Back in 1962, one of cinema’s great masters, Satyajit Ray, released a film called Kanchenjungha. It was the first feature Ray shot based on his own original screenplay. The film follows an upper class Bengali family in real time on vacation at a hill station in Darjeeling, roaming freely in and out of conversations, shots, and scenarios. Tension rises and relaxes, narrative structure coheres and then lets slip like steam hissing out of a kettle. While Kanchenjungha’s elusive style may have cost it the acclaim Ray’s other films get in heaps, it pioneered a radically decentralized approach to narrative that has earned it droves of devoted filmmaker fans down the generations.
Among them is Ira Sachs, who has remained so ensorcelled by Kanchenjungha after seeing it at the Film Society of Lincoln Center years ago, that he conceived of his latest feature Frankie as a kind of spiritual successor. Nine people, two hours, one hilly location — though Frankie lifts off and departs from its conceptual origins, Kanchenjungha became “like a third writer” for Sachs and long time co-writer Mauricio Zacharias.
Frankie is Sachs’ seventh feature film. Before that he co-wrote and directed Little Men, starring Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear (who returns to Frankie), Love is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, and the mid ’90s gay cult classic The Delta. The film’s eponymous star is a subtle, devastating Isabelle Huppert. Frankie, herself a French screen legend, has convened her extended family and friend (longtime hairdresser Ilene, portrayed by a radiant Marisa Tomei) in idyllic Sintra on the Portuguese coast. Suffering in silence from a returned and reinvigorated cancer, Frankie intends to tie up loose ends before saying goodbye in an awe-inspiring final shot.
MovieMaker sat down with Ira Sachs to discuss influences, building relationships with co-writers and DPs, rehearsing, and more:
Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine: I understand you have a background in theater. You came up through that industry then?
Ira Sachs: No, not in that industry at all. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. They had a children’s theater I was involved in from 6th grade to when I graduated from High School. I started directing plays senior year of high school and then throughout college. I was an undergraduate at Yale. I did like 25 productions. Eventually I started working more in performance. I wasn’t a performer myself but it became more and more abstract, I would say. I felt that theater was not as direct a place for me to be a storyteller. I was interested in the craft of theater but I couldn’t just tell my own stories.
Then in 1986 I spent three months in Paris, and I didn’t speak French. I ended up going to 197 movies and realizing ‘Oh, this is what I want to do with my life.’ I would go like three times a day, all this great stuff I had never seen before. It was the first time I saw John Cassavetes, Truffaut, Chantal Akerman, who was an important filmmaker for me. Then I got into film soon after college. It wasn’t academic, it was sort of extracurricular. I would just put on plays. I liked the world, I liked collaborating. I do have another hat, I’m a community activist, and I started an LGBT arts nonprofit called QUEER | ART 11 years ago. I think I like getting together and putting on a show.
Coleman: It seems like you work with a different cinematographer for each feature. Are those choices dictated by the material or is it behind the scenes logistical stuff?
Sachs: It’s not always my choice. I plan to work with Rui Poças (cinematographer on Frankie) on my next film, for instance. I had planned to work with Thimios Bakatakis, my cinematographer on Keep The Lights On, on Love is Strange but that didn’t work out. I’m working on films at a certain financial level. That commitment for a DP is sometimes challenging.
I find that I work extremely intimately with my cinematographer. I spend much more time, like 100 percent more time talking to my cinematographer than to my actors. In the advanced stage, that is, because I don’t want to talk too much to my actors. Of course there is talk, I mean they know I’m there, but I don’t want to have a lot of language between us.
Coleman: That’s because you want to preserve their take on the material?
Sachs: I don’t want to create language that we both try to achieve, because then you start narrowing the possibility of what might happen. As soon as you discuss subtext or motivation, it’s defined. It’s there. I would never talk to an actor about motivation. I find it anti-cinematic.
Coleman: Does your relationship with each new cinematographer change the strategy you take to shooting the material, or does that remain pretty constant?
Sachs: It does a bit but more I think particularly in the writing stage and the shooting stage I’ll use cinema, other pieces of cinema, as my teacher. In the writing stage there’s usually a film or two that my co-writer and I are really engaged with. Almost like a remake, but it’s like Shakespeare. There were original texts, basic texts that become lift-off points that are really important to us. Similarly, when I’m working with a DP we are talking about a limited number of films that become our teachers. So I think that, more than my DP, the films ask something different of me in terms of how to shoot it. In this film it was three movies by Eric Rohmer that I ended up breaking down by shot by shot to understand. It was Pauline at the Beach, Claire’s Knee, and A Summer’s Tale. I did a deep dive to discover what makes these films works and emerged with an understanding they were all shot in almost the same way.
The only way I would cut, based on the mise-en-scène and the strategy of shooting was if an actor left the frame. I would never cut in without an actor generating that cut. It’s a specific way Rohmer shot for all his films. Rui and I began to create a language for this film that we agreed not to step away from. But what that means is, I’m never cutting to get closer, the actor either has to walk closer to the camera, or they have to leave and I can change sizes.
Coleman: You have on the other hand worked with your co-writer Mauricio Zacharias four times now.
Sachs: We’ve together actually written six scripts. One was an HBO film about Montgomery Clift.
Coleman: And it didn’t get made!
Sachs: No, no one has ever. Apparently we were like the fifth attempt to make a film about him. Sidney Lumet I believe tried to make one, a lot of people have tried to make movies based on his life.
Coleman: A cursed property.
Sachs: Well it was a pretty cursed life. Then we made a pilot for a limited series based on a book called Christodora, which hasn’t gotten made. But I would never try to find another co-writer. We have something that really works. You can’t really build those relationships that you can with a DP, quickly. It’s deeper, history is more significant. In the moment my relationship with a cinematographer is deep it just has less history, and that’s okay. With a writer it’s about a shared understanding of life, language, and cinema. It’s a deep set of things to think about.
Coleman: You’ve said that Isabelle Huppert’s character in the film sees herself as the director of her own life. She orchestrates the trip, tries to maneuver people together and apart. Huppert herself made the observation that she saw some of you in the character.
Sachs: What she said about me had more to do with the film itself. Which is, she says, in a way it’s a polite film that moves very gently between the stories, it’s like a current that’s quite gentle. But then it runs into rocks, and the rocks are sharp. She thought I’m a bit like that. I’m gentle but tough. I think anyone who works with me would agree with that. But back to the character of Frankie. The observation is true in the sense of her trying to construct a theater. But it’s actually that she’s just a truth teller. She’s a very honest person. She’s always in scenes where she’s saying what she feels and what she sees. As a person I am not always that way, but as a director I know that it is my job, is to be as honest as possible.
Frankie, directed by Ira Sachs, opens on October 25, 2019, from Magnolia Pictures.