LOVE IS STRANGE marks the highly-anticipated second collaboration between writer-director Ira Sachs and screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias. The film premiered to great reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.
Ira and Mauricio’s first collaboration, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards including Best Screenplay, Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Male Actor (Thure Lindhardt).
The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Ira and Mauricio before LOVE IS STRANGE screened at this week’s Nantucket Film Festival.
Your film, LOVE IS STRANGE, which you wrote and directed, is in the midst of a successful festival run which includes the Nantucket Film Festival. For those who have yet to see the film, can you tell us a bit about it?
Mauricio: LOVE IS STRANGE tells the story of a couple who have been together for almost 40 years. Unexpectedly, they’re forced to live apart and rely on family and friends, and their presences will have subtle but profound consequences in these people’s lives. The film shows that love can be difficult sometimes, but it can also blossom with time.
Ira: The film is a multi-generational story. It centers on a couple in the later part of their lives, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, but you also have Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows who are very much in the middle, and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who is discovering what love can be for the first time. To me, it’s at its core a film about the seasons of life, and, as Joni Mitchell said it, “the painted ponies” going up and down. Given Mauricio and my ages, I guess you could say it’s a “middle aged” film, written by two middle aged people, hoping that there is a long time ahead, but knowing it doesn’t last forever.
How did this story come to you? What was your writing process like for you both?
Mauricio: I remember when Ira told me the story of his old uncle, a sculptor who lived with his partner for many years, and was still very active late in his life. His last sculpture was of a young man, a backpacker who happened to pass through their lives once. This image stayed with me, and you will see that it’s very much in the picture. I also was inspired by my parents who have been together for more than 50 years. Ira and I created all the characters, scenes and situations together, then I went off on my own to write a first draft. We met again and again to rewrite the script together.
Ira: Mauricio and I have found a collaborative rhythm starting with KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, continuing with LOVE IS STRANGE, and now working this Summer on a new script, where we begin by spending a few months just talking about our lives, about other movies, about people we’ve known and stories we’ve witnessed or experienced. From those conversations, we loosely create an outline and a set of characters. Then, Mauricio actually does the heavy lifting of the first draft, which he does in about 6 weeks, taking our talks and notes and turning them into actual dialogue and scenes. This is followed by a time of writing separately, back and forth, between us. We trust each other a lot, and Mauricio also is very comfortable with the fact that at some point I need to fully own the material before I start directing it.
Any reason you decided to set the film in New York?
Mauricio: We both have been living in New York for a long time, and we both love this city. We wanted to talk about what we see around us. I can’t think of this film being anywhere else.
Ira: I grew up in Memphis and when I started making films, that was the place I know best, and where i found stories I wanted to tell. I always access memories and sounds, and visual experiences of a place in my work, because filmmaking comes the easiest to me when I have that intimate relationship. I have now spent 25 years in New York, so it’s as much a part of me as Memphis was earlier.
Any horrible New York real estate stories of your own that you care to share?
Mauricio: So many of my friends had to move away because they couldn’t afford the city anymore. In our film, Ben and George are going through a similar situation, but they find a last minute solution to their real estate problem. Staying in the city is crucial for them, but it will take sacrifices from everyone involved.
Ira: Every life lived in New York, or any city for that matter, can be told as a “real estate story,” because real estate is another word for home, and home is always defined by one’s economy, and one’s place in a culture. I am not a Marxist, per se, but I do look at character always through the lens of economics, and where one lives — or where one can’t live — is as good a way as any of describing a person in the world, and in a story.
Do you have any particular scene from LOVE IS STRANGE that you felt translated from the page to the screen in a completely different way than you could have expected? What was it about the scene that moved you?
Mauricio: There wasn’t any major changes from page to screen in LOVE IS STRANGE, but it’s wonderful to see how actors can bring another level to the material, and sometimes the audience has a different reaction from what you intended. For example; in the school scene in the beginning of the film, George is getting fired from his job. It’s a Catholic School, so when at the end of the scene the Priest says; “George, let’s pray.”, audiences have a big laugh; they think it’s the funniest thing.
Ira: I am struck by the fact that when people see the movie, they believe completely in the relationship between Ben and George, as if it’s a couple they’ve always known, and loved. I do believe the script helps in that, but it’s really a testament to the performances of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.
What movies, television shows, books are high on your radar right now?
Mauricio: I’m looking forward to TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, the new Dardenne Brothers’ film with Marion Cotillard. It’s the first time the Belgian directors work with a big star. Also, VENUS IN FUR. I enjoyed the play very much, but its success relies on a great coup de theatre – it works beautifully on stage, so I’m curious to see how Polanski adapted it to the screen. On television, I’m hooked on GIRLS, VEEP and MAD MEN, so I’m eagerly waiting for the next seasons. And I can’t wait to read Ioannis Pappos’ Hotel Living, which is going to be released by HarperCollins early next year (he’s a friend, so I got an advance copy!). From what I heard it’s a great character piece, hilarious and heartbreaking – my kind of novel.
Ira: I am looking forward to that one too, Hotel Living – it’s the story of an extremely observant, though love-starved, gay man finding his way in the tough world of downtown New York, so I think I will relate - and I just finished a book called Lost and Found in Johannesburg, by the South African writer Mark Gevisser, which was both brilliant and inspiring. He looks at his own city through the lens of both memoir and cultural history in a way that I hope to do in my own work. In movies, I’m waiting impatiently to see Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY and Linklater’s BOYHOOD, and WHIPLASH, and too many others to count. Though nearly impossible to get funded, it seems there are still many people out there making the kind of personal cinema I get excited about.
If you could write for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?
Mauricio: There are so many characters in film / TV history I wish I could write for… I recently watched THE LAVANDER HILL MOB again at the Film Forum. I’m crazy about Henry Holland, the Alec Guinness character. There’s nothing like seeing the most ordinary life be turned around to become a sensational adventure on the big screen.
Ira: I like to make up my own fictional characters. They are the only ones I know well enough to make at all interesting.