the time you were working on Forty Shades you started writing Married Life. Tell us a bit about the writing process.
IS: I think that most of us work for an extended period trying to get one film off the ground and we should start more films during that time – to keep things going, to keep you sane. It’s a hard thing because if I had too many plates in the air then I wouldn’t take enough of them seriously. You have to be serious as a director so that you can convey to other people that “this thing has to happen and there is no way it won’t”. One advantage I’ve had in terms of building a career is that from a very young age I took myself very seriously, partly because I was involved in theatre first. I taught in film school in NY and one of the biggest problems with students is that they don’t take themselves seriously enough. They don’t believe what they are making is valuable to others so they don’t really challenge themselves.
For me, the process of trying to get my second film (Forty Shades) off the ground took so long I almost thought I’d become a conceptual filmmaker. I had hundreds of meetings over so many years describing a film that didn’t exist. So when I started writing Married Life, it was nice. And I’d had a bad experience with my co-writer on Forty Shades and had a great collaborative experience with Married Life.
SK: Married Life is listed as an adaptation. Would you say it’s an appropriation of the book?
IS: I think appropriation is a good way to describe it. I’ve written another adaptation and I’m drawn to doing that because I don’t sell myself as a writer but as a director. By the time you’re adapting, you’re already directing.
SK: Now something personal. New York is your home now. Where did you come from and how have you ended up where you have?
IS: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1965. I started doing theatre when I was 5th grade and directed my first play when I was fifteen. I went to Yale as an undergrad and studied literature theory eventually got into film theory, but during that time I directed a lot of plays. Then in 1986, I spent 3 months in Paris and was lonely so went to the movies two or three times a day. I saw 195 movies in three months and it was life changing. I loved being in the cinema, it felt very natural. And that exposure to European and American cinema meant I learnt about auteur theory before I even knew there was such a theory.
I started working in film after college because it was easier for me to express autobiography. Theatre was all about craft and I found it less interesting as a storyteller. It was hard making a life. How do you make it work, day after day, year after year – that’s a question I ask over and over as do many independent filmmakers I know. I’m encouraged by Altman, the fact that he made Mash and Nashville and then he couldn’t get a job for ages.
At the start I got a job script reading for Scorsese because someone was leaving and I was lucky, but I was there for a year and a half and I never met him. I made some shorts and festivals were a very big part of my becoming a filmmaker because I met other filmmakers. The smartest and most instinctual thing I did was creating relationships with filmmakers that I liked. If I liked them, I would try to get to know them. Community is the only thing that gets you through, and that’s not been a bullshit concept for me.
SK: In NZ it’s a lot easier. My life in the US was harder as a writer who was interested in working with non-commercial films.
IS: NY is my NZ. As you get older and you’ve been trying for a while those of you who have survived making films gets fewer. I’m really proud of my friends who are still in the game.
SK: Tell us about your first film, The Delta.
IS: The Delta was a low budget (200K) feature film that I made in 1995. Its world premiere was here, maybe even in this building. It’s a film about a white teenage boy who has girlfriends but is meeting men on the side. While he’s questioning his sexuality, he meets this half Vietnamese and black man. The film changes to follow this Vietnamese character for the last third of the film. It was made with non-professional actors and it was very influenced by the realism of the early 90s, by directors such as John Cassevetes and Ken Loach. I was very interested in realism as a concept.
The Delta went to Sundance and Toronto and was theatrically released. At the time I thought “I’ll just make a bunch of these little films and I’ll have a career”. The notion of career as a filmmaker is something you have to constantly address.
I am proud that we made this gay film in Memphis in 1995 when lots of people said we couldn’t. It is a much more original film than Married Life. No one else could have made that film but me – I knew those people, I grew up as a gay teenage in Memphis, I knew that Vietnamese character. I think as you become successful there’s a loss on some level. As you become part of a system you lose other things.
SK: It must be difficult to know you are not able to go back there.
IS: I think you’re right that you can’t go back to those days. But you still get a moment of inspiration. The question in filmmaking is always ‘can I get the money?’ You’re constantly negotiating those questions that film always has: it is an economic medium.
SK: Even the gap between having the commitment to making the film and actually making the film can be half a lifetime. It’s incredible that between 1996 and 2008 you have made these films happen: they are not projects that somebody else initiated.
IS: That’s because they never called. I’m still waiting!
SK: In whatever I’ve read about your work you have often been referred to as an actors’ director. You’re someone that actors like to be directed by and who loves working with actors. Tell me do you think this stems from having worked in theatre?
