Writer-director Ira Sachs is open about his debt to previous films: when he visited Dallas for a festival screening of his film “Little Men,” about two thirteen-year old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose friendship is threatened by a rental dispute between their parents in gentrifying Brooklyn, he explained how he and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias look for stories for a new project. “We begin by talking about our lives, what’s happening today—usually that means something with our parents, and our relationships—and we talk about movies,” Sachs said. “Here we began with two films by [Yasujiro] Ozu, ‘Good Morning’ and ‘I Was Born, But…,’” in both of which children go “on strike” against their parents.
“I thought that somehow that tension between parents and children and children and parents—I liked it in [Ozu’s] films, and I wanted to make a film about those dynamics. And specifically I wanted to make a film about friendship, and what it is to be young in a certain kind of way that allows you to cross boundaries that people of different ages don’t cross.
“We had this idea about the kids going on strike,” Sachs continued, “and then we were also talking throughout this process…[about] his family in Rio: they own a shop and they were trying to get a tenant out. So I think the interaction of those two things, along with my experience of moving to Brooklyn…all of that came together.
“One of the things about the film is how difficult it is for kids to understand the details of adult life though they try.” He made reference to another film, Carol Reed’s “The Fallen Idol”: “The kid in that movie, at the end, after everything is actually all finished, he tries to get involved because he wants to fix it all. It’s actually all fine now, but he doesn’t understand it—he can’t. And there’s this incredible compassion you feel for him because of that distance.”
The other element of the plot is the cause of conflict—a rental raise that will put a property out of one character’s reach—precisely the sort of issue that also drove Sachs’ last film, “Love Is Strange.” He explained, “I’m interested in how people deal with money,” Real estate is just a symbol of the tensions people have around income and economics, which to me are character traits—they’re ways in which you see people’s character. How do they deal with these problems? All of Jane Austen, for example, is about love and money. You reveal a lot about yourself, and hopefully as a writer about your characters, when you think about how they face questions of intimacy and economics.”
That intersection, Sachs noted, also led to the choice of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” as the play that Jake’s father Brian (Greg Kinnear), an actor, is rehearsing for an off-Broadway run: “It was really resonant to the story—this story of property and dreams and wanting to be an actress. And I think that Chekhov in general meant to find very profound truths in the stories of everyday life, and hopefully I could get a little run-off of that—that Chekhov believed and valued the story of domestic life as being big. He didn’t need to find his drama in things that were outside, that were extraordinary. He found drama in the ordinary. The dram [of the film] really centers around a deed, a lease, and you needed to have it be very modulated in terms of the building emotions. It’s not melodrama—nobody dies—so you have to be very precise.”
Brian is trying to raise the rent that Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina Gsarcia) pays for the shop space beneath the apartment Brian has just inherited from his father. “We wrote it for her,” Sachs said. “That doesn’t mean if she hadn’t taken it we wouldn’t have found somebody else, but we were lucky and I had a great collaboration with her. She’s fascinating. She’s also not just a realistic actress, she’s also a theatrical actress. You feel that. As an actress she wasn’t frightened of [playing the part coldly].. She doesn’t need for you to like her at every moment.”
Finding Taplitz and Barbieri, Sachs recalled, was “not as difficult as I might have thought, because very early on in the casting process, I realized in the films that I love with kids in them, it’s not that they found the one kid out of a million—it’s not like finding Judy Garland for ‘The Wizard of Oz’—it’s about finding an interesting kid that you can build a movie about, who somehow seems like he’ll be memorable when you leave the theatre.
“So I worked with Avy Kaufman, a casting director who had done a lot of good stuff—she did ‘The Sixth Sense,’ she did ‘The Ice Storm,’ she did ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer,’ she did ‘Life of Pi.’ It was a good collaboration.” Of Taplitz, he said: “His parents are both in the business, and he sent in an audition from Los Angeles and I watched it, and actually it felt like it was a documentary—he was so incredibly comfortable. There’s not a bad line reading. He’s just completely absorbed the writing. That kid is very precocious, in terms of his emotional sophistication, and I think that’s an interesting part of Jake.” Barbieri is an aspiring actor himself, and his acting classes were written into the script. “That was his acting teacher,” Sachs said of a sequence in which Tony does improv exercises with the class. “In the script [Tony] did capoeira, and this boy was not going to do capoeira, which is Brazilian martial arts. He just couldn’t. And so I asked, ‘What do you do?’ and he said, ‘Well, I act.’ So that was his acting school, which is Lee Strasberg, and that was his acting teacher. So there was a lot of comfort there for experimentation.
“Actually,” Sachs added, “the parents were harder to cast than the children, because in making a film about kids, a lot of actors want something different—they want the film to be about them! And this was a really great moment to work with Greg Kinnear, because I think he’s interested in taking risks different from what he had previously, and he’s a really amazing natural actor. He understood the character, and he understood the hopes of the character.
“I think the film is as much a coming-of-age film for Brian, Greg Kinnear’s character, as it is for the boys. When you lose a father, at whatever age, you have to figure out who you are as a man, or a woman. To me there’s a kind of shift that happens, and eventually…whether you think [his choice] is morally right or wrong, it’s one that seems very complete for him.
“That’s the drama of the film as well—coming to terms with who you are.
“I’ve made three films about male relationships in New York. The first was about two men in their twenties, then there was the film about two men in their sixties and seventies, and this is about two boys. I’m fifty, halfway through a century—I have four-year old children, I have eighty-year old parents. So the questions of generations are very front and center. At this point I think I’m able to think about stories that show there is a connection between generations that can’t be lost. So I’m more inclined now to make films that have a multiple perspective.”
It was also more difficult to film the adults than the kids in the Brooklyn streets, Sachs said: “It was much harder to shoot Greg Kinnear in the middle of New York City than those kids because people kept saying, ‘That’s Greg Kinnear!’ I’d worked with Alfred [Molina] and John Lithgow, but I didn’t have the same exact problems as I had with Greg Kinnear on 42nd Street. [The onlookers] ruined my takes.”
In discussing the bittersweet close of “Little Men,” Sachs returned to his comparisons to other movies. “The ending was different in the script,” he said. “We had a Hollywood ending and a more honest ending, and we ended up with this one—because the other one, the very Hollywood ending, seemed completely inauthentic with the film we’d made. It didn’t make sense with characters in the story to resolve everything that way.
“The other movie that was very important to us,” he explained, “was ‘The World of Henry Orient,’ with Peter Sellers. In that movie, at the last minute, the girls become best friends again. We tried to do that George Roy Hill ending, and I was like, ‘But we’re not making a George Roy Hill film, we’re making the French version, or whatever.”