Ira Sachs is an American filmmaker who has directed six features: The Delta , Forty Shades of Blue , Married Life , Keep the Lights On , Love is Strange , and now Little Men , which opens in Boston this Friday. Little Men depicts a family feud that begins when Brian (Greg Kinnear), Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), and their teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz) inherit a Brooklyn apartment building from Brian’s late father Max (who remains unseen). They also inherit his favored tenants, Leonore (Paulina Garcia) and her teenaged son Tony (Michael Barbieri); as the two young men become trusted friends, their parents diverge on matters of money, causing intergenerational strife for both families.
We last spoke near the release of Keep the Lights On, and we spent a lot of time talking about the works of Maurice Pialat. Since then I was able to attend a retrospective of his films at the Harvard Film Archive, and at this point I can’t help but see his influence throughout your own films.
IRA SACHS: Maybe I’ve said this before, but it’s the “anxiety of influence.” You can never reach your masters. In a way, that’s a positive thing. “Anxiety of influence” is a literary term; Harold Bloom talks about it. As an artist, you’re always in oedipal conflict with certain people, who you can never kill. But you’re in productive conversation with them. I’m still watching A Nos Amours .
“Conversation” is probably a better word to use than “influence.” I see it in your compositions a lot.
In Little Men particularly, we really stuck to the medium shot, in a way that Pialat influenced. And we were quite rigorous about that shooting style, in a different way than we were in the previous two films. I think you feel that in the movie. I could go on about Pialat. Were you able to see the miniseries that he did?
The House in the Woods . It is amazing. And it was made for television, so if you see it at home then you’re seeing it in the right form. I once saw Olivier Assayas, who I also think is in deep conversation with Pialat. Do you know his work?
His movies mean very much to me as well. I recently had a bunch of friends over just so that I could show them Cold Water .
Cold Water. That movie was extremely important to me when I moved to New York in the early ’90s, and also to Kelly Reichardt, who I shared an office with. We were all blown away by it. And by the parties—I’m still doing party scenes that come from vague feelings about Cold Water’s party scene.
You employ fade-out techniques in Little Men, and they function as vague ellipses, which connects us to Pialat again. In Keep the Lights On, I felt like your use of ellipses was connected to time passing. In Little Men, I felt like it had more to do with structure.
They’re about chapters. And I have to say, a couple of my cinema friends were saying, “No fade-outs! You shouldn’t be using them.” But I felt like the movie was intentionally novelistic. The chapter break is one of the most beautiful things in literature, for me—what happens between the chapter break.
It felt like the first chapter of Little Men is about people on their own, the second chapter is about people in pairs—two sons, fathers and sons, or two mothers—and the third is about people in large groups. If I’m remembering correctly, the first two chapters conclude with people alone, while the third ends with rhyming moments of connection.
I like that you say “rhyming,” because there was some tension in the editing phase about that. This movie wasn’t built in the editing stage—but it was certainly refined in the editing stage. We’d ask: Are those hugging shots refrains, or are they repetitive? It’s an interesting question, because they do follow one another. I question their duality. This idea of a shot that “sticks with you” is connected to something I believe in with films, which is that sometimes the shot matters more than its place in the story. Sure, you don’t get to the shot without the story. But sometimes you want to push the boundaries of an image in order to have it resonate in a different way.
It’s something I’m aware of on the set. In Love is Strange, it’s the scene that’s set on the stairwell—you know that the shot can hold. I had one shot in Little Men that I thought would hold in that certain way, when Tony is rejected by the girl at the disco. He says, “Thank you for being honest,” and then he starts dancing and walks away. We shot something where the camera followed him to the back, almost like a Dardenne shot or something. But it didn’t work. You can imagine rhythms, but then you discover things in a new way. I always think that you make three films: You write a film and you think that’s the movie, then you shoot the film and you think that’s the movie, then you make a third movie when you edit it.
What other elements were shaped in the editing?
The ending was a very big editorial job. Or, editorial discovery. We were questioning what kind of movie we were making. And I was influenced by The World of Henry Orient . I thought we’d make that ending, but it didn’t work for my movie, because [Little Men] is closer to realism. Orient wraps everything up and resolves all the conflicts in a final Hollywood moment, and I couldn’t do that, even though I thought I could. We actually shot that sort of ending for this movie, but it just couldn’t work—we resolved everything, and it felt absurd. There’s a great book called “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” by William Maxwell, an extraordinary writer and longtime literary editor at the New Yorker. That book is about two boys and their friendship, and I would say that we ended up going with the “So Long, See You Tomorrow” ending over the Henry Orient ending.
The film is very deliberate in the way that it parcels out information about the characters. One of the things I thought about was the inference, never directly acknowledged, that Jake’s grandfather might be Tony’s father.
What I will say is that [inference] is the refuge of earlier possibilities of the script. Ultimately that didn’t feel earned, as a narrative turn, but perhaps it’s still layered there. It wasn’t necessarily that he was the son, but there was once more explicitness to the relationship between Max and Leonore. What I found interesting about it thematically is that the film is about the primacy of friendship. I actually believe in their friendship—the one between Max and Leonore. It was significant. I think that trumps the questions of “Is family most important?” And I felt that if it went to the point of a sexual relationship, that feeling wouldn’t be as pronounced.
Instead it becomes this specter of interpersonal relationships that exist beyond familial lines.
I realized that the movie, in a sense, is about two boys fighting against an upstairs/downstairs symbol.
Someone said “Oh, you mean it’s a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story?” And I guess you could say that it’s a “Romeo and Juliet” story. Families are fighting. Two people are having something together. How is it going to survive?
What’s your relationship with melodramas?
I would say this is a dramatic film and not a melodramatic film. Which, in a way, demanded more attention, particularly editorially. I feel like drama takes extra care. Melodrama is closer to the soap opera, which is perhaps closer traditionally to television, and I would even say to contemporary television. Certainly I, like many filmmakers of my generation, grew up under the influence of Sirk and the women’s picture, which for me come from the novel. Edith Wharton is drama and melodrama. If you look at “House of Mirth,” big things happen. I’m feeling lately that one of the things cinema does really well is allow the opportunity for small things to be big. You can be very precise and attentive to the profound ramifications of the smaller encounters that occur between people. I’m beginning to work on a new script with Mauricio [Zacharias, Sachs’ co-writer,] and we talked about going into a bigger direction dramatically, and so far I’m not finding a story to justify that.
Throughout its development, did Little Men do anything to surprise you?
What surprises me now is that it works like a torpedo. It begins in a wide space, and you are entering a world in a very open way, but then the walls start closing down. Its narrative takes hold in an almost theatrical way, and that surprises me as a viewer. There’s tension between forms and styles and performances. I would actually say that it starts out in Pialat’s world, and ends in Chekhov’s.
LITTLE MEN. OPENS AT THE KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA FRI, 9.2. RATED PG.