Spotlight >> A Profile on Director Ira Sachs of “Keep the Lights On”

Long Night’s Journey Into Light

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How many times have you told a lie? The funny thing about lies is they often times don’t require you to tell anything; a lie can be a behavior, a belief, even an action- but no matter the form, one can argue their sole purpose is to protect secrets.

Yes, protecting secrets with falsehoods seems to be a common thread in the stories that are our lives; stories where we fail, where we succeed, where we get it wrong far more times than we get it right. And one story where this truth unfolds unapologetically is in the new film Keep the Lights On, in theaters September 7th. Winner of the Outfest Jury Awards this past July for Outstanding Screenwriting in a US Dramatic Feature Film, and for Outstanding US Dramatic Feature Film, Keep the Lights On explores the sexually-charged, nine-year relationship between two men, Erik (Thure Lindhardt) & Paul (Zachary Booth), living in New York City, plagued by obsession, addiction and secrets.

The buzz in Los Angeles surrounding Keep the Lights On during this year’s Outfest was more than generous, and the film certainly did not disappoint. The dissection of these two composite characters, their mistakes, their pain, their intense love for one another, makes for a story that leaps off the screen. So when I heard leading, multifaceted film distributor Music Box Films had picked up the North American rights to Keep the Lights On, granting them a distribution deal that would bring the film to theaters around the country, I jumped at the chance to speak with Keep the Lights On director and co-writer Ira Sachs about his latest, semi-autobiographical work.

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“I wanted to make a film about shame with the intention to do so shamelessly,” Ira says during our telephone interview. “I ended a relationship in 2008 that exploded around the issues of addiction and buried secrets, and, as a storyteller, I recognized that my relationship was representative of many other relationships. But I hadn’t seen many other films that conveyed the details of contemporary gay life, so I felt like I had an opportunity.” Ira quickly got to work pouring over his journals, and writing two hundred pages worth of material that he eventually handed over to fellow screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, who also saw the potential. “I needed someone else to grant me permission to make this film and assure me that there was a story that he could relate to as a reader,” Ira says. Mauricio then took the massive amount of material that Ira had provided him with, and wrote the first draft of the script- but in adding his own point of view, transformed the story into something slightly different from Ira’s real life. “And that was an important moment for me,” Ira says. “My history was material to make the drama pop, but it was never something to be rigidly adhered to.” And after collaborating with Mauricio on several more drafts, Keep the Lights On was born. “The title is significant because it’s a call to arms, directed towards the audience, to live a transparent life,” Ira explains. “And there’s also a sexual pun intended in the sense that it’s a film that is very open with sex and sexuality; a film that literally doesn’t turn the lights off when characters are having sex or talking about sex because sex is integral to who these people are as much as it’s integral to who we all are.” This raw, truthful aspect of the story is partially what makes Keep the Lights On so riveting, but it’s also what made casting the film challenging.

The Price of Sincerity

“When I finished the script, I sent it to an agent in Hollywood whom I’d often send my work to, and I got the response back that no one in his agency would be available for this film,” he says. “So I was instantly made aware that I was going to have to cast this film in an unconventional fashion.” Luckily for Ira, he had gotten word of Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, famous in Europe for his breakout role as an autistic boy suspected of murder in the Danish film A Place Nearby in 2000. Credited as being one of the greatest talents to come out of Denmark, Ira quickly sent him a copy of the script. “He really responded to the material,” Ira comments. “And when he came in to audition for Erik, he did these takes that were so naked; there was an openness to him. And as an actor who is portraying a character with so many secrets, he doesn’t leave much hidden. And I knew that he would be appropriate in the role, but that he would also be distinct as every actor is, including Zachary Booth. Zach’s understanding of Paul’s challenges within his relationship, his challenges with drug use, his sexuality, was something that he was very sympathetic to. And that’s why no one in this film is a villain. All of the characters are struggling to make their way in life.”

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The Payoff

With wardrobe donated by fashion icon Marc Jacobs, a free shooting location at Julius’, the oldest gay bar in New York City, and help from a variety of other sources who contributed to the film’s production, Keep the Lights On wrapped up filming late last year, just in time for admission into the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. But Ira is no stranger to Sundance, as he was the recipient of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in 2005 for his film Forty Shades of Blue. “Sundance is the most important American film festival,” he says. “Once you’re there, particularly with a film about gay life, you feel the vulnerability of that because economically, there’s a resistance to telling our stories.” That was in January. By February, Keep the Lights On had won the Teddy Award for Best Queer Film at the prestigious 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, and that wasn’t all.

