Ira Sachs Talks Gentrification in Moviemaking and Little Men

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Ira Sachs Talks Gentrification in Moviemaking and <i>Little Men</i>

Little Men is a rhythm-of-life movie of matter-of-fact habits—So it Goeswould be an appropriate alternative title if Rob Reiner hadn’t gotten to it first. A boy’s grandfather dies. So it goes. The boy meets the woman who runs a dress shop set up on the ground floor of grandpa’s Brooklyn flat, and instantly becomes best pals with her son. So it goes. The boy’s father and aunt, strapped for cash, determine to raise the tenant’s rent, sparking a civil dispute between the two families. So it goes. The dispute escalates into a war and forces a wedge between the boy and his new chum, though they, possessed of youth’s pure-hearted compassion, refuse to halt their friendship, no matter how much hurt they must endure in the process, and so it goes. Little Men is a warm movie, but that warmth flows on a current of harsh emotion.

And yet nobody here is actually harsh, or villainous, or immoral. Instead, the characters are all kept human. Director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, The Delta, Keep the Lights On) is, much like his young protagonists, too empathetic to allow any verifiable abuse to taint Little Men’s carefully tempered realism, which alternates between sweet and sober with remarkable dexterity for its 85-minute running time. Sachs’ approach results in a film that feels packed, though its brimming qualities are to its benefit: Little Men is compact and trim, but observes its story and its characters with a broader scope, expanding its real life travails into an elegantly composed story of mundane grandeur.

Paste had the opportunity for a sit-down with Sachs at the Colonnade Hotel on the day of Little Men’s screening at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. After chatting about the film literacy of Boston’s local moviegoing crowd, we talked at length about Sachs’ influences—in context with both Little Men and his approach to filmmaking—as well as the ease of working with younger actors, the jading power of adulthood, and the importance of understanding character motivations.

Ira Sachs: I’ve decided that Little Men is actually about the loss of space for the independent movie in the marketplace.

Paste: [laughs] I love that. Yeah. Oh my god, now I really want to rewatch the movie thinking about that. I feel like that’s very true, and very sad.
Sachs: Well, I think that’s just—the film is about, I mean, this makes it sounds really dry, but it is about capitalism, how it affects, how it informs lives. Don’t shy away from that!

Paste: We won’t shy away from that at all. I think it’s impressive that you’ve made this movie where gentrification is such a key component to the plot, and yet it’s never spoken of. It’s an unspoken bogeyman. You see it organically through action and the way attitudes change between key characters.
Sachs: Yeah. And also, “gentrification” is a kind of modern term for the fight over real estate, which is pretty longstanding, for land, and property, and home. And you can also see the kind of classic nature of that fight in the sense that it’s the fight of much of literature, and novels. So I think, what you hope is if you get it right, then you don’t even notice what it’s about. It’s just a story that you connect with.

Paste: To me it felt very organic. It didn’t feel as though you were trying to force a point. It surfaced naturally. How do you balance that? I know that you co-wrote this with [Mauricio Zacharias]—you’ve done, what, three other movies together?
Sachs: This is our third movie. We’ve written four scripts. We’ve got a new script about Montgomery Clift. You know, I think you balance it by your instincts as a storyteller. I think that that’s the primary role. If you’re using all your tools, then your story will resonate on a multiple number of levels, and be an investigation of the time in which you live. That means on a social level, on a political level, on a personal level. All those things are part of good stories.

Paste: I completely agree with that. The experience of the movie for me is that really, it’s foregrounded in the boys, and everything else that happens outside of that—I mean this to be complimentary—it feels a little bit looser. The sharp edge of the movie seems to be about their relationship.
Sachs: It’s interesting, because I almost experienced it in reverse, because the boys have this openness about them, whereas the sharp edges are adulthood, and parents, and the generation of the grown-ups, which is, to me, the intrusion upon the freedom that you see between these two boys and their life with other kids. Even the way it’s shot, you feel like those are sort of expansive moments, and then adulthood is kind of closing in.

