October 30, 2005|He has the potential to sound pretentious and he's nervous about it--but there is wrapped up in this self-awareness the Catch-22, as they say, that if he knows he sounds a certain way, he probably isn't that way. It's a hard thing and you see it a lot these days, that if you're qualified, you downplay it--if you're knowledgeable, you pretend not to be--because there is no bigger social crime in these United States than to know more than the next guy. I had a chance to talk to Ira Sachs, co-writer and director of the fantastic Forty Shades of Blue, about cracking the hard skin that's formed over the pudding of the indie dysfunctional-family genre. Set in his hometown Memphis, where Mr. Sachs grew up "gay and Jewish," the picture--like Sachs himself, he's quick to affirm--is about compressing multiple lives into one journey.
I'd clarify that it's about alienation and the insurmountable instinct to assimilate at the expense of basic, inescapable, existential truths (gay, black, Chinese, Russian, tall, short, and so on)--and how the toll of that denial accrues interest at a terrifying rate. The instinct is to shy away from what appears another fallow Sundance-approved indie quirk fest, the kind the festival churns out now like wieners from a sausage press, yet Forty Shades of Blue (Sachs's second film after 1997's little seen coming-out picture The Delta) is a classically-influenced chamber piece. It's the kind of film David Gordon Green has become known for after just three pictures, but where Green is more influenced by the grime and disaffection (and direct cinema) of the American '70s, Sachs counts among his influences Satyajit Ray (particularly Charulata, Sachs's confessed source material), Luis Buñuel, early Ken Loach and John Cassavetes, and Maurice Pialat and Nouvelle Vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard.
He rattles off these names now because he's used to being asked the question, I think. Nevertheless, I detected something unusual about Mr. Sachs in that he seems able to separate critical assessment from the creative process. He understands, in other words, the importance of having a strong background in film and, at the same time, understands that too much intentionality in the process results in stillborn cinematic children. "I sound pretentious talking about the movie, but I wasn't pretentious when I was making it," is his worried disclaimer; the truth is that watching Forty Shades of Blue, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is disclaimer enough. It's far from an emotionally cool experience. It's only in hindsight (as he's approaching it now) that the identity of the giants upon whose shoulders Mr. Sachs's marvellous sophomore effort stands becomes clear.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: A speech the Rip Torn character gives at the beginning of the film speaks of being exactly at the nexus of complementary musical elements to create an identity of that place and time--expand that for me into a theme.
IRA SACHS: The fact that the movie is about music and about songs is one of the things I found so rewarding about this project--pop music, the kinds of songs that the Torn character created, manage in two minutes and thirty seconds to create a perfect compressed insularity. So much is expressed in the music and the words and the singing and the production--and I feel like that's what film is also about, or is capable of being about. It's a compression of sound and image, specifically, into an emotion, and that for me was central to how I wanted to approach this story.
But aspiring for realism...
No question, to always address it in a somewhat realistic texture, something influenced by the density of information that realism implies, but also recognizing that you can transform reality through a certain kind of craft and art that carries it, hopefully, through to a sublime.
The idea of distillation: Memphis is on a delta, the compression of elements.
You know my first film was called The Delta? I've said this before that I think I'm just making the same film over and over again. There's this idea of mine that the goal is to find the two characters of an individual--who they are in the world and who they are emotionally, to chart this complex where all of an individual's threads, all the layers of his identity, come together is something that I'm drawn back to again and again. I think particularly, the idea of the immigrant is seductive to me because it embodies all of that in sort of a crisis position--it's always part of a culture and outside of a culture, both his own and his adopted.
The immigrant as a metaphor for your situation: gay and Jewish in Memphis?
Absolutely. Those layers speak not just to me, though, hopefully, but I think to just being a person in the world and wondering who you are at any given moment trying to understand how to contort yourself to fit different situations among different social groups. That tension, the tension of just being a person in the world and of particular communities inside and out, is really the narrative tension of the film--how do you find the balance between your past and where you're from, and more, how do you share yourself with other people?
It sounds like an anxious position.
To me it is--it's full of anxiety. There's nothing more vulnerable--there's never direct access to anyone, the lines of communication are broken and the tragedy of that sort of loss is tied up in this riddle of personal identity.
Tell me about alienation--in particular the dance scene in the nightclub where everyone's dancing, but no one's dancing with each other.
