INTERVIEW: Drugs, Sex & Obsession Uncensored In Ira Sachs' Keep The Lights On

Keep the Lights On

Keep The Lights On director Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue, Delta) tapped into his own experience in a tumultuous relationship that would eventually morph into the film that screened to accolades at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals earlier this year, winning the New York-based filmmaker a Teddy Award at the Berlinale. Keep The Lights On morphed out of the disintegration of a relationship he had with a man that spanned a number of years in New York around the turn of the century. Career demands, extra-relationship temptations, addictions, obsessions and more play into the rocky road experienced by the young couple.

Sachs took inspiration for Keep The Lights On from the likes of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances and Jacques Nolot's confessional Before I Forget, constructing Keep The Lights On as a gay man in NYC while embracing at times details some may consider unflattering. Danish actor Thure Lindhardt plays documentary filmmaker Erik, while American Zachary Booth plays closeted lawyer Paul, a couple who embrace each other while passionately forming a dramatic relationship rife with sex, drugs, highs, lows and dysfunction.

Ahead of Keep The Lights On's theatrical release this weekend, Ira Sachs invited Movieline over to his NYC apartment, which, perhaps not so coincidentally served as a prime location for his film. He talks about embracing depictions of addiction and sexuality, the challenges of making indie film today, how making the film affected him personally and what his former partner, who helped inspire the project, thought of the film.

When did you decide that you actually wanted to make this film?
I saw a film called Before I Forget by Jacques Nolot at (New York's) Cinema Village, which was programmed by Ed Arentz — who is now my distributor. And what I saw [was] a film that reflected sort of contemporary life — Parisian life — of a filmmaker who was gay, but also what his life in Paris is that looks like something specific. As a gay person how we live looks very specific today and different than it did 20 years ago. I felt like there was no film that looked like my life, and no film which really reflected the community that I live in which is very mixed.

The boundaries between gay and straight, I think, for most of us in our everyday lives, though not in our psyche has dissipated. So I wanted to make a film about sort of what I had seen in the last many years here. But specifically I ended a relationship in 2008 and I had a sense that 10 years before that was an interesting story. I started writing and I put it away for a couple of years, and it was really Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer who read that material and said, “Well clearly this is a story you have to tell.”

And in a way because I was doing something so autobiographical, I think I needed someone else to give me the blessing that it would be relevant.

So how much of it is similar and how much of it is a departure to your own life during a certain time period?
We began with the journals, and diaries, so we began with the raw materials from my life, but then ultimately we were creating a screenplay, which is constructed around its own laws and orders. And in a way, all my films have begun with things that I feel like I know more than anyone else. They’ve begun in a very intimate place.

So you’re creating it similarly to the approach you took in Forty Shades of Blue for instance?
Forty Shades was kind of about my dad actually. I grew up in Memphis with this larger than life figure who always had these younger girlfriends. And my relationship to those girlfriends was my entry to the film, and that sort of thing.

And then when you start making a movie [like Keep the Lights On] and you’ve cast a Danish actor to play a character based on yourself, then you’re like off to the races because you’re making a film.

So what made you decide to go that route with a Danish actor? Was it that the actor Thure Lindhardt personally that appealed to you?
I sent the screenplay to an agent that I have worked with in Hollywood, and I got the response that no one in the agency would be available for this [project]. And I knew even before that I wanted to make this film different. I thought that this film needed to be a truly independent film, so it would be financed that way. It would be made that way. So I heard about Thure who I was told was the bravest actor In Denmark and one of the best, and I knew that he would be.

I sent him the script and he was alone in a hotel room in Spain, and he ended up using up all the scenes one could shoot alone, which were a series of masturbation scenes. And I knew that he was both comfortable with the material, but also really amazingly interesting to watch. So I casted him.

Is this a little reflection, perhaps, on American actors, that they're less inclined to do this sort of thing?
I have a Danish lead actor. I have a Greek cinematographer. I have a Brazilian co-writer. I have a Brazilian editor. I had a Romanian script supervisor. I surrounded myself with non-American sort of sensibilities. And I think that’s a big part of the film. It’s a film about New York, and it’s a very New York film, but I think it’s told in a way that’s not repressed, and it doesn’t look at sex as some foreign object that has to be viewed only in the dark.

