Director Ira Sachs, who also co-wrote his new film “Love Is Strange” with Mauricio Zacharias, recalled in a recent Dallas interview how the story—about Ben and George, a gay couple who have been together for decades but are forced to separate temporarily after they openly marry, moving in with friends and relatives when they lose the co-op they’ve long shared—originated. “We wanted to make a really romantic New York film,” he said. “We were looking at films like ‘Manhattan,’ and ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ was very important to us as a certain slice of New York life. We thought that we were going to try to create a different slice, a different New York—one that’s very contemporary and also very diverse. And also one in which not everybody can afford their own apartment, which is obviously a big part of this film.”
When an interview remarked how much a character New York was in the final film, Sachs replied, “I’m glad that worked, because I’ve lived there for twenty-five years, and I love it, and I wanted to show that love. And now I’m actually raising a family there, and so I think of it from a different perspective than when I was in my twenties. And that perspective is a lot about what the film is about, the perspectives we have at different stages of our life. I think of it as a three-generation epic within a teacup, within a small New York apartment.”
The film obviously deals with a contemporary subject in same-sex marriage, but in a quiet, almost offhanded way. “It’s never been my interest to make artwork that is propagandistic—it’s not my style as a filmmaker,” Sachs said. “I’m interested in how politics and culture affect human life, and so this film contains events that are involved in contemporary politics. But at its heart if you get things right, it’s a story that’s universal. Talking about human truths,…I think that’s what you’re trying to do as an artist. If you’re doing your job right, you’re making something that’s very contemporary, that’s timely and timeless, that actually speaks to an audience in the moment and yet will, hopefully, last.
“To me the way this film is really of this moment personally—separate from the law—is that ten years ago I could not have made this movie, because I would not have felt so optimistic about love. And my films were definitely much more about the conflicts that love creates. And I feel that in my forties I’ve been relieved from that a little bit personally. And so I feel that the film is a very personal story, even though it’s not autobiographical, about the possibility of love to grow.”
Much of the quality of “Love Is Strange” depends upon apparently small moments that are acutely observed and thus revelatory. “I like things in movies where you feel like you have access to things that you might not without cinema,” Sachs noted. “And that it’s a privilege to be there, but it also needs a certain amount of respect to be that intimate with people. Bergman does that a lot—‘I shouldn’t be here, but I am, and thank you.’ I think in movies what you’re able to do is in a moment reveal a totally different side of a character, and it’s that flip that makes you feel that you know who that person is, because all of us have those flips. I think John Cassavetes was someone who did that very well.”
The success of the film, however, depends not only on the script and direction, but the acting, and “Love Is Strange” is blessed with a remarkable pair of leading men in Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. Molina signed on first. “After we finished the screenplay I offered the role to him,” Sachs recalled. “He connected to the material and to me, and got involved. It was probably nine months later, when we were closer to shooting the film, that John Lithgow was attached. They had known each other for twenty-five years, they both lived their adult lives in Los Angeles, they both had been married for thirty years, they’re both thespians of a certain generation, film and theatre. So they had a friendly history which was not close. In the course of making the film they became very, very close, and often we would have to kind of quiet them down, because they had a lot of stories to tell each other, and there was a lot of joyousness.
“Late in the film there’s a scene in a bar where for various reasons they start to laugh very generously with each other. And they picked that spot, because that was happening off screen all the time, and they wanted the movie to have some of that, because it’s very much about the love that they have for each other, and it gives texture to the love of Ben and George. You believe this couple has been together for forty years. And part of that is that in brief moments you get a sense that it was not all been easy, and I think that’s just as important as seeing the kind of joy that they have for each other, also knowing that they have a real history.”
Sachs enthused about his stars. “[Molina] is this weird guy that you never know where he’s from, because he’s so transformative in all the work that he does…and a very natural actor. I think John Lithgow, by the way, is at the prime of his life as an artist, and it’s interesting to me that he’s taking on these really big risks— as in ‘Lear’ [which he performed recently in New York] and this film. This film is not ‘Lear,’ but it’s a lead, and he’s allowed to do some stuff that he does beautifully. The two of them together, I think, got a chance to do something in this film that they haven’t been asked to do, which is a kind of realistic cinema. We talked a lot about seventies cinema, the kind of unforced quality of performance. That was what I was after, but they also raised the bar for each other. We found a register that I think is just [right]. They have what I find is so inspiring as actors and as characters—this humility connected to this confidence. And it’s both those things that make them inspiring, and what I wanted to honor in the film.”
Sachs’s shooting technique is unusual. “I have this very particular strategy, which is we don’t rehearse before we start shooting,” he explained. “So we had dinner, the three of us, and I spent some time with them each separately, and maybe they had one more meal and hung out a little bit. But I don’t rehearse my actors, and Sydney Pollack, who was the executive producer on a film I did called ‘Forty Shades of Blue,’ was the one who gave me permission not to rehearse my actors. And having come from a theatre background, I was [relieved], because I’m not creating theatre, I’m creating something very different. The actors all memorize their lines, and have the right costumes, and know what they’re doing. But when we come to set it’s all new—how we’re going to block it, and they’ve never heard another actor say the words. What happens is, you have four or five hours to shoot a scene, and you have plenty of time to try new things. But I don’t like them to figure everything out in advance, because what that means is that they start playing toward the subtexts—they start to try accomplishing things. And really what I want them to do is just listen and respond. I try to create an atmosphere on set where that happens.”
Sachs was as enthusiastic about Marisa Tomei, who plays Kate, the wife of Ben’s nephew, who together with their son invite Lithgow’s character into their home, as he was about Molina and Lithgow. “She has said that it’s one of the first roles she’s had where she’s asked to share her experience as a woman and not to hide it,” he remarked. “She’s not twenty-five, and this film allows her to be a grown-up. She’s also creatively so ambitious to create very complex moments.” He pointed to one scene in which she had no dialogue: “She’s just sitting there, and you can see paragraphs being written, as a novelist would, on her face. And I watched that and said, oh, that’s how she got nominated for three Academy Awards—to tell that story with no dialogue.”
“Love Is Strange” is scored entirely with excerpts from the works of Chopin, and Sachs said that the decision to do so reflected his admiration for how the music of Simon & Garfunkle had been employed in “The Graduate” by Mike Nichols. “That was kind of the inspiration—that I could use Chopin in a similar way, to create a score out of it that would both speak to the film but also stand separately,” he said. “You are challenged to be complex and emotional, and to create beauty, when you’re working with Chopin—in the way you want to be challenged. That music is so infinite in terms of what you discover. And it also doesn’t do all the work for you, your connection to music is very associative, and I like that in cinema as well. As a filmmaker, I assume that the audience is going to meet me half way, and if I give them what they need, then they’re going to take the film away with them. And I think that’s what music does.”
Sachs added a point about the score that was especially meaningful to him: “The last cue of the film…[is] a piece that started the movie, called the Berceuse, and it [also] ends the movie. Chopin never wrote it for full orchestra, but in the twentieth century someone orchestrated that piece, and in the film we’re actually using the orchestrated version, which gives it this moody blossom in the final seconds. My music supervisor knew that this piece existed. And I think that’s the kind of great communal thing that’s what the film is about. But it’s also what making a movie is about.”