Growing up gay in Memphis gave Ira Sachs the inspiration for his debut feature The Delta, but he didn't stop there. With his sophomore feature Forty Shades of Blue, Sachs took the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. During his recent press tour, Sachs sat down with me in San Francisco's Dolores Park to discuss the struggles of an independent filmmaker and the rewards of telling the story of Forty Shades of Blue.
Groucho: So what where the earliest beginnings of this story for you?
Ira Sachs: So I started writing the script in 1998. And the initial idea was to make a film about a woman like many of the women I'd met through my father. My parents got divorced in 1968. My father was a larger than life character who was hard-living—always a lot of women around him. From a very early age I was sort of thrown together with women who were from a very different class, very different background, very different experience from myself. And often my initial response was one of a certain amount of antagonism and dislike. And some of these women have ended up staying in my father's life and my life for twenty or thirty years. They've had kids with my Dad, several women, and I've grown to know them much better and I've learned to understand them in certain ways that I didn't initially expect. And I think the film is, in a way, about a woman that you would dismiss at first viewing. You'd see her and you'd think, from her exterior, that you would understand and know everything about her, but somehow you were better than her. And the intention was to look at her more closely, with more rigor in a way and allow the individual beauty of this character—interior beauty—to emerge. So that was the initial—that's where it came from. Then there was the process of creating a fictional script, which was a many, many-year process. I worked with co-writer Michael Rohatyn, and he and I developed these characters which were very different from any of the people particularly in my life. But I was always interested in films—in the same thing, which was this kind of sense of characters who usually disappear from movies. They're like—I was thinking of Theresa Russell from Straight Time. Like if you made a movie about the secretary, instead of about Dustin Hoffman, what would that movie be? And I think what we attempted to do was to do that in a way that was very classic—approach her story like a novel, like Portrait of a Lady or something, in the sense that you're going to be very clear-eyed in understanding what is good, bad, and other about this character—
G: Talking of the script, a lot of, for a lack of a better word, naturalist cinema of the day, involves maybe less complete scripts or improvisatory frames for a script. Did you have a full script, or did you have a series of scenarios?
IS: This script was, I would say, eighty-five to ninety percent fully written before we started production. There are a couple of scenes—the scene with Rip Torn, after the event, where he goes upstairs in the hotel and meets this girl—those two scenes, the party that's upstairs, are the two most improvised scenes in the film. And, in a way, they were created similarly to certain work that I did on a film The Delta, which was my feature before this, which was sort of: set up an environment and let it rip. And if you have Rip Torn to do that, it helped. But the rest of the film, and this was also different in the two films, was I was working with trained actors instead of non-actors, which I had done previously. I think that what you find is they can take things that are on the page and turn them callously into things that are very alive. On the other hand, in terms of the shooting style of the film, we were very—even though it wasn't improvised, the style is modeled after the work that you see Ken Loach doing with Chris Menges in the '70s and '80s, which is a kind of shooting style that very much gives the actor control of movement, his side of the camera—the camera follows the actor instead of the other way around. And that gives a certain freedom for chance, happenstance, and also a lack of self-consciousness by the actor, which allows them to really embody the moment.
G: How did you go about casting the film? I know, over a number of years, you probably looked at a lot of different actors. How did you end up with this core three?
IS: We wrote the film for Rip Torn, so that was kind of the initial idea, was to create—because Rip Torn is so similar to some of these men on which the character is based. People like Sam Phillips, who was the founder of Sun Records, or Willie Mitchell, who's the founder of Hi Records—in the sense that he's a real unique and truly American, larger-than-life, complicated, and incredibly insightful artist who is his own thing. And I think we needed someone who had his own way of speaking, his own way of moving through the world that could convey that individuality, that idiosyncrasy that you find in characters like Sam Phillips, for example. Dina Korzun I had seen in a movie called Last Resort, which was the earlier film by the director Pavel Pawlikowski, who made My Summer of Love, and I had been struck by her, in that film, very naturalistic performance. When I met her to talk to her about working on the film, I also learned that she was a very trained actress from the Moscow Theatre School and that she, in a way, brought a whole other level to the film that I don't think was the initial intention in the sense that the initial view of the film is that it would be very, very realistic—and ultimately, I think it's not. I think it's a much more constructed, much more controlled, and much more artful piece of work than just straight naturalism might be. And I think that has a lot to do with Dina bringing a very conscious approach to a character that invests it with certain kinds of iconic mystery throughout the film. And she knew what she was doing. You know, we would talk about Catherine Denueve, and we would talk about Isabelle Huppert, we would talk about Bridget Bardot, and these people, these characters who, almost in the way they walked through the frame, hold your attention. And part of it is what they reveal and part of it is also what they hold back. And I think that's something that she does very well—is to pull back certain elements that maintain a sort of mystery about the character, an interest in the character. And slowly, she gives you what you need. And then Darren—I had seen Darren Burrows in a bunch of small roles in small films. And I've always been struck by this interesting actor who acted very much with his eyes, like there's a way in which he conveys sort of strong emotion through minor and sort of soft gestures and primarily through his eyes. And I really love that about his performance. So I cast him—I mean both casting Dina and Darren was really only possible once the movie had been financed and I had control of the guys.
