Ira Sachs’ movies are exercises in compassion. His latest, “Little Men,” follows 2014’s “Love Is Strange” and 2012’s “Keep the Lights On” in getting at the heart of relationships ― messy, joyous, confusing relationships that illustrate Sachs' characters as individuals. “Little Men” follows two sweet, artistic 13-year-old friends (played by gifted newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) who protest their parents’ rent dispute in gentrified Brooklyn. But more than that, it’s about forging intimate connections while feeling like the world is working against you. In other words, life.
“Little Men,” “Love Is Strange” and “Keep the Lights On” ― screenplays Sachs wrote with Mauricio Zacharias and directed himself ― form a de facto trilogy about New York relationships in various stages and depth. Their subtlety is masterful, and their specificity makes these stories universal.
Co-starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García and Alfred Molina, “Little Men” opens in New York this weekend and expands across the country throughout August and September. Like “Love Is Strange” in 2014, it is one of the year’s best movies. Ahead of the "Little Men" release, I sat down with Sachs in Manhattan to discuss the film, how movies get childhood wrong, the “romance” of friendship and his career outside the mainstream Hollywood structure.
With “Keep the Lights On,” “Love Is Strange” and “Little Men,” you’ve become known as a quintessential New York filmmaker. Do you accept that label?
Yeah, I’ve been here almost 30 years. I do because this is my home and I make movies about things that I know. What I really feel like I have is a lot of intimacy with New York, both personally within a family and within a community. And I have a sense of the texture of how people live here, which gives me a place to start.
There are several threads in “Little Men,” and two that I think people will think about most heavily after seeing the movie: gentrification and the exploration of male friendship at a young age.
I don’t think we often take childhood seriously, particularly in films that could be for both kids and adults. I think, to me, as a father and as someone who was a kid, it’s a very serious time. It’s also a beautifully innocent and joyous time, and I think what’s so moving to me about these kids and what I remember from my own childhood is the ability for kids to cross boundaries in away that adults seem to resist. Crossing class boundaries, race boundaries, sexuality. There’s something very beautiful about that that I’m familiar with specifically because I grew up in Memphis and I was involved in something called the Memphis Children’s Theater. I would think of it as the last integrated community I was a part of.
What do you mean?
I mean that we were kids and we were putting on plays, so where we were from didn’t matter as much as what we were doing together. So we were rich kids and poor kids and black kids and gay kids and kids from the suburbs and kids from the city. And the differences, I’m sure they were there, but they weren’t as noticeable. I think that gets lost. I think that’s part of the world of childhood in this film. There must be a better word than this, but it’s multicultural and it’s across economic lines. And adult life depends on that and actually says, “We are different, we have different opportunities. Our lives and our futures are going to be separated.”
With the kids in “Little Men,” for example, do you think it’s also generational? We tend to assume that each generation becomes more progressive than the last.
No, I think you have to learn difference. And it takes a while.
But was that open-mindedness heightened for you because you grew up in an artistic environment?
I do think there is a beauty in the theater.
It’s almost a cliché to assume that artists are more worldly, but ...
Well, I think that’s true, but I look at my kids in preschool ― they’re two 4-year-olds, and those kids don’t know the difference between their parents. There will be economic factors that define which preschool you go to. Economics are involved in every choice in their day, to some extent. When some people say my film is about gentrification, I would say my film is really about economic impact on everyday life. Because, yes, it is about gentrification, but gentrification is another word for the paucity of space and land within a city, which has been true for 100 years or 1,000 years.
Is the origin of “Little Men” the story of two kids’ friendship?
Yeah, I wanted to to make a movie about two kids and this friendship. Then we had to come up with a plot. We came upon two films by Yasujirō Ozu, who had been a big influence on Mauricio and I previously. One was called “I Was Born, But ... ,” which is a 1930s silent film, and the other is called “Good Morning,” which is a 1950s color film. Both are about kids who go on strike. So, OK, we’re going to make a film about two kids who go on strike, then the question is, what are they going to go on strike about? As Mauricio Zacharias and I were spending time together on 23rd Street at the Maison du Macaron, which is our café of choice, we were talking about his family and my family, which is what we do. We talk about life. And the one thing that kept coming up was that his family that lives in Rio owns a shop and there was a woman who was a tenant who wasn’t paying her rent, and they were in a long and protracted battle to kick her out.
