Love not so strange for Ira Sachs

Print This Page

First Posted: 9/7/2014

A funny thing happened to filmmaker Ira Sachs on the way to his latest downbeat drama. The director got married to his artist-boyfriend Boris Torres and became a father to twins. Suddenly, Sachs was feeling a lot more hopeful about life, love and long-term relationships.

Out of that optimism came “Love Is Strange,” a look at a happy couple (John Lithgow, Alfred Molina) who’ve been together for nearly four decades.

“When I got into my forties, for the first time I felt ready [to be in a relationship] that had the potential to blossom with time,” said Sachs, 48. “So I wanted to make a really romantic love story about a couple who’ve been together for forty years and, during that period, their love has thrived.”

With a few exceptions, Sachs has written and directed movies that challenge and unsettle viewers. Take 2012’s “Keep The Lights On,” a semi-autobiographical drama which detailed with unblinking honesty the toxic relationship between a filmmaker and his drug-addicted boyfriend.

Even though the critically acclaimed “Love Is Strange” seems like a big departure from “Keep The Lights On,” Sachs says the new film blossomed out of the ashes of the old one.

“I think that `Keep The Lights On’ ended with a certain transformation of the characters,” noted the filmmaker. “They let go of what they needed to let go of. And that’s the point where `Love Is Strange’ begins. “

In many of Sachs’ previous films, his characters were grappling with who they were. That’s not the case with Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina). They are comfortable in their own skins. But trouble arises when the men decide to get married. After the ceremony, George is suddenly fired from his long-time job as a choir director at a Catholic school.

Forced to sell their apartment, the couple wind up separating for the first time in 39 years. Ben goes to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). George, meanwhile, bunks with two party-hearty gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez) who live downstairs.

Without being preachy about it, Sachs addresses income equality in a compelling fashion. Even though George and Ben seem well off when the movie begins, they are, essentially, one job away from homelessness.

“How we respond to the dramas that life presents us – that’s what I’m interested in,” Sachs said. “In this case, I’m interested in how this couple responds to an obstacle put before them.

“I’ve been comparing the movie to `Titanic’ and `Love Story’ because I think in those movies, the [central characters] are not trying to figure out if they’re in love. They’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do when one of them, say, gets cancer or disaster strikes.

“You leave the movie caring for their romances because they’ve dealt with the struggle together.”

At least part of the inspiration for “Love Is Strange” came from artist Ted Rust, who was the long-term partner of Sachs’ great-uncle. As Sachs was writing the movie, he flashed back to a number of great partnerships from his past.

“Ben and George are inspired by men and women, a generation older than me, who seemed to have a level of education and sophistication and depth and history that I wish I had,” says Sachs. “I also drew from people who have relationships with a lot of depth and heart, and that includes my mother and stepfather as well as my great-uncle and [Rust], who were together for 45 years in Memphis, Tennessee.”

Neither Molina nor Lithgow had to do much research into long-term relationships. Both men have been married to their wives for nearly 30 years. Even though the actors have known each other socially for the last few decades, Sachs was surprised at the level of intimacy the men were able to convey.

“You buy so completely that they’re a couple with decades behind them,” Sachs said. “John and Alfred share a sense of humor. And when they were together, they were mischievous and buoyant. I think they thought the movie was a wonderful opportunity for them, and they were voracious about the work.”

Another major influence on the movie was the work of the late Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu. During the course of writing the film, Sachs and co-scripter Mauricio Zacharias stumbled upon an Ozu retrospective in Lower Manhattan. Every Saturday morning, the pair would return to the revival house to take in another classic such as “Tokyo Story,” “Early Summer” and “An Autumn Afternoon.”

“It was so great getting to see ten of Ozu’s movies on the big screen,” Sachs said. “Both Mauricio and I were at the right stages in our lives so that we just ate them up. When I started out, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Ken Loach and Robert Altman were the most important [filmmakers] to me.

“Now I’m just consumed with Ozu and the way he tells stories….Ozu could make the ordinary extraordinary, and that’s something I greatly admire.”

While Ben and George are front and center in “Love Is Strange,” Sachs also makes time for all of the supporting characters, quietly showing how their lives are impacted by the central love story.

“I think, at its heart, the film is about the seasonal quality of our lives,” Sachs said. “I think one of the first things I became aware of when I became a parent was that I’m not going to live forever. That awareness can be liberating because you have to make choices.

“I think that is the struggle that Marisa Tomei’s character is going through, for instance. Watching other people, like Ben and George, is one way to learn. In a lot of ways, the film is also about education. “

A New Yorker for the last three decades, Sachs grew up in Memphis, the son of divorced parents. During the week, he lived with his mother but every weekend, he’d spend time with his Dad who, inevitably, dragged him to a movie or two.

“I was lucky because I saw the great movies of the 1970s on their first release,” he said. “I saw `The Godfather,’ `The Conversation,’ `Death Wish,’ and all these wonderful movies.”

During his junior year in college, Sachs spent three months in Paris. He didn’t speak a word of French so he began holing up in movie theaters. He wound up seeing 196 feature films over the course of 90 days

“I just knew that something was drawing me to these dark rooms,” Sachs said. “While I was in Paris, I discovered Cassavetes, Vincente Minnelli, Truffaut. It wasn’t an intellectual decision to become a filmmaker. It was super emotional. I just connected with movies.”