Ira Sachs—Frankie—10/7/2019

/content/interviews/475/1.jpgIra Sachs took the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for his sophomore feature Forty Shades of Blue (starring Rip Torn and Dina Korzun), which he followed up with Married Life (starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams), Keep the Lights On (with Zachary Booth with Thure Lindhardt), and Love Is Strange (with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) and Little Men (with Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle). His new film, Frankie—an ensemble drama about family, love, and loss—features Isabelle Huppert in the title role. I spoke with Sachs by phone when he was in San Francisco for the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Groucho: There are all these supposed rules of screenwriting, and one that's always rankled me is that a film must have a singular protagonist. Obviously you're with me on this one and your favorite filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is as well.

Ira Sachs: Mhm.

Groucho: Even though the titular character is pivotal, can you talk about how and why you decentralized the narrative?

Ira Sachs: That's a good question. You know, it's interesting. And I've thought about this a lot because I'm working on a new film...I'm interested in a democratic narrative in which—and I think—you say Ozu, which is a is a good point. I think of Altman also, a kind of—that anyone who is on the screen is interesting. Right? Everyone has their own story. So I think that I tried to be attentive to a number of different narratives at once because they're all interconnected. I'm also interested in—and [in] this I would say Ozu is a master--but you can't really look at any character separate from the generation before them and the generation after, but those things are part of everyone's character. I think in a film like Frankie, the interesting challenge is one of balance because there's nine stories. That being said, as kind of the filmmaker or narrator, the film does come to rest on the perspective of Isabelle Huppert's character, Frankie. And I would say that's true in Ozu: there's usually ultimately a hero or heroine, I would say. It just--there's a lot of divergence, along the way.

G: What did confronting death in your own life teach you about life and death, and how did you determine to turn those discoveries into drama?

IS: Hey, you know, I guess I'm happy to say that until I was in my forties, I wasn't that close to death. I had escaped it somehow, and in the last five to ten years, I've lost three very close women in my life. And I've been surprised by the experience of being—of that proximity and that witness to how things took place. And I think one of the things that became really apparent to me is that people live until they die and that life is so much stronger and doesn't exit until the very last moment. And that means that everything that comes with life, which is all the other genres—comedy and farce and love stories and family stories...and money stories—all those things are kind of swirling and are as important as any sort of question of mortality. Mortality doesn't trump those stories, and I think I tried to make a film which conveyed that kind of circus nature, and at the same time, at the center of the film is this question about physical nature and the power of things that are bigger than us. In the film, Sintra and the region is kind of the largest force. It's bigger than anyone in the movie. The characters are almost dwarfed by the natural around them.

G: Yeah, that's something that is interesting to me. You've talked about the characters being only semi-aware of that, of the nature and the beauty around them, even though you've also said the film is about joy and pleasure in life.

IS: Mmhm. Mmhm.

G: I guess that says something about where we're going wrong.

/content/interviews/475/3.jpgIS: I think it's also something about travel and being on vacation and being separate from your everyday life that sometimes leads you inward, not outward. Because there is this sort of essential—it's like conversations are happening on a theater set, in some ways, but they're not—you're removed from your everyday, and so sometimes what happens between people when they travel is things get more intense and more real, in a lot of ways. And so that I think is a quality of the film. It's also a very theatrical film. It's a film that is sort of told in a naturalistic style, but there's nine stories, and it may take place in one day, and you know everybody has an arc, and everybody has a high and a low, and there's a lot of drama in the film, of various nature. And I think that's, for me, part of the fun of having made the film and I hope part of the fun of watching it is the sense that you're not sure what kind of story you're watching, and you could be surprised.

G: Yeah, and I want to come back to the theatrical nature of the film, as well, but going back to this notion of the film being about kind of joy and pleasure: I thought that was an interesting comment because, on the one hand, when I watched the film, I thought about it's a very heartfelt and lovely story in a lot of ways, and patient, and there's so much to take in. But, on the other hand, it seemed to me to be about a lot of the disappointments of life...

IS: Mmhm.

G: And how we disappoint each other in our relationships and our family relationships and our romantic relationships. Maybe we set ourselves up for those disappointments

IS: Well, Isabelle, when we've talked about the movie in interviews and things like that...she makes a comparison between the film and her experience of working with me in the sense that the film seems to be kind of delightfully going along, but then suddenly you run into all these sharp edges, and I wasn't sure if I should take that as a compliment, or—. (Both laugh.) But I think that I'm...as interested in the sharp edges as I am in the beauty, and so I think that's partially about my understanding of life, but it's also my understanding of drama, right? That you need moments which are extreme. For me, in this film, I was thinking a lot about Rules of the Game, the Renoir film, because I love how in that movie, everything is pushed to its edge. Characters become almost caricatures. There is a certainly, in that movie, extreme use of farce: people are meeting each other and changing stories and coming in and out of doorways, and there is this kind of, like, putting-on-a-show feeling. And I felt that was what we were doing with this film with its entrances and its exits and...it doesn't have mistaken identity, but it does have surprising meetings in unexpected places, and all of those kind of theatrical tropes that were essential to telling the story because it is an artificial one, if that makes sense. It's a non-realistic realistic film.

