Out of the darkness: an interview with Keep The Lights On writer/director Ira Sachs
Thu. September 27, 2012 by Gregg Shapiro
I think having an honest relationship is not something that comes easily to gay people.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) The title of the movie, Keep The Lights On, comes from something that Paul says to Erik towards the end of the film, about not wanting be in the dark with him. How did that become the film's title?
IS: (Ira Sachs) I would say in a way that the title has multiple meanings. For me, in a way, you can think of this film in some ways is a result of the story told in the film. It's a film about two men who choose secrecy as a way of life and the destruction of their relationship that comes from that behavior. What I wanted to do with the film was to make a film that is in a lot of ways was about shame, but to do so shamelessly and with the lights on.
It's a look at behavior and how we live our lives, particularly as gay men, and to try to do so without judgment and with a certain kind of transparency, that I think is often absent from gay relationships. In some ways the film's title is a call to arms to the audience to keep the lights on," and to share what we do in our lives with each other because in a way you can think of this film as a document of a generation of relationships in the years after Stonewall, which historically is quite recent. We think we're way beyond the closet, but for many of us, myself included, the closet was something that I came out of when I was sixteen and I went back in soon after in other films and other fashions. There's also a pun around "Keep the Lights On", which is that the film is looking very openly at sex and sexuality and the idea of not doing it in the dark comes with the title.
GS: Erik, the filmmaker character, is Danish. Because this is such a personal story, was that a way for you to put distance between yourself and the character?
IS: I began with autobiography. But ultimately I knew I was making a fictional film that was rooted in a very personal kind of filmmaking, so I never intended the film to be biography. There's a way in which I've made four features and all of them began from a certain kind of intimacy of experience. It's what I offer as a filmmaker.
Ultimately, I make a film in the present when I make a film about the actors and the collaborators that I work with.
When I finished the script for this movie I had a sense that it might need to be cast in a kind of nonconventional kind of way. I sent the script to an agent in L.A., for example, in Hollywood, who wrote back that no one in his agency would be available to play the parts. I think it's because of the nakedness of the material and not just because of the sexuality, but the sort of openness. I looked outside of typical systems of casting and I heard about Thure Lindhardt, who was described as the greatest actor in Denmark. I thought that sounds good and I was also told he was one of the best. He ended up auditioning while he was in a hotel room staying on location for a film. He was by himself and he recorded a couple of scenes on his cell phone and he did all the scenes you could do alone, which meant a series of masturbation scenes. It was clear to me that he was not uncomfortable with the material. In truth the material is just life. One of the things I intended to do with the film was to not separate sex from everyday experience, because for most of us it's not. The film tries not to compartmentalize the way the characters do.
GS: Erik has his own addiction – to phone sex lines. Was it necessary for you to give Erik a dependence of his own to achieve a kind of balance?
IS: I think these are characters, people, who are so in desperate need of connection and love that they search for it compulsively in different ways. There's a great line in an Emmylou Harris song where she says that addiction fits like a glove.
I think for both these men their compulsive behavior is very, very comfortable because it's so familiar. I think also that ultimately, this is a coming of age film and it's a film about two men who believe that the only answer and their only sense of worth is in another person. Also that way they find a sense of stability when they begin to understand and begin to like themselves, which is sort of cliché but actually is a profound struggle for many of us.
GS: Telephones become their own characters in the movie – in addition to Erik's use of the phone sex line – for example, Erik talks about breaking up with someone by phone, he has a very emotional scene at a payphone regarding an HIV test and a phone is an essential source of communication between Erik and Paul - it's how they meet and then it becomes a lifeline.
IS: That's very interesting [laughs]. No one has pointed that out to me, the way in which there is this connection, but it's also from a distance that the film provides.
To depict ten years of a relationship, ten years of life, we did that primarily through the emotional shifts that these characters go through in the course of the story.
But, in a way certain props became sort of totems to a changing society. So the cell phone, the ways people hook up and laptops are three things which define time changing. But, I think what you're saying is very interesting. For me, having gone through this story, at some point in my life, the attempt to connect with someone and that included my partner, through a phone was sort of emblematic of a distance.
I feel like I was often chasing my partner through the phone.
GS: The artwork in the opening credit is by Boris Torres. Is the character of Igor (Miguel Del Toro) based on Boris?