G: For the audience, there is a lot of mystery and there's an invitation to speculate as to where the characters have come from to some degree, but for the actors, of course, the process is going to involve specifying that for themselves. How did Dina Korzun, for example, go about that? Her character very much strikes me, as you said—this sort of character who is often impenetrable to people. We see them on the arm of someone on TV or in other films, as a flat character. How did she decide upon the background?
IS: I think she—you know she said to me that she knew a few women who had made certain choices in their life—not necessarily marrying an American man, but she knew a few women who had made choices in their life which had maybe shut them off from other possibilities, and I think she identified with that. She and Rip, from the first moment they were together—they just made sense. And that's an odd thing 'cause he's in his—he's quite a bit older than she is—30 or 40 years—and they're from totally different backgrounds, but from the first moment they were together doing a read-through of some scenes, there was something about them that was really understandable. And that was very important to the film because you wanted—you need to feel that something is at stake. So I think the other thing that happens is one of the things I think I try to provide for actors is that they don't have to imagine very much. So it's all there. I mean the house is there. We designed it to be their house. It's all there, which doesn't mean they're living there and we're all moving in, but there's not a lot of—you know, the scenes, the larger scenes, the group scenes where you are seeing all these people from Memphis who are invested in Rip's musical legend—they were all the right people who would be invested in someone from Memphis' legend. There was a way in which we tried to provide as much detail to the actual presence on-screen that gave the actors the things to work with. Rip also did—like we—I got some tapes of Sam Phillips and we listened to some Sam Phillips stuff. He met Jim Dickinson, who's a Memphis music producer. He spent two or three days with Jim on how to play the piano. And so he sort of took it all in.
G: And did you have a lot of rehearsal time?
IS: No, I didn't want a lot of rehearsal time. I think, particularly with these actors—I had felt that I had over-rehearsed my last film—that was non-actors—and I actually feel—this film so much depends on something happening in the moment you turn on the camera that if you over-rehearse it, it would have killed that possibility. It's all sort of in the seconds that the film is flashing before the camera. And I think that—so we hardly rehearsed at all.
G: Let's talk a little bit about the last decade between films. It strikes me that a career in independent film is very much a marathon. Maybe you make the loop a little bit more—a little shorter every time, hopefully.
G: What was it like trying to get another feature out there?
IS: Challenging. Challenging primarily on a financial basis. And also because I was interested—I'm interested in dramatic films, which I think are harder and harder to finance—non-genre films. Non-comedies. Though my next film is a genre film, interestingly enough. And I think that also—this is a film which people call execution-driven, meaning it's only as good as it is when it's made. It doesn't have sellable attributes until it's finished, and— a star but not a star. He's not a financial star. So it was a process, really, for me, of learning to be a director at this point—and, as you said, to try to make the loop a little bit—try not to run around it as many times. During the time that I was working with this film, I wrote another film, which is a suspense film originally written for San Francisco. I'm not sure it will be able to be shot here. And that's been a little easier to put together, partially because the actors feel, after watching 40 Shades of Blue, that I can competently make them look good and direct them, which I think is really important. And then the material is very similarly psychological and about very similar questions that I've always been interested in terms of questions of intimacy. Its told through the genre of the suspense film, so there's a more commercial hook.
G: Is that the film for which you hope to work with Maggie Cheung?
IS: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. We're trying to set it all up now to shoot the film.
G: In reading about Sundance, which is the first place I heard of the film, I was struck immediately before I'd seen the film, before I knew anything about you—"What is this film 40 Shades of Blue that has won the festival but that no one's really talking about?" which has gotta be kind of frustrating. Did you feel that it's a film that people discovered only after the fact?
IS: Sundance is a weird environment to show your film. It's a very—it's driven by the market. It's a market more than a festival at this point. And all the audiences are driven by looking at the screen and wondering what are the dollar bills that are going to appear in front of the actors' faces. So even your most—your just someone who's come to Park City from Provo, he's talking about what something sold for. So it's not really an audience. So it's a business—I don't know, I liked my film. It didn't really bother me—I push hard to try to get people to pay attention to it. But I'm also—I made the film for others, and I made it for myself. And I had the wherewithal to withstand many years of sort of not being able to make it—and still believing in it. So once I made it, I believed in it more.
