Celebrated filmmaker Ira Sachs is a 6-time Spirit Awards nominee known for such critically acclaimed films as KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, LITTLE MEN and LOVE IS STRANGE. His latest, FRANKIE, tells the story of a three-generation family get-together in the fairy-tale town of Sintra, Portugal. Over the course of one day, secrets and unresolved feelings will unexpectedly come to the surface. Starring Isabelle Huppert as the titular matriarch and an international cast including Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Jérémie Renier and Greg Kinnear, it premiered in competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival earlier this week.
How has your Cannes been?
It’s been going great. Last night I was with a friend Karim Aïnouz who has a film in Un Certain Regard. We were together 17 years ago when he had his first film here and I’ve just been thinking about what happened in… life over these 17 years. And also about creating a sustainable career making feature films, which was not a given in 2002. So.. it’s great, it’s rewarding.
So this is not your first time being at the festival.
It’s not my first time at the festival, but it’s my first time being in the festival.
How has the experience been different?
Well I think you’re more central to some conversations going on here. Also the history of Cannes is the history of a kind of cinema – in particular French cinema but also world cinema – I’ve been very engaged with in my life, so it means a lot to me to be here. It feels like a welcome.
And you’re in the official competition as well. What’s that like?
Being at festivals, it’s always a vigorous, sometimes violent experience. Every time you premiere a film, whether at Sundance, or Toronto, or Cannes now, all of which I’ve done, there’s always an element of a brutal encounter with capitalism.
A festival is a public forum that celebrates cinema, but it’s also a market, a place where the forces may be that buy and sell the products come together. When I was in Toronto with my first film in 1996, THE DELTA, the whole festival took place at the Sutton Hotel and I remember there was one escalator that went down to the festival market, and another escalator that went down to the dentist convention. That was a really wonderful parallel because there are very famous dentists and there are conversations about what it means to be a good dentist. And in a way having those images is really helpful at a festival, because it’s important not to take yourself too seriously and understand the juncture between making things that are very personal and bringing them in a marketplace, that it’s a transitional moment.
Still, first time being in Cannes competition, was that intimidating?
I think it creates anxiety but I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating. I’m 53, I have a more developed sense of myself than I did when I was 33, so I think I’m not as transient in my experience. It’s nice to be here with a group of people you love and made the film together with. I’m here with my husband and… you just need to find the humor in it.
Many people have come to associate you with New York-set films. What prompted the change to set FRANKIE in Portugal?
Well I used to be a Memphis filmmaker, that’s where I made my first two features. But I’ve lived in New York for 30 years so I’ve been making films there. I saw a film by Satyajit Ray called KANCHENJUNGHA made in 1962. It’s about a family on vacation in the Himalayan mountains and I saw the movie 15 years ago. The film really affected me, and I like the structure of the film, that it’s about a family on vacation and it takes place over the course of one day. For years I’ve thought about using that idea to make my own story. So when Isabelle Huppert approached me about the idea of working together, this felt like the right project for us to do. Both of us would be in a place we don’t call home. For me traveling is about what you discover but it’s really more about what you leave behind. In this film, for example, you notice that the characters never pay attention to the scenery – the movie does. The characters are always placed very specifically within nature. By shedding their everyday rituals of home, in a way you get a very exposed version of family relationships. They’re closer to each other, they have nowhere to hide. And it was also shot in the daytime, so there’s a lot of exposure.
How has the creative process been different shooting in Europe?
I spent four months in Lisbon before I shot the film, and over the last couple of years I’ve been there three or four times and got pretty familiar with the location. I was also working with an all-Portuguese crew based off of Lisbon. And the advantage was that there’s less film production in Portugal than there is in New York, so I was working with a set of peers who were my age. In New York I’m often working with much younger people because there’s so much opportunity for jobs. So I felt I was working with a bunch of other 50-year-old’s who shared a really similar intimacy with the same kind of cinema that’s been most important to me. So I felt like I was making a film in a community of people whose references were the kind of movies that I’ve always loved. So it felt very intimate. We had a sense of family between us.
So the creative process also a communal effort?
I think filmmaking is always a communal effort, and in each stage for me I had a most significant creative partner. I mean you make several different films in the process of doing one. So you write a script and you think that’s the film. Then you shoot a movie and you imagine that’s the film. And then you end up editing a third film and actually that’s the film. In each stage I had a chief collaborative partner. In the writing stage I had a co-writer, in the shooting stage I had a cinematographer, and in the editing stage my editor. In a way those are the marriages that make up the film, so I’m… promiscuous.
Was the final film very different from what you set out to do?
You know you forget the movie you wrote, the only movie that lasts is the movie you finished. That being said, I think the challenges – and opportunities – of the film were ones of balance and had to do with nature. Because we were shooting the story of one day in Sintra over 30 days. And Sintra is a micro-climate that changes very quickly and dramatically. So we had to accept that over the course of making the film. Often we would have two alternative locations on a day. There’s a moment where you think the weather is your enemy, but then you realize every crisis is an opportunity. Which, perhaps you can say is the theme of the film.
Could you elaborate on that?
This film, I think you can say it’s about illness and death, but it’s really a film about life. It’s about opposition, about contrast. What the film asks is for the audience to recognize that you live until you die, and life is full as it is. That’s my experience of having been around people who were sick and being totally surprised by how much life was in the moments of being together. The crisis is the vessel that draws attention to the preciousness of the moments.
What was it like directing Isabelle Huppert, arguably one of the greatest living actors?
