Posted in: Directors, Interviews

Love and Death – Ira Sachs on ‘Married Life’

Ira Sachs’ Married Life arrives on DVD this week. His follow-up to his Sundance Grand Prize-winning breakthrough film Forty Shades of Blue is an ambitious challenge: a 1940s melodrama of adultery and murder played as wry comedy of manners and directed in a naturalistic style with a modern sensibility. Perhaps comedy is a misleading label. Call it an irony, and a deftly played one at that: a cool, wry noir cast in a sleek yet understated period décor and played with a maturity and introspection in place of overheated emotions. In April, I talked with Sachs about the film, his great cast (Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Rachel McAdams), the period and that subtle alchemy of tone and genre (the biggest revelation was the film’s never-identified setting: “Married Life” takes place in Seattle!). A digest version of the phone interview ran in the Seattle P-I as a “Moment With Ira Sachs” featurette. Here is the complete interview.

What was it about the book, “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” that made you say: “This is my next project.”?

I’ve always been interested in psychological stories and character-driven stories. Right before I started working on this, I’d seen a lot of Joan Crawford movies and Bette Davis movies and Barbara Stanwyck movies and Fred MacMurray movies, a kind of old-fashioned storytelling that was usually over-the-top and larger-than-life in terms of the plot, but something about them really resonated for me personally. So I decided that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make one of those kinds of films without being a retro film. I just liked the way those stories were told. I spent a summer reading old pulp mysteries. People often say that you can make a movie out of a pulp fiction better than a movie out of a classic and I think there is some reason for that because there’s something more you can play with. And what I liked about this book particularly was that in the course of the story, when you learn more about each of the characters, you realize that, at its heart, it’s a really humanist story about relationships. Even though it’s a genre film, it’s also a humanist film. What I thought was quite true about the emotional stakes of these people within their marriages, even again if it’s over the top in its structure, it resonated for me personally within my own relationships.

I’d like to talk about that balance. In between the beats of the genre elements is an ongoing conversation about love and desire and marriage and relationships and what makes people happy in relationships.

That was certainly my intention and I think that what we tried to do, once we had a really good story, then the texture within that. Partially, I was lucky with my cast, a cast that gave a nuanced, emotional, really rich version of these lives that adds a better dimension. And I think in a way that’s the tension in the film, because it is a genre film on some level and yet it’s told in a naturalistic fashion.

It is a really interesting genre mix. I’m a big fan of film noir and the noir aesthetic that permeates a lot of old Hollywood melodramas where men are corrupted by femme fatale characters who look like the platinum blonde that Rachel McAdams plays. But this is not those films at all. She is not a femme fatale in any way and Chris Cooper is not trying to kill his wife for insurance money, he wants to kill her because he thinks it’s the more humane thing to do.

They are obviously very conflicted characters, but they are each driven by their own desires and that’s when people are most complicated. I’m an empathetic kind of director and that’s what I look for in the performances of the actors that I get. And as soon as I judge anything that they do or as soon as they judge anything that they perform, then it’s not going to be as rich. They’re going to live it, they’re going to make decisions, they’re not going to allow the audience to make their decisions.

You’ve got a crime thriller in terms of the plot architecture, when you watch it play out it’s more of a comedy of manners, but the tone is more ironic than comic. That’s got to be a really tricky balance of tone and subject matter to pull off.

But I think all those movies are in all of our heads. They’re certainly in mine and, as you said, they’re in yours as well. So to me, once I had the story, I just tried to approach it as honestly as possible. The beginning of the film, the credits sequence, is an animated sequence that is very playful. I wanted to signal to the audience very early on that what takes place following might be very serious to the characters, but that the audience didn’t need to take it too seriously, in terms of reality. And I wanted to allow the audience to approach the film with all that genre confusion and to enjoy the playful nature.

Ira Sachs
Ira Sachs

Did you worry that this fairly complicated alchemy might not work in practice?

As soon as you do that, then you’re dead. Really, as soon as you as a director doubts – which doesn’t mean you don’t have moments of fear – but if you have too much doubt, then there’s no hope.

Then let me put it this way: what kinds of things did you and your collaborators do to make sure that this alchemy worked?

By being consistently honest about each and every choice. I think that whatever tone it has is primarily because I’m the one who made it, meaning I didn’t have to think about it very much. I happen to be a particular kind of filmmaker who is now working in a film that is more genre driven, so already there’s going to be a strange tone to it, or a surprising tone or a different tone than you might expect from a pure thriller. It’s going to be different from Fatal Attraction or something like that. And I just tried to encourage the actors to approach it completely unintellectually and just approach it emotionally.

