Ira Sachs on ‘Little Men,’ Boyhood, and Telling Authentic New York Stories
Watching an Ira Sachs film is a special type of experience. His work carries an air of authenticity, a naturalistic and unabashed look at characters and stories that don’t often get screentime in bigger studio movies.
In Keep the Lights On Sachs told a story about addiction and intimacy through the lens of two men’s long-term relationship. In Love Is Strange he looked at an older gay couple forced to move out of their Manhattan apartment after one is fired for marrying his partner. And in Little Men, Sach’s latest, two young boys’ friendship is compromised by their parents’ rent dispute. When Jake (Theo Taplizt) and his parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) move to Brooklyn, Jake befriends Tony (Michael Barbieri), the son of Leonor (Paulina García), a dressmaker who runs the shop below his apartment. But the two families enter a feud when Jake’s parents become Leonor’s new landlord.
I sat down with the filmmaker in New York to discuss the new film. Sachs told me about telling stories about characters who resist the pressures of a capitalist society, encouraging his actors to be natural on set, and filming one of the best and most explosive scenes of the year.
Both this movie and Love Is Strange are about male relationships tested by New York City housing conflicts. What was the choice behind moving from an older couple to the perspective of young boys in this movie?
It probably began with Keep the Lights On, which was the film before [Love Is Strange], which is about two 20-year-olds in a relationship. Then we made a film about two 60, 70-years-olds and we felt like there was a third story to tell. The films, particularly Love Is Strange and Little Men, are engaged in questions of generations and how you’re not young in isolation. It’s in context of the generation of your parents and grandparents and how all these things become part of the story. We had this idea to make a film about kids and then we saw a film by Ozu, the Japanese director, called I Was Born, But... It’s about two kids who go on strike against their parents and we thought that was a good plot to work with. And then slowly began to fill it out in our own way with stories that were pretty personal to our own experience.
Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer on the film, he’s from Rio and his family was involved in the process of evicting a shopkeeper. Each incident I heard about seemed more and more dramatic and also, it was very clear there was two sides of the story. So that, and my husband – he’s from Ecuador, he moved here with his mom when he was 10 and he went to LaGuardia High School. All these things become the inspiration for a world, and then the characters take over.
Do you see your last three films existing in almost a trilogy of different generations?
I do. But I also feel like Little Men is in conversation with my first film The Delta, which I made in ’96. So in a way all my films are a long story that, at each moment, reflects something very personal about my own experience in the world. Which doesn’t mean that my experience is particularly important, it’s just part of the texture of the story.
I love that Little Men is also about lives in parallel, that you see the story from two perspectives. Was capturing gentrification from both an older and younger perspective important to you for this story?
I guess it was important to capture it from a human perspective. And not just gentrification, but kind of the conflict that neighbors have with sharing space and time. I feel like that was as true in 1988 when I moved to New York, clearly it’s true in Rio. These are kind of the human questions. And all my films are to some extent about people trying to achieve and hold on to home. Gentrification becomes the external kind of evocation of those very personal conflicts.
As relevant as that feels to modern day New York, it’s also pretty timeless.
I think if you do your job well that’s the case. It’s why we might still read Henry James or Edith Wharton, for example. Two New York storytellers who are describing their worlds with extraordinary accuracy, and yet I don’t think people change so much. I really believe that Freud is still relevant, Shakespeare is still relevant, Chekhov’s still relevant. There’s reasons and that’s because human nature doesn’t become something else, it becomes informed by change.
When writing do you call upon those authors as inspirations?
All the time. In an instinctual way, not necessarily a self-conscious way. But the instinct is the kind of permission those works give me to continue to trust my focus on domestic life, and every day experience. Which I feel, like the dress store [in Little Men], which is existing outside of capitalism or doesn’t function within the system of capitalism, I would say to some extent the kind of personal cinema that I’m still interested in has the same challenges.
Was that why you made Leonor’s store a dress shop?
No, the metaphor of the story is something I only became conscious of after I finished the movie, my identification with Paulina García’s character. And also, my films are realistic in the sense that they aren’t shy about taking money seriously. I feel like, as a filmmaker that’s also been the case. I have to respect money even if I am sometimes in awe of its impact.
Do you think your stories are in turn informed by that, by the ways your able to make your films?
I think it all informs each other. It’s also just a perspective that I feel like I am attuned to, I listen for, is why people do what they do. One of their reasons is their relationship to capital. As is their sexuality or their gender or their race. And once I start thinking about these things my sort of strategy is to stop thinking about them once I tell the story. I don’t think about issues when I’m writing a story. They float in my mind, but really I try to think of what’s dramatic, what’s entertaining, and who the characters are and how they will respond.
Little Men offers a perspective of boyhood we don’t often see in films, one between pre-teen and teenage years. Was that age a specific choice for you?
It was particularly once I started to cast the film and realized that I needed to make a decision about what age of maturity to make the film about. And it is between. So that also influenced decisions around sexuality for these kids. I was aware that I didn’t want to impose a future for the actors that they were not ready for, or that they had not come to. There’s a kind of innocence to their relationship that I feel is very true.
Did you imagine a future for them beyond the film?
I did in the script writing phase and then I stopped in the production phase once I met these boys. I realized I couldn’t, it didn’t feel authentic.