As I kept hearing those details, a) there’s another side to this story, and b) there’s a good plot that seems really resonant. And then you combine that — my husband is from Ecuador ― he and his single mother moved to America when he was 10 to Williamsburg, he’s an artist, he went to LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. You’re grabbing things that somehow all very naturally seem to fit together.
I appreciate that you tend to imbue conflict in your scripts in a way that forces us to sympathize with every character. We root for the kids, but we understand the parents’ obligation to make sound business decisions.
Someone saw the film and told me it reminded him of a line in Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” which is “Everyone has their reason.” I had not thought of that line, but to me it’s a very good guide to how to tell stories. Your job is to understand everyone’s perspective and to identify with each of them, which is what makes the film interesting, because it’s the lack of simplification and hopefully the depth of empathy that, as a filmmaker, I want to have with my characters, which makes them human.
Choosing two young actors to reflect that isn’t an easy task as a filmmaker.
It isn’t, and we wouldn’t have made it if we didn’t find great kids. But one of the things I realized early in the casting process is I didn’t need to find a needle in a haystack. I wasn’t looking for Judy Garland to star in “The Wizard of Oz.” I was finding kids who were interesting to me and who were unique in some way that I believed would be memorable. I took my cue for that from a film called “The World of Henry Orient,” which is a film about two girls in New York who are from different sides of the track who both fall in love with Peter Sellers, who plays a piano player. Those girls are so indelibly placed upon my memory. So once I met these kids, I thought, oh, I can build a film around those two boys. I didn’t have any question. I shifted and I changed the script to be comfortable and right for those two boys, which included, for example, recognizing that with Theo Taplitz, who plays Jake, I could not prescribe a sexuality to him. It would have felt exterior.
Did you and Theo and talk about it?
Yeah, we talked about it, but we didn’t talk about it with any more definition than I felt he was ready for, meaning I don’t think he’s at that point in his life. I will say that he does become a different kind of boy in the last scene of the movie. That is partially hair and makeup and costume, and it’s partially acting. Really, when he walked in to shoot the last scene in the movie at the Brooklyn Museum, I saw an extraordinary actor, because you believe it.
It wasn’t a romantic friendship, but there’s a romance to friendship. That was a really important part of the film. For me, there was also something about these two kids and their different styles as children, but also as actors. I thought of Theo as a kind of Robert Bresson actor. I kind of used him like a model, placing him in shots and letting him be very still. And I thought of Michael Barbieri as a Scorsesean actor, and I wanted to make sure there was opportunity for him to go wild and improvise and be whatever version of himself seemed natural. Those differences are really striking in the movie.
Are you a Kenneth Lonergan fan?
I am. I thought “Margaret” was one of the greatest movies of the last 20 years.
I think you and Kenneth are similar. Your scripts always contain blips of unspoken history. So much is left unsaid, but the worlds the characters inhabit in, say, “You Can Count On Me” and “Love Is Strange” have many volumes.
I think it has a lot to do with craft and instinct, what is necessary and what isn’t. It’s about giving the audience enough to make connections. It’s about trusting your story and knowing that your audience will understand your characters by having them go through conflict. And for me it’s about building a very authentic world to surround my actors. Those kids in acting class are all in acting class, and those kids who play soccer are kids who play soccer together. And I think to build the world is part of my job. I have ways of doing that, and to not be resistant to what the world tells me ― not to say, “I have this idea.” Again, Renoir said, “When you’re shooting a movie, open the windows and let the world in,” which is a great idea. I’m not Buddhist, but you have to have a comfort with what’s happening and to not try to control too much. My problem with a lot of art cinema today is it seems to be about the filmmaker.
Interesting. What do you mean?
It’s risky to make broad generalizations, but I mean that there is this idea that the filmmaker announces his or her strength.
