Exploring Ira Sachs’ filmography is like paging through his personal diaries. Each film is deeply connected to a significant moment and time in his life, which makes a masterclass with the director, the first of its kind for NewFest, an education not just in filmmaking but in the filmmaker himself.
NewFest Senior Programmer Adam Baran who, along with Sachs, presents the monthly film series Queer/Art/Film at the IFC Center in New York, moderated the discussion. Once the talk began it was clear why such a series was of interest to Sachs; he’s a cinephile through and through, both attaining his film education and his inspiration through lesser-seen cinema.
In addition to his filmmaking, Sachs is a professor (previously at Columbia, currently at NYU), which makes him a natural yet approachable lecturer.
Here are some of the highlights from his frank and insightful talk.
He was attending Sundance before it was Sundance.
Sachs’ father lived in Park City, Utah, which meant Sachs was there in the ’80s, before Robert Redford, when the festival was called The U.S. Film Festival.
“I started going there when I was about 12 or 13, and it was a little bit like what it is now, except they had a lot more retrospective films. For example, they did a John Cassevettes festival and they did a Sam Fuller festival at Sundance. It was a film education for me, I remember seeing all these Cassavettes films and being in a room, at a party, and seeing Seymour Cassel, which to me was like seeing the President of the United States. It was a huge celebrity because Cassel was the star of many of these films,” Sachs explained. “Any time you’re in an environment, it really becomes part of your education, as well as part of your sociological formation so I ended up — because I would go visit my father for the festival, going now for 35 years.”
The festival inspired Sachs to pursue his future career as a filmmaker. “To think that this was a way you could live your life, as a kid from Memphis, Tennessee, was not obvious to me, how to make a life as a filmmaker who was making films that were independent and artsy,” he said.
He saw Paris from within a Cinematheque.
“In 1986 I spent a few months in Paris as a student, but not going to school. I was very, very isolated and I ended up going to the movies three times a day,” said Sachs. “I saw 197 movies in three months. I was like, ‘I like being in a movie theater!’ For me, a theater is a very heady experience, it was all about thinking and coming up with ideas, but film was a place where I could really connect to personally in a very different way.”
He was rejected from all the top film schools, which turned out to be a good thing.
In 1997, Sachs said he applied to USC, UCLA and NYU was rejected from all three schools. “I’m sure in another life, it would have maybe been great for me to have gone to those schools, but I didn’t and I actually feel for me it was a benefit because I moved to NY in January of 1988 and I actually just decided that since I had been creating my own work as a theater director, I would just continue doing that in a different medium, which was film, and I didn’t really think there was an education that I needed to have.”
So he went a different route. “I figured I had ways to express myself, I was pretty rooted in the history of cinema because I had already become a sort of cinephile, and so I kind of skipped that part where I was a student to other people,” he explained. “Something I talk to students about is to try to think of yourself not as someone learning to one day become a filmmaker but to assume, as an artist, you have a voice that can develop and change with time but you are an artist who is actually making things.”
He got his break as an assistant to the director of “Longtime Companion.”
“The first thing I did in 1989 when I came to New York was worked as an assistant on a film called ‘Longtime Companion’ by the director Norman Rene, which was about a group of New Yorkers who were confronted with, and confronting, living and dying through the AIDS crisis and it was a very seminal experience,” said Sachs. “I met a lot of filmmakers who were in the art department or assistants on that film. Kelly Richardt and I became friends through that film, she was in the art department and I was in the…actually, I quit the art department and got a job as the assistant to the director, which Kelly Reichardt never let me forget.”
Everyone was interested in his first feature until it premiered.
Sachs talked about the overwhelming interest in his debut feature, “The Delta,” which was based on his own experience as a gay teen in Memphis, prior to its 1996 Toronto International Film Festival debut. He received countless invitations from producers, agents and distributors for dinners and meetings in advance of the film’s screening. After the film premiered though, he found that the he couldn’t even get anyone to sit down for coffee with him, let alone talk to him about future prospects for the film. But, in hindsight, he sees the tough lesson he learned. “I say that because its a really hard business, and it is business meaning in a festival you are actually deeply rooted in the commerce of these things. A movie like this, not just for the subject matter, but also even the length of the shots is kind of antithetical to, in a lot of ways, to commercial cinema. There is always this confrontation between what you have, which is your personal expression and then how its interpreted or digested by the industry.”
