Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth.
Nate von Zumwalt
‘Keep the Lights On’ is returning to New York theaters this Friday, December 21, at Cinema Village. Below is an interview with director Ira Sachs that was originally published in September to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.
The christening of films as brave or fearless is among the more abused banalities of film criticism. It’s a tendency that is particularly ubiquitous in the world of independent film, where seemingly every production involves an element of peril, whether it be creative, financial, or otherwise. So when a film like Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On comes along, we’re quietly impelled to reassess our labels.
Keep the Lights On, Sachs’s second feature since snagging the 2005 Grand Jury Prize with Forty Shades of Blue, is about as creatively precarious as they come. It’s a heartrending semi-autobiographical drama that chronicles the ecstasy, the agony, and the utter hysterics of a 10-year relationship between two men in 1990s New York. It’s one thing that Sachs is able to find the courage to vividly broach and revisit such an emotional phase of his life; it’s another that he has the valor to share it with us. In doing so, he displays an incredible aptitude for chronology, managing to convey the intimacy and depth of a decade-long love story despite the constraints of a feature-length reel.
A pair of stunning performances from Danish actor Thure Lindhardt and up-and-comer Zachary Booth bring to life a script that is both beautiful in its honesty and excruciating in its vulnerability—an authenticity actively sought by Sachs. With this latest effort, he invites viewers to walk step-by-step with him on a journey of love and addiction. The New York-based director took a moment recently to share some thoughts on morphing his real life experiences into a work of fiction and discuss how audiences have responded to the film thus far.
Given that this is a semi-autobiographical film and an intensely personal story, why was now the right to make this film?
Ira Sachs: It’s a story about shame that I wanted to tell shamelessly. But in order to be ready to do that, I needed to get to the point that I didn’t judge myself for my past behavior and my past history. In a way, the film is kind of the answer to the story in the film—it’s what happened next, which was that I began to live life openly and honestly, and tried to maintain a kind of transparency that had been very difficult for me before.
There is an extreme level of emotional and physical intimacy between your two lead actors, Zachary Booth and Thure Lindhardt. What was the acclimation process like for them in preparation for these roles?
IS: I think anyone who agreed to take these roles was in some way already comfortable with the idea of exposing themselves both physically and emotionally. The process of them getting to know each other was very short. There is some sort of shortening of the history that is necessary to create intimacy, and I think actors are smart enough to know they need to be close to the people they’re going to be working with—particularly if they’re going to portray a relationship. With Zach and Thure, we didn’t have traditional rehearsals. We never read the script together, they never performed the lines before we started shooting. But I did set up opportunities for them to get to know each other. They went out one evening in New York and they saw Billy Elliot together—that was the rehearsal process.
What was the writing process like for this film? Did you rely on actual materials from your relationship in order to summon particular memories?
IS: The script for the film began when I pulled my journals, my emails, my Post-its, my notes, out of a drawer, and I tried to review what those 10 years had looked like. And in a way the structure of the film mirrors those journals, because the 10 years are depicted in a series of events, and there’s often gaps between those events, which are the moments between scenes. In a way it plays like both diary and memory. I worked with Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, who really was able to take the raw material that I had and construct it in a narrative that worked for film.
It seems there would be plenty of obstacles inherent in squeezing a 10-year relationship into a two-hour timeframe. What strategies do you use to portray time as the story progresses?
IS: In terms of shooting, we chose not to show time via the actors make up or hair, but by the emotional transitions. We also had small markers of change by props in the film—so the changing cell phones, the changing ways in which we chronicle how gay men meet, the changing of computers—those are the ways in which time is depicted in the film. And what I found is that the audience accepts the story and accepts the length of the story when they leave and they feel that they’ve lived the relationship.
What has the audience reaction to the film been like?
IS: What’s been most rewarding for me is that anyone whom I get a chance to speak to after a screening tends to start talking with me about their own relationships. The film in many ways works as a tabula rasa, in which people can project their own histories. The dynamic between the two men, Eric and Paul, is a very familiar one. To me this film is no more a ‘gay film’ than Forty Shades of Blue was a ‘Russian woman film.’
And it’s interesting to me that people need to define it in that way—what I find is that audiences don’t. Audiences leave the film understanding that this is the story of a relationship. They recognize that in their own lives there is a lack of separation between gay and straight people in our communities, in our circle of friends. We don’t’ look at each other as being opposite—we are connected. There is actually a great familiarity that most people find in the characters in Keep the Lights On, which is quite encouraging.