IS: Yes, it is! Boris and I met towards the tail end of this relationship (depicted in the film). The film in a certain way has a happy ending not because you know certain characters might get together, but because there's a sense of possibility in both Eric and Paul's future. I am now married to Boris. We had twins seven months ago. We're raising them with our friend, who is a filmmaker, she is the mother of the kids – we have a three parent household with two kids. In a way what is important to me it that even though I ventured into a much more normative relationship and now I'm married and there's something conventional about all of that and I'm also happy [laughs], which is new in my life. I'm very happy that we were allowed to get married and that we could in New York and how important that has been for us. The difference in this relationship is that it's a relationship that I lived honestly. From the beginning there was an understanding that deceit and secrets were the most destructive part of my life and that honesty was something new and that I needed to give a try. The difference between living a relationship that begins on that note is very, very deep. I think having an honest relationship is not something that comes easily to gay people. Because of our history it was very necessary to keep ourselves apart from other people in our lives and to maintain secrets. I think we've actually developed a whole kind of anthropology based on the idea of that, which to me was something that was necessary to me when I was younger and extremely helpful that there were communities of people who did not see my sexuality wrong or ugly. Now that my life is changing and in a way this film urges people to ask what is the residual element of the closet that we still hold on to?
GS: Because artwork also figures prominently in Keep The Lights On – the visual art component including the work of Avery Willard is incorporated – would you say that that was Boris' influence or was that something that you were already aware of and interested in on your own?
IS: Boris is a painter. His work is very open, funny, sexual and unabashed. There is a joyousness to Boris that comes through his work and I wanted to include in the film. The film is about very dark times, but there is a level of pleasure. This is central to movies and to the hunger for life that these characters have. In a way a film like Goodfellas was a big influence for us, we watched the film several times because Goodfellas is a film about bad behavior and had great energy and a lot of color.
In a way what we wanted to do was depict this behavior, but not judge it and not demonize it – actually just embrace it as well as its consequences. And not shy away from the effect of drugs in our lives and communities and the effects of compulsive behavior; also to not do so with distance and judgment. I think the film layers different attempts of different artists to depict what gay life looks like now. So you have Boris' paintings, the filmmaker who is making a film about Avery Willard, the photographer and filmmaker in the fifties and sixties who tried to document gay life at that time. You have Jim Bidgood in the film, the guy in purple that talks about Nixon's face and made Pink Narcissus in the late sixties, early seventies. In some ways you could say the film was an attempt to make visible certain elements of gay life and gay history.
GS: I'm glad you mentioned that because the late Arthur Russell's music can be heard throughout the soundtrack.
IS: I saw the film Wild Combination. It was very compelling to me as well as the music which I just connected to so deeply. I had an idea to use Arthur's music they way used Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate and the way that Aimee Mann's is used in Magnolia. I thought I can take Arthur's tunes and create a score from that music.
In a way I think Arthur's music becomes another character in the film. It has great humor and it's messy and it's full of melancholy and full of passion. One thing I've noticed since I finished the film is that the last, end title song in the movie, is called "This is How We Walk on the Moon." In a way that title speaks to me about the whole story of the film. What's very moving is that most of Arthur's music was not heard in his lifetime.
When I hear "This is How We Walk on the Moon," which in some ways can speak to his own relationship with Tom Lee, his partner who then maintained his work and kept it alive so that people could ultimately hear it; thousands of people are now hearing that song when they go to this movie and it had nearly disappeared. That's what I hope the film manages to do is bring back Arthur and make him part of our lives, but also bring back the story of gay life today and share it.
GS: Was Keep The Lights On in the works before Bill Clegg's book "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man" was published? And do you know if Bill has seen the movie?
IS: My ex and I agreed not to talk about each other [laughs]. But, I can say that my ex saw the film and he gave me his blessing.
GS: What's next for you, Ira?
IS: I'm working on a new film called, Love is Strange, which is the story of two men who've been together for twenty eight years. One is 63, the other 73. At the beginning of the film they decide to get married. The film opens with a wedding and they go off on their honeymoon and when they come back – one of them is a choir director for an all boys catholic school he gets fired and loses his job and they end up losing their apartment.
The film is about the community that comes together to try to take care of these old guys and how they end up separated for a period and try to get back together and get back to their home.
It's the first film I'm making about the potential for a relationship to blossom over time, instead of destruct. In some ways it's a projection of what I hope in my relationship now has the potential to grow. That's something that I think is very new in gay life in many ways – at least for me.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
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