On the intimacies of love, families, and New York City
In Love is Strange, director Ira Sachs has at once written a love letter to lower Manhattan and also exposed its economically demanding realities. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are caught in the middle of this beautifully rendered predicament. They’ve spent 39 years together and have just gotten married, but this announcement forces the Catholic school where George teaches choir to fire him. The couple has to sell their ornately dressed West Village apartment and start desperately house hunting. In the meantime, they need somewhere to live.
This doesn’t seem like a large burden considering most of Ben’s family lives nearby in the city. But Sachs has made a delicate drama that seizes upon the subtleties of acclimatizing to new roommates. Ben moves in with his nephew (Darren E. Burrows), nephew’s wife (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son (Charlie Tahan), with whom he shares a bunk bed. George gets a stricter punishment, shacking up with a gay cop friend and his boyfriend. They’re significantly younger and throw weekly parties, unaware of their guest’s preference for quiet.
I spoke with Sachs about the personal nature of his film, the realities of living with older family members, and his future as an indie filmmaker.
The comedic irony of this film is that after 40 years, two gay men finally get married and then are unable to sleep in the same bed. Was that the broader perspective you had in mind?
I’m so glad you used the word comedy because it’s really inspired by a set of comedies that were made in the 1930s that have been given the title, “The Re-marriage genre.” Films like Palm Beach Store, Lady Eve, It happened One Night, which are all about married couples, who for various reason have to separate and then the film tries to get them back together. I think it’s in getting them back together that you actually understand the depth of their love. It’s because of overcoming an obstacle together. In this case, the obstacle is the Catholic Church, but that’s just the kind of starting engine for this kind of multi-generational examination of love.
In one scene, Ben and George have a great night out together—they go to the opera and an old bar—but their time together is never predicated on sex. Why was it important for you to exclude that element?
I think it’s just not the story. Sex is very hard to depict in cinema, in fact. But the nuance of love is easier to define than the intricacies of physical relationships, and you can see that in the history of cinema. I think in this story I was so interested in questions of generations and the integration of a couple in a family within a community that the intimacies were not sexual per say, it just wasn’t my interest. My interests were about the other elements of love.
There’s love and then there’s all of the daily challenges that come from living with a family member for more than just a few hours at a time. Was it easy to implement those little annoyances?
When [co-writer] Mauricio Zacharias and I started writing the film, I was in a period in my life when I went from living alone in my apartment, to living with my husband, our two babies, their mom, and various in-laws who would come to visit, all within the context of a cramped New York apartment. So I had right in front of me the kind of humor and drama of a multi-generational family story, and I think humor is a really big part of it as you say. It’s that kind of lightness which I feel personally I am much more in touch with in my middle age than I was when I was younger, when I was very attracted to German cinema [laughing]. I was in more pain than I am now. I think the film revels in a kind of lightness.
And it even skips a generation. When Ben has to sleep in the bunk bed of his grandson, Joey, there’s still an annoyance and anxiety there.
Yes, well I think we all know that this comfort, that can be familial. I’ve been thinking about that as children, it takes a long time to realize that our parents are people. I think in a way that’s what takes place for Joey, the teenager in the film, is that he suddenly gets out of his discomfort and he’s able to recognize another human being. And it’s transformative.
I think that happens when Ben starts his rooftop painting and Joey sees his grandfather’s skills for the first time.
To me this film is very much a portrait of my parents. My mother has been with my stepfather for 45 years. My father is an extremely eccentric, individualistic fellow, but he has his integrity in tact and he is who he is. I think one of the things I like about Ben and George, and which I’ve grown to admire in John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, is their confidence as individuals. And I think that’s very appealing to spend time with, it’s one of the reason audiences want to spend time with Ben and George.
I think you capture that because of the film’s rhythm, which is rather slow and meandering—Chopin’s music fills the background– and is able to pick up subtleties that faster paced films don’t normally do. Would you agree?
This is my fastest moving film so I’m not the guy to ask [laughing].
Slow and steady wins the race. I’m attentive and I’m not impatient and I love the long 19th century novel. I miss the time when people took time to say things and I try to do that, while at the same time wanting to entertain the masses and keep things going. The film has a lot of suspense as well as humor.
Was there a particular director you were trying to channel with this love story?
I think the Japanese filmmaker Ozu was probably the key influence [for] Mauricio and I writing this story. Mid-period Woody Allen was also very influential from Husbands and Wives to Hannah and Her Sisters, which managed to take a multiple set of stories within the confines of family and in a New York world.
I’m glad you mentioned Woody Allen. New York City is such a fundamental character here. Was it always your desire to shoot in the city?
Oh yeah. We set out to make a very romantic New York film and Chopin actually helps us because it’s so delightful and is so full of the beauty of the unexpected and the emotion of that music I think gives a lot to the story. But I’ve been here for 25 years and what I have to offer is a very intimate portrait of the city that I still find very beautiful.
Right, it doesn’t have to be the typical tourist landmarks.
It’s some of my personal landmarks. Like the Bar Julius, which the characters go to, the oldest gay bar in the city, and one of the great bars of the city in any neighborhood; the Waverly diner, which is my corner diner. And I think the film is trying to pay attention to the things in the city that are passing, which doesn’t mean it’s a nostalgic film. It’s a film that honors the present that might soon be the past and that includes people. What I hope to do in the film is to pay attention to people that other films might not and that in doing so, you’re able to make the ordinary extraordinary.
The poster of the film is an image of Lithgow and Molina, trying to hail a taxi and we composed that shot with Midnight Cowboy in mind– Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck walking through Times Square. What I love about that shot, and what I wanted to emulate is these two characters who go unnoticed to most during the day, but are in this case very iconic as figures of the city.
How did you go about funding this film?
As an independent filmmaker I work closely with a set of producers and we don’t expect Hollywood to make our films, and in a way that gives us the freedom to tell our stories the way we want to tell them. But somebody has to pay for the film. In this case, I was able to find 26 individuals, 24 of [whom] are gay and lesbian people, who saw in this film a story that they believed important but also that they understood as businesspeople the commercial possibility. More than just gays and lesbians, they were gay and lesbian businesspeople.
I know you wished you could take back giving a death sentence to the idea of indie film, but where do you see yourself headed in this genre in the next five years?
I think there are possibilities for individuals to tell very personal stories. The challenge is to get them seen. What I try to do is to work from a very independent perspective and in a way I try to channel the history of filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Orson Welles, people who had to always fight for what they wanted to do but at the same time maintained an extraordinary integrity of artistic voice with their work.
I like being independent, so to me television is not a solution. If I were to create a television show, which no one is asking me to do, if I did, I’d be working for a corporation, and that’s a very different kind of art making.
Would you say you relate to your character George then, keeping your integrity but working in whatever means you can?
I like to think that I’m a mixture of Ben and George. I’m practical and yet creatively I’m obsessive. I actually relate to all of the characters to be honest. I feel like I’m the kid that has had grownups like Ben and George and learned to love them and then lost them. And I’m Marisa Tomei in the middle of my life trying to figure out what is my responsibility to my parents and to my children.
I’m Ben and George because for many people, in particular in New York, I kind of represent the possibility of a long creative life. So I connect to all of those people.
Love is Strange opens in select theaters August 22