Tender, sincere and coated with unspoken nuance—like all the best friendships—New York auteur Ira Sachs’ latest exploration of love, Little Men, feels like a heartfelt hug, one that carries all the undertones of a beautiful relationship without being overbearing.
With an unusually astute understanding of the layered intricacies that complicate the human condition, Sachs doesn’t take sides in his movies (from 1997’s The Delta to 2014’s Love is Strange). Instead, he approaches his characters’ dilemmas, often marked by the changing economic landscape of his beloved city, with genuine interest to uncover their motivations.
In Little Men, his graceful writing observes the innocent bond between Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), two boys who meet just as their parents embark on a financial dispute. Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garica and Jennifer Ehle play the adults that in turn become forces standing between the teens on the cusp of manhood. Though many of Sachs’ previous titles have been sophisticated LGBT dramas, Little Men is much more ambiguous about the sexual orientation of its protagonists and allows them to come of age without labels.
MovieMaker had the pleasure of sitting down with Sachs and 13-year-old star Theo Taplitz to dig deeper into their gem of a film. In this extensive conversation, the director and his actor discuss constructing Taplitz’s character, the film’s identity, and the different ways they approach moviemaking.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Love is Strange, your previous film, focused on an older relationship, and before that Keep The Lights On centered on young adult men. Was it a logical progression to do a story about younger characters?
Ira Sachs (IS): It felt like there was a third story to tell and a third generation to focus on. In a way, the ending of Love is Strange, which ends on these two teenagers, was kind of an introduction to a new focus.
MM: Keep The Lights On is about a very turbulent relationship, while Love is Strange deals with a mature love. In Little Men, the scope is even subtler and about a relationship that feels untainted, genuine.
IS: Well, I think the similarities between Love is Strange and Little Men are that the central relationship is quite strong and honest—between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange, and between Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri in Little Men. That unity probably reflects, to some extent, my own experience in intimate relationships during this time in my life—being in a marriage that works, as opposed to relationships that didn’t for the 20 years before. I think that there’s a kind of ease between the couples in both films, and really the drama is external: the parents in Little Men and the Catholic Church in Love is Strange. There’s the imposition of these outside social forces, which are intruding and complicating the matter for these two boys.
MM: How did you and Theo find each other? What did you see in him that assured he could give you the quiet, nuanced performance you needed?
IS: I work with a casting director, Avy Kaufman, whom I’ve done five films with, and she’s like a child whisperer when it comes to casting. She cast the kids in The Sixth Sense, The Ice Storm, Searching for Bobby Fischer and Life of Pi; she really has an eye for children. Through her, I discovered Theo Taplitz, who lives here in Los Angeles and submitted an audition on tape. That tape was literally like someone had shot a documentary based on our script, because it felt so authentic and natural and real. The thing that we kept saying about that audition was, “This kid has incredible emotional intuitiveness,” and that’s something that’s very exciting to watch through a camera.
MM: Theo, what was the most valuable lesson you learned from working with a seasoned director like Ira, both as a performer and in your blossoming career as a young filmmaker?
Theo Taplitz (TT): Ira taught me a lot of things, both about acting and filmmaking, ’cause I also direct my own short films. Acting-wise, Ira taught me a lot about “less is more.” He kept on saying to me, “Trust your emotions, and don’t overplay anything.” And I think because of those things, the performance was a lot more naturalistic, and I will take those things for the rest of my acting career. And filmmaking-wise, he was very supportive, and let me go around and ask the crew about different things, like asking Óscar [Durán], the cinematographer, about his camera, and following close behind Cedric [Cheung-Lau], the lighting guy.
MM: Ira, did you perhaps learn something from this young filmmaker, yourself?
IS: Well, I really got to know Theo’s work as a filmmaker after we shot the movie. I’m sitting here with a soon-to-be eighth grader, and I have rarely felt more—in our conversations about filmmaking and our experience together—with any actor. So he’s a precocious kid, who’s very insightful about a lot of things. I’m not sure if I’m learning from his filmmaking craft yet, but I admire it.
What I think I’m witnessing is someone who takes himself seriously in the right way, as a creative person. And that reminds me how necessary that is for me as well, even at 50, to value myself, and the work I do, whether it works within the economy of my business or not.
MM: Why was it important for you to make one of the characters someone who wants to be an actor?
