In an exclusive interview, Senior Staff Writer and resident roving reporter Scott J. Davis sat down to chat to acclaimed filmmaker Ira Sachs about his new film Little Men, a moving drama about a new pair of best friends whose bond is tested when their parents clash.
Your recent films have focused on different age ranges, was a story about kids and teenagers always one you wanted to tell?
Yeah I felt there was a third film to tell, I also really love films that centre on children but in the context of families, so it’s a kid’s film told by an adult about family so there are all these different levels which I think in a way makes it align with Love Is Strange as it’s similarly a film about generations and conflict.
Was there any particular influences on the film? Did you draw your own experiences on when you were that age?
Yes. I think my films are made up of personal translation of experience and influences into something that is completely its own so the influences get lost as they should in the process but the influences include films – Yasujiro Ozu made two films about children that were very inspiring to us: the first was called I Was Born But.. and the other was called Good Morning and they are both films where children go on strike against their parents and that seemed like a good plot. And then there is the memory of I had growing up in Memphis in the 60’s and 70’s and having my best friend, who was African-American kid and our friendship and how we were from different backgrounds and the innocence and joy of that friendship. I’ve lived in NY for 20 years now and I really know character people like Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle’s character’s that are struggling to have a middle-class life with a non-middle class job like being an actor and the tensions around that.
As an indie film-maker is it difficult to film in New York on a tight budget?
There’s a community so that really helps, there is a lot of people that love the kind of films that I make and so I feel like there’s that energy and that talent so no, but of course there are obstacles and film-making is all about obstacles. We did steal some things – we stole the subway (shots) so we went on the subway with a camera and shot what we could get. You make some moves but in general there is a receptiveness now, particularly by the government, for film-making in NY so there’s a lot of support.
Was it important to film in and around the right environments in New York and also in Brooklyn where the film is mainly based?
For me not just Brooklyn but which part of Brooklyn and what those places represent- what are the buildings like, what was the neighbourhoods like and who lived there and all of those things where I needed to get the details right. The film is set in Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, sort of – it’s all fictional because we’re using and pulling one thing from here and there, but it is a neighbourhood that hasn’t fully transformed in terms of economics but it still has the history of the original ethnic community, in this case Italian-American, which is all kind of built around Michael Barbieri, who had such an Italian-American lineage that I needed to attend to it. He’s such a New York kid.
Was it a difficult and lengthy process for you to find Michael and Theo for the lead roles?
I realised early on that I wasn’t casting Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, I didn’t need to find the perfect kid out of 10,000 kids – I needed to find kids that would be interesting and memorable and also natural. I saw hundreds of kids but not thousands.
They have such a natural chemistry throughout the film which must have helped given that you tend not to rehearse with your actors too much before filming?
Casting is partially about the individual actor but it’s also about a sense of chemistry between them and what was interesting about the boys was that I needed boys that were of a similar maturity level and that’s not about age it’s about maturity.
I don’t rehearse my actors but I give them the script which they follow for the most part. John Lithgow (star of Love Is Strange) said that the hardest thing about working with me was that I want them to be incredibly free and get all the lines exactly right which he said was very challenging. But it’s sort of true – I believe there’s an aesthetic vigour that comes from following the script and 90% of the film is very scripted. There are certain scenes like the acting class scene or the two of them on the subway where I’m letting things go. With Michael, I felt it was also very important given his personality to let him go and I thought of him like something out of a Scorsese film while Theo was straight Brissot and I wanted him in a very still way and not have him move, as if he was (acting) from within and for Michael I wanted him to let that energy go.
His energy is certainly on show in the acting coach scene!
That’s his real acting coach!
After the success of Love Is Strange has it become easier to get your films made or is it just as hard a process as it has been before?
It was the opposite – it was certainly easier than I’m used to. People have faith that I have more work to look at. That said I look for my financing in unconventional places because the traditional movie companies, even the indie ones, are looking for a different kind of work than I’m creating. So after Love is Strange my door is not being knocked down by people who want to finance my next film but I’m able to find financing much easier than I used to.
With films being consumed in a variety of different ways now not just in the cinema, are you just happy enough that your films are being seen by an audience however that may be?
Yes and no. I’m sure I am making films different now than when I started out and I can’t say if that’s because of the world of exhibition changing or I’m changing, but my films are probably more traditionally narrative than they used to be, they’re more plot and drama-orientated – they don’t have as many demands on the audience in terms of duration and they move faster and shorter. So I’m aware that there’s a big audience that’s not on the cinema
I love the cinema and I think you need to go to the cinema for these kinds of films to engage with culture – I wouldn’t be here (in the UK) it would be more a private experience and I like the conversation around the movie that happens when you go through the cinema route.
With your films being made independently, do you see yourself continuing the make films in this way or can you ever see yourself moving over to do a bigger film, possibly even a studio movie?
I’m writing a film for HBO so that will be different experience if they end up making the film, I’, writing a television mini-series for Paramount so I’m engaging in a different way but from the position of being the creator it’s kind of an experiment to see if I can hold on to my own voice in a truly authentic way within a different economic structure. I’m not interested per se to get “bigger” – I make the films that I want to make at the size that I want to make them. I would like more money in order to pay the people who work for me better, that I can’t do as well as I wish I could and as economics influence everything I tend to work with people who are new to this field so I’m not growing up with my colleagues – aside from my editor who I’ve made six films with and my co-writer but a lot of the crafts people and the design people after they’ve made a film at my size they want something that will allow them to pay the rent. My films don’t.
To be honest I don’t my sensibilities are inherently highly commercial. That’s not the type of work I make and it’s not my particular interest in cinema. I think I would have to change too much and I don’t think I would be good at the work someone would need me to make to be commercial.
Our thanks to Ira Sachs, Altitude Films and Untitled Communications for the interview.
Little Men is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on Friday 23rd September