I saw “The Neon Demon,” the new Nicolas Winding Refn movie, last night. So, yeah, I understand what you mean.
For me, it was why films like “Werckmeister Harmonies” ― oh gosh, what’s his name? [Editor’s note: His name is Béla Tarr, a Hungarian director known for pessimistic films that employ unconventional narrative styles.] There are artists who make films about people, and there are artists who make art about art. And that art has a capital A in front of it. To me, there’s a loss in the lack of curiosity and connection to everyday life. Which doesn’t mean you have to use realism, and it isn’t strictly about ideas and metaphors, but also about how people live.
You’ve been in the business for a couple of decades now. In thinking about independent cinema, has making movies gotten any easier?
No, of course not. It’s a battle, which is, for me right now, at this stage, not as a torturous and impossible a battle as it’s felt in other times of my life because I’ve built a reputation and a sustainability. It means that it’s still hard; it’s just not as a hard as it used to be.
Was following up “Love Is Strange,” your most commercial film so far, any easier?
I sent the “Little Men” script to 27 different film companies. All of them said no. I’m always sitting around talking to younger filmmakers who are imagining there is a there there, and I will just say, after “Love is Strange,” 27 film companies said no. And I don’t judge them for that because I understand capitalism and I understand that people make decisions based on their hope to keep a roof over their head and a salary in their pocket. They would be wrong to do otherwise.
That means when you’re brainstorming a movie, you have to be plugged into the viability of the economics as well.
You do, but I don’t think you’re making an art form that is separate, in the same way that I don’t think any of life is separate from economics. What I tend to do is, I think if the story feels to me like it will be resonant for the years that it will take to make it, then it will be resonant for others. That said, you’re constantly coming up to economic decisions about what to put in the film. For example, if this film starred, instead of a 50-year-old Latin American actress, a 30-year-old white American actress, you might have a wider range of economic possibilities. So your decisions from the very beginning about what stories you tell are defined by economics, or your resistance to economics.
Are you someone who has a drawer of scripts that have never been made?
Do you end up making everything you write?
I have one script that I didn’t make.
What’s the story behind that?
It was a script that I wrote with Oren Moverman called “The Goodbye People.” We finished the script in 2007, aiming for production in 2008. If you remember, that’s when the bottom fell out. And this was a film that had a cast that included Damien Lewis, Patricia Clarkson, Michael Shannon, Anton Yelchin, Melanie Griffith, Liv Tyler, and Kirsten Dunst. I couldn’t raise a dollar. It was then that I ended up making this film called “Last Address,” which is an eight-minute film that you can watch online about a group of New York artists who died of AIDS. I made it for $3,000, with total control of my medium as well as what the film would be. That kind of gave me the potential again. Having spent what ended up being three years trying to make “Goodbye People” and the industry not supporting that, I needed to go find something more personal. And I’ve sort of continued from “Last Address” to make these truly independent films. My relationship from the system to the industry only really gets activated at the point of sales and distribution.
Will you ever return to that script?
I’m working on another film right now, about Montgomery Clift, so a period film.
That seems a bit broader than what you’ve done in the past.
It’s for HBO, for the actor Matt Bomer. It’s a different can of worms. Mauricio and I originated the script, so that feels familiar. Whether my relationship to the “the man,” whether that works itself out will be the question.
Does anybody ever pitch you scripts to direct?
I’ve written everything that I’ve made, and I’m also working on a miniseries based on a book by Tim Murphy. He’s a cultural writer in New York and he wrote a book that’s coming out this summer called Christodora. It’s a kind of Bonfire of the Vanities in the age of AIDS, set in the East Village. Both of those projects I’m originating. I don’t think I’m an artist for hire because it’s not my plan and I don’t think I’d be very good at it, to be honest. I think I would have a hard time finding enough inspiration to be the best director that I need to be.
Now that you’ve done a few New York-centric projects, do you long to escape the city?
I’m working on a film about a family climbing a mountain, and that feels like a really great break. It feels very exciting because of a totally different visual element.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.