That's my one nod to Maurice Pialat, who, strangely, in almost all of his movies the film kind of stops and there's an artful construction that takes place where groups of people will engage in a sort of mass dance. His Van Gogh, I think, is maybe the best film ever made about an artist. But, definitely, that scene, and another in a car in front of a convenience store were meant to visually position Laura as an outsider.
Why a nod to Pialat and not, say, to someone like Rohmer, of whose Claire's Knee your film sort of reminded me?
Pialat instead of Rohmer... Well, Rohmer makes psychological films in which the dramas are small but the feelings are large and I love that about his work. And he's a patient filmmaker, too, something that's really alien to the American sensibility I think, and that's another thing that I really admire about him and tried to emulate in my movie. But in terms of anxiety, and in terms of that artful construction, I think that Pialat is the stronger reference point. One of the things I realized, too, as I was working on the picture, writing the script and shooting, is that even in a love story--maybe especially in a love story--it's that element of mystery that drives a piece.
That's not Pialat, though.
No--I was reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith novels, too, and in them--and not just the Mr. Ripley killer novels--there's a sense that in the everyday there's a level of anxiety that creates a narrative drama--that question of mystery, of who's doing what to whom, what's happening. And there's the potential, always, for violence. I think that the Rip Torn character provides that...
And Highsmith's idea of an unknowable other, too.
Exactly, right. I wanted to make a film at one point based on The Adversary--but it was made into two films: one called The Adversary and the other Time Out.
Last shot at Rohmer: "Laura" from the name of the "other" sister in Claire's Knee?
(laughs) No, more like Gene Tierney.
Ah, another ghostly beloved.
Exactly right. It's a portrait: ornamental. And there's something very vulnerable and simple about that name to me.
Big fan of Time Out by the way.
It's a wonderful film. And I found that scenario of multiple, quadruple lives led by an average, suburban man very compelling. Again, there's that lack of disclosure from growing up gay.
Dumb question--more influential on your work: the gay or the Jew?
(laughs) That is a dumb question. No, the gay, definitely, this lack of disclosure about certain things that were very important to me and having this experience, sort of prime time, in first learning about sex and identity.
That sense of cultural divorce though, translates across sexuality, across race... I like to joke that I never knew that I was Chinese until college.
(laughs) Yeah, it's something that if you know it, you never escape it, you think that you're immune and that you've finally found out who you are and where you fit and then something will happen--someone will say something--and you realize how fragile your identity still is and it's all because of that tension between your identities. You can't get rid of it. It never goes away.
Of course that was your rationale for making the centre of your film, the Laura character, a Russian immigrant.
I remember when I saw The Cotton Club years ago and I was really interested that the whole movie was about Richard Gere and Diane Lane but they were completely in the shadows of the Cotton Club--they were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--and I wanted to address that and I wanted to address sort of living in the shadow of my own father who was larger than life you know, but all fathers are larger than life for their kids, aren't they? I think that's the identification that Laura and Michael, the son, have in common is that in lacking identity of their own, they've both defined themselves through the Alan James character.
Dina Korzun seems a risky choice--I know that Julianne Moore was attached at one point.
I don't think she was risky at all. Dina as an actress was uniquely suited for this role--she was especially good at portraying that tension and she was really dedicated to finding that tension in every scene if she didn't come to it as a matter of course. Once she tested for it, I couldn't think of anyone else that could be better. Julianne, of course, is an amazing actress, but her schedule was such that she just couldn't wait for us for seven years to come up with the financing.
The physicality of her performance struck me. A few scenes, but the picnic scene in particular, she looks like she's coming out of her skin.
You know when I saw that scene on the monitor it reminded me a lot of Carrie: there was this horror element to it. I didn't think that it was cool, exactly, I thought it was right and that was an important difference for me. In general what she was doing in the last quarter of the film, I was struck by it as I was watching it, that it was completely artificial...
You've described it as "Brechtian."
Yes. Completely artificial and non-natural and yet more right than anything I could have asked her or, really imagined.
I like when she lifts her arm in the mirror to see the hang of her sleeve.
(laughs) She's got a good sense of humour, but she's also very, very serious--extremely serious. Rigorous, I think--and so it was a really hard shoot for her ultimately. She gave everything she had, I think, and she was exhausted by the time we were through.
