The youngest character in Ira Sachs' new film, Love Is Strange, is a thief with a penchant for stealing French books. Sachs, who directed and co-wrote the film with Mauricio Zacharias, drew this character from his own childhood. "I had the idea that in my public high school in Memphis, I would be the only one to ever grow up and read French, so why let those books just sit on the shelf? The truth is, I'm still not reading French. So, my arrogance was false."
That arrogance, and how life can change for young gay men as they gain more life experience, appears throughout Sachs' six feature-length films. His last film, Keep The Light On, is a tale about "coming-of-middle-age." With Love is Strange (which expands to more cities beyond New York and L.A. screenings on Friday), the director wanted to see his own expanded perspectives reflected in the lives of his characters. "It was important to at some point put a break on behavior that had begun in a different era. And to try to see how that behavior was perhaps, no longer serving me. And that it was also perhaps more tied to who I was than who I am now."
Love is Strange stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as longtime partners who find themselves without the means to continue living in their apartment. Suddenly, George and Ben are forced to rely on the generosity of friends and family, which means finding temporary housing — separately. After forty years of sleeping beside one another, the couple must adjust to new surroundings and figure out how to nurture an old love on new terms. "It's a film I've written at the point that I'm 48 years old and truly middle-aged. There is a perspective one has from being in the middle of one's life, that's different from when I was younger, and I wanted the film to contain these different perspectives."
In the film, Ben lives with his nephew, Elliot, and his wife, Kate, and shares a bunkbed with their son, Joey. George lives with their neighbors, Ted and Roberto, two gay police officers with constant visitors and a non-existent meal schedule. With so many people from different generations sharing the tight spaces of New York City living, moments of misunderstanding, anger, and profound annoyance were inevitable. These are things Sachs has learned all too well.
"When I was writing this film with Mauricio, I went from living alone to living with my husband, our two kids, and their mother in the same apartment. Plus, family visitors coming to help us with the babies. What had been my own space became sometimes five or six people living there, and there was plenty of material for this movie." He laughed, eyes twinkling. "It's funny. Except it's not."
Of course, it is this shift in his everyday life, and the people he shares it with, that not only gave Sachs material, but a theme for the relationship between its main characters. While George feels largely invisible to his hosts, Ben can't seem to find a space where he doesn't become the landing pad for his family's frustration. There was a particularly touching scene where George shows up where Ben is staying and falls into his arms, sobbing. As Ben holds him, George offers apologies for his behavior, only to be held tighter and told, "Stop that." It's an incredibly gentle moment, something we don't often see between two gay men in movies. Sachs continues, "All my films have been about intimacy and relationships, what is distinct is that they have not been tender. I'm experiencing a tender relationship, and that's the dominant relationship in my life, as opposed to other times in which more challenging issues were defining my relationships. And more difficult issues. This film is sort of a personal reflection of a personal state I'm living in."
To the right of Ira Sach's desk hangs an unfinished painting he sometimes affectionately calls "The Hero." It shows a teenage boy on a rooftop with the city skyline splayed out behind him. Sachs smiles at the work of art, and runs a hand over his white and gray beard. In the film, Ben asks his great-nephew's friend, Vlad, to model for this painting. It's an innocent request that ends up causing more trouble than he anticipated. In real life, the painting was created by Boris Torres, Sachs' husband.
Sachs lights up when asked about Lithgow and Molina's performances in the film. "John and Fred together were very tender, and they had a real romantic friendship that developed in the course of making this movie." He pulled up a picture of the two on his computer. The actors are leaned in toward each other, perhaps whispering, not unlike a comfortable couple at a wedding making casual observances and sharing them with their favorite person. Sachs smiled at the photo. "What's interesting to me is that's not Ben and George. You can actually tell that's John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. They're not acting here."
Still, Sachs doesn't discount the groundwork the script laid out for the actors to sink their teeth into. "It set up a situation in which you could see a couple in a classic love story. I mean, from Romeo & Juliet, Titanic; a couple in love who have to overcome an obstacle together. And we learn about their love in the process of watching them do that."
Initially, he and Zacharias had a difficult time distinguishing between the two characters. "We made a few strong character choices. One of them was that George took care of things, and Ben was mostly in his mind. Also that Ben had at one point been unfaithful to George, who had always been monogamous within the relationship. Those are things that, in a way, say a lot. What's interesting in film is that you don't need to make a thousand choices like that. You just need to make strong character choices that then give the story and the actor a place to go."
One of the most poignant scenes in the film took place in the oldest gay bar in the city, where Ben and George have come after a classical music concert. In a conversation about friends they've lost, and new friends they've made, Ben hints at a bit of jealousy. George responds, "You know that's never been for me." Ben contemplates this and replies, "I wish I could say the same." The infidelity is revealed and regrets are expressed. They have been there, and they have moved on. Sachs says this was a very intentional plot point. "There is no judgment in that scene and really no moral stance whether one of them was right or one of them was wrong. They had different approaches to their relationship."
Sachs went on, "To deny that, as gay men, monogamy or non-monogamy are complex in their emotional results would be naive and reactionary. And I think... young."