Director Ira Sachs has found his greatest inspirations from cinema outside of the US.
With filmmakers like Éric Rohmer, Yasujirō Ozu, and Abbas Kiarostami held close to his heart, the Tennessee native has taken his talents to Europe. With Frankie, Sachs explores his experiences with illness, the oppositions between life and death, and human’s connection to nature. With a film that tackles such profound topics premiering at Cannes, he is now discussing his scriptwriting and editing processes, working with Isabelle Huppert, and crafting a film in which every character is the hero of their own story.
Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you talk about your scriptwriting process?
Ira Sachs (IS): I worked with Mauricio Zacharias. It’s our fourth film together. We have a process which involves getting together and talking a lot about movies and stories and characters and also about our lives. I think that becomes the mix of things which make the films very personal. But also written they are stories being told and they’re not casual, I would say. I think that in terms of information, I always want the audience to trust that the director has a story to tell and that they are in good hands. I want them to relax. That being said, I want them to feel that life was going on before the movie began and will go on after the movie ends. They are invited in but they have to find their way. There becomes an engagement between the audience and the characters which is intimate because there are questions that have to be answered.
MM: How is the relationship between you and the story that you want to tell?
IS: In my mid-40s I had experiences in which I was close to three women who went through illnesses and died. That experience was very new to me. I had not been close to death in the same way earlier in my life. It was full of unexpected contradictions. I found that there was much more life in the process of dying than I expected. It isn’t simple and these women were living until they died. Life was as complicated as it always was in every moment until the last. That to me was the heart of this film, in that there are these very serious oppositions between death and life, between darkness and light, between tragic and comic, between isolated and connected. All of that is very personal to me and it’s something that I felt I could share in a piece of art.
MM: What I also like about the film is that it’s like a kind of paradise and everyone who is good to Frankie is around her. Her memories from the past are of husbands, close friends, relatives, aunts. I think you had Utopia in mind.
IS: You have a utopia, but it’s interesting. I think there’s an Eden quality to the middle of the film and to the woods. But I think it’s really what happens when you’re on vacation to some extent, which doesn’t mean the vacation is Utopia. For me, it’s often the reverse. But I think that when you’re away from your home, you can’t bring with you the normal kind of daily rituals which keep you distracted from connecting to other people. In a way, you have a lot of things that you can turn to, which means you don’t have to turn to each other. And when you’re on a vacation, sometimes your relationships are laid bare. It’s just you and your partner at a table in Switzerland. There are no kids, no bills to pay, no TV. It’s like you’re exposed and so are the frictions in the relationship.
MM: It seems to me that you are very interested in stories of ordinary life and you sometimes look for miracles that come through this ordinary storytelling. You are looking for Utopia in everyday life. Am I correct to say that?
IS: I would say that it is less about Utopia. I think that I’m interested in how, with enough attention, the ordinary can be revealed to be extraordinary. I’m interested in how every moment contains both a horizontal and a vertical relationship. Someone could write a 400-page novel about our conversation at this table, right? There’s a huge amount of history here that brings us both to this moment and it could go in search of lost time based on what’s happening at this table because our histories are expansive. They’re eternal, right? So I think that for me the novelist or the filmmaker’s role is to understand the depth and complexity of a given moment. What I try to do is cast actors who do that without thinking. It’s what rushes through the head. It’s how your eyes work as I say something to you. It’s something about that immediacy.
MM: I like the ending of the film, when they go up the hill into the mountain environment. It reminds me of Kiarostami. It also reminds me of Seven Sea. However, here it is very different. It’s like a paradise environment. It’s like saying hi or welcome. We welcome the other world or we welcome the new life. It’s like Kiarostami except for the elements of death.
IS: Yes. I think it’s also the first moment. In a way, you could say it’s a pointillist form which only adds up in that last shot. It’s the first time that you’re together with the whole family. And I think, again, that shot was not one I’d planned before I was on that location many, many times. I spent a lot of time there. At some point, I saw my crew on that hill from that particular vantage point and it was the scale that really affected me, as well as my ability from that distance to identify those people as characters I knew. And so, by that point in the film when you see each member of the family, you know that it’s almost like they’re a cartoon character. There’s an iconography which has been created so there’s also this cast of characters and you are now interested in how they are going to play out in that scene, in that frame. I think there’s that kind of theatricality to the moment. I also think it was very important to me for the film to end in a landscape without people.
MM: Yes it’s like Antonioni and the fog scene in La Notte where for a couple of minutes you just see the landscape.
IS: Yeah, when they’re sitting on the bench together it’s completely La Notte to me. It was just a very interesting reflection and to me, Kiarostami was someone who definitely meant a huge amount to me. I had this moment yesterday when a reporter said to me, “Oh, it’s so great. You’re talking about Ozu and Hugh Gray and Kiarostami. All of these people everybody’s forgotten.” It was interesting. Has everybody forgotten Kiarostami? Is that possible? Wow. And in a way, you could say that’s like how I always think New York won’t blink when I die. A traffic light won’t even stop. In a way, that’s relieving. It’s like it’s my version of religion and it’s usefully humbling. But for most of our days, we think we are the center of our own universe and we think that we are the heroes of a story. I think that in Frankie everyone is the hero of their own story. I always think of Altman when I think about creating that equality in the film because I think he was a very democratic filmmaker, meaning that he expected the audience to be interested in everyone. He paid attention to everyone and I think that’s really a wonderful quality in a text. The other filmmaker who was very important to me directed this film based on Kangchenjunga. Have you seen the film?
