Ira Sachs was watching Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjungha, a film set in the Himalayan mountains centered around nine stories of nine characters on a family vacation and how it all comes together. The structure of that narrative inspired Sachs as he began Frankie.
Sachs weaved a story together about a family who go on vacation together. Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) has gathered the relatives, not for a fun vacation, but because she is suffering from a terminal illness. It’s a story about a complex family and love set in the resort town of Sintra. I caught up with Sachs to talk about how shooting in Sintra aided his narrative and writing a script when he has the actors in mind.
I loved the idea of a movie about the family, all these people and this great ensemble, instead of it being a disastrous family holiday; you have a terminal illness. How did that happen?
I think about ten years ago I saw a movie about a family on a Himalayan mountain top. It was an Indian film with nine stories, and I really loved the structure of that film, and I loved the effect of that film. Part of the effect was in consideration of when you’re a tourist and you’re traveling, you’re freed from every day and what that does sometimes is make the relationship to the person you’re with, more intense because you can’t hide. This film is also a film today primarily in the daytime and primarily outdoors. There’s very little shadow and very little cover. I think that exposure to something is very palpable in the film.
As soon as I visited Sintra in Portugal which had been recommended to me by my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias as a place to shoot, I was taken with the power of the landscape, not just the beauty of it, but it’s emotional content for me as a visitor. I remember when I went to visit the Grand Canyon, to me; it was like being on a different planet, so I had a different relationship with gravity and myself. I guess I felt a bit like that in Sintra. I knew it was a place that would also evoke the relationship between these characters and nature and the natural order of things.
You talk about working with Mauricio, and this is your fourth film together. What’s that process like now that you’ve been working together for so long?
There’s a nice working strategy that we’ve established. Our process begins around several months of conversation around movies that we’re watching together and also around our lives. we’re able to float between the stories we’re telling and the lives we’re living very naturally. He’ll suddenly tell me a story about his nephew, and I’ll be like, “That’s a good scene.” I think that’s significant because it brings a present tense to our work and human quality to them. We also support each other in being interested and believing that the stories about everyday life and that everything is inside those stories. We value each other and give each other permission to tell stories that aren’t simple.
Talking about the exposure, you have the opening scene where you have Isabelle Huppert in the pool. It shows so much of the setting and there’s something so serene about it too.
We had to have the camera far away to be honest. [laughs]
But your cinematography is stunning in that scene.
I was very lucky to be working with Rui Pocas who is also Portuguese, so I was a foreigner there, but I was making a film with a crew that was 95% Portuguese and I think that was really significant to our intimacy with the place. We were always looking at — and I think I always try to do this even when it’s set inside people’s homes — I’m always interested in looking at the character in the context of the space around them. The camera always allows for air. There are no closeups in the film. You can’t remove the character from the space, so the character becomes a part of that space.
You also have that bookmarked with that beautiful shot on the mountain at the end.
When I discovered that location on top of the hill in the Sintra region, I knew where the film was going. I’ve learned a lot from Altman, and there can be a sense that the film digresses, but for the audience has to feel that there’s a sense that there is always a direction and then they will give you space to move left and right. They have to believe a story is being told with the beginning, middle and end. That mountain top for me was the crescendo. It was the finale. It was also the place where the cast was going to have an exit, they leave the stage. That’s very significant because they leave the empty stage which will be there when they’re all gone.
You’ve got a great ensemble and I love how you introduce them one by one, did you write with the actors in mind?
I often write with actors in mind. Rarely has it happened that so many of the actors then agreed to do the movie which was this case; I was writing with Isabelle in mind and we wrote Marisa in mind. When I started to think about the character of Gary, who is somewhat a fool in the film, I knew I could give the fool heart by working with Greg. I think it’s pretty impressive that he makes you end up feeling for him.
I think I’m also reflecting on my own life. I have an Ecuadorian husband. I have a Brazilian collaborator; I worked with a Romanian script supervisor and I had a Tunisian producer. I don’t live in a singular kind of homogeneous world and my films often reflect that. In the past, I’ve worked with Chilean lead actress, a Danish lead actor and a Russian lead actor, and I live in the world.
What about the use of music in the film? You’ve worked with Dickon Hinchliffe before, how do you discuss the idea of the score for the film?
This is the fourth film I’ve done with Dickon. As soon as we discovered the piece by Schubert, I felt that was where the score would generate out of. The music that Isabelle plays in the film, is the theme of the movie. It’s the thing that we keep coming back to, but often in parts, whether it’s through the score or through her playing. In the end, you are given the whole piece for the first time. I’m always interested in music in film which seems as if it can exist on its own plain without the film. I don’t want the music to be too directly to be used as a way of direct commentary or embellishment of the image.
I asked Dickon to write without ever having seen the movie and what was felt through the script.