Writer-director Ira Sachs came to prominence with the award-winning dramas The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue, both set in his hometown of Memphis. Now, five years after combing the delicate lines and emotional depths of marriage and monogamy for Married Life, he’s mined his most intimate history and personal maladies for Keep the Lights On, an ode to personal growth and New York City. Based on his past relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, the film maps the terrain of a 10-year-long relationship between two lovers, played by Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth, that’s come to a breaking point.
“To ask for help is never easy,” Sachs imparts, recalling the trepidation he felt after having raised hundreds of thousands dollars for the independently produced, gay-themed work. “I really believed this film was different. I noticed there are so few films about gay people that are seen, and there are almost no films about contemporary New York, in general, that I find familiar in terms of the New York I live in. I felt emboldened to ask New York for support in a certain way.”
Which is why Sachs, a longtime resident of the Big Apple, dreams of creating a queer-arts renaissance in his adopted city, funneling his resources to champion social-arts programs like Queer/Art/Film and Queer/Art/Mentorship, both of which he co-curates, with the hope of bringing gay artists together. A mentor and a friend, Sachs sat down to discuss his early pioneering work, the private-versus-public struggles of his films’ characters, how he managed to get Keep the Lights On off the ground, and his current married life.
I don’t know about marriage.
I still have mixed feelings about it. Maybe it’s just me; I like to keep things small, and marriage is such a huge declaration.
It felt like that in the days after I got married, and then it dissipated and you’re just in your relationship. And in certain ways, it does…
It doesn’t matter that much.
It does. There’s a social encouragement of your relationship for the most part. I’ve had some discouragement—which has been interesting—from my grandmother lately, who hasn’t been very pleasant with my husband, Boris. It has to do with marriage and trying to be legitimate in a way. Her generation isn’t very comfortable with it. Boris’s mom was really sick and we were in the hospital a lot. She was sick for four months, so I was in the hospital often and I was his husband. That was significant because it defined my place very simply, why I was there. Also, my uncomfortability with the word has been interesting. I realized on some level it means you have to define yourself as a gay couple. I’m pro [marriage]. I think it has been good for us.
Is there a pressure now with the binding element of marriage?
We have kids. We have a family.
We’ll be linked for the rest of our lives however we do that. Hopefully we’ll be together. If we weren’t together, we’d still be linked. We made it such a bigger commitment, to have kids together. We took that really seriously. “Let’s get married. Let’s go to city hall.” It’s been great.
The Delta has a raw quality. Nevermind the gay themes; it’s an interesting, textural portrait of Memphis. What were your priorities while making it?
I’m always very interested in making a film about a place. I think Keep the Lights On is about New York. Forty Shades of Blue and The Delta are about Memphis. I felt when I wrote that script, I knew Memphis better than most people and better than I knew any other place. I was aware of a liquor store that closed and reopened as a coffee shop or a gas station. That meant something to me. It’s amazing how you are with the place where you spent your entire childhood. I tried to get the feel of the city into the movie. I think I was primarily interested in telling the story of the consequence of living a secretive life, which has turned out to be, in many ways, the themes of my first four films, and certainly the theme of Keep the Lights On and Married Life. Also, Forty Shades of Blue, to the extent that I think there’s a cost to your interior not being in line with your exterior. That was sort of how I defined it: Something that has been going on in private in your mind and in your feelings is somehow different than how you appear in the world. That’s a common situation for gay people; in general, there’s a conflict of who we are to ourselves and who we are to others. It’s also very dramatic. I think my films are in line with that epidemic of double life. Every story on television is about this double life. To me, it’s the genre of our day.
Private versus public.
Yeah, private versus public. In television, there’s a lot of irony with that, and the reason it’s so common is it’s something most people can connect to.
Did you have a lot of struggle voicing your private life in the past?
In my late 30s, my life blew up, and everything I had tried to contain exploded [dramatically] around my partner’s drug addiction, and what ended up being a 34-day crack binge was the last point where everything came out. In the wake of that rupture, I was finally ready, and it felt very necessary to live differently, which for me was to live an honest life and to live a transparent life, which I had no particular attraction to previously. In fact, I was attracted to the illicit and the compartmentalized. One of the things I feel about Keep the Lights On is that it’s a film that’s a very open [portrait of] two men who are keeping secrets from each other and everyone around them, but also how it’s my freest film. It’s much less uptight, and it’s much less about metaphor.
I mean this as a compliment: It’s your most literal film, the most obviously personal. At the same time, The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue feel very personal.
I don’t think I would know how to make an impersonal film, because I only get excited when I feel like I have a luminous amount of instinctual, creative sort of stimuli around a subject, around a story, and around a theme.
Even though The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue are set in the same place and have a similar feel, the latter is a huge stylistic and formal step forward.
When I made Keep the Lights On, I thought about The Delta a lot, because I made The Delta as a very inexperienced filmmaker, but one who had the privilege of youth, which means I wasn’t competing with myself or others in the same way you are as you get older. I had seen a thousand films by that point, and I wasn’t competing with other filmmakers; I wasn’t in a filmmaking community in lots of ways. I was in Memphis, and there was this youthful lack of fear. I really did try to bring that back and access it when I made Keep the Lights On. One of the challenges of having a sustained career as an independently minded, not terribly commercial narrative filmmaker is a great creative process on its own. How do you keep doing this and make it possible?
I shot The Delta in ’95 and I shot Forty Shades of Blue in 2004, so it was nine years. I had a lot of other problems personally. I think in a lot of ways, until I was 40, I was consumed by love and sex and making movies. In a way I was obsessed with all three. I think obsession as a manner of shutting out the rest of the world is also a way of quieting the voices, because if you just single-mindedly, compulsively focus on a few small things than you feel like you can control and manage those things, even if you can’t.
When I went through this dramatic turn in my late 30s, I kind of opened myself up to the world again. You’ve known me for a couple years, and this role that I take as a community organizer, an extensively social person, is new. As a director, I’ve never been an asocial person, but the porousness that I’ve created between myself and my community is a very personal one, and it’s a shift and it’s a rewarding one. By not behaving so compulsively, in all these different forms and fashions, you allow all this other input to come in. You respond to it, you’re open to it, and grow from it. That’s also the particular quality from where Keep the Lights On comes from.
There’s a quote by Jean Renoir, which I’m sure I’m misquoting: “When you shoot a film, make sure all the windows are open.” I think it’s a great idea: to keep letting the world in. Specifically, as a director, you have to be open to change, but make the right choices. Some talk about film as a series of compromises, which I don’t think it is. It’s a series of decisions, and there’s a big difference. Decisions don’t mean you get to control every element of your choices; there’s things you have to process and decisions you have to make, but it’s actually the level and quality of your decisions by which directing is defined. With Forty Shades of Blue, at one point Julianne Moore was going to star in it, another point it was Maggie Cheung. Those shifts, those changes always had to be intuitively arrived at, and each one needed to be right for the film—if that makes sense. Ultimately it seems the film could be no one else’s but Dina Korzun’s, but that’s never the way it is. I think on some level it’s important to realize there’s always another actor. You never, as a director, want to give over too much of your authority, and I think in life too. In a way, the times I’ve given too much over to an actor and they felt like they could define or control my film, are also the same times in my life when I’ve given over to people more personally, whether it be someone in my family or a partner. That’s what I still struggle with.