IS: It’s a film made in 1962 and it’s not well known but I really recommend it. It’s set on the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga. It’s about a family on a vacation and it takes place over the course of the morning to afternoon. The question is whether or not a young girl is going to marry the right or the wrong suitor. To me, that kind of formality and also that rigorous structure, the unity of a single day, single location, morning to afternoon, was really inspiring for this film.
MM: Why is Ozu so important to you?
IS: I think that my deeper conversations are with Ozu, who is wise in many thousands of ways. One of those ways is that he avoids melodrama by telling several stories at once. There’s never a single narrative. There are always two or three. I think that’s a very interesting way to always have contrast. That’s something that I feel more and more. I think that when I was younger, I was making melodramas with a single focus in which everything was so important, but I think that as you get older, nothing is that important and everything is very deep.
MM: I can clearly see Ozu here, but I also like the Rohmer-like quality of the films. It reminds me of Rohmer’s love scenes and the romantic and beautiful scenery in France. Can you tell me a little bit about Rohmer?
IS: Yes and no and yes, meaning that when we were writing the film, Mauricio Zacharias and I thought of Rohmer in a way and we watched a few of his films in the summer. In a way, he gave us permission to make a film in which people are outdoors, talking and saying the things that are on their minds, trusting in the audience’s ability to listen and enjoy the nature of conversation. So I would say even more specifically that Rohmer was influential for the film. When I began to think about how to shoot it, and I was working with Rui Posas, my cinematographer, we looked very, very closely at three films by Eric Rohmer – Pauline a La Plage, Claire’s Knee, and Conte d’ete, which is Summer’s Tale. Those films gave us a certain visual language that became central to our work together. What it really did is it set up rules for how to shoot the movie. Most specifically, we never allowed ourselves to make a cut for emotional emphasis. We never jumped in and changed the size of a frame to accentuate an emotion. The only way you could change the size of the frame, such as from a wide shot to a closeup or a wide shot to a medium, was through choreography. The actors had to move or the camera had to move in order to change their relationship to the image. I don’t know if that makes sense but what that does is it means that you’re shooting the actors almost as if they’re on a stage because you’re really allowing them to perform without breaks. And I think the effect of that on the audience is that you are constantly watching the character but also the actor because the performance is not constructed through editing in the same way. I like that quality. It made me think a lot about films made in the 1970s and particularly films where you’re always aware of the character. You’re always aware of Hanna Schygulla as being both a character and an actress. I think that is a pleasure in the film and the pleasure of performance.
MM: You mentioned that you always think about the relationship between the actors and their background.
IS: You’re always shooting the space. You shoot the space, not the person. The person is part of the space. The person is one of the objects in the space. What’s interesting in this film is that they’re primarily in nature but they’re not paying any attention to what’s around them. So the film pays attention to nature in a way that’s totally different from how the characters do.
MM: What role does nature have in your work? I’m thinking of Bresson, where nature brings kind of transcendental values to his films, or Antonioni, for whom it was kind of materialistic work that he represented through nature.
IS: Yes, I think for me, in this film, nature is most simply a force of life and death. It’s not one that we can think about much but in this film the characters at times have to pay attention to it. I shot a film which is theatrically structured as if it is happening within one day but we actually shot for 30 days. We were shooting in a microclimate in Portugal which changed rapidly and dramatically so you’d go from a sunny day to a hurricane within an afternoon. I could have either resisted nature or accepted nature.
MM: That’s like Rohmer when the rains happened unexpectedly. He tried to bring it into his films.
IS: You have to be open. Renoir says that when you’re shooting a movie keep the windows open and let the world in. I think that’s also because both Rohmer and Renoir are interested in documentation. They’re fiction filmmakers who work on location, though even if you work on a set, it’s a location. So I think that to be porous and let those things in was very important to me. We ended up creating unexpected drama.
MM: Do you have preconceived ideas about good acting and try to get actors to perform a certain way or do you look for it during your editing process?
IS: I don’t rehearse my actors before I start shooting. I talk individually to each actor about the character and about the text, which is what I’m interested in. I don’t improvise very much. John Lithgow said to me after working on Love Is Strange that the challenge was that I want it to be as if it had never happened before every time. It’d be the first time but I wanted him to get all the words right. That’s interesting. So there’s a way in which it’s precise but free. What I’m trying to do is set up an environment for the actors in which they don’t have to think about the world we are creating. It’s all there for them. I don’t like to talk very much with my actors in advance because I don’t want them to be considering subtext. I want subtext to be revealed unexpectedly. I also don’t want there to be a dialogue in their head between them and me. It should be between them and the other actors. So, that being said, I’m very attentive to performance on location and I think actors trust that I’m paying attention, but maybe more like a psychoanalyst than a puppet master.