IS: Initially he was someone who wanted to do [the Brazilian martial art] capoeira. When I cast Michael Barbieri, who came in through an open call in New York, he had never been in a film, but he went to the Lee Strasberg Institute, the acting school where we shot a scene in the movie, and he saw a sign on the bulletin board, and he came in and stole the part, as they say. Often when I cast a film, there’s a script and things are very specific, and if an actor brings something totally different, I want to be open to that. In this case, this kid was a, in acting school, and b, wanted to go to La Guardia, which was already in the script—but his talent is acting, so let’s use his talent, because it’s so important for the audience to believe that he’s good at what he wants to do.
TT: Also he got into La Guardia.
IS: He did, yes, this summer he got into La Guardia, and he’ll be a freshman there next year. It was meant to be.
MM: Theo, tell me about your relationship with Michael. Did the friendship you had to build on camera develop and behind the scenes as well? How did Ira help facilitate the process the develop on-screen chemistry between the two of you?
TT: One of Ira’s big things is he doesn’t rehearse anything, but what he does do is, he sends the cast on these little “dates.” For instance, with Michael Barbieri, we had some Skype sessions together, and then we went to Prospect Park and skated for a bit, and talked about music, and movies we liked, and what was happening academically for both of us, and Ira told us strictly not to talk about the film, so we could connect as real people, as actual friends. And I feel like once we got to the actual filming process, we knew each other by then, so I feel like the connection was not this pushed thing that we were trying to emulate. We really had something going there.
IS: My job as the director is to create a situation in which the actors have to imagine as little as possible, and that the world and the relationships are tangibly real to them. I rarely want actors to transform as characters. I’m much more interested in what they reveal, what they build.
MM: Paulina García is an outstanding Chilean actress that gained prominence through her work in Gloria. How did you discover her and why did you think a character like Leonor was a crucial element in this tale?
IS: That’s interesting, because Paulina is the kind of actress who does build, because she has a very theatrical approach to character—which I find, in films, makes her really fascinating to watch. She’s both totally naturalistic and very constructed, and I love that tension in terms of being a viewer. I discovered her in Gloria, which was the first thing I had seen of her work, and Mauricio Zacharias, my Brazilian co-writer, and I decided to write this part for her. Luckily, she then liked the script and decided to do it, which we didn’t know in advance. She’s really wonderful, and she both conveys and underplays drama. As soon as you see her, you know that something is up. You sense the discomfort, so she brings an element of suspense to the film, which I think is so important to even “art” filmmaking. People last night who saw the film said it was a nail-biter, because you begin to wonder what is going to happen to these people. How are they going to resolve this un-resolvable problem? That’s what’s dramatic about it.
MM: In that sense, the relationship between the two boys is about two distinct versions of New York, one that’s trying to hold onto what they know and that has an emotional connection to the way the city used to be, and those who want progress in the form of money-driven gentrification. Tell me about these notions.
IS: What we tried to do was level the playing field. The landowners were not very rich, and the shop owner was not very poor. And they, in a way, share a cultural experience, which is very similar. Both families are very much middle class families, trying to hold on to whatever’s left, and I think that’s where the ambiguity comes in and the ambivalence the audience feels to align with, who to root for. No one yet has told me that they stick with one side.
MM: Perhaps the only character that could be considered a villain is Audrey (Talia Balsam), Theo’s aunt who is pushing to raise Leonor’s rent.
IS: Yeah, but there’s a great line by Jean Renoir, which someone quoted to me after seeing this film, and I keep thinking about it, which is from The Rules of the Game: “Everyone has their reasons.” And for me, Audrey does as well.
MM: This is such a subtle film, and if not for your previous film, people might not even think of it as an “LGBT film.” Is that something you wanted?
IS: I try not to make films about issues. I try to make films about people, and there are floating connections to larger questions in all my work. I think initially what was clear to me with these two boys was that I didn’t want to impose their futures on them, particularly the character of Jake, whose sexuality seems to me undetermined. I think that’s where I tried to position the film. I think that, in a way, the gayest part of the film is the director—I come with a certain perspective and a certain kind of storytelling that I believe is continuous with my other work.
MM: What kind of conversations did you have in terms of that part of the character, his ambiguous sexuality that he’s still discovering?
TT: Well, one of the big things about the character in the movie is that he’s at that age where he’s trying to figure out who he is, what he is and how important he is in the scale of things, and his kind of go-to line throughout it is, “I don’t know.” He doesn’t want to impose anything on himself that’s not true, so that’s one of the big things, and I feel like through this film he’s really trying to find out who he is as a person and with his own artistic views. So, I believe that, it’s really more at the end, where there’s more definition of what maybe his sexuality is, stuff like that. But even then it’s more up to the audience. It’s like, Ira gives you the story, he gives you the plot, and he lets you write the ending.