IS: I think theatre was very useful for me. But the transition from theatre to film is often not successful. Theatre directors have to realise it’s a very different medium and not talk so much – every theatre director I know talks so much. It’s not about creating a situation where people can repeat themselves, it’s a medium where this will never happen again. I think going through psychoanalysis was very helpful to me. If I wasn’t a theatre director, I’d probably be an analyst. A good analyst is a good listener. Film directing and working with actors is really about being a mirror to some extent for what they’re projecting, and being sensitive to the subtle variations of that in a way that you can help them or show them what they’re showing you in some way.
Questions from the Audience (A)
A: Why is European cinema so much better than American cinema? Is there life after Scorsese and spike lee in NY?
IS: That’s interesting and complicated. American cinema has always been different to European cinema. As an American, you somehow have to accept that you are an American. I think I have a European sensibility in my work, and sometimes that is a plus and sometimes a minus. I don’t think this is the best time for American cinema, but it’s not the best time for cinema worldwide. I think that American art filmmakers, if that could be called a genre, are struggling. There’s no voice for them, no place for it.
SK: When I look at married life I think of the wonderful Hollywood movies from the forties, films like Mildred Pierce. There’s a whole other cinema that is very American, that is interesting and beautiful, and funny and sexy and moving.
IS: I agree and I’m trying to utilise the pleasure of the movie star because I like the movie star. In terms of NY I think it’s a great city. There are a whole set of young filmmakers and I’m not a young American filmmaker anymore. There’s all this talk that cinema is going to be the size of your watch and I think we lose something. People are making things in different ways. But we’re not painting frescos anymore either: things change; it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A: I didn’t’ like the Pierce Brosnan character at all. When you were writing the film, how did you feel about the characters?
IS: The thing about the Pierce Brosnan character is if you like him, you call him mischievous, if you don’t, then you call him devious. But I don’t judge my characters; it never enters my head to say ‘they seem like bad people’.
A: In the end I was left wondering whether what happened was for the best. Whether falling in love was fleeting. I was wondering if you had a vision for the end?
IS: Almost every movie I’ve ever made seems to end like The Graduate. I feel that ambivalence – I call it an open ending. When you make a movie, you definitely involve yourself in some idea that you want to give the audience a good feeling when they leave. This doesn’t necessarily mean they feel happy, but you want the emotion to be strong. You do have a calculated intention to raise the stakes, and maybe on some level there’s a hollowness at the end.
SK: Forty Shades had a devastating and strong ending.
IS: I would say that some people found the end of Forty shades unaffecting or blue. How people respond to it has a lot to do with their feelings about the aesthetic of the film.
A: A question about the relationship between Rachel and Chris’s character: there seems to be very little intimacy between them.
IS: I think that the film was always more about relationships than it was about sex, it’s hard to make films about sex, to tell you the truth. At a certain point it became very clear that a lot of the audience was uncomfortable with the concept of a physical relationship between Rachel McAdams and Chris Cooper sp there were trims made. You don’t really think about their physical life together.
SK: You kind of set that up when he said “I think what I’m looking for is more than sex.”
IS: I think you try to figure out what information the film needs when you’re editing. I sat in on the editing process every day. I’ve worked with the same editor on all three of my films. I have a lot of trust, but I’m still in there a lot. It’s the safe part of filmmaking process.
A: Why do you make movies?
IS: I think I make movies to get my story out. I keep a little sign on my wall that says “just tell your story”. I believe that telling your story is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for others. The Delta is a story that I could share about a closeted homosexual, which I was, and about things that I’d seen that I couldn’t speak. Telling your stories helps you feel less alone. I think there is a comfort people feel surrounding stories and I think that’s why we read books.
A: At what point in the writing process does the audience enter your head?
IS: An idea will only be interesting to me if I feel it is exciting enough for others for me to pursue. When I hold the idea above me it needs to be shining. It is about finding this idea that is sexier and is kind of complete. Every time I think of a film, I ask can you describe it in one sentence? If you can, then it’s probably going to be a better movie. And I always think about the audience while I write, with single scene.
I’ll use an example from the film. There’re two points in Married life that are often brought up as confusing. One is when Patricia Clarkson is in bed with Chris Cooper and he says “a married man learns more with another woman” and she starts crying, and you later find out that she’s been having an affair. Why is she so upset if she really wants to leave him? One answer is ‘people are complicated’, but the fact is that it has confused the audience consistently, and that’s not a good confusion. I think there are points where the narrative is not as strong and narrative clarity is very important. When I hear a repetitive confusion, I think that’s a problem.
But mistakes are not all bad. Fassbinder said, “I don’t worry about mistakes because I figure I’ll fix it in the next one.” That energy is there in his movies and that’s kind of how it should be in some ways.
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