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Little Men, Big Movie: Director Ira Sachs On Friendship, Fatherhood, And Finding Your Way In New York

"I wanted to make a movie that my kids can love"

Opening in select theaters this weekend, Little Men, the new movie from filmmaker Ira Sachs, follows a dispute over housing in Brooklyn. No stranger to acting out the dramas of New York rent disputes, Greg Kinnear plays Brian, an actor who loses his father and gains a building through his father’s will that he hopes to make a home.

Brian is able to move into the building’s second-floor apartment with his family — but his father’s friend, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), occupies the building’s first floor with her dress shop, which is kept open through a friendly discount on rent. On his actor’s salary, Brian can’t afford to maintain the discount, and with his sister breathing down his back for restitution, Brian approaches Leonor for a rent hike he knows she can’t afford. Their fight escalates through the film, but even as the dispute loses its amiability, the two combatants’ sons become fast friends, bonding over their mutual dream to attend LaGuardia High School — New York’s public arts high school famous for Fame and for its roster of all-star alumni, from Robert De Niro to Nicki Minaj. Jake wants to paint, Tony wants to act, and neither has much patience for the feud going on between their parents.

The characters in Little Men struggle to see from each other’s perspectives, but the film’s writer and director Ira Sachs never loses his sense of generosity, and the result is a movie that retains all the gentleness and vibrancy of the life that might have been if only everyone didn’t have to worry about making rent. Little Men is the latest of Sachs’s explorations of life and love in modern New York — a subject he began exploring in 2010 with Keep the Lights On and continued in 2014’s Love Is Strange. This week he sat down to talk to MTV about New York filmmaking, children’s theater in Memphis, queer art, and working in a kid’s world.

MTV News: How long have you been working in New York as an artist?

Ira Sachs: I had my first job here when I was a freshman at Yale in 1984, and I had my first job here in the summer of 1984.

Is it a different New York today than it was then?

Sachs: It feels like a different New York, but for me, I'm also living the same story — I'm a version of the same person. And actually so many of the people that I went to college with moved here when we graduated in '87. So I feel like I've had a kind of continuous chosen family of individuals. You can't get rid of them, and we've grown up together, and suffered together, and in a way, that's one of the things about Little Men. The movie is about the nature of friendship and what matters, and I think that applies to both the friendship between the two boys, but also this friendship upon which the plot is built between Leonor and Max, who once owned the shop. Does that friendship “count”? So I moved here full-time in January of '88, and I actually moved to a corner of Brooklyn, on Smith Street, Carroll Gardens, and I was the college kid in a U-Haul coming to a primarily Italian neighborhood, and the street was a Dominican street, and we were the first gentrifiers of that neighborhood.

Gentrification is such a big topic in the city at the moment. Did that play into why you wanted to make this movie?

Sachs: I actually shy away from the term, because I feel like it seems to be a term that implies these issues are only contemporary, and the truth is these issues of space and home and property are age old. If you look at literature for the last 1,000 years, often these are the questions. These questions of economics, and how they infect, or rather how they affect intimacy. And that's probably the subject of all my films.

Certainly in Love Is Strange, that question of how you live and how you love is very intertwined.

Sachs: You can't separate them when you think about both character and drama. Every situation, every scene in some way plays out these sort of overlapping factors of our lives, including this one. There's a bunch of things going on here. In a way, we're also bonding because you went to Wesleyan and I went to Yale. You learn how to adjust, in a certain way. This is partially why I don't rehearse my actors before we start shooting.

Why do you prefer not to rehearse?

Sachs: One of the reasons is I'm really interested in capturing, and I think the camera captures the unmediated process of listening and responding so well. That’s something you can't plan, or if you do, you start to kind of filter out complexity. I also try not to write subtext through a performance, because if you step back, subtext reveals itself unexpectedly.

This isn't your first time working with kids, but how do you achieve that level of subtext when you're working with people as young as Michael and Theo?