G: I think—wasn't it Hitchcock who said that movies are life with the boring parts cut out? And I guess theater is that to the nth degree, right? Everything is sort of intensified, and every moment has to—time is of the essence sort of on stage, I guess.

IS: Well I think of, for example—like you say that, and I think about like "Oh, that's kind of the tension of my movies because they also demand—they're contemplative films. They expect the audience to have some amount of patience. They're reflective films. So it's like this cross between—I was thinking about—you said Hitchcock, and I was thinking about Chantal Akerman, but then I also think I—when I was young, I read every Patricia Highsmith story because I thought she knew so well like how to get ya, you know how to ratchet up suspense through everyday life.

G: Right. So on the theatrical topic, how did you block scenes this film, and did that process differ from your norm?

IS: Yes it did differ. I worked with Rui Poças, a wonderful Portuguese cinematographer, and he actually said, when we finished the film—he's shot like fifty films—and he said this was the hardest one he's ever shot. And you wouldn't necessarily know that by watching it, because I hope you kind of don't notice that kind of artifice, but it was very choreographed. We made a commitment to a shooting style which was attentive to Eric Rohmer's works and his mise-en-scène and how the camera could only—basically I could only cut if the actors moved out of the frame. I could never jump in, to change the perspective for the audience. And what that means is that everything had to be very tightly choreographed, and that creates a kind of tension because—it's a tension and a pleasure, I think. The tension is there's a stasis. You're just going to watch for certain scenes, and the movement is going to be sort of human movement, not cutting. And you're also always watching the actor. You're watching the character, but you're also watching the actor. And I think that is a kind of theatrical quality to some extent. At some point when I was shooting, I suddenly felt--this is a scene in the hotel room early on, where Isabelle shows her step-daughter the bracelet, and Jérémie Renier—and I was suddenly feeling like I was in a Fassbinder movie, and I couldn't figure out why, and then I realized it's because you never don't notice that it's Hanna Schygulla. Right? There she is. And I think that's kind of this pleasure that certain film styles have of the artifice.

G: Yeah. I mean a lot of scenes play out as close to one-era or some of them are one-take scenes. I think my favorite scenes in the film—I want to talk about Isabelle Huppert, but I actually want to jump to Greg Kinnear, who you've worked with before.

IS: Yeah.

G: I think my favorite scenes were his duets. He was always on screen in my favorite scenes, him and Marisa Tomei, and him and Huppert, where he's playing—maybe because of the humor in those scenes as well, that they're both funny and dramatic.

IS: It's not just the humor, though. The humor is in the script, I'll give it credit, but it's really him. He is a very, very talented actor who is able to do a very, very subtle dance between the ugly and and the beautiful. And he rides it with an incredible sense of comic timing, and comic timing to me is the same as dramatic timing.

G: Yeah, yeah.

IS: You know, and yeah, I think it was like—I mean, talking about joy, I really do feel like watching him on set, I was just, you know, very in awe of his gymnastic abilities with language and emotion. And then he's playing with Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei, who can match him word for word.

G: Mhm. Yeah, you're right: the scenes are as poignant as they are funny.

IS: Well, that—when we started writing that character, it was really when we realized we were writing for Greg that I felt comfortable because I knew he could make the character very likable even though he's really playing the fool, that's the role.

G: He's playing the Ralph Bellamy role!

IS: Yes, yes, exactly!

G: He's subjected to passive aggression of the highest order...

IS: Yes!

G: ...by those women. But let's talk about Huppert, who's the pivotal figure. What was your first meeting because I think that was an important meeting for you, and you've gone on to say that you've learned more from her than most people in your life. I'm curious about that as well.

/content/interviews/475/2.jpgIS: I met her soon after Love is Strange came out, so that would have been 2014, and we had coffee or we had breakfast, I think it was, in a hotel in New York, and I was struck by how noble she was in the sense that she was not the person I'd seen on screen. She had mystery, but she was not mystery, if that makes sense. She had things that she held back, but she was not all reserve, at all. She's a very warm person. And she's a very curious person, and she's a very engaged person and she listens well, all qualities which I might not have thought would be her. And I think for me, when we started working on Frankie, I asked her to to bring more of herself into the role and to kind of resist comment on the character because I think comment is something that she can go towards, and it's been part of what she does so well, and I sort of said, "Let's on this one not give space for irony. And that, in a way, gave her something very interesting to work with which was how simple could she be?

G: Mhm. So did you send this film's couples out on pre-production dates, or was there no time for that?

IS: It's funny that you say that. I feel like I tried, but I'm not sure I succeeded. (Laughs.) you know you're like "Well, this is something I've done," and they're like "Nah, we don't need to do that." "Okay, fine."