While you put together the period look of it, which is very restrained, did you purposely avoid getting caught up in period details to keep it from swamping the story?

Yes, we wanted to use the forties as if they were today, a true story, because we wanted the characters to seem as familiar as possible within their dilemmas. There are no costumes in the film that these actors could not wear today. We tried to steer away from anything that was too foreign to the contemporary audience. But at the same time we wanted to take advantage of the glamorous visual nature of that time and also that kind of moviemaking, so there was an interest in color, it’s a very rich, colorful film. But there’s that old Faulkner line, “The past isn’t past, it isn’t even over yet.” I think that that’s true and I connected to these characters as if they were myself, my parents, my grandparents, they’re people I know.

The color films of that era are generally filled with bright, bold Technicolor colors. You set your film in the middle class and fill it with more toned down hues and earthy colors and, strangely enough, that evokes the period perfectly. But it’s not the way the films looked back then. Why that palette?

We wanted to stay away from anything that looked… You say earthy but we definitely stayed away from brown, too much brown, we wanted there to be a liveliness to what we were seeing. We watched a lot of Gordon Willis movies, to tell the truth. We watched The Parallax View” and All The President’s Men and, without being too self-conscious about it, we tried to approach the images with a sense of a modern palette on some level. And also we’re not using Technicolor, so you’ve got to accept that. It’s not Technicolor so you’re not going to get those colors so why go after them? Also, it’s not a movie that’s trying to refer to old movies as the base. It’s utilizing that language but it’s really a modern movie.

So why make it a period film? Why set it in 1949?

I think that the nature of divorce was different in the forties than it is now. I think it’s just as hard to leave your wife today as it was in 1949, so this could have been set today, but we also wanted to make a movie that was also glamorous. I think somehow the costumes, the looks, the color gives it a kind of movie quality. You’ve got to get people into the theaters. I think people used to go to movies to have identification and now they go to television for that. I think they go to the movies much more for escape. So if you want to create a movie that still has identification, you have to endow it with a certain kind of escapism, which I think this movie has, because of the fact that it’s set in a different time and it’s utilizing a classic movie style.

Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams
Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams

It couldn’t be more different looking, stylistically, than Forty Shades of Blue. Both of them touch on different aspects of relationships, but both off them confront the longevity of relationships, how hard it is to create and sustain romantic relationships, and the kinds of frustrations that people feel.

I think also that they deal with the isolation that one feels within relationships. I think these are very isolated characters, particularly at the top of the film, who know very little about the people they are living with. And in the course of the film, Chris Cooper’s character is the one who goes from the person who knows the least about the other people in his life to the person who knows the most. It’s really that self-knowledge and the knowledge of those around him that give him the possibility for change. And I think that’s similar to Forty Shades of Blue: knowledge is change.

Pat has a line at the beginning that sums up at least one perspective you bring to relationships: “Love is sex. The rest is affection and companionship.” Harry, who more of a romantic, rejects that idea, but part of the rejection also drives him to plot a murder, which is admittedly extreme. Where do you fall in the conversation?

I don’t fall on Pat’s side in that particular discussion and I don’t think she does either. In the course of the movie I think she discovers different things, which we won’t reveal, but I think there are different discoveries she makes which maybe confront her own sense of what love is about. I think love is about texture, it’s about the possibility for intimacy as well as the failure of intimacy and perhaps the acceptance of both.

You collaborated on the screenplays of both Forty Shades and Married Life. For Forty Shades, you collaborated with Michael Rohatyn, who is a composer, and on Married Life with Owen Moverman, who worked with Todd Haynes on I’m Not There. What do you look for in a collaborator and how do you seek one out?

Owen and I are working again. Now that the writer’s strike is over, we’re working on a new project. That was a particularly fertile and wonderful collaboration on this film. I knew Owen’s work from Jesus’ Son, to tell you the truth. I first saw he was a co-writer on that film and I was very impressed with the adaptation. Owen has a great sense of the cinematic pleasures of mise-en-scene and montage, you see this in the Todd Haynes film as well. He can throw everything up in air and it makes sense when it comes down. As a writer, I think I have too linear a mind and it’s helpful for me to work with someone who has a more explosive energy in terms of narrative order and in terms of image. I think I drive the meaning of the film, on some level, I’m very focused on what the film needs to convey. I don’t sell myself as a screenwriter for anyone else and I think there’s probably good reason.