MM: Could you talk about the naturalistic, yet elegantly executed, cinematography and how those visual and aesthetic choices enhanced the themes at hand? Of course, the score is also unforgettable even longer after the film is over.
IS: I agree, thank you. Thank you on behalf of my collaborators, my brilliant cinematographer and composer. I worked with a Spanish cinematographer, Óscar Durán. I had seen several films that he had shot, and I loved his lighting, his sense of framing. I particularly loved his use of the medium shot, which is a kind of perspective that I really identify with. It’s almost like a kind of portraiture. I think of the film as modernist work. It’s very simple. It’s unembellished, but it needs to be clean, and there needs to be a motive, so you’re trying to figure out to create images that have visual tension, and yet seem totally honest to the story they’re telling. To me, I think of the film as being very much in the daytime; it uses natural lighting, and also uses the sun in a very focused way.
Dickon Hinchliffe is the composer; it’s the third film we’ve made together. I first discovered Dickon through his work with the band Tendersticks, and also the filmmaker Claire Denis—he did a number of Claire’s films. We did a film, Forty Shades of Blue, together. He’s a father of three kids, so I think he really identified with the story and the characters and its view of childhood, as well as its view of parenting. The music is both very elemental, it has innocence to it, and yet it’s also quite sophisticated, musically, and I think that combination elevates the film in a certain way.
MM: Would you say that, in this film, the parents are more childish than the kids?
IS: They’re less direct with what they think and how they say it. To me, really the most honest moment between the adults is one of the harshest scenes, which is towards the end, when Greg Kinnear and Paulina García are in the backyard. Suddenly, they’re not trying to hide who they are and how they feel about each other, and to me that’s emotional progress, that’s maturity. And it’s something that as an individual I resisted for much of my life.
MM: So is it cathartic, perhaps, to see the characters act that way?
IS: I think it is cathartic, for the audience as well. I try to think of films as having an emotional arc. They have a narrative arc too, but there’s a certain struggle that you feel with the characters, which at a certain point needs to break, and that’s what happens in that scene.
MM: New York is a vital element of your filmmaking. Would you ever try to film anywhere else?
IS: I’ve always said that if I was going to film in another country, it would have to be a story about a person who knew nothing about that country, because it’s hard to fake intimacy, and my films are very intimate. My next film that I’m writing now is about three generations of a family who take a day trip to climb a mountain, so it’s outside of New York, and it takes us into the natural world, which I’m excited about, and the role of nature. I keep thinking of Shakespeare comedies somehow—like, the outdoors and how life plays out.
MM: Theo, what kind of films do you want to make, or have made thus far? Are there any specific ideas or worlds that intrigue you particularly?
TT: That’s a hard question. Well, I like making personal films, as Ira does. I think that, in my own way, I like to portray what’s going on in my own imagination, and sort of portray my things as having more fanciful idealism to it. And I feel like that’s, for me, a way to get out some feelings of mine, and some experiences that I’ve had, not through a dramatic point but through a journey, in a fanciful but realistic way. I think that’s where I want my films to be drawn towards. It’s fantasy, but it has a realistic tone to it.
MM: I heard, recently, a screenwriter professor saying that even if one tried, one couldn’t write a film that wasn’t personal. Would you agree with that? Is everything one creates proof of individuality?
IS: I once I had a job when I was just out of college, directing a play that I was hired to direct, and I was no good at it, because I didn’t originate the story. And I find that I seem to have a lot more to offer when I work from a place of instinct, and instincts come from a very personal place.
MM: Did you have a friendship growing up that inspired Little Men?
IS: I did. My best friend from elementary school just came to see the film in Chicago. We’re both 50 now.
MM: That must have been pretty amazing.
IS: It was great to have him there. And our friendship didn’t end for the same reasons [as in the film], but we were two kids who were friends across different backgrounds.
MM: Which complicates things, perhaps.
IS: Yeah, I think that’s just the thing about childhood, is that kids are able to cross that difference in a way that adults find more difficult.
MM: It was great to see Alfred Molina come back in a small role in this film after you had him in a leading role in Love is Strange.
IS: We had a great time working on Love is Strange, and he said, “Whatever you want to do next, I’ll do anything.” Which was a gift, because it’s a sort of affirmation of the way I make movies and their value. MM
Little Men opens in theaters August 5, 2016, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Top image by Jeong Park.