Paste: I guess what I mean by “sharp edges” is the clarity of who they are and what they’re about.
Sachs: The narrative is around the birth and resolution of their friendship.

Paste: Which I think is beautifully portrayed. Whenever I talk to filmmakers who work with younger actors, I’m curious to know how they find working with the younger actors versus the Greg Kinnears, the Jennifer Ehles—what’s the difference between them?
Sachs: I can say this, because I can say it universally—kids are easier than any of the adults, because they don’t have adult needs! [laughs] Adults are much needier! So, they understand that we’re putting on a show, and they also, I think particularly in this case, it was literally like summer camp for these boys. There was a lot of joy, and a lack of struggle, I would say, and I think that’s felt in the movie—that we’re having a great time, and it comes across the screen. What was interesting about these two kids, and this is why they’re really great actors, is that without necessarily having the ability to always articulate their understanding, they were both psychologically quite astute about character, and dialogue, and emotions.

And I think that’s what makes a good actor, actually. That’s literally it. It’s impossible to have a great but not intelligent actor. You can have a great actor who’s not well educated; that happens all the time. But it’s impossible to have a fascinating actor who doesn’t have a brightness about their understanding of the world, and people.

Paste: I feel the same way about younger actors, teenage actors. It’s not just that they’re not as needy, they also have, I think you said an openness earlier. They have candor. They’re honest. I feel like that reflects in the performances, but also through the characters. The boys—except when they’re going through their war of silence with their parents—they’re very outspoken. When they first meet, they connect right away and start talking, but the adults, they hold back a lot more.
Sachs: Yeah, I think that’s what you learn as you grow older, and you lose that willingness to kind of take leaps. And that’s what, I think, is really the beauty of childhood, and in a way the tragedy of the film, is that that openness is somehow intruded upon. The film, there is this desire, I think, from the audience—you want more of those kids. I think that’s what we all want. We want more of that feeling of being young, and I guess you hope that somehow you can access certain parts of it as you continue to grow up.

Paste: Would that wanting more maybe lead you to work with these actors again in the future, work with teenage actors again?
Sachs: You can understand why [François] Truffaut worked with Antoine—with Jean-Pierre Léaud—for years after years, because there’s an ongoing story that will shift in time. It’s interesting for me to see these kids. One of them, Theo [Taplitz], is finishing his own short films as a director, Michael [Barbieri] just left to make a movie with Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, The Dark Tower, in South Africa. You’re just like, “What’s going to happen with these kids?” And I think that’s what you wonder watching the movie. “What’s going to happen with Jake and Tony?” It’s unresolved, but hopeful.

Paste: Hearing that I actually think, “Well, what have I been doing with my life?” [laughs]
Sachs: Yeah, of course! They’re 13!

Paste: That’s impressive. I’d heard about The Dark Tower thing.
Sachs: You know what’s also actually even a nicer story, without giving away the end of the movie, Michael did just get into the high school, LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts.

Paste: Oh cool! Good for him.
Sachs: Which was always his dream! That’s where he wanted to go, like in the film.

Paste: I like the word “dream.” I feel like there’s a dreamlike quality to the film, even though I think it’s very real. There’s a battle between what the boys want, what their hopes and their fantasies are, and kind of the crushing weight of what real life and adulthood is like. I thought of this as a real-world fantasy.
Sachs: Well, I haven’t heard that, and it’s interesting to me, because I think really what I did think about was the dreamy quality of cinema, of movies. This is a movie movie. Its register is in an authentic realism. It has flights of cinematic fancy that are, to me, partially what the movie is also about. I think of movies like The 400 Blows, or The Red Balloon—that was an important movie to me. You care about the image, and it has beauty, and simplicity, honesty, all those things. Aesthetically, I think it’s a modernist film. It has very clean lines. It’s not over-adorned. There’s a simplicity of focus that I’m excited about. And it wasn’t easy to get to. The same way with modernist architecture, it’s not easy to get to minimal.

