Gay Jewish filmmaker Ira Sachs has shown a wide variety of topics in his work on the big screen. He has made a semi-autobiographical film called Keep the Lights On, which was based on a past relationship; shown a gay couple struggling in life, in Love Is Strange; and tackled the world of art and family, in Little Men.
His latest endeavor, Frankie, brings three generations of European families together in Sintra, Portugal, for a vacation. He directs a stellar cast that includes Isabelle Huppert, Greg Kinnear and Marisa Tomei.
Frankie is currently playing at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema.
Windy City Times: You are from Tennessee? I'm from Nashville.
Ira Sachs: Yes, from Memphis. Memphis is the failure and the Nashville is the success. Memphis is a bit of a mess economically, but it's a great city.
WCT: Are you going back to Tennessee for the holidays?
IS: I'm going there on Friday because my mom is turning 80. I go back often. I have two small kids and I like them to know my parents.
WCT: Did you always want to make films?
IS: I was very involved in theater in Memphis when I was a kid, as a bad actor. I started as a director in high school. I was always interested in the theatrical arts.
I wasn't out until I was a senior in high school, but it was a safe space for queer kids, so it was great for me.
WCT: Talk about filmmaking from a gay perspective.
IS: There's always the economic challenge of making work that is most personal and finding a way to make it have commercial potential. The challenge for me is sustaining that career while being true to my gay self over the long haul. I think you will see from my career and other gay directors that there are challenges.
On the other hand, I have a really strong community, in New York, of LGBT artists. I started a nonprofit 10 years ago called Queer|Art, which has been rewarding in terms of being a community organizer and being an artist. I think surrounding yourself with people that care about the work that you most care about, the stronger you are.
WCT: What was something that was rewarding from making the movie Love Is Strange?
IS: For me, growing up in the '70s and having a long trajectory of finding comfort with myself and having tough, intimate relationships, it was a reaction to this environment. I didn't really know how to love well. I finally got to the point of making a story about a gay relationship that was tinder, kind and full of love. It was testament to change.
WCT: Is there gay content in the current film Frankie?
IS: There is a central gay character with the first husband of Frankie, Isabelle Huppert's character. He's like the Greek chorus in the film and the observer. He's the one who watches and seems to know all. He's a stand-in for me, to some extent, but I also think Frankie is me. [Laughs]
I think gay men have a certain relationship to women and wrestle with femininity. It's part of our artistic history, whether you look at Pasolini or George Kuchar. What I have learned from filmmakers like Chantal Akerman is an interest in refocusing stories on women.
There's a friendship in the center of Frankie between Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei, which is one of the several hearts of the story.
WCT: Had you seen Isabelle in the movie Greta?
IS: I haven't seen Greta. She had a legendary movie called Heaven's Gate that came out a long time ago. I had to admit to her that I hadn't seen Heaven Gate. She said, "Ira, no…"
WCT: How was it assembling a cast like this?
IS: We wrote with most of the actors in mind, but I usually don't end up getting those actors. This was a new situation.
I met Isabelle after she had seen Love Is Strange and had responded to it. She had reached out to me and we started a conversation. By the time we made a movie together, I felt very at ease with her, but I continued to be as fascinated with her as I had ever been. I found her intriguing, but knowable.
WCT: Is the character of Frankie written after someone you knew or is it written about Isabelle?
IS: It was written with her in mind, but Frankie is a number of women that I have known, a couple of whom have faced serious illness with an extraordinary sense of life, a lack of self pity and a continual passion until the very end.
This includes the lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who died of cancer this year after fighting it for a decade. At her memorial service, there were six people still in collaboration with her as artists, which is a testament to how fully alive she was.
WCT: How do you make the actors seem so comfortable on film?
IS: I create an atmosphere of trust and a sense of suspense on set. We have it rehearsed before we start shooting, so there's always a playful discovery that goes on when the camera rolls. The actors know I will give them space, but will still be very attentive.
I think of myself as a psychoanalyst. I am someone who is watching and listening, but I let them write the story through their own emotions.
WCT: So then you discover things as you go along…
IS: Yes, but with that being said, I'm pretty strict with the script that I've written. I find that improvisation leads to excessive performance. I'm interested in something that is very simple.
WCT: Tell a behind the scenes story of the film Frankie.
IS: We were shooting in Sintra, Portugal, which is a microclimate, so the weather changes every hour. As filmmakers we had to accept that nature was bigger than us. We couldn't control nature, we had to go with it.
For example, there was a hurricane in Portugal, the first in 200 years. A scene that we planned to shoot for over 12 hours, we shot in 20 minutes. We were all so close that we had some freedom and a liveliness that I feel is a part of the film.
WCT: You had worked with Greg Kinnear before in Little Men and then again in Frankie. Would you like to have the Tim Burton or John Waters stable of regular actors that you work with in the future?
IS: I have enjoyed having a band of players that we know each other and trust each other. I can write for Greg. I can think of him as the fool in the film, but I knew Greg could make Gary very human. Hearing voices in your head of actors can create a form of intimacy.
WCT: What are you working on next?
IS: Mauricio Zacharias has been my co-writer on the past four films and we are working on a film set in New York about a father and three daughters; one of them is a lesbian theater director.