For someone who never attended film school, Ira Sachs has had a pretty good go of it as a writer and director. His features include “Married Life,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Forty Shades of Blue” and “The Delta.”
When on a Paris semester as a college junior, he skipped the lectures, instead gorging on movies. “In three months, I saw 197 movies, often three per day,” Sachs said during a recent interview in Minneapolis. “That was my education.”
In his new movie, “Love Is Strange,” veteran actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play a longtime couple who get married but must temporarily live apart.
Q: Why is love strange?
A: Strange, to me, is about it being very specific in some way that’s different for you than it is for me. We can never really know what the experience of love is for another human being. In this film, I’m interested in what love is for us at different stages of our life. It focuses on this older couple, but it also examines love in the middle of life, or just learning about love.
Q: That’s a lot of emotional range. How do you imagine your way into those different phases of life and love?
A: You start with the story, this catalyzing event that separated these two people. You build this framework that allows you to run into all these different characters. These characters were very personal for me. I knew two gay cops, one of whom was obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. … When I started working on the film, I married my partner of five years. I went overnight from living alone to living with my husband, two kids, their mom, and occasional visiting relatives. So there was a lot to look at, a lot to take in.
Q: When you are making films about gay relationships and about straight ones, are you making films that are fundamentally different?
A: No. You are making films about characters, and I think you are trying to be specific about who these people are. You try to understand these people as people.
Q: You said recently that when you were making films about straight couples, your films were “queer but not gay.” Can you explain?
A: There is a sensitivity and a sensibility that I have specifically as a gay man that is a part of all of my work. My identification with outsiders, and with characters who are trying to figure out their place in the world, and a certain kind of internal alienation, I personally can relate to, and it’s connected to my queerness. You could also say it’s connected to my being Jewish.
Q: The movie is not being shown at gay film festivals, because Sony wants it viewed as a mainstream film. How does that make you feel?
A: “The Kids Are All Right” is a good model. There hasn’t been a film like that in a long time. If this could be another “Kids Are All Right,” then I think we have created a sense of possibility for gay films and filmmakers.
Q: Tell me about working with seasoned actors like Lithgow and Molina. They seem to really turn it on when working for you.
A: Thank you. I don’t talk that much on set, but I’m very attentive to acting. Actors believe I’m going to take care of them, that I’m going to give them everything they need, and that may include the possibility of real risk on set. I don’t rehearse my actors before filming, and this was new for John. You can’t be a caretaker of actors, you have to have some analytic distance. You can’t be a parent, because that can get you in trouble.