The premise of Ira Sachs' sixth feature, Love Is Strange, recalls a type of story we read in the news with increasing frequency: George (Alfred Molina) marries his husband Ben (John Lithgow) and loses his job teaching at a Catholic school as a result. That sounds like a recipe for a heavy-handed message movie, but the beauty of Love Is Strange (and it really is a beautiful movie – hands down my favorite I've seen so far this year) is its subtlety.
Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have pointed things to say about the way gay men are treated by even their loved ones, but the movie is far more interested in conversing than preaching. For example, the loss of George's job combined with New York City's exorbitant housing costs means that for the first time in their 39-year relationship, George and Ben must live apart. Ben's nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and Elliot's wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) take him in, having clearly accepted him and his relationship (they attend his wedding). And yet they regard him with suspicion when he spends alone time with Vlad (Eric Tabach), the 16-year-old friend of their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). They're also visibly uptight about their son's ambiguous sexuality. It's OK for Elliot's uncle to be gay; their son possibly being gay is a far different thing. I've never seen that level of nuance on the limitations of acceptance in a movie before.
Gay people are central to Love Is Strange, but they don't exist in a vacuum—just like in real life. The film manages to be very specific about gay experiences while telling a bigger story about human experience. In that respect it reminded me of the excellent Australian TV series Please Like Me.
Love Is Strange played at Sundance earlier this year to rave reviews. It's playing at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, which kicked off last night. I spoke with Sachs last week about his movie, and below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: How much do you consider the bigger scheme of gay culture and what you owe to it when you do a movie like Love Is Strange?
Ira Sachs: I would say I recognize the absence of these stories, but I come to it more as a personal storyteller. I think my responsibility is to be revealing of things that I know and not to hide, so in that way, telling a story about a gay couple who's been together for 40 years has cultural significance and I'm happy for it, excited about it. But it's more for me just trying to understand love in general, through my own experience.
Do you think it's fair to call this a gay movie?
Um… No. No, I don't. I mean, it's not that I don't think that those terms are useful in certain ways, but not necessarily for the artist. That's not how I create character. Even though I try to be sort of specific—I mean, I try to be very specific to sociology and the facts. And there's an impetus of the story, which is kicked off by this oppressive situation in terms of the Catholic Church. I think it's the trigger for the story. In a certain way, you need the insight against it and then the story reveals how a couple faces, and a community and a family, a larger family, how they face a conflict. And that could be a thousand years old, as a story.
The movie works interestingly alongside media stories like those of Michael Griffin and Mark Zmuda, because those people fought (and are fighting) back. But in this movie, George does not push back. He accepts his fate.
Yes. I think that's generational, on some level. And I think it's very much in line with those characters, who have a humility, and I think also comes from experience. It comes from class, too, and it comes from the nature of what community they're in as individuals. In a way, I think the radical part of their story is that they live their life so fully and openly. Which was brave, you know?
Did the chemistry between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina surprise you?
I think part of the job of directing is casting people who you can imagine finding friendship with these… And you definitely check and make sure that they have positive feelings towards each other just as people in the world. And it turns out they have known each other for probably 20 years, not well, but fondly. And on set they were a very sweet couple. I mean, they were nonstop talking, chatting, laughing. They share a history, and I think that came across.
Since you mentioned casting, I want to know about casting Vlad, which seems like a sort of conundrum, because you want to cast somebody who is conceivably attractive while being underage.
Is that kind of a mindfuck to go there with jailbait?
Oh. Uh… I didn't think of it that way. I mean, I think you're always trying to cast people that you think will be appealing onscreen, so that's casting a 5-year-old, also. And "appealing," there's a broad range of what that means, but who has charisma and that has presence. But you know, these kids are flirting with adulthood. The film to me, at its heart, is about the seasons of life. It's like a middle-age film. It's a film where I know that life is not forever, I can see the other side of the hill, and yet I'm still somewhere in the middle. And I think, in a way, Marisa's character is a really significant fulcrum, because she's trying to kind of be the bridge between the young and the old and still hold onto herself. And her problems are problems that I think I identify with in lots of ways.
The meditation on the limitations of gay acceptance from outsiders was a really fascinating thing to examine in a movie.
Well, in a way you realize that family is actual experience. It's not just relationships, it's experience. And then every experience you have, whether it be with your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your lover, is defined by those set of events. Nothing is a given.
I think that Ben and George's relationship, too, keeps growing more interesting as the movie progresses, like when they're at Julius and they're talking about the one-sided open nature of their relationship—I mean, you could do a whole movie about that, and it's like three minutes or so of dialogue.
I've been close to two or three couples, gay and straight, who have been together for 45 years. I have a sense of the chapters in those stories. I think as a screenwriter, you want to reveal that history as organically as possible. And it's interesting how quickly you can accomplish something, you know? And that also helps that those two actors, I think, are they're doing something for both of them was very new, particularly Lithgow. This kind of naturalistic performance where you fully buy the history, I think is something that he does beautifully in the film but it's not something that he's been asked to do previously.
Did you get any shit for your previous film Keep the Lights On and the dysfunctional nature of the gay relationship portrayed in that? Sometimes it seems like gay culture is held up to unreasonable standards of perfection so as not to let on that we can be fucked up, too.
I have a strong enough sense of self that I'm interested in people's response, but it doesn't affect me. And I've felt much more with Keep the Lights On that I got a very warm encouragement to be honest about experience as a gay man, and people were relieved. I think that's why people are happy to see Looking. They're happy to see bits of their life portrayed.
Can you talk about the funding issues you had with Love Is Strange?
Well, every film is hard to fund. This film was primarily funded by 25 gay and lesbian men and women who made money in other fields and really, we got this groundswell of support from professional, retired lesbian women, who just loved the script and said we're going to make this movie. And they have made this movie, and they've stood behind me. And I think, now, the movie is working economically, which is exciting and a first for me, to be honest.
The gay community has a history of saving itself. We see a microcosmic example of that in the movie, [which I won't explain further so as not to spoil it].
It's true. Something that's been very impactful for me in my life is becoming very familiar with a group of people who were in New York during the decade before I got here, when people were making things not because they had permission, but because they had need. And I think there was a boldness. The art world and the film world were very connected and they were not as economically propelled. There was less economic possibility for anyone, and so the range of work was riskier. And I came back to that in my 40's, and I understood that in my 40's. And that's why Keep the Lights On was certainly a new beginning for me as a filmmaker. [I] had to embrace risk.
Love Is Strange is also, to use a cliché, a love letter to New York and a meditation on the near-impossibility of living here.
I just read that J & R Music and Pearl Paint are both closing. They are two institutions. Pearl Paint specifically was an artists' haven. And it's gone. You can say cities are part of evolution, and not that we shouldn't try to stop certain trends and that we can impact evolution, or at least history. But I think there is… I mean, I was walking through New York last night—it was my husband's birthday, we were walking down the High Line. I'm looking at a city, I'm walking past Florent, by the Waverly Diner. You know: history. That's what I bring to my filmmaking now, which is why it did take me 20 years to make a film about New York. I had to get it into my blood. And I feel like I have that now. And so I'm working on a third film, a third New York part of the trilogy, because it is me now, this city. It's lost, too, though. I mean, things are not forever. You can be aware of the passing of time without being nostalgic.