Even with a name cast, raising money for an indie film can be challenging.
“My work has no economic value within the area code of Los Angeles,” he said. “There’s no interest in the work I want to do. The stories I’ve been telling, including and after ‘Love is Strange.'”
Sachs continued: “I’m a successful filmmaker who experiences zero economical interest and that’s just a hard fact. He tried for three years to make “The Goodbye People,” set in the ’60s, which had a cast including Damien Lewis, Michael Shannon, Anton Yelchin, Kirsten Dunst, Liv Tyler, and Patricia Clarkson. “I didn’t raise a dollar,” said Sachs.
He found himself again as a filmmaker by returning to short filmmaking.
“I think for me a turning point was making a 10-minute film called ‘Last Address,’ which I made in 2010 and it basically cost me $2,000, which I paid for myself,” said Sachs. He said he made a short film because his students were making 10-minute films. “I was encouraging them to think they could make good films even in school and I thought, ‘well maybe I can make a good film even on my own in the same way I’m asking them to,’ and I had this idea that was at the highest level of artistic possibility. I really gave all of myself to it, and I wanted it to be great, which I think is important when you make things; you need to want it to be great,” he said. “I did that within my economic means and it was very, very satisfying and rewarding and the film was very well received.”
Sydney Pollack gave him permission not to rehearse with his actors.
When asked about how he creates a sense of intimacy on screen with his actors, Sachs referenced a lesson learned during the production of his Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning “40 Shades of Blue.”
“What I’m prone to do, and this is something where Sydney Pollack, who was an Executive Producer on ’40 Shades of Blue,’ and through conversations with him and his work method, I was actually given permission not to rehearse with my actors,” said Sachs. “So following ’40 Shades of Blue’ all my films, including ‘Keep the Lights On’ and ‘Love is Strange,’ I don’t rehearse at all.”
Instead of rehearsing, Sachs explained, “what I do is I work with each actor individually to read through the script and make sure they understand all the words and I tend to create chronological blueprints about what’s going to happen to you during the course of the story, and we talk through the performances but I never do a table read or a rehearsal. To me, the set is a rehearsal space, you don’t just shoot it once, you shoot it many times at many different angles, so that has become my method.”
TV is not the new cinema.
“Whenever anyone tells you TV is the new film don’t believe them,” said Sachs. “It’s just not. It’s a different medium, it has different demands. Nothing against it, but there’s no space for silence, no real room for ambiguity, no room for the abstract, the truly abstract.”
He’s been secretly remaking some of his favorite films
“All my films are remakes, each one is a remake of another film,” explained Sachs. They’re not literal remarks, but more inspired by other films. For instance, he said “40 Shades of Blue” was a remake of Satyajit Ray’s “The Lonely Wife.” “‘Love is Strange’ is a very loose remake of the 1930’s film called ‘Make Way for Tomorrow,’ which I’ve never said out-loud!” said Sachs. “‘Keep the Lights On’ was not a remake, but I saw a film called ‘Before I Forget’ by Jacques Nolot, a French filmmaker, if you haven’t seen it, it’s deeply inspiring film. The director plays himself, an older HIV-positive gay man in Paris and it’s kind of about his sexual life and his intellectual friendship and it was so specifically about a community that I had never seen, and I was like I want to make my version of that, so I guess that was the inspiration.”
He feels a responsibility to gay cinema.
“I have a responsibility not to run away from [gay subject matter], and to recognize that part of the reason why you may run is that these stories are not considered important in our society,” said Sachs. “To recognize the resistance that the mainstream has and to be engaged in that resistance in some truthful way I feel is my responsibility, and will also make my work better. It doesn’t mean that everything has to be a gay story or not a gay story. It doesn’t mean that I owe it to be singular in what matters to me because I am a number of things, but I have to recognize that the challenges are real and that I am in a position and I have the ability to not closet that part of myself.”