Ira Sach’s Keep The Lights On has been getting massive amounts of praise on the festival circuit, with rave reviews and adoring audiences. It even won the Teddy award for the best gay-themed film at the Berlin International Film Festival. The movie, about a relationship between two men which faces huge difficulties over the course of a decade, has now reached UK cinemas (you can read our review here). Director Ira Sachs was in the UK last month for the movie’s screenings at the London Film Festival, so we took the opportunity to catch up with him.
You’re in the UK for the London Film Festival. I believe there was a screening of Keep The Lights On last night. How did the audience react?
I think the audience was really engaged with the film, and they had lots of good questions. It always sort of sparks the viewer’s introspection, I think.
I read online that you thought there was a difference in how the film was received at Sundance and how it’s played at European film festivals. Can you tell us a little about what you think the difference is?
Well, I think the film is in the tradition of certain types of European cinema, both in the way the story is told and a kind of more elliptical approach to storytelling. Also I think with the sexuality of the film, which I think is very open. I don’t think it’s pornographic in any way, but it is without shame. I guess I still live in a country, the US of A, where there is still a puritanical repression in terms of the imagery of American cinema. I think this film is more in the context of films like Last Tango In Paris or any number of European films, in which the human body is part of everyday life.
Do you feel things are changing in America in that way? That sexuality in cinema is becoming more accepted? The old adage is that any amount of violence is fine but sex is a no go.
I think that in general this is not the greatest time of American moviemaking. There is such a pressure to make a film that appeals to everyone, that there’s a lack of specificity. With that in mind, there’s a lot less risk taking. It’s certainly not the high point in American cinema that you might have seen in the 1970s, for example.
Where did the inspiration for Keep The Lights On come from?
You know, all of my films begin at some point with myself. This one is more specifically so, in that I ended a relationship in 2007, and on the last day of that relationship I was aware that 10 years before there had very specifically been a first day, and somehow between those two points was a good story. It was a story that I hadn’t seen, about a relationship that was propelled by addiction in certain ways, as well as a compulsive need to hold on to each other. So I set out to try and tell that story.
Where did you find the two main actors?
Thure Lindhardt was described to me when I was looking around to cast the film as ‘the bravest actor in Denmark’. I hadn’t thought that the character was going to be Danish, but when I met Thure and I saw how compelling he was, particularly with tough material – I knew you needed a kind of actor who’s true to life. I found everything that was going on in his face so complex and energetic and contradictory. I always like contradiction in actors and I think Thure is full of them.
Zach Booth I met early in the process. He was introduced to me by his agent. What I noticed in our first conversation was how empathetic Zach was to Paul, the character he plays in the film, who in other hands could be considered the villain of the piece (even though I certainly never thought of him that way myself). I needed an actor who understood and empathised with the personal challenges Paul was going through, and would be able to convey the personal transformation of the character.
The film demands very emotionally open performances from the actors. You suggest Thure has that within him, but was it difficult to bring that out? To make sure they’re not holding back and holding these things inside?
I think you have to cast well, which is the first step and probably the most significant. Secondly you have to create an environment on set where the actors feel both safe and well taken care of, but also that there is the possibility of discovery in every moment. So for example I don’t rehearse my actors before we start shooting. We talk about the film and I speak about it with each individual actor, but they’ve never spoken the lines to me and they’ve never heard the other actor saying the lines to them, so there no rote idea of what’s expected. What I want to do when I’m shooting a movie is to catch the unexpected and what they experience unconsciously. It’s a strategy I’ve worked with to give actors security and yet also the ability to jump off the ledge.
To do that, did you have to distance yourself from the material? As it’s based on your life, did you have tp step back and let the actors truly give their take on the story, and stop yourself going, ‘No, it wasn’t like that’?
I bring my life and history to it, but ultimately it’s a film about the characters and the actors and the screenplay. I let the actors know that my life was one of many drawers they could pull from in the archive, but it wasn’t ‘the’ story. I’m not making biography, I’m not making documentary, I’m making fiction. I’m also always thinking about how the film is a record of who’s in it. I think of actors less as actors and more as people – am I interested in them as characters, as people I’m photographing? So I like them to put as much of themselves into the material as possible. And I think for me, I wasn’t invested in telling my story. I didn’t think my story was necessary to be repeated, I just thought there was material there.
How did you go about writing the film, as it doesn’t have a very traditional, mainstream structure? Was it difficult knowing when we were going to dip into these people’s lives?
I worked with Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, and we began with journals and diaries, so in a way the structure of the film mirrors those diaries. Like if you pick up a diary there are events and then there are gaps and then there’s another event, and that’s how you move through time. The film sort of imitates that and sort of propels you forward through the 10 years of the story. I think that in reverse it mirrors memory in a way, it’s kind of like a series of flashbacks. People’s memory of a relationship is often keyed by certain vibrant impressions, and the film is in some ways a series of vibrant impressions. Hopefully it leaves the audience feeling like you’ve actually been there.
Erik in the film makes documentaries. Was the structure of the film inspired in any way by documentaries, especially in the way it feels like you’re going in and seeing a scene from these people’s lives, but you don’t necessarily see all the little bits and pieces in-between?
Yeah, I always think of every fiction film as a kind of documentary. Ultimately I try to build a world that has as much density as you might discover if you were out in the real world. That in some ways makes my job as a director easier, because I’m just trying to get the right pieces together.
And I think documentaries try to do this too, that I need to craft the information so that while viewers might have questions, they have enough information so they feel they’re getting the full story. As you say, Erik in the film is a documentarian, and his excavation of this lost story of a filmmaker called Avery Willard, who he’s going about in search of, parallels the film itself, which is an attempt to excavate the stories of an individual relationship, of a city, of a community. I think as a filmmaker, on some levels I’m a historian, so I try to get as much of that into the film as possible.
There have been a few articles in the last few weeks suggesting Keep The Lights On is evidence of an evolution and maturing of gay-themed movies. Do you feel that’s true? Are gay films growing up?
When you think about Pasolini and Fassbinder, and the great Visconti! I think maybe what has changed for me personally is that when I started I was dealing with questions of identity and visibility as a gay person, that kind of story. I feel that now, having been out for over 30 years, I think the struggles are different and my films reflect that. So is it a renaissance? I hope so.
Quite a few people have made comparisons between Keep The Lights On and last year’s Weekend, partly because, like you say, it’s not just about identity and they both have a feel of dipping into the lives of the characters. Do you think the comparisons are valid?
I spent a lot of time yesterday with Andrew [Haigh, director of Weekend] and we talked about this. I think the similarities are flattering because I really like the film. I think we’re both working from a realist perspective in that way. I found out he’s been very inspired by American independent filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt and Ramin Bahrani, while I’ve been very influenced by the likes of Ken Loach, who means a lot to me. So I think there’s a shared language as much as there are shared stories
What do you hope viewers take away from Keep The Lights on, ultimately?
I hope the film encourages the audience to consider the possibility of living a more transparent life – that’s what the film’s title in some way refers to, and the film points to, that two men are nearly destroyed by keeping things in the dark and hiding. I think in the process of the story they come to the point where they’re willing to share themselves with others and be revealed.
My intention as a filmmaker was to tell a story about shame, but do so shamelessly. I think what’s powerful is that it’s an inverse of the story inside of it – it’s a very open film about darkness and shadows. What I take away from my own experience is that it’s much easier on the other side, when you are honest with other people. It’s not something I learned as a gay man, in fact I learned very intimately the opposite, but I have found it makes things so much easier and there’s so much more potential for intimacy the more that I share myself and the less that I go back into a closet.
Thank you Ira.
Interviewer: Tim Isaac