Sachs: These were probably two of the greatest actors I've ever worked with. And part of that is their immediacy. There is craft! You can have craft at 12, it turns out; it's just maybe not practiced. I've worked with non-professional actors, I've worked with movie stars, I've worked with kids, I've worked with older people, and I’ve found my job as a director is to cast them well and to understand what they need on set to bring the material to life. And each person needs something different. For me, an actor is really, first and foremost, a person and an individual, more than they are an actor or a professional. And most of what they bring to the camera is something essential. And so I never, for example, ask an actor to transform into some other being. I'm not interested in that kind of performance. I'm interested in what they reveal about themselves through the structure of the character.

This is a multi-lingual film. Do you speak Spanish? What draws you to international perspectives?

Sachs: My husband, Boris Torres, is a painter. He moved to New York with his single Ecuadorian mom when he was 10 years old, to Williamsburg. He was a creative kid who ended up going to LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts, and for me, the immigrant story by nature has a built-in drama, because you are an outsider and you are trying to fit in. My first film was about a Vietnamese African-American young man. My second film was about a Russian woman. Keep the Lights On was about a Danish filmmaker. Alfred Molina in Love Is Strange is a working-class British guy who comes to America and makes this life with John Lithgow. So I'm often interested in that position, but I also love a certain kind of acting style that I would call non-American, which tends to be more detail-oriented and less externalized. There's a kind of naturalism that I often find in non-American actors. I also find that quality in the American actors I work with, but I like to bring in those influences creatively. In this film, we benefitted from the fact that there's a silent treatment going on between the characters, because it meant that Michael Barbieri did not need to speak very much Spanish. In fact, he speaks none in the film. But my kids are bilingual. I have two 4-year-olds, and we raised our kids to speak Spanish. But it's very interesting to me that there is, within the film, a metaphor for some of the challenges that I have in telling stories about people who are not in the mainstream, whether that be gay people or Latin people, or women. Because the store, you know, represents the difficulty for a personal filmmaker, who is trying to make authentic work to survive.

How does money affect your ambitions and how you craft your films?

Sachs: Daily. Hourly. You are always factoring in the economy within the process of creating something, and making decisions that seem both fearless and full of fear. And I felt that to some extent with this film, to make a film about two boys, already defies to some level how movies are marketed.

The kids in this movie are in such a specific age group that kind of exists between teenhood and childhood, but it also exists in a weird marketing glitch. It's like when babies are learning how to walk. There's a brief moment where they can stand but not move, you know?

Sachs: It's also very cinematic because it disappears. I had a very moving moment with Theo last week in Los Angeles. He was describing his feelings as an actor when he was shooting the last scene in this film, when he sees his friend across the gap at the Brooklyn Museum. Without giving away too much, he realized that something was over, and as he said that, I had this recognition that the film to some extent documents the emotions involved in a child in realizing for the first time that there is a past. Because children live in the present, completely. And then once you know there's a past, then you have the room for sadness, and loss, and longing.

Watching the movie, I was struck by the scene at the end when Jake, Theo's character, comes up with the solution that will solve everyone’s problems, and it gets passed over. Kids can be utopic — they live in a different world. For you, what is that world that children occupy?

Sachs: Utopia is something that I think about in connection to an experience I had when I was a kid. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was involved in the Memphis Children's Theatre, which was run by the parks department. It was in the center of the town, and included kids from all different neighborhoods, and all different backgrounds, and so here we were putting on shows, and we were poor kids and rich kids and gay kids and straight kids and white kids and black kids, and somehow it didn't seem to matter in that world of children's theater. I actually almost called the film "Children's Theater." Because to me that's sort of what's playing out here. What I have realized is that I've never, since that time, been in such an integrated community. Particularly with regards to class, I would say.

Well, it's hard in New York.

Sachs: It's hard anywhere. I think that's why you have a divided country, because people, for reasons of kind of security, they tend to move towards people like themselves, and I think that's what happens in the course of this film: The kids learn that you need to be with people like yourself instead of people who are different, and that creates a lot of cultural and political tension. The film in some ways speaks to the divide in our country — certainly around the refugee situation, in many countries, but this is all stuff that I try not to think about when I'm making a movie. I really just try to think about the story, ultimately, and the entertainment.

When you're setting out to write a film, how do you negotiate the message of what you're trying to say, versus the story, versus the characters?

