New York filmmaker Ira Sachs made his feature debut over 15 years ago with gay teen romance “The Delta” in 1996, and has been steadily making sultry, experimental cinema ever since. This weekend, Sachs gives Valley audiences his most personal picture to date: the semi-autobiographical “Keep The Lights On,” now playing at Harkins Shea in Scottsdale.
“Keep The Lights On” tells the story of two men’s tumultuous, decade-long love affair which is fueled by drug addiction, sexual compulsion, but most of all, irrefutable passion. Starring Danish actor Thure Lindhart and Zachary Booth, the movie has been a hit with critics since its Sundance debut and picked up the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Sachs recently chatted with the East Valley Tribune about the challenges he faced writing and shooting “Keep The Lights On,” what his ex thinks of the film, and how Scorsese inspired his work.
I read that “Keep The Lights On” was based on a long-term relationship you had with literary agent Bill Clegg. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process and why you felt inspired to tell your side of the story on film?
I always find that I need to have a very intimate relationship with the material before I feel ready to write a film, and I feel like what I have to offer, in a way, is what I know and what I’ve experienced. With this film, it was maybe even more personal than ever. I really began with journals and emails and the stuff of the 10 years of the relationship I had been in. I had ended the relationship in 2007 and I had started one in 1997, and I had a sense that there was a very good story there. I wanted to tell that story and I wanted to do it with as much detail as possible, and also with as much honesty as possible: to really not try to judge my own behavior or really, the behavior of the characters. Ultimately, it becomes a film about (the characters) Erik and Paul, so it’s not an autobiography, but it comes from a place that’s very personal.
Were there any films that inspired the style or look of the movie in any way?
There were many, including “Goodfellas”; that was a big influence on the film. It’s a film about a man that’s trying to juggle everything at the same time and having difficulty doing so. It’s also about bad behavior told with great energy and color and cinematic passion. There’s this kind of compulsive energy from a film like “Goodfellas” that we tried to retain. Also “Mean Streets”. I think Scorsese in general and his relationship to New York was one that was very informative for us. We wanted it to be a kind of bright and vivid dream kind of film.
Could you tell me about the casting of Thure Lindhart as Erik?
You know, everything rides on casting and I needed someone who could make this character very alive and active. I had a sense that I might have to look outside the U.S., based on the nakedness of both the material, the role and the emotions of the story. I heard about Thure, who was described to me as “the bravest actor in Denmark” and I think he is brave, but what I think is even more sort of powerful to me is how alive he is. Someone recently compared him to a young Jack Nicholson, and I think in some ways I can understand that comparison. There’s something always going on on his face and you never know what might happen at any moment. He was just nominated, by the way, for the “breakthrough actor” award for the Gotham Independent Film Awards here in New York, so I think his performance has been recognized as very unique and very powerful.
What were some of the challenges you faced shooting this movie?
Raising money is always a challenge; I think that was the initial one. I thought a lot about independent filmmaking from the perspective of independent meaning “freedom” and the certain freedom to tell a story without any shame, if that makes sense. I think in some ways, since I raised all the money privately and from fellow New Yorkers, I had the ability to sort of tell this very open story; I wasn’t hindered by investments, in certain ways.
Other challenges, I guess, were finding a way to convey the history of a decade in an hour and a half film, you know, what was necessary? What I started to do was focus on the emotional changes that the characters went through instead of, you know, hair and makeup. This is a film that, in a way, reads like memory and in memory, you don’t actually change: you just remember the emotional impact of the moment of one’s life and I think that’s what the film leaves the audience with, this sense that they’ve had an intimate relationship with the history of this couple. People tend to feel that they really know these characters by the end of the movie.
I feel there’s also a real familiarity that people tend to find with the dynamic of the relationship so after screenings, people often speak to me about their relationships, about their marriages, about their divorces. That’s the kind of intimacy that the film creates with the audience, which is very rewarding.
Has Bill seen the film? If so, how did he react?
He has seen the film. I would say that he gave me his blessing, in the sense that he supported that I was going to make it. At the same time, I would say that it has perhaps created some distance between us.