Do you agree that that’s sort of the American POV generally, that violence in movies is acceptable, but sex is taboo?
I do, I do. I think when this film played in Berlin, it was the most ordinary movie you could see.It was extremely ordinary which is very different than how it played at Sundance.

How did it play at Sundance then?
The subject matter and the sexuality made people uncomfortable. I think there’s a fear of difference in American cinema. And I was thinking a lot about that when I made this film because there used to be an idea that independent cinema was independent cinema. And that production and the means of production were actually separate from commercial cinema. And that gave you certain rights and opportunities — and I had all those rights and opportunities.

I am one of a number of filmmakers who started out making films about gay people who stopped. My whole generation, most of us stopped. We either couldn’t make films, or we had to make other kinds of films. And I think that that’s partially about the individual, but it’s mostly about the culture, and trying to figure out how to sustain a career. I think for me, ultimately, I feel now that in some ways my marginal voice is actually my most powerful. It’s also possibly economically my most fertile, because I’m the guy who can make these films.

Is there still a pretty low glass ceiling for gay filmmakers generally in this country?
It wasn’t any easier to make a film about a Russian woman living in Memphis (Forty Shades of Blue). When you’re trying to make non-broad character-driven stories, and I’m interested in documentary as forum, so I’m actually trying to get the details right, which makes it even more specific in a certain way.

Going back to Keep the Lights On and Thure's character Erik, I got the feeling he was a little bit a love junkie.
Yeah, and I would agree. He was someone who didn’t feel complete without obsessing over something. I think, no one’s used that term, but I think it’s a good one. It’s better than a sex addict. I mean, I like love junkie... He is someone who just emotionally needs some attachment.

I think that there’s a compulsive need to be connected to another person. And I think the film in a lot of ways is less about addiction and more about obsession. There was something, these two guys, both of them are obsessed with the idea of maintaining their life together. And I think with obsession, sometimes it seems like the most comfortable place to be, because it shuts out everything else because you think, “Well if I can control this situation, then I can control my life.”

So was it emotional reliving this to a degree?
It wasn’t.

It wasn’t really. I mean, I think by the time that I made the film I really believe I’d done all the therapeutic work and transformation in a lot of ways. Occasionally it felt like déjà vu. It was like an odd sensation that occasionally I was creating fictional scenes that were replicating things that were close to my own life. But mostly I just really felt like my life was one of the drawers that we can open. And I was always very willing to share as much as I could with the actors. But I never felt like they needed to try to do anything other than what was natural to them as actors and as people living the story. I mean, a lot of what I think I do as a director is try to give everything over to the actor. So I disappear. I mean, but the helms are their helms. The spaces are their spaces. I don’t rehearse with my actors.

Then what's your methodology of instruction?
I talk to them individually, but I never talk to them together. So really in a certain way it’s more difficult for the actor because there’s a lot of risk, but actually that risk I think is the element that you could actually name in the performance in this film, and in my films in general. I think there’s something risky about it all. This is the moment. So I think to trying to capture the moment means that you’re really valuing the present, which includes the past, but it is about the present which is about the actors, it’s about flirtation, it’s what happens between them.

Did you ever consider not emphasizing the drug use? Maybe there would be some other more acceptable vice like — alcoholism?
An everyday addiction...

Yeah, an everyday addiction, a "legal" addiction, yeah.
You know, I really wanted to be unashamed and unabashed about the truth of my relationship and my behavior, and to not shy away from the details, and to not judge the action. So pot-head, crack addict, different kinds of distractions, different kinds of consequences, but the root of addiction is usually similar in lots of ways. And I feel like the drug use that the film talks about is really prevalent in the gay community at least. It’s something I feel like goes unspoken.

So has your former partner seen this film?
Yeah, he has seen the film. I showed him the film before Sundance. And he’s been very supportive. I mean, I think it’s not him. It’s a story about our relationship as seen through my eyes.

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