G: Let's talk a little bit about the character of Memphis in the film and also the quality of the music in the film. You grew up in Memphis, right?
G: What is it about the place that functions as a character in the film, I guess, and how did you see the music as an element of character as well?
IS: Well, I think, in truth, Memphis is a character for me because it's what I [know]—If I'd grown up in San Francisco, I might make films in San Francisco, if I'd grown up in Detroit, I might make films in Detroit. It just happens to be a place where I spent 7,000 days and nights living through childhood. But I think that's such an impressionable time, and there's a relationship you have to a city where you grow up which is unlike any other in the sense that you don't even remember the time before you knew what it was and what was there—this shopping center and that liquor store and that supermarket—suddenly was torn down and became a high rise. And you care—every single thing about it you care because it all meant something to you as a kid. So I think in a way what I offers in terms of the film is that it's from the inside, so there's not any wide shots, there's not big establishing shots of the city that say "Look, its Memphis." It's actually a much more integral character in the film. It's as integral as Rip Torn or Dina—it's a part of the film. There's no way to step out of Memphis and look at it from the outside because that's not what this film is about. It's from the inside.
G: And the music—it seems that maybe for the Rip Torn character, it represents a kind of party culture or hedonism maybe, that he enjoys the lifestyle—
IS: Yeah. To me, actually, I think it represents the expressiveness of art. That in a song —a two-minute-and-thirty-five-second R & B pop tune, you can create an enormous amount of emotion and history and feeling and tell a story. And that's sort of what movie-making is. It's like trying, in that one hour and forty-seven minutes to affect people through art and artifice. And I think its also, to me—Rip as a person and Rip as a character are very similar because there's a certain kind of sort of innate genius that is un-imitable. You can't imitate it. No one else can be that person. And I think that's really where his strength as a character is, is he's the one and only. And both in the movie and as an actor. I also think music to me—I mean my father actually worked in the hotel business—which is less—you know, I think I could make a good movie about the hotel business—but there's something about music which plays into the fact that cinema is sound and image, and you're always trying to work with both sound and image against and with each other. And so music is a great way to add layers to the story.
G: And of course, it also provides a projection of Dina's character's inner self.
IS: Yeah. Music becomes a metaphor in the film for how people express themselves.
G: You mentioned the integration of sound and image in the film. The soundscape is striking. I don't know how to describe it, but how do you go about getting sound on set, and how much of it is post-production?
IS: I have a very good sound designer, Damian Volpe, who just did the sound design for Matthew Barney's new movie, which was silent, like a two-hour silent film that he did all the sound for. So it was a way of totally creating the form through sound design. And I think working with him and working with my editor—we actually, my editor Affonso Gonçalves, Damian and I, halfway through post-production went to Memphis because Damian was obsessed with getting the right train sound—getting the sound of extras but we needed more extras from Memphis with Southern accents and like, if there are gonna be crickets in a lot of scenes, then we need to have real Memphis crickets. So there was an intent—there was a necessity to maintain the authenticity that we had visually, orally.
G: Looking forward, do you have an ambivalence about riding the mainstream with your films?
IS: Not yet, because I really like the script I'm working on, which is a film called Marriage—I like the story, I like the metaphor. I think it's got a bunch of great scenes in it. I have ambivalence about the fact that if I thought of The Delta, I would put it out of my head, because I wouldn't be able to make it—it would be much easier for me to make a bigger movie than a smaller movie. That is true because I think it's very hard to maintain small careers in the film industry. You can make one or two, but you can't make fifteen. You have to change size. You know, I think that there's—you can fantasize about Gus Van Sant's career: you know, if you make people $250 million, they might give you $3 million. But—you try to figure out how to cleverly subvert without doing that out of being ironic. But somehow—I mean, you know, the studio system made some great movies, and they were very commercial films. They had more range because people were able to make more films and each one didn't have to make as much money, but there were still, whether they were John Ford or John Huston or Vincente Minnelli—I mean, I think Meet Me in St. Louis is just one of the craziest films about American, like, sadomasochism and, like, violence, and it's a Judy Garland movie! Made by a gay man, you know, in the system. And it's like, look what he did. Look what he said about America. So I think you try to take those stories as shining examples.
G: Well, I think the film is excellent, and I hope it brings you more success.
IS: Thank you very much. Thanks.
[For Groucho's review of Forty Shades of Blue, click here.]