Ira Sachs new film, Love Is Strange, is about two men in New York City, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who marry after nearly 40 years together, and when the latter loses his job at a Catholic school because of the wedding, the couple is forced to live apart. It’s a very different emotional world from Keep the Lights On, Sachs’s semi-autobiographical exploration of the roller-coaster, ultimately dysfunctional, relationship between two young gay men over a period of seven years. The director, who recently married his longtime partner, painter Boris Torres, with whom he’s raising twins, talked to Slant recently about the genesis of this mature love story and his feelings about love and New York City.
How did Love Is Strange come about?
I started writing the film with Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, in January 2012. It actually coincided with a period in my own life when I went from living alone in my New York apartment to living with my husband, Boris Torres, our two babies, the kids’ mom, and various in-laws who came to town to help us take care of the kids. So I set out to create kind of what I was experiencing, which was a multi-generational family epic, but told within the context of a very small cramped New York apartment. For me, emotionally, that contained so many of things that I’m interested in at this point—a lot of middle-aged questions, to be honest. What do I expect of my life? How do I see my parents? It takes a long time to notice that your parents are people and I think, in some ways, this film is an attempt to honor that generation that came right before me.
The movie also honors the long-term relationship of an older gay couple.
What became clear to me is that relationships that work are based on individuals who like themselves separately. It’s the confidence that Ben and George have independently, which, I think, makes their union seem so special. I was very close to a man named Ted Rust, a sculptor who was my great uncle’s partner in Memphis for 45 years. When Ted turned 98 years old he began his last piece—it was of a teenager with a backpack—and it remained unfinished when he died at 99. But I was very moved by the fact that at 98 he was still taking on new things and new challenges and was still very passionate about life and creativity. Certainly, the character of Ben is very similar in that way. And I discovered that John Lithgow is a man like that. Spending time with John since we finished the film, I find that he has become a kind of mentor, in the sense that I watch him play King Lear in Central Park this summer and to take that risk to do something like that and do it so boldly. It gives you hope.
You have said that mentoring is also one of the themes of your film.
It is. I really think that on some level the movie is about education with a small “e.” It’s primarily about the story and the characters, and hopefully it’s humorous and entertaining and all those things that you want from a movie. But it’s more deeply about what we teach each other, as individuals, as institutions, and as a culture. I feel like the film reflects a kind of optimism that I have about love, which is intrinsically connected to the changing laws and the changing culture. The film isn’t about the laws themselves, but the kind of joy in the film couldn’t be possible without this change. I think each of us is part of our culture and our time, and we reflect the structural changes in ways that are very intimate and personal.
What have you learned about love in the intervening years since Keep the Lights On?
Love Is Strange is the first film that I have made that could be described as a comedy. It’s structured as one. There’s a series of films from the 1930s that have been called remarriage comedies—like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story—which are all films about a couple who are married and get separated, and spend the entire movie coming back to each other. And what you learn about the relationship is told through the obstacles of their separation, whether those be romantic or, in this case, the drama of getting fired has created the separation. But what we learn through that story is about the texture of the love between the two. How, together, they overcome the obstacle. And that’s the classic structure of a Shakespearean comedy: How do the lovers get back together? And that’s what you ask of Love Is Strange. The film is called Love Is Strange because to me, in almost a Shakespearean way, love is magical, it’s unknown, it’s unique for each of us. So the film looks at so many different individuals and tries to understand what they’re after and what they want. And that keeps shifting, as it does for all of us. But that’s what I’m always interested in as a filmmaker: trying to depict intimacy and to give it shape and texture.
I have three generations: Ben and George who are in the autumnal years of their lives; Ben’s nephew and his wife [Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows] and two gay cops [Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez], who are very much in the middle of their lives. And then you have this kid [Charlie Tahan] who’s discovering love for the very first time, and that includes familial love. So we had a lot of different perspectives that we were able to explore.
How did you foster the wonderful chemistry between Lithgow and Molina in the movie?
I couldn’t have been more fortunate than to have the two of them cast, both because of the brilliance of their performances and also for the history that they brought to the relationship. They’re men who’ve known each other for some 20 or 25 years. They share a history as theater and film thespians, who can talk about London in the 1970s, about New York in the 1980s. They were backstage at a Tony Awards together in the mid 1990s, so they share a lot. And so when I got them together on the set, it was like two kids who had gone to camp together, who had very similar stories to talk about and to share with each other. You couldn’t tear them apart, really. They were telling funny tales and there was a lot of laughter. And for the scene in [the gay bar] Julius, they were intent upon bringing the laughter that they had off screen into the movie. They kind of fell in love in a certain way, and, I think, that they’re now deep friends. In a way, that really defines the relationship in the movie. There’s a depth of friendship and attachment.
Love Is Strange is also very much a film about New York. How has this city, in which you’ve lived for 25 years, influenced the movie?
I feel like it took me a long time to get to the point that I knew New York well enough to feel that I had something very special to share about the city. I also find the city very romantic. There’s a history of the New York film from West Side Story to Manhattan to Do the Right Thing. You know, Do the Right Thing is actually an interesting analogy for this movie because it’s so topical to its moment and yet it really speaks of the community.
There are also significant historical markers in Love Is Strange, like Julius in Greenwich Village, one of the oldest gay bars in the city. Do you feel a personal connection to these locations?
Deeply. They’re not external markers, even though they work on that level also. They’re also places where I’ve lived a lot of my life. I discovered Julius with my husband, who was very close to a man who was in his 70s, who had been going there for years. We started going as a couple to Julius and so in a way we had a generational introduction to that space. The Waverly Diner is my local diner, that subway stop is my subway stop. And the number of times that I’ve walked on Gay Street, which is the little alley that Ben and George walk down, is more than I can count. I try to be attentive to the things that I’ve seen and to my New York. It’s different, say, for example, to Woody Allen’s New York. But Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives were very influential to us on this film. We watched how successfully they were able to talk about a large group of people within the context of a family. But we had a different story to tell and a different group of people with different economic possibilities.
In a city that can’t stand still, doesn’t the movie also capture these historical locations for posterity?
On some level, as a filmmaker, I think you’re a historian. You’re getting details which are making the story relevant today, and if you get the details right on a more human level, then it will be relevant tomorrow. A good friend of mine, an architecture student, who came from Yale, when I was complaining about the loss of Times Square and already missing things of the early ’80s, pointed out to me that the city is always evolving. And that’s the nature of the physical life of a place.
I’m glad this movie inspires this kind of conversation. I don’t know if you’ve seen this short film that I made called Last Address. It’s eight minutes long. I created the film along with a website that gives a lot of information about this group of artists who died of AIDS. I went and shot the last residences of where they lived at the time of their death. The film is shot in the present, so it very much contains New York today, but also contains the sense of loss, the absence of those artists and that community. I think in Love Is Strange I want to be attentive to loss without being nostalgic.