Both Taplitz and Barbieri seem so beyond their age, much like their characters. Was there anything specifically they brought to the roles?
To me they bring everything. I think with a film what the camera is able to do ultimately captures the essence of individuals, and you can’t write that. You can give it shape through a script and through direction, but what the audience is most attentive too is human nature. So I ultimately feel that I’m not casting actors, I’m casting people and then I’m giving them direction, in terms of dramatic issues. I’m also trying to give them room to be themselves. At the same time I write a pretty strict script. 90 percent of the film is on the page, ten percent is not and that ten percent sort of informs the other 90 percent. So the acting class scene, the funeral party, hanging out in the afternoon with the kids, those are a few scene that are improvised.
The acting class scene is so fantastic.
Yeah. I gave them the Meisner repetition exercise as a place to start. I gave the teacher dialogue in terms of how he would explain it to his students, and then I wanted to let that scene loose. In my mind Michael Barbieri is like Pesci in a Scorsese movie. You should occasionally let him be who he wants to be. It was also important for me in that scene that you sense what an exciting actor [Barbieri's character] is, because he wants to go to school to study acting and you want to know that he’s good at it, and you learn that there.
Did you film that scene multiple times?
Yeah, we shot a day in the acting class. All the kids around him – this is my strategy or my way of working – all the kids in that scene are kids in acting classes who live in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. They’re the right neighborhood, the right experience, the right faces. For the actors, nobody has to imagine very much, it’s all there. The same in a scene that’s very scripted, I really want the actors to be able to enter a world which is as full as possible, and then their job is to listen and respond. So I’ve kind of figured out a way that works for me in terms of how to make movies, in terms of the texture that I’m after.
Was your method as a director any different with this film because of the younger cast?
These two actors were two of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. They’re naturals. But they also have craft, even at 12 and 13. I have found that my job is to figure out what each individual actor needs, and each person needs something different, but I can’t say that’s because they’re a kid or because they’re a movie star or because they’re a non-actor. It’s all an instinctual understanding of who that person is and what works for them. I try not to cast anyone who, even in the moment of audition, isn’t totally connecting to the material. I don’t want to teach them anything.
Do you see it as more of a learning process for the actor?
No, it’s about trying to bring themselves to the moment of shooting. I need to create an atmosphere that’s secure, that they feel comfortable taking risks, that they feel comfortable revealing themselves, that they trust I’m keeping an eye on things.
Has that always been something you’ve done in your films or have you developed that approach over time?
I’ve certainly continued to grow and change based on the material and my experience. But I’ve always been interested in creating an atmosphere in which there’s an organic relationship between the actor and the text and the world.
Your films capture New York so authentically, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Does that come naturally from you being a New Yorker or is it something you actively bring to your work?
It comes from a kind of intimacy I have with the city and the people who live here, but also it involves having a certain eye towards the city. I often pick locations that have history in them. I’d rather shoot at a 100-year-old restaurant than a five-year-old restaurant. It’s not fetishistic, but it’s character based. Obviously something five years old has character, but it’s not as rich. I think where I shoot has a lot to do with the kind of intimate feeling that you have and the richness of New York. And then I’m very attentive to the kind of communities I’m depicting. I spend a lot of time bringing them into the film. The kids who play soccer in Little Men are kids who play soccer in Brooklyn and they’re made up of the races of the kids who do. You can’t fake that. I’m aware of what it takes to get that, so my extras casting person is going to be on two months before everyone else because it takes an investment in the community.
Your films also have that investment in authenticity in telling queer stories. Do you plan to pursue that more in whatever you do next?
I’m working on a film about Montgomery Clift, which is more specifically a story about a gay man. Or not more, but it is about a gay man and his relationship to his time and himself. I mean, I come back to this, you always have to be – the thing I feel it’s important to be conscious about is taking risks. Everything encourages you not to, and that connects back to this [dress] shop. Everything that’s encouraging you not to is the wheels of capitalism and the marketplace, which is encouraging you to tell stories about certain kinds of people. It’s intense how cyclical that interest is, who gets on the cover of a magazine, who is on The Tonight Show, who gets on the radio. And in this film, it’s not Paulina García, to be honest. It’s not the Latin woman who hasn’t created herself as a commodity within the marketplace. And so there’s all this encouragement to make a film, to not cast Paulina García, or not make a movie about a 25 year old sex addict in New York. Whatever it is. I mean that’s partially why I created Queer/Art, the organization, is to try to work as a ballast against those pressures, which are enormous.
Do you think your work as a filmmaker will always be to push back against those pressures?
I think everyone is engaged in that, all of us. The most commercial filmmakers to the most marginalized filmmakers engage with those questions, no one is exterior to them. In the same way I would try to present the two families in Little Men even-handedly, I’m not going to say I’m a hero or someone else is a villain. We’re all engaged in these similar questions of what choices we make and why we make them.
Renoir has this quote, which I’ve been quoting wrong and someone gave me the right quote. My quote was, “Everyone has their reasons,” which is a line from The Rules of the Game. The real line, “The terrible thing is, everyone has their reasons.” Which is so much better because it is terrible. That’s way more dramatic than “Everyone has their reasons.” I think that’s the tension. To me, that’s the excitement of a film like Little Men, the tension is the terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons.
Little Men is now playing in select cities.