MM: Why did you decide to use Isabelle Huppert in this film? What aspects of her made you interested in working with her? How did you try to bring new elements of her character into the film?
IS: There’s a kind of actor in the world, and I think of them as not American. I’ve worked with a Danish actor. I’ve worked with a Russian actor. I’ve worked with a Vietnamese actor. I’ve worked with a Chilean actress. What interests me about that kind of acting is the density and the appreciation of the moments and the subtlety of how an actor gets from here to there. There is the explosive nature of the specific moment and I think that Isabelle can be the best of that. There’s an extraordinary receptiveness and sensitivity to what she’s experiencing. Her emotions are present. They’re not always transparent but they’re present. There are films like Loulou which has meant a lot to me. When I met her after Love Is Strange, I was surprised by how wonderful she was as a person, how noble she was, how curious and open and approachable and familiar she was to me. I had not seen that before in her performance. What I asked her to do was to be as simple as possible, which is not easy. She’s not playing herself but she’s sharing herself. I think for her that felt new, particularly in the last ten years when I think people were asking her to be someone named Isabelle Huppert. I wasn’t asking for that. There’s a great quote that Kelly Reichardt once shared with me which was said by Linda Manz ten years after Days of Heaven. Ten years after Days of Heaven she said, “I want to be Linda Manz again.” I think that Isabelle Huppert didn’t have to be Isabelle Huppert in this film. She could be herself.
MM: You really like the love scene between these two people. It is like a medium through which each one can understand the other and all of the pain, especially in her body, which has become very weak. I really like it.
IS: Well, to me, it’s also the point of the film, particularly the shot when Brendan Gleeson is sitting in a chair watching Isabelle sleeping in bed. It’s a moment in which the audience has all the information that the characters have. It’s a moment when suddenly 45 minutes or maybe an hour into the movie you are one with them if the film works for you. I think there’s a lot of identification and understanding at that point which is very simple. This is different from the rest of the film, during which you’re actually trying to figure out your way in. Suddenly you’re with them in that bed. I remember that when my mother saw the film, that scene meant a lot to her. I think it was because she could imagine her own 45-year marriage to my stepfather at that moment. I think it’s the most intimate moment of the film for the audience.
MM: How many takes do you usually do for each scene?
IS: It depends on the actors. Some are good at one or two and others need to get to ten or twelve. I think someone like Marissa Tomei is always interested in trying to show a range of things emotionally. She’s really aiming for something that is real and authentic. She’s like a dervish. She needs to really discover the emotion and generate it in order for it to be authentic for her.
MM: What role does music play in your film? How do you think about the relationship between music and your cinema?
IS: It’s funny, as I was walking to sit at this table, there was a piano. I heard piano music playing and it was Chopin. It was actually a piece that we used in Love Is Strange so I heard my score, which was just background music. It could’ve been, but I was like, “No. That’s not music. That’s Chopin.” I think that for me music is beauty. It’s very important that in the last moment of the film you are asked to listen to a piece by Schubert from start to finish. You are asked to pay attention to how beautiful that music is because I think the film is about joy and pleasure in life. Life can include pain, but it also includes music and art and color and light and the theatrical medium. I think that these are performers and that’s part of what makes life very rich. I think I’m interested in music and my film being both parts of the story and separate from the story. I worked with a composer named Dickon Hinchliffe and this is the fourth or fifth film that we’ve done together. In each film, I ask him to create music separately from the image. I want music to exist on its own plane and it certainly relates to the image and the story but it is not in written form.
MM: I’d also like to learn a little bit about your working relationship with editors.
IS: Well, there are fewer cuts, but there’s as much editing because you’re still shaping a story. I worked with Sophie Reine, a French editor who edited the film Before I Forget, which is one of my favorite films of the last ten years. She has a wonderful sensitivity as well as a sense of humor, which was really important to the film. She has a lightness as a person. The film is about serious things but it needs to be light and I think that came primarily from the editing.
MM: How was the shooting experience in this landscape?
IS: We shot a one-day film in 30 days so you have to be very open to what’s going on in nature, which was a microclimate where we were. The weather would change rapidly. However, working in Portugal was dreamy both in terms of the experience of living there and also working with this amazing group of filmmakers and collaborators, many of whom had worked together for years and I felt very much a part of this collaborative group when we made this film together. I think that there was a shared history of cinema that is different from when I’ve worked in the United States.
MM: What about your working relationship with the DP? Do you go to the location with the DP prior to shooting?
IS: You know, I feel like I make the film with three people most intimately. I write a film with my co-screenwriter, I shoot a film with my DP, and I edit the film with my editor. It’s like a serial marriage. I’m really one with those people in the course of that chapter of the filmmaking process. Willy Posas said that making this film was the hardest thing he’s ever done and in a way that’s because we wanted it to appear very easy. MM
Frankie opens October 25th, 2019, courtesy of SBS productions.