While regional filmmakers were all the rage at Sundance this year (from “Hustle and Flow” to “Junebug“), Ira Sachs‘ top prizewinner “Forty Shades of Blue” feels like it comes from another planet. Whether it’s the France of Maurice Pialat and Raoul Coutard, the Germany of Rainer Werner Fassbinder or the England of Ken Loach, all of whom he cites as influences, the Memphis of Sachs’ second feature (after his 1996 debut “The Delta“) captures the blues-soaked sadness of his home city, but also evokes a foreign aesthetic far from the nooks and crannies of the United States.
After growing up in Memphis, Sachs has since become a citizen of New York City, and the world. Together with filmmakers Jonathan Nossiter (“Mondovino“), Karim Ainouz (“Madame Sata“) and Oren Moverman (“Hiding Place“), Sachs has formed the support group Dependent Cinema, a loosely affiliated international collective that also includes Frenchman Laurent Cantet (“Ver le sud“). “As indie film has become a cheaper version of Hollywood cinema,” he says, “to create truly individual work becomes harder and harder. And so we have to become smarter and smarter in how we do it.”
Sachs spoke recently with indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman about his film’s unique cinematic world, lighting and naturalism.
indieWIRE: Can you talk about the unique atmosphere of the film? I feel like you remain somewhat on the surface of the characters in a very alluring way.
Ira Sachs: For me, the film moves from an observational perspective to a subjective perspective. There’s a process of starting with these characters within their social settings and slowly narrowing our interest in these characters and their relationships to each other and to themselves. I identify with the character who is both within and without a certain environment, who lives somewhere very intimately, but also somewhat outside. The character that Dina [Korzun] plays is an outsider. She’s Russian, of course. But over the course of the film, she discovers herself more fully, and as she begins to feel the things she has buried inside, we as an audience also begin to feel her.
iW: Only later she becomes the point of entry?
Sachs: That’s the process. In some ways, it’s similar to what happens in “The Delta.” You have this character that is half-black, half-Vietnamese and gay, and he’s seen through the eyes of a white narrative, but by the end of the film, we’re in his world.
iW: There was a shot that seemed like it was lifted from “The Delta,” with these skateboarders outside of a convenience store. Were you aware of that?
Sachs: I was aware. We were in the same world, except we were looking at different characters in that same world. But this is a Memphis of adults, an established Memphis, the royalty of Memphis. The house that we found for the character that Rip Torn plays, Alan James, a record producer who was at his prime in the 60s and 70s in Memphis making black music, was actually four doors down from Sam Phillips’ house [found of Sun Records, B.B. King and Elvis Presley]. So the great thing about having an intimacy with a city like Memphis is you can actually get it right without have to study. I had a lot of familiarity with it.
iW: That main character was also somewhat based on your father, too? How autobiographical was it?
Sachs: My father was very much like the character in that he’s a larger than life figure. But he’s opposite in that he has all warmth and love for his kids. He’s got 7 kids at this point between the ages of 8 and 33, from four different women. And he’s completely democratic about his affections. But as a young man, I was more like the son, Michael. I was more of an angry young man. And I think I was one alienated from my father, but I think everyone’s alienated from their father to some extent. But I’m not the son; I’m the director. There’s an equanimity in my feeling towards all these characters. I think “The Delta” was more of a film from an angry young man; in that way, I fault it for being too heavy and too German. And I feel like I’ve tried to find a lighter approach here.
iW: So it struck me at Sundance that “Forty Shades” was probably the most well constructed and mature film. I know you’re a student of cinema, but that stuff can’t just come from outside influences. How do you accomplish that rich mise-en-scene?
Sachs: I try to keep feeling what’s going on and try to use the camera, the actors and the design to enhance those feelings. There’s something really emotionally direct and honest about how I put the material with the images. You hope that the strength of mise-en-scene comes from an honesty towards the material. You also hire really well. The d.p. is Julian Whatley and I hired him based solely on a Green Day video called “Time of Your Life.”
iW: What struck you about it?
Sachs: It was the lighting, specifically a kind of natural lighting that was beautiful and transformative of the natural world that was other than the natural world. There’s just a clarity and intensity to the lighting. And then talking to him, I learned he was a master camera operator, but he never shot a narrative film before. It was a process for us to find this very specific film language. A lot of that was having faith in this slightly tangential perspective on the action.
The approach was modeled specifically after these few films that Ken Loach made with Chris Menges, like “Kes” we used as a textbook. “Kes” is a very warm film, and yet, basically, it’s a process of putting the camera discretely in the corner of a room and following action instead of using the camera to come between the two actors; the camera tends to follow the actors through their movements through space. So visually, you end up getting a great sense of architecture, visually, you get a strong use of background and foreground. This is also something I learned from Pialat. In Pialat’s films, you sense that there’s a box instead of a rectangle; if you look at any frame of Pialat, you’re always wondering what’s outside the frame. And that’s a very interesting challenge.
iW: Is there something aesthetically that you’re particularly proud of?
Sachs: There’s something that took place in the last quarter of the film, which I think is the afterwards of the film, which is different than what came before, which has everything to do with Dina. She leaves realism behind and she moves into something much more abstract and self-conscious; for me, it reminds me of “Martha,” by Fassbinder. There is an understanding of the female character through an almost Brechtian eye. She was not acting like a normal person, and I loved it. I was guided by it and the film shots were guided by it and suddenly, we were using a much more skewed approach visually. Through her, I moved one step away from naturalism, which is exciting for me, which is what I’m leaning towards now, which is a more engaged textually naturalistic, but much more romantic cinema. Like anything shot by Raoul Coutard, because he was able to find meaning in the everyday.
I think initially we set out to make a realistic drama and we ended up making something much more controlled and I think that’s what gives the film its strength, because you feel that there’s a hand guiding you. I used to want to hide that hand. And I don’t want the hand to wave at you, but I want you to feel like you can relax within a story being told and an emotion being elicited.
iW: How do you think the film will help you make the next one?
Sachs: I think that it helps, but it doesn’t make your next film. You’re only as good as your next script. There’s a comfort that people have because I made a film that won a prize, but also because it looks good, the actors look good and it’s well told, so there’s a sense of trust that’s built from that. At the same time, my next film is a genre film. So there’s a choice that I made to tell stories that are still psychological melodramas about domestic issues. The challenge is to figure out how to make 10 films a career as a filmmaker, and that’s a really challenging thing. I’m turning 40 and I’d like to make 10-12 films over my life.
iW: Can you talk about your new film?
Sachs: It’s called “Marriage,” set in 1949. Based on British pulp mystery novel “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” written by MI5 member John Bingham. It’s the story of a middle-aged man who is married, and who falls in love with another woman, but he’s such a gentle figure, so he decides that to divorce his wife would humiliate her too much, so it’s better to kill her.
iW: How do you think this relates to your previous films?
Sachs: It’s about what do you know and not know about the person you’re sleeping with every night. The challenge, for me, is to approach those truths about marriage without being cynical. It’s just a film about marriage, approached with sympathy. Even though there’s lies and deceits and hidden truths, that’s the nature of love. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t good things.