Ira Sachs interview: ‘I’m a troubled American’

23rd September 2016

If Ira Sachs has settled into a niche, it’s clearly a comfortable one. And if he keeps making films like Love Is Strange and Little Men, I think we’d best just leave him there for now. Together with writing partner Mauricio Zacharias, the director is drawing on his own life to make films that, while not autobiographical, are clearly born of experience. You can see that in the setting, reliably New York, in the prominent roles for queer characters, the emphasis on generations of families, the exploration of the specific problems, financial and otherwise, that afflict the so-called ‘creative class’.

Little Men is no exception. It’s a sweet, gentle film, its small scale belying its emotional and political weight. As it explores the friendship of two young boys in the Bronx, threatened by the social and financial crises forcing their parents into conflict, it hits hard and lingers long.

People talk about Little Men, Love Is Strange, and Keep the Lights On as your ‘New York trilogy’. But of those three, Little Men and Love Is Strange feel much more like companion pieces. Is that how you see them?
I would agree. I had to think about this because MoMA in New York did a retrospective this summer, and I had to talk and think about my work from the beginning until the present. For me Keep the Lights On is sort of this bridge film, because it’s about really unhappy people, which is what all my films are about, and people who are not happy with themselves. But it’s told by someone who was pretty comfortable with himself at the time that I made that film. I wasn’t as tortured. So the film is relatively light for a film that’s about very heavy things.
The new films are actually very much in line with my own experience with the world now, which I think is very different than it was before I was 40. In the sense that they both have central relationships which are full of ease and intimacy, and the conflicts of the films are about those relationships facing outside forces. It’s a different kind of drama, and it’s created a different kind of film.

And that reflects changes in your own life?
Yeah. All my films are not autobiographical, for the most part, but they are very personal. It’s not that my life is particularly interesting, it’s just what I have to offer. And that I think is what audiences connect to, the kind of sharing of experience, in hopefully a deep way. I think the other similarity between these two films, and they are very closely entwined, is that they’re about generations. That comes from the fact that I’m a 50-year-old man with 4-year-old kids and 75-year-old parents, so you’re thinking about it.
Little Men 2
The rollerblading sequences in Little Men seemed like a specific reference to the closing shot of Love Is Strange. Was that conscious?
Conscious to the extent that I was aware that I was using a similar trope. But it also seemed natural to these kids. It might speak to the fact that I know very little about what it’s like to be a teenager these days. Because I was actually told, ‘You know people don’t rollerblade any more?’ I actually didn’t know that.

It kind of works though, in an endearing sort of way.
I guess so. It’s the same thing as that I still, I just like the word, I call any dance club a ‘disco’. I was actually too young for disco, but the word just stuck in my head. People smile, and go, ‘That’s really cute.’ Because the kids’ club scene, I called it the ‘disco scene’.
But it allows for the fact that — and this wasn’t conscious, it happened very naturally — there are no cellphones in this film. There’s no real internet. And that wasn’t like, ‘I don’t want cellphones’. I just didn’t need them. It didn’t come into play in terms of the characters.
Turning to differences between Little Men and your earlier films, there’s not a heavy romantic element in this film. There are some hints with the two boys, but it’s certainly not a romance.
No. I think it’s a romantic friendship, but I find it, personally, a very asexual relationship. An uneroticised relationship. I’d say there’s an eros in the film, in the filmmaking. Even from the script level, because my relationships as a young man with other boys were not sexual or romantic. So I sort of knew these truly innocent friendships.

Watching the film it’s easy to look for a romantic element in the friendship. How much do you think that’s just because you’re known as a queer filmmaker, so people see your work through that lens?
I believe that it exists whatever the story is. The eye of the filmmaking is from the perspective of a gay man. I certainly hint at the end of the film that in the world of the art school queerness is present, in a way that it’s not at the Catholic high school. And that was intent, I wanted to find a kid who, I don’t know his sexuality, but who looks like a gay kid. And that was very planned. I guess I would say I’m jealous of that fluidity for certain sets of teenagers these days. The hopefulness in the film is that whatever these kids’ futures are, particularly Jake’s, I hope it isn’t as fundamentally painful as mine was. That’s an optimism.

If there’s an optimism there, the film is more pessimistic about the issues around race, class, and gentrification. Does that reflect your feelings?
I would say realistic, more than pessimistic. I would say authentic. Not pessimistic. It’s interesting… my husband is from Ecuador, he moved to New York when he was 10, with his single mum to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was a creative kid, he went to the high school of performing arts. And art was a way, for him and for me, to sort of change classes. There is something you would call the creative class, which tends to connect with a certain economic class also. Though Greg Kinnear speaks to some of those challenges, with his character. I’m like a troubled American, in the sense that I believe that it takes hard work to get some place, but I also believe some people don’t have the opportunity.
Little Men is out in UK cinemas from September 23rd.
Words by Dominic Preston

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