I rewatched the first few minutes before the interview and I was reminded of the fabulous opening where, in the middle of the conversation, you cut away from lunch to the flashback…

Owen! All Owen! I think we really hit a good… We’re both hard-working Jewish boys and I think there is a common sense of value and a common sense of love for the films that we’re telling. I don’t mean to be flippant about this. I think that any collaboration, it doesn’t have to be around religion or whatever it might be, but I think any collaboration is driven by how closely one shares a sense of values. That’s true with actors, that’s true of producers, that’s true with designers. What do you care about at the end of the day? And I think with the right co-writer situation, it’s extremely important that you both care about the same thing. And that was consistent with the two of us from day one on this film.

I think the casting is about as perfect as one could get.

Thank you.

Brosnan is very good at playing the cynic and keeps the audience guessing as what he’s about, because he’s kind of a romantic himself at heart.

There’s an extraordinary vulnerability to his performance that I think was the surprise of the movie, in the sense that you feel how insecure and wanting and needing he is as a character and I think that’s something he’s never shown. He’s a great comedian. He’s got an acrobatic quality as a comic actor that I think is so fluid, if you know what I mean.

He has that elegant Cary Grant-ish quality that he brought to the fore as James Bond, but he does it more self-effacingly here. He knows that he can be the charmer and plays with it.

I think he’s going for the emotions, I think that he’s trying to be as honest about each instance on screen as he can and I think that comes off. Casting him, and giving him the voice-over, insures a wry take on the story that’s being told because he conveys that lightness and that humor and that wit so well.

Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper is marvelous. The moments when you see that frustrated desire… He’s genuinely torn about hurting his wife and you see that in his face, but you also see the yearning that he thinks he’s missing out on something.

I think Chris Cooper is something of a genius. The amount he can convey… He has an almost idiot-savant quality to his acting, he can do so much that it’s almost hard to fathom. And we have a mutual love of performance and acting, of theater and drama, and we had a really great time in the collaboration. It’s a very intimate relationship when you work closely with an actor and I feel very lucky with these four.

You’ve been plugging away for years, making independent films on the outskirts of the industry. This is your first film with a substantial budget, though still small by big Hollywood standards. Is this a studio production or is it independently financed?

Technically independent, because it’s not financed by one of the studios. But it’s the first film I’ve made that has a serious theatrical release. I’ve made three features, this is the third, and each one has had theatrical release, but this one is on a different level of promotion.

Did Forty Shades get you the attention and respect to bring you up to this level, in terms of budget and support?

I really don’t look at it as linearly as that. Maybe I do when I write a script, but I don’t when it comes to… This sounds like bullshit but I actually mean it, I try and figure out what story is compelling me at the time. I’m also a producer, I think in terms of the business even though I don’t let the business dictate what I’m doing, so I think early on I knew that this was a different kind of story and it was built for movie stars, so by nature it was going to be a different kind of production.

It really is built for movie stars. It demands that kind of glamour, even though it’s very low key.

It’s Pierce Brosnan, it’s Rachel McAdams, these are iconic faces. Rachel is young, but she has an iconic nature. Patricia Clarkson, to me it was exciting to have this role for her because she had the chance to be so joyous and playful and sexy. People connect to her the most. Women connect to her as someone that they would know or identify with or they see themselves in, I would say, more than any of the other characters.

Rachel McAdams, who I think is a very modern actress, fits so nicely as a 1949 woman.

Doesn’t she? A lot of it is about costume and posture, I would say. It’s about voice too, I try to listen for anything that seems to modern an accent, but I think she was able to channel the time through sets and costume, shoes, clothes, the whole thing, which gave her a place to start, at least.

When you get her back story, of being a war widow and her husband’s body never being recovered, it illuminates a lot because there is a sadness under the smiles and a maturity beyond her years. You wonder what she’s doing with this married man and it offers some insight.

I think there’s always a question of how much that helps and when does it become a hindrance, and I feel like she performs that scene so well that not only are you learning informing but she’s revealing herself on a different level as well.

We said our goodbyes and hung up, but less than a minute later, Ira Sachs called back with the following bit of information.

I forgot to tell you: the film is set in Seattle. All the license plates, all the location references, that was Seattle. You need to direct the production designer in a direction and so we picked Seattle as a reference. We went up to visit Seattle and do some research, then went up to Vancouver to shoot it. The restaurant they eat at? That’s the Cloud Room, which was a Seattle restaurant in 1949.