Interview of Ira Sachs, Director of Married Life
byEmily S. Mendel
I met with Ira Sachs, director of Married Life on February 14, 2008. His previous film, Forty Shades Of Blue, was the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner. His first feature, The Delta, was screened at the Toronto, Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals. The following is a shortened transcript of the interview.
ESM: I had the pleasure of seeing the film a few nights ago. I’m a big forties film fan, and so I wasn’t sure whether that would help me enjoy the film, or…
Sachs: Hold this against all those movies you love.
ESM: But I just thought it worked perfectly. Chris Cooper at one or two points looked like George Montgomery to me, with the slicked back hair….
Sachs: Right, right. I think more of Edward G. Robinson for some reason.
ESM: He [Chris Cooper] is slightly better looking than that.
Sachs: He is much better looking than that. Particularly in Woman in the Window, there is some kind of emphatic, empathic quality that [Edward G. Robinson] brings out in me as an audience member that I think Chris Cooper really has. Also, there is a little Fred McMurray in Chris. I think, maybe I didn’t bring it out as well, but there is a humor to Chris Cooper in this movie…
One of the things that has been interesting about this film is that the whole premise is in itself funnier than we knew it would be. The whole premise that instead of divorcing her he is going to kill her puts the film in the darkly comic more than a lot of those forties films, which took themselves much more seriously.
ESM: Or screwball comedies?
Sachs: You could consider this a comedy of remarriage. Instead of the noir films, it’s in the line of Bringing back Baby
ESM: Or The Awful Truth…
Sachs: Yes, The Awful Truth…This is a story of a couple going to the extreme…
ESM: …and then coming back together…
That brings me to a question about the ending of the film. We see the main characters…they all seem so at ease. I was wondering whether you wanted to portray them as having gotten over that experience.
Sachs: I think that there is a level of acceptance that the characters have experienced in the course of the story. I’m trying to show that every picture is probably more complicated than you might imagine from the image…
ESM: So this scene of a happy group of friends…
Sachs: …You know, what is drama except trying to understand the complexity of those relationships…And also in terms of the performances, I think there is an incredible sincerity to what the actors are portraying in the film…I’m not saying that the audience needed to love the characters, but the film has compassion for the characters. As a director, as soon as you judge anything, you make it less interesting. I think the same is true with an actor.
ESM: I was very interested in some of the facial expressions that Chris Cooper used in the bedroom scene when he sees the lover running away, and afterwards, when he reconciles with Pat. For the first time, I really saw a deeper side of Harry.
Sachs: Well Chris Cooper almost has an idiot savant nature to his performance in the sense that he doesn’t articulate everything he does, and yet, it’s so rich what he can achieve in every little bit of the movie.
Someone asked Chris whether the movie was improvised at all. It’s a very scripted film and formal in a way, but for me, one of the things you get from a great actor like Chris Cooper is that improvisation happens between the words. How he gets from one place to the other is something I could never write, but it’s in those movements that the depth of the performance is achieved…Patricia Clarkson said she felt that she was doing Bergman in the middle of this…
ESM: That’s a nice compliment.
Sachs: Yes, it is a nice compliment…I don’t have to say it myself. I can say that she said it…The film has a kind of film structure, and yet the performances are very richly detailed in what I think is a pretty modern way.
ESM: I also felt that the screenplay was modern. I thought it kept in character with a forties film, but I found the nuances much more prevalent than one would find in a Joan Crawford film.
Sachs: Yes, it’s a genre film made by a non-genre filmmaker…
ESM: What made you decide to use the voiceover, which by the way, I thought was great. I’ve read that some people disagreed, but that’s always the case. What do they know?
Sachs: [laughter] Yeah, what do they know?
The book on which the film was based, Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham, is told in first person by the friend…And particularly with Piece Brosnan…he could achieve through the voiceover, setting up the tone of the film in terms of both its wry humor but also in terms of a certain kind of vulnerability that he exposes through his voice. I think he encapsulates the tone of the film best through that voiceover in a way. And there is a sense that I always wanted people to know that they were watching a movie.
ESM: That’s what I liked about the voiceover; we weren’t watching the action as one would watch action that is happening in the present time. The voiceover turned it into a story within a story, and in my view, turned it more into a cautionary tale.
Sachs: There is a fable element I think.
ESM: Was that intentional?
Sachs: I don’t know that I was conscious of that, but I think in editing it and rewriting the voiceover in the course of making it, there was a sense that this was a tale being told…
The cautionary aspect would be that being in a long-term relationship is filled with great moments of alienation and separation. And the caution is that you don’t feel that you are the only one who experiences that when you go through it. I’m trying to provide a situation of some sort of comfort in looking at other peoples’ lives in a movie that is somewhat familiar in people’s everyday lives…
Each of the characters has a bit of self-deception in terms of not knowing what their own desires are. And also that their desires are in conflict with their lives.
ESM: Kay looked like a Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Doris Day combo…She’s the only person who had a back-story. All the other character we just gather from what we see on the screen. I like the fact that it didn’t have a certain place; the guys didn’t work in a certain industry. We didn’t need to know that.
Sachs: We knew that. But we didn’t feel that we needed the audience to. We made certain decisions so that the actors would feel confident about where they were and who they were and how they got there, but that wasn’t the nature of the story. We started with the people in the middle of their lives…They’re in the middle of their own story.
ESM: [You expressed an interest in analysis.]
Sachs: Directing is like psychoanalysis. I think if I hadn’t been a director, I would have been an analyst…I’ve been in psychoanalysis…So much about being a director is about listening and trying to be incredibly present, to the actors, the designers, listening to what people are conveying through their words and silences.
ESM: [You mentioned that you recently taught at the film program at Columbia.] Did you find the students’ attitude toward film different from yours?
Sachs …Students are making and showing films on TV. They’re never projecting anything. So it’s really transforming the notion of the image and what the image is…They’re moving away from the large-scale projection.
ESM: And so that influences every shot.
Sachs: Yes, every shot.
ESM: Well, it looks like our time is up.
Sachs: We’ve had a nice talk.