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Love is Strange is the new film from director Ira Sachs and it’s one that’s been getting major buzz since premiering earlier in 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival. In the last few weeks the film’s ridiculous R rating has come into question from groups claiming the MPAA’s decision reeked of homophobia. With no sex, nudity, violence the rating does seem, to this critic, to be another example of the secretive MPAA applying a double standard to films that may not follow their values.
No ratings or awards talk was discussed in my interview with the warm, genial Sachs early in the morning on August 12. He was in town for a quick round of interviews and a visit to the Walker Art Center before taking to the skies spreading Love all around.
Love is Strange tells the story of New Yorkers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) who find themselves newly married then separated after George is fired from his teaching post. Only days after their wedding their family and friends now have to come together to help figure out how to help their two friends.
Your previous films (Leave the Light On, Forty Shades of Blue) seem to me to be cautionary tales regarding love with some dark, rough edges. Love is Strange, however, seems to have a more positive outlook on relationships. Was that an intentional shift?
That is completely true and I think it’s because I’m at a different stage in my life and I have different feelings about love. For the first time I really feel optimistic about the possibilities of love to grow and blossom…and I think that’s been hard won, for me specifically also as a gay man it’s something that generationally we had to learn was possible. So this film comes out of at time in my life where I’ve married my partner, we’ve had two kids, we’re raising the kids with their mom who lives next door…and I can imagine this being a good thing. That’s where the film came out of…wanting to make a romantic love story.
In a recent interview you noted that your inspiration for the film were several long term relationships in your own extended family as well as films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (critics note: which I coincidentally watched right before popping in my Love is Strange screener). Do you find people, gay or straight, identifying with these characters?
I think a lot of people identify with the film for a number of reasons. This is a picture about a couple in a long term relationship and it was as inspired by my mother and stepfather as much as anyone else. I think they see themselves in little moments between Ben and George, certainly. And the similarities are almost as interesting as the differences. Ultimately, I’m a cinephile and film becomes part of my collective memory. If you do your job right you’re taking them all in and speaking with your own voice.
What was the collaboration like with your screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias?
I think Keep the Lights On was definitely a dark film but it was a film about self-discovery. It came out of a time in my life that was not dark…meaning when I made it I was very open. And I think that Mauricio and I meet at that point in our lives. We’re now finishing a third in a New York trilogy and we have a wonderful shared interest in people, and stories, and movies. He’s the godfather of my son and we share qualities and beliefs – it’s very important in collaborations that you share human values because it makes for a much easier time together. Not just in creative relationships but in love relationships – right? It’s so much easier if your basic values are in line.
What I found especially interesting in the film were the supporting characters, how richly etched they were. Each seemed to have a moment that made me want to know more, want to watch whatever movie they were entering after leaving this one.
For me, every person in the frame really does have my interest. To the point in which there is a concert scene where you see a bunch of portraits of people you don’t ever see again…but for that moment the film values them. As a filmmaker I try to be attentive to each individual and that’s in line with humanist tone of the film. There isn’t a hierarchy of importance among the characters.
Living in New York, you have access to a wealth of talented actors from the stage (like Adriane Lenox, John Cullum, Harriet Harris, etc) and I know that both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have strong roots in the theater. Was there a rehearsal process before filming began?
My background is actually theater; I was a theater director in college and high school. When I got into film, one of the things I learned from Sydney Pollack (executive producer on Forty Shades of Blue) is that he gave me permission not to rehearse. He didn’t tell me to do that but I began to understand that for myself I wanted the actors to be really ready, feel comfortable, confident, and well taken care of but not to know what they were going to do. Not to pre-consider subtext, we don’t talk subtext at all because the minute you talk subtext you begin to play subtext.
So what I do is that I meet with everyone individually and spend time talking through the script. John, Alfred, and I had dinner and a steakhouse and just talked about our lives, trying to get comfortable. Then you get on set and a production day is you shoot one scene for eight hours…that’s enough rehearsal. I like it all to be in the moment of shooting, and that’s the texture I’m able to get in my films through that process.
It seems in the last few years Hollywood has begun to embrace the fact that romantic leads don’t have to be hunks and starlets in their pre-30s. That veteran actors in their 50s and 60s can tell/sell a story as rich (or richer) than their younger counterparts. Do you notice that shift as well?
One thing I’ve noticed on the other side for example, (he speaks directly into the recorder) “Sorry John and Alfred” but you don’t get covers of magazines…because covers of magazines won’t go over 30. I will say that this was an independent film, not financed even with this cast from Hollywood. And now Hollywood has embraced the film because they see that there is a market for it. But they don’t finance the film and that’s an interesting place as a filmmaker because you really have to find your way in order to keep going.
Do you have to think about that when making films now? I mean, making films independently is great but with then having to sell the film and thinking about promotion, does all of that come into play when creating the final product?
I’m always trying to make a movie that people will connect to. In this case, I also benefit by having wonderful actors that are also very good at comedy. There’s an access point which is humor and that’s something we knew going into it that’s important to their roles — they really do have exquisite comic timing within a dramatic film…
…and that winds up lending the film dramatic moments that really feel sharp. We know how John Lithgow can flip from comedy to drama but there’s a restraint on both ends of his spectrum here that winds up giving him one of the best roles of his career.
There is a restraint and that’s something John and I talked about very early on…that this would be a very different kind of Lithgow. What we see now is that he is very good, brilliant really, at delivering a naturalistic performance. It’s just not what he’s been asked to do previously, it’s not what Third Rock from the Sun wanted. It’s such a different palette and yet, the skills are evident.
After the success of Keep the Lights On, was this an easier film to get made?
It was easier. It wasn’t easy…but it was easier. Ultimately it was 26 individuals, 23 of which were gay and lesbian. The majority of those were retired lesbian businesswomen that connected with the film. They saw it as the story of same-sex marriage and felt that it was also a film women would connect to and parents would connect to. And they’ve been right…they’re businesswomen for a reason and they had a good assessment of what the film could be.
Though it’s not the main subject of the film, one event that becomes a catalyst for your characters is when George loses his longtime job as a music teacher at a parochial school when he marries his partner. It’s a story that seems to be happening repeatedly all over the country. George could have been fired for any number of reasons so were the particulars included as a way to highlight what’s going on?
We had read of a case in the Midwest and that seemed to be the starting point of the story but I knew it was not the story itself. One of the things I find interesting about Ben and George is that they aren’t individuals who then fight back. They’re not taking it to the streets or joining ACTUP; that’s not who they are. There’s a humility to them that I think is very much about this kind of class and this kind of age that I see in a city like New York. They’re average people. They’re going to find a new way to live their lives…but as themselves.
The film is about a lot of things. It’s about discovery but it is about loss too…and acceptance of that loss to some extent. For me it’s written from the perspective of being in the middle of my life and seeing my parents’ generation coming to their later chapters and having to face that head on. Being a parent, I look at my children and they don’t know anything about loss…which is why I have a young character discovering those emotions of something so fresh for the first time.
Check back this weekend for my review of Love is Strange, opening at Landmark’s Edina Cinema on September 5.