(Both laugh.)

G: So this film--with many of your films, you take inspiration from another film, a favorite film of yours...

IS: Yes.

G: ...or one that that you encounter that seems right to kind of dovetail with the ideas you're having at that time. And, in this case, it's a Satyajit Ray film [Kanchenjungha].

IS: Mmhm.

G: And I wonder why it is—I guess you continue to do that because it works for you, in one sense, or is there also a kind of sense that there's no point in trying to invent a new wheel because there's always gonna be a master who's cracked this before you?

IS: It's less that. It's more I—y'know, there's a limited number of stories, and some have affected me deeply. And sometimes it's the kind of conversation between myself and some essential narrative throughline of a movie which just means I know from the beginning that I have a movie to make. So it's like the first line of dialogue.

G: Yeah.

IS: Not literally in the script, but it's like I have some emotional dialogue—I think I have extremely intimate, familial, erotic, personal relationships with movies. And sometimes they feel like they're a part of me like a cousin or a friend or a lover. And I find them resonating in a way that's very rich. It's like there's a whole relationship in my experience of that movie and my thoughts about that movie afterwards. I've never articulated that, but I hope that makes some sense, to myself.

G: That makes perfect sense...what those films made you feel, you're sort of engaging in a dialogue with that, and how can I chase that feeling with the story I want to tell.

IS: Exactly, exactly. I mean, I think that there is also [that] I've seen that a narrative works, and so that gives me confidence that that I can use that as as a kind of starting-off point.

G: Right, right. So to circle back around to...[when] we were talking about life and death, do you concern yourself with legacy, with—have you started to think about...

IS: (Chuckles.) Death?

G: Well, but also how your films—what their future will be.

IS: Yeah. (Pause.) I was just talking to a novelist friend about this who is—it's a very big part of her thinking. I assume I will disappear. I hate to say it. (Laughs.) It's not very wi—well, I don't know. I assume impermanence. I've just never made a commercial--I've never been a commercial filmmaker, so I'm not sure, without capitalism behind me, that the films will find a place in the culture. Maybe that won't be true, but I have some—that's my sense.

G: Regardless of whether that ends up to be true or not—neither of us can say—does that affect your relationship with your process? Does it free you in a way?

IS: Yeah, the positive thing, the thing that comes to my mind is when I was raising money for--I mean, really from—I made Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange, and Little Men, and I was the chief fundraiser for those three films. And it was a fundraising effort: there was no one I went to, there was no bank or individual who kind of came in. And so I was a hustler for those films, and I often thought when I was scared to reach out, that you know, I'm going to die, so what does it matter? Y'know, there's a freedom in knowing that. There's a freedom of like "what shame can I have?" because I can—and there's a sense that that encourages risk: in a positive way. These are positive risks as opposed to some you take in your life which may be more negative or destructive. These are non-destructive risks, and I think that's useful. I would say more than about death, more what I go back to is I go back to my earliest film. And maybe my earliest films, but which would be The Delta, because I really think I made that film without—my conversation was like in my head, and my sense of concern about was really like between myself and Fassbinder and Cassavetes and Ken Loach. And it was not between myself and an industry. I didn't know the industry. So still I had concerns, but I also had a lot of freedom because I wasn't trying to please anyone but my own battle with certain heroes was maybe part of the creative process and part of what I was. But I think as you get older, you get more and more restrained by the economics and the expectations, to some extent, of your of your medium and your industry, and that's not very useful, so I try to go back and remember what it was like to not know as much. And recently I did for Criterion, I did an "Under the Influence" interview where they ask you to pick a film, and I picked Je tu il elle, the Chantal Akerman film. And it was really because I don't feel it's a given that I will have money to make films for, you know, twenty years, but in a way Akerman at 24 reminds me that you can do things very well and very simply. And that seems like I can remain an artist, with that in mind.

G: Right. Well, like a lot that we've been talking about, there's two sides to the matter, right? There's the confidence you gain that you referred to, but also a certain kind of comfort, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but you don't want to much of it either.

IS: Yeeah, I would have to say that nothing about the process is too comfortable. (Both laugh.) I mean, it's—every stage has its real—like the stakes are...not particularly important on any scale outside of myself, but they they feel important, and they feel dangerous. Whether it be spending people's money or will the day go well or will you get something that you care about or how will the capitalism respond to your work commercially or will you make your money back or will people like your movie. All those things are personal. And part of what you have to navigate.

G: Well, our time today is coming to an end, but...

IS: Thank you for the seriousness of your thoughtfulness about the film.

G: Thank you. I was just going to ask if you've already set your sights on your next story, or if you're still musing.

IS: I'm working on a film with Mauricio Zacharias. We're writing a script set in New York about a father and his three grown daughters.

G: Interesting. Alright, well, it's been a pleasure yet again to speak with you.

IS: Yes, you too. I look forward to the next time.

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