Paste: The more minimal you get, the harder it gets, because if there’s anything that’s off, it really registers.
Sachs: So I give a lot of credit to my editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Mollie Goldstein, in the sense that we really had to refine the film to its finest form—as you always do. But this film, as I said, it didn’t have a lot of fat.

Paste: Someone once told me that great art only includes what’s necessary. Everything here feels necessary. To the actual aesthetic of the movie, I see it as there are three characters: The cast of characters, of course, New York City itself, and Óscar [Durán], your cinematographer. His camera feels like, in some ways, the most significant character in the entire film.
Sachs: I’m so glad you said that, and I agree, and it’s almost hard for me to put my—I’m articulate about a number of things, particularly in cinema, but to describe what he brought is … I would say one of the things he brought is a kind of rigor without being cold. He’s a very warm person, but he doesn’t shy away from analysis, and he doesn’t shy away from taking risks visually. It’s an art film grounded in story, and yet I hope it’s still aesthetic in a way that makes it like an object, if that makes sense.

Paste: Yeah, I think I understand where you’re going with that.
Sachs: I mean, specifically what was compelling about Óscar’s work before this, and I think we were both connected on, was the medium shot, the place of that as a way of telling stories.

Paste: I think it suits very well here. You were talking about Óscar taking risks—I feel that, but I don’t know if it’s something that I would necessarily recognize as risk when I’m watching it, even if it’s just a shot of the kids all hanging out in a circle. You can’t really hear the dialogue, you don’t quite know what they’re talking about, but you’re there.
Sachs: I’ll tell you what the risk is: It’s to make choices and stick with them, and not to protect yourself and overshoot, not to shoot 16 different options when only 1 was necessary. I think that creates a sense of real confidence, when you watch the film, in the visual choices.

Paste: I think “confidence” was one of the notes that I took while I was watching. Where did you meet up with him?
Sachs: You know, he had made a film called … how’s your Spanish? Mine’s pretty bad—Gente de bien [Decent People]. He’s from Spain, but it was actually about children in Columbia, so it had kids in the film, but it was totally aesthetically different from this film. He shot three films for a Spanish director named Jaime Rosales, which, I just watched them and was like, “I want that guy.” Just the way they were shot, the quality of the image—which is generally how I work. I want to be able to see a cinematographer shooting something that looks just like what I want it to.

Paste: Obviously I can’t see the movie through your eyes, but this feels like “vision achieved.” There’s a crispness to what we see in terms of the drama, the characters, and there’s a crispness in terms of what we see in New York City. And I feel like New York City, again, I mentioned that I felt like it was one of the characters in the movie—which is such a cliché thing to say, but so true. Was that important to you, that New York be highlighted?
Sachs: You know, it’s the city I know, and I think movies are an hour and a half, two hours; they’re a brief amount of time, and you try to pack as much life in there as possible, and life is really neighborhoods, communities, homes. I’ve made movies in Memphis, which is where I grew up, and New York, and that’s it, because those are the two places I’ve lived. I think it’s a New York movie because it’s filled with New York people, not just visually, not just the spaces, which are clearly the city, but it’s really the cast and all the extras in the background. For me, that’s where you make a movie—in those details.

Paste: I agree. I think that adds quite a lot to the movie.
Sachs: Yeah. I spent two months more working with Esmeralda Momferratou, who was my extras casting person, before we started production on the film. I spent more time working with her than anyone else on the crew, because to find those faces actually means you have to invest in those communities, in those worlds. In the funeral scene, those were the neighbors. They’re the mix of ethnic backgrounds from that neighborhood. When you’re in the acting scene, those kids are in acting classes. In the soccer scene, those kids all play soccer together in Brooklyn. It’s not like you just pick it out of nowhere. You dive in.

