At its best, independent film can be about something larger, about breaking away from convention and not concerning itself with labels. “Keep the Lights On,” the latest film from writer/director Ira Sachs, does feature two gay men at the heart of its story, but the larger themes of co-dependence and secrecy within the context of a relationship are issues that concern almost anybody who has shared a life with somebody else.
Written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, “Keep the Lights On” focuses on the decade-long relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhart), a filmmaker, and Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted lawyer. Their relationship often borders on toxicity, as addictions, lies, and infidelities begin to color their perspectives and heightens the dysfunction of their life together. Sachs, who is based out of New York, had his feature directorial debut with “Boy-Girl, Boy-Girl” in 1996 and his resume includes “The Delta,” “Forty Shades of Blue,” and “Married Life.”
The film is based in part on Sachs’ own life, but as the filmmaker notes, all of his films are personal, and at some point, every film, including “Keep the Lights On,” begins to have its own life as draft after draft of a script is written, people are brought on to work on the film, and actors are cast in roles.
“Keep the Lights On” had its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category. At the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, it won the Teddy for Best Feature Film. The movie has had an impressive festival run, including LGBT themed festivals such as Fire!! Mostra Internacional de Cinema Gay i Lesbià de Barcelona and Outfest.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Sachs as the film gets ready to go into limited release in select theaters on September 7. He shared his thoughts about the personal nature of filmmaking, casting Danish actor Lindhart in a lead role, and making films that go beyond simple labels.
Film Slate Magazine: This film is intensely personal for you, isn’t it?
Ira Sachs: It came from an intensely personal place, but at this point, it’s a film that I created in the present. It’s sort of influenced by the past, but I really do think every film—fiction or otherwise—is a form of documentary. And a lot of what you’re trying to do is record the moment as is, so that means you really are dealing with these actors, these locations–this world. So in a way I have a lot of distance from the individual experience that allowed me to write this film.
FSM: When you first start writing it, it might be a bit raw, but as you add layers and layers, cast actors and different things, is that when you begin to feel the separation of it?
IS: I don’t think I started writing the film until I had the perspective to do so. When you’re on the inside, it doesn’t really feel…then it feels like therapy, and you may as well be talking to the therapist (laughs). In a way, I think all the heavy personal lifting happens before I started writing the movie. And then I worked with a co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, who is a great Brazilian screenwriter, and I think in a way what the collaboration did was gave me permission to tell this story, and above all his belief that there was a story to be told, not just an experience that I had, was really the moment where I felt like I should write this film.
And then when you cast a Danish actor you’re particularly liberated (laughs).
FSM: (laughing) You can let it completely go when he’s nothing like you, right?
IS: Exactly. Someone told me yesterday, ‘Wow, you really cast a good looking guy to play yourself.’
FSM: Right, saying, ‘I see myself as a young Danish guy.’ I was going to ask, casting-wise, how did you come across Thure Lindhart?
IS: When I finished the script, I sent it to one agent that I always send my work and he came back with the response that no one in the agency would be available for this film. And I think that gave me a sign that there was something about this material that which was uncomfortable for conventional American movie making, in a certain way, certainly uncomfortable for Hollywood filmmaking. So I was open to a lot of ideas and I heard about Thure, who was described to me as the bravest actor in Denmark. Those were like the first words that came; and I also heard that he was one of the best. And I’m not sure the word I would use is brave. I would almost use the word naked, in a certain way, because I think he’s a very open person, and he’s a very open actor. And I think that’s what gives the film its life, in a certain way.
Both actors, Zach Booth and Thure Lindhart were in a way much more comfortable with the material than at the end of the day I was. Because they were the ones who were exposing themselves—again, both physically in terms of the sex of the film, but also emotionally they allow themselves to be transparent, to be seen. And I think that’s really the theme of the film. They are not hiding as actors.
FSM: Was there ever a point where they brought out something different in the script that you didn’t see or intend before?
IS: You ultimately make a film about the actors in front of you, and you make it…I think acting is listening and responding. I don’t rehearse my actors before I start shooting. We talk about the material, but I never want to hear them say their lines before we start shooting. And I never want the other actors to be involved with the preconception with what might happen. So all I’m really trying to do is record the moment. So literally every moment they are giving me something unexpected.
FSM: And how do decide what festivals to take this film to?
IS: You go where the light is. I’m one of the producers of the film, and we all strategize together as to the best spot…I felt like this film would in a certain way stand out in a place like Sundance because I think it is unusually frank in some ways. I think it’s very, very independent, and for me that was a return in a way to a kind of I would almost say, a free cinema, that was less concerned with the dictates of the industry and the genre of independent film. I personally felt more engaged with people like Cassavetes and the early American independent movement where you made the film outside the system and you made it with as few constrictions as possible—on yourself and on the work.
FSM: Right, it certainly seems that indie has several meanings these days. In the last 15 years or so some indies were backed by studios and if you’re making a different kind of movie I could see where you would want to operate outside of that system.
IS: I think it was a privilege to do so and I was able to raise the money based on the community outpouring and support for this film which I got in New York. I’m involved in a number of community organizing activities; I run a film series called Queer/Art/ Film, I organize a group of film directors who meet monthly here in New York, and I sort have been here for 25 years—I’ve been a New York filmmaker without making films in New York. I got a lot of love which allowed me to make this movie.
FSM: I was able to screen this film and I think at the heart of it, it’s certainly a relationship film, the arc of it. Were you ever worried about labels of any kind? With mainstream culture, there might be an acceptance of gay culture, but it seems more of the ‘Will and Grace’ sort of thing, where, ‘we can accept this, but we’re not going to accept anything deeper.’ Were you ever afraid of anything like that?
IS: You’re navigating that separation. What I have found, and what the film has attested to it, is at this point, there are the major urban cultural communities that are very blended in terms of sexuality and experience, and at least for me, I don’t sit in a room and try to define people by whether they’re gay or straight. That’s just not how life is lived, at least in New York. I’m sure it’s not that way in Detroit. I’m sure it’s not that way in Reykjavik. I’m sure it’s not that way in Madrid. The film actually depicts a community that is much more blended than the idea of gay cinema per se.
FSM: It’s about two people, as opposed to being about cultures or lifestyles.
IS: It is. I think because the film is documenting a decade long relationship, it seems to serve as a template for personal examination by almost any stripe of audience. If I talked to anyone after a film screening given the time they usually tell me something about their own relationship, whether that be a break up or a dynamic…We thought a lot about ‘Annie Hall.’ We hoped that the film would resonate as a depiction of a relationship at this time, in this culture, in this city.
FSM: And I think that everybody can relate, because most everybody has been in, I don’t want to say a toxic relationship, but drug addictions and monogamy issues…I would hope that people would be able to pick up on that part of the story.
IS: And they do. People have told me that they find themselves in this story. And I think this story touches on these issues that are very contemporary around relationships, around co-dependence, around the individual, around, as you say, monogamy. These questions are very actively discussed by many of us today.
FSM: Well, Ira, do have any final thoughts about the film, the process, or what comes next for ‘Keep the Lights On’?
IS: I think all I would say is that in some ways, I hope the film, the film’s title, speaks to what I hope people gain from seeing the movie. I hope they find it a good story and very emotionally engaging. And it is a love story in some f—ked up way. But I also hope that the film is an encouragement for audiences to keep the lights on and not shy away from their own behavior and sharing it with others and living an open life. I think the film is a story of two people whose relationship is destroyed by the nature of their secrets. But it’s told in a way which is very shameless. And I hope that that is inspiring to other people that there is a possibility to be free with who you are by trying not to hide the things you do.