You know it was very intimate. It was very rich. She’s a wonderful person. She’s a very curious, interested, open, present person. She’s strong, but she’s kind. She’s not interested in powers separate from her beliefs. She has a strength that’s very attractive and it asks for strength from you. And she’s fun to talk to. She likes to gossip and I think the most important thing to her outside of cinema is her family, and I relate to that. She’s connected to people. In that way she’s very different from the image, which is so isolated. She has long relationships, she has intimate relationships, her relationships have histories and textures. She’s full of content. That’s part of what I wanted to access in FRANKIE. And if I had asked Isabelle of anything, it was to be, and not to do. To let her natural self come through the role. That being said, she’s a great actress. She has skills that are… she’s a genius.
What are some of the qualities that make her unique as an actor?
I think it’s her attentiveness, and how well she listens, and how, in the process of listening, her emotions are present and refined and ever-changeable – like the weather.
She’s also just endlessly watchable on screen, isn’t she?
I think she has a quality that… I’ve thought about this before, like what is a star? It’s like a person who emits light, and also draws your attention. And I’d also say that comes naturally, because off-screen you also want to watch her. I think that’s because she’s so alive. Which is true of Marisa Tomei, but in a different way. I think Marisa has this unique ability in a film to exemplify the richness of experience. Like her emotions are so relatable. That’s why I think she’s been so successful as an actress. Marisa doesn’t want to do anything that’s not authentic. She’s very different than Isabelle, she tries things out in every scene. There’s this volcanic quality like there’s so much going on, and yet she has the ability to control it through great craft. With this film you’re watching the actors in a movie but the shots are very long, so you’re also just watching the performance as you also are identifying or understanding the characters. You’re never not aware of both at the same time. You can say the film is about joy. And one of the joys of life is theatrics, it’s entertainment, it’s performance, also beauty, colors, music.
What’s always impressed me about your films is the truthfulness of your voice and how you don’t resort to easy plot devices. How do you keep the audience engaged?
Well there needs to be a story and an emotional arc. And I’m interested in suspense, believe it or not. But that suspense can be about the process of getting close to someone. So it’s like meeting someone for the first time and you know them from the exterior. And slowly, over the course of a movie or over the course of a life, you get to know them in new ways. So it’s like a reveal. I think that’s what keeps the audience connected. You know I think I’m much nicer as a director than I am as a person – to some extent. I mean that because as a director you have to have empathy for everyone, and in life that’s not as easy. You know, sometimes you’re catty or you’re mean or jealous. You can’t be jealous as a director.
I thought directors are all control freaks?
No, you actually have to create an opportunity in which you let go. You have to create a very precise atmosphere and set where the actors are given everything to do what they need to do without you. As soon as you try to control too much, you start to have a language between yourself and the actors which limits the possibility of the unexpected. They also start playing towards you, and actually what I want them to do is to be with the other actors on the set.
So the unexpected is what you’re looking for?
That’s really all I’m looking for – within the construction of a narrative that’s very precise and written. I’m looking for an emotional improvisation. Actors are always giving me things I couldn’t have written.
Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei are just two members of a large international cast. How do you approach working with such a varied group of actors?
Well I wrote the part for Greg Kinnear, I wrote the part for Jérémie Renier, I wrote the part for Marisa and Isabelle. I didn’t write the part for Brendan Gleeson but I’ve wanted to work with him since 2002, so I knew what I could get from him. Basically you try to be attentive. As a director you need to understand what an actor needs to give you their best work. And that could be Isabelle Huppert or a 14-year-old girl like Sennia Nenua, and it’s always quite different. Your job is to be sensitive enough to understand what makes them feel comfortable and free. Then you set everything up and you get out of the way.
As a celebrated queer filmmaker, do you consider the label of queer films still relevant?
I do. I started an LGBT arts non-profit called Queer Art ten years ago with which I support and mentor young artists in film, visual arts, performance, literature. And I think that’s in recognition of the difficulty of anyone of doing really personal work in the economic environment that we live in. And I think to identify as queer is still bold and still necessary. I think sub-cultures are beautiful. They may come from negative forces but they allow for freedom. I love being in a room full of other queer artists. It’s unique and there’s a history that we share. And for me I’m interested in the vertical story and not just the horizontal.
The vertical story meaning?
The lineage. Part of my lineage is being a gay man, and a Jewish man, and a lot of other different things. You know I often think this table, for example, would be very interesting if our grandmothers were sitting here with us. And they are, in a certain way. We’re at the table with them. They are so intimately a part of us, even if it’s not visible. So in this film, for example, there are a lot of stories told where people, very briefly and succinctly, make reference to where they’re from. For me it was very important making a film in Europe to remember the generation just before. So both the characters of Michel and Frankie talk about their parents in the film. They talk about Europe in the 1940s and 50s. Frankie says “it was important to my mother that I don’t marry a Jew”. Which is really a deep part of being a European – the possibility and the violence of antisemitism. The film is not about that but it’s the history of these characters.
Would you consider FRANKIE to be a queer film?
Well, I’m wary of describing any film by a queer person as queer. That being said, I think FRANKIE is a women’s film. I think it’s a film that monumentalizes vulnerability. And it’s my film.
There’s something poignant about the way Gregory Pascal’s (gay) character observes Frankie from afar as she herself observes her husband with a potential new partner. It reminded me of the cinematic queer gaze.
That’s interesting because I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. I hadn’t thought about him standing in for me the director either but in a lot of ways he does. He’s the observer, he’s the person who knows all. And he’s outside of the hetero-normative structure of these relationships, a gay man – played by a gay man, which was significant for me.
I know we’re at Cannes. But do you also follow the Oscar race?
Sure, it’s part of my culture. It’s not what drives my work, I try to do work as personal as I can. How it’s received is another thing. But I particularly feel that in this film there are performances that deserve attention. I think the actors are doing some beautiful, subtle, sublime work.