Sachs: I try not to articulate ideas in the film once I've arrived on the plot and the characters. I believe that if I focus my attention with enough compassion and heart on those things, then other things will be revealed, and that's from the education that I've had from the novel. Being someone who has read a lot of novels, and seeing the ones that work and the ones that last has affected my work. I often think of Henry James and Edith Wharton, being two New York writers, who we still read.

Chekhov gets folded into this film through Greg Kinnear’s character. Were his chamber plays an influence?

Sachs: Well, what I noticed watching the film, which I didn't really feel until it was finished and I was watching with an audience, is that there's this sense that the story begins very openly. You enter a world and there's a kind of looseness of the film, and then slowly, the doors start to shut. About halfway through the film, you could describe it as a suspense film, of emotion and of conflict. And I think where the film becomes Chekhovian is that the walls get higher and the struggle inside the home gets harder, and the emotions get bigger. There's something monumental about what occurs in the course of this very gentle film. That's something that I have to trust as a filmmaker, and that's sort of having an instinctual understanding of storytelling. But it's also something that I can do as a truly independent filmmaker, that I couldn't do if I was in the system — including the system of independent film, which is its own industry. And I'm not really in that system. I am in that system for distribution, but not in the model of production. So I don't have a single financer; I have 20 financers. And so no one has leverage to make decisions — and no one wants leverage. They want to trust me. But that's a very privileged creative place.

I've noticed in the last couple of years that you’ve done some work with mentorship programs — queer mentorship programs and filmmaking programs. Has that influenced your approach to making films?

Sachs: I run a nonprofit. I'm the executive director of something that began as a hobby and is now a mission, I guess, which is to create community for LGBT queer artists because of the lack of support —particularly economically, but also communally — for people who want to be honest with that element of their work. What's interesting is that I'm actually describing the Memphis Children's Theatre. That was a hut in a fairgrounds in Memphis where we all entered, and I'm often thinking about what is the apparatus that you build that gives people permission to be a different version of themselves. And for me, even as I'm the person that's maybe creating that permission, I'm also receiving it. And I definitely felt that in the moment I started making Keep the Lights On. I ended up having 400 individuals support the making of that film, and I wouldn't have had those relationships without having created queer art. I have a career now, and I have to say, five years ago I didn't. I'm 50, and you never know what works, but I think part of that is because — in this way that can’t be defined but which can be examined — we cannot work alone.

For you, what is it about outsidership that is creatively exciting?

Sachs: It's familiar more than exciting. You know, I don't think about those things, but it's deep, and it's essential to who I am. The big change that's happened for me in terms of my own life and how outsidership is reflected in my work is that I used to feel extraordinarily isolated in my life as I was trying to figure out who I was and how to have intimate relationships. And so my central characters also were isolated and usually in quite a bit of pain. That's not the case in my 40s. I figured some things out, and I am connected to people in a different way, and so my central characters are now John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, or these two boys, and the challenge is between them as a unit, against the world. Not between the two of them within a home.

How does being a new parent change your perspective?

Sachs: It's humbling, and you're very aware that there is a next generation, in a pretty profound way, and I think that can be inspiring because this is the time you have. Maybe that is also being middle-aged and coming to those discoveries. It’s also that I was interested in making a film that was for children and adults. The market doesn't invite that. But when I think about movies like The Red Balloon or 400 Blows or a wonderful movie called The World of Henry Orient. It's about two girls, I really recommend it, who fall in love with Peter Sellers. It's such a great movie, and the girls are so great, and that was, and that movie, without giving too much away, it sort of has a Hollywood ending, which we attempted initially in Little Men and it was not authentic to the kind of film we were making.

What would a Hollywood ending for this film look like?

Sachs: Resolved. The problems would be resolved. The problems would be overcome. And, we wrote something like that, and the kids couldn't even act it, because it was so antithetical to the kind of life-like reality we made for them in the rest of the film. So I think having kids, I'm introducing them to the cinema, and in New York City you can actually go see Looney Tunes and go see National Velvet. Between Film Forum Jr. and the Metrograph, it's been great and I feel like those types of movies have been lost because Marvel and animated movies kind of own the idea of what childhood wants — and I don't feel that way. So, as a father, I wanted to make a movie that my kids can love.