Paste: That’s inspiring. My favorite scene in the movie, probably gonna be a lot of people’s favorite scene, is Tony doing the acting exercise with his teacher. Did I hear correctly that—
Sachs: That is his teacher, yeah.

Paste: I think that’s really essential. I think establishing the reality of New York, whether it’s in the acting class or anywhere else, is essential to making the central point that you’re making, or to telling the story that you’re telling about this matter of gentrification in the city. We’ve been talking so long that I can’t remember if I’ve asked you this already, but is that an important issue to you personally?
Sachs: “Issue” implies that I feel that there’s a solution.

Paste: [laughs] Fair enough.
Sachs: I guess that I feel, as a film director, my job is to be a good storyteller and to be accurate in my observations. So I’m aware that cities are always in a state of evolution and flux, and that the effect of that is on people’s everyday lives. So that’s the story of our cities. Clearly there are things that happen in our cities that I wish didn’t, but that’s not the story of this film.

The other thing is, I think that it was important for me in terms of the drama of gentrification that I didn’t want to stack the cards in any one direction for the audience. Really you’re talking about the drama of the middle class, because these are not aristocrats versus the poor. It’s two families on both sides of the middle-class spectrum, and I think that’s why your allegiance shifts through the movie, and that’s what makes it dramatic and suspenseful. There’s suspense in this movie.

Paste: And there aren’t any good guys or bad guys. There are just people.
Sachs: No. But I think you have to actually as a filmmaker … You know, Patricia Highsmith is a big influence on me, because in every page, you know there is a problem, and you’re trying to figure out how it’s going to be solved. I think that’s what you need to do in any kind of movie, even if it’s a more realistic one.

Paste: I think so, and especially for a movie like this, figuring out how to solve the problem kind of winds up with a portion of heartbreak. You kind of want to take a side, but reasonably you can’t. I think Brian [Kinnear’s character] is very human. Even though he acts like a jerk a couple of times, we get it, and I think if … [pauses to recollect a character name]
Sachs: Leonore.

Paste: Yeah. I was going to say, I wanted to mention that I really liked her in Gloria, and I’m glad you cast Paulina García. She’s terrific.
Sachs: Yeah, she’s amazing. We wrote it for her based on having seen Gloria.

Paste: Oh yeah?
Sachs: And then she agreed to do it. Which was good, because we’d written it for her!

Paste: That works out really well. That’s awesome. We were talking about Brian being a jerk…
Sachs: ...gentrification, Brian, good side, bad side…
Paste: Yes. If the relationship of the boys is the exterior of the film, I feel like the humanity you find in everything else, in the relationships not just between them, but between the adults—I feel like that’s really the soul. I feel like you really want us to see a certain amount of depth to the harsh reality that these people have to deal with.
Sachs: Someone saw the movie and pointed out to me a line in The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir, which I’m now going to write and put above my desk—the line is, “Everyone has their reasons.” I think that’s, for me, a wonderful guiding principle of being a filmmaker, is that your job is to try to understand those reasons, and to give the audience enough information to be involved in those questions.

Paste: I think this movie achieves that.
Sachs: Somehow with that line, which, I haven’t seen The Rules of the Game in 25 years—have you ever seen it?

Paste: I’ve seen it. Now I want to go back and rewatch it.
Sachs: It’s such a deep line! There’s so much loss in there, too. “Everyone has their reasons.” It implies immediately that something is gone.

Paste: And in four words you could convey … honestly, that could be the tagline for the movie. “Everyone has their reasons.” Not that I’m necessarily suggesting that, but…
Sachs: We just got the poster, but…

Paste: [laughs]
Sachs: I think people would be like, “You can’t take Jean Renoir!” [laughs]

Paste: Yeah, I feel like that would be kind of a party foul. But it’s apt!
Sachs: The reason it’s useful to me is actually as a guidepost of how to proceed. I’ve had, in my life, I think Altman is someone who understands, as a director, the nature of democracy in the sense that each person in his films has their story. And that’s a similar idea, to invest in the faces in your film.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.