Rounding back to Time Out--my editor really liked Laurent Cantet's Vers le sud at this year's TIFF--I read that you are involved with him and a few others in something called "Dependent Cinema."
It's an association, I guess. I'm surprised that you've heard of it, I just saw Laurent last night in New York--it's not something that we really talk about. Basically about four or five years ago a group of us were trying to make films and feeling this sense of isolation facing the same challenges and realized that basically anything any one of us might be experiencing one day--the rest of us could be experiencing the next day. So we felt like if we bonded together on a very unofficial level we'd feel less lonely as filmmakers, but also stronger. That group of us could watch each other's backs in a way without any need for gratitude. (laughs) It began with myself, Karim Ainouz who did Madame Sata a couple of years ago, Jonathan Nossiter who did Mondovino this year, and a screenwriter named Oren Moverman, who worked on Jesus' Son and is working on the new Todd Haynes movie.
The Bob Dylan movie?
Yep. And the four of us began just sort of looking out for each other and it's expanded to people we've met--Caveh Zahedi who did I Am a Sex Addict, and Laurent and so on. Basically when they're in New York, I try to help them cast and introduce them to people and they do the same for me in France and, essentially Hilary Clinton's not wrong, it takes a village to raise an independent film.
(laughs) Yep--it's all about belief: we do whatever we can. It's isolating--it's hard to make art films and small psychological dramas and we just want to help each other out.
|Darren E. Burrows in Forty Shades of Blue|
Camera work, framing choices, lighting--what was the theory and how constructed was it all?
Very. I had seven years to work on this film. (laughs) No, I really had it in mind that I wanted the film to look like the work that Chris Menges was doing with Ken Loach in films like Kes and Looks and Smiles and Family Life--actually, Menges didn't shoot that one, but they all had the same vocabulary that was as attentive to people in repose or listening as it was to people who were speaking. The idea was sort of that there's this sense that a character is always within a visual location and that every motion is interesting about them and not just when they're delivering dialogue. More, I wanted to get at an idea that the camera not be intrusive and not direct people to any one way of understanding or assimilating a scene--that if you see two people standing that the camera not interject itself between them at least in the beginning. It creates the sense that you're observing the people observing.
Exactly--and I think that's true until the end when we were working towards a higher subjectivity to create a stronger level of identification with the characters. Something that I tried to accentuate through more music on the soundtrack and maybe by zeroing in on the romantic nature of the characters--their longing and pain.
You sound like a fan of Claire Denis.
I am, I really admire her work.
What you describe as that feeling of longing and pain, I really get from her stuff--particularly Trouble Every Day.
That's amazing that you mention that, we used the soundtrack for Trouble Every Day as the temp soundtrack for our film.
Yeah--we listened to it every day and finally we were like, why don't we just hire that guy to do our soundtrack, so we did: Dickon Hinchliffe.
You're kidding me. I didn't make that connection!
You just did. (laughs) I love that film, love it--it's pat to say it, but it haunted me, it really did. It's maybe the saddest movie that I've ever seen.
How do you feel about critics?
If they don't like me, I don't admire them. That's a little facetious of course, but there really is the sense that the first film, The Delta, I was really aware of its limitations and I could hear criticism of it in a certain way, but with this one, I really felt like it was the film that I wanted to make. Let me temper that though by saying that in America, criticism is so tied to commercial elements--where things appear, who's buying the advertising, who's supporting the film--[that] I don't find many strong advocates of individualist work. There are trends of cinema that critics buy into...
Has the move to New York helped you to find a larger intellectual community?
You know, I've found, living in New York, that there's this real naivety about film. I find it to be clannish here--people here aren't interested in what's outside. The New York Film Festival for instance is a closed festival for a brutal, culturally provincial, not very educated--film-wise--group of people. It doesn't take the time to educate viewers to be a more sophisticated audience--it calls itself a public festival but 90% of the tickets are sold for it before opening day. I think that Tribeca is trying to address that, but their programming hasn't maybe been as vigorous as you might want it to be.
What about all the industry there?
I'll go to Vancouver and you can talk to a twenty-year-old about Hou Hsiao-hsien and here in New York, I don't know anyone except people really seriously into the business that have even heard of Hou Hsiao-hsien. You're right, so much industry and media is created here, but all that that's really indicative of is how limited is that perspective, now.