“There was a general reception in Berlin that was very positive and welcoming, where we got the sense that this was a film that would have a life in the cinema,” Ira remembers. “And soon after we won the Teddy Award, the film sold in twenty countries.” That’s also when Music Box Films jumped on board, offering a distribution deal that would include the U.S. in that list of twenty. But make no mistake, this might seem like an enchanted story, but Ira’s journey has not been without challenges, probably the most surprising being in the form of three rejection letters from three different film schools when his journey was just beginning.

The Benefit of Rejection

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Ira had been involved in the Memphis Children’s Theater from a young age, directing his first play when he was just a junior in high school. And with a deep love for the theater, he graduated from Central High School in 1983, immediately enrolling at Yale University to study Literature and Film Theory. But after taking a semester off, trading in the mania of New York for the outdoor museum that is Paris, one of the most romantic cities in the world, Ira fell in love a second time. “When you’re alone for the first time as a young person, you find what you’re drawn to in a very natural way,” he says. “What I found was I was very comfortable inside a movie theater, and I was also very inspired.” Ira watched hundreds of films during that time, but one director in particular really left him in a state of longing. “I was extremely turned on by seeing the work of John Cassavetes,” he says. “He made extremely personal films that were unlike anything I had ever seen like A Woman Under the Influence. Seeing that film really changed what I thought was possible because I have since been interested in the way movies capture so much of life within images.” Ira graduated from Yale in 1987, and immediately applied to film schools at NYU, UCLA and USC, but was denied admission into all three. He didn’t let that stop him, though, instead- deciding to forge ahead and make his own films on his own terms. “In a way, I benefited from the rejection because I had always considered myself an artist,” he says. “I had always made theater and wrote and produced my own plays, so I just did the same thing with my films, assuming there would be an audience who wanted to see them.” His first project was the 1992, fifty-five minute short film Vaudeville, which took a close look at the social and political issues surrounding a primarily gay, traveling theater troupe. “I worked with a lot of the people I went to college with, and I was making a film about something I knew very well, a group of gay and lesbian theater performers,” he says, “so I’ve always drawn from my own life.”

Two years later, a slew of other films emerged, including the ambiguous Lady in 1994, the heartbreaking tale The Delta in 1997, and the Sundance-favorite Forty Shades of Blue, about a woman having an affair with her husband’s estranged son, in 2004.

Full Circle

Yes, Ira was a proven filmmaker who was successful without the benefit of film school, but, ironically, his films and numerous awards had started to draw the attention of some of the very film schools that had rejected him years earlier. And in 2008 he was invited to teach at Columbia University’s MFA Film Department, followed by an invitation to teach at the NYU Graduate Film Department in 2009. “As a teacher, I learn so much because you’re constantly engaged in the questions of your work and your student’s work,” he admits. “I learned that I can make a film in a very different way than I thought possible even a decade before because I’m working with students who are making films with the tools they have available.”

2009 was also the year that Ira directed one of his most influential films Last Address, which captures the exteriors and addresses of homes where New York-based artists, men who have all died of AIDS over the last thirty years, once lived- noting the disappearance of a generation. “I’ve never had mentors,” he notes. “I’ve never had someone older than me to give me guidance, and I think one of the reasons is due to AIDS decimating that generation.” And it was that loss that prompted Ira to co-curate Queer|Art|Film, a monthly film series and forum where conversation about this decimation and other topics surrounding queer art and artists can be had. “We invite artists, novelists, filmmakers and musicians to pick the film that’s been most inspiring to them, and share it and talk about it with the audience,” he says. “What developed is a kind of community conversation about the possibility of queer cinema, which includes Fellini, or John Cameron Mitchell, or James Bidgood, who directed Pink Narcissus, these are people who are all a part of my imagination now because of the series.”

As for the future, Ira just finished the script for his next film titled Love is Strange. “It’s about two men living in New York, who have been together for thirty-eight years, who decide to get married at sixty-three and seventy-three years old,” he explains. “One of them is a choir director for an all-boys, private Catholic school, and following their marriage, he’s fired. So the film is about consequences, and it’s really a love story, which I don’t think I’ve done yet.”

But one thing Ira has done is secure his place in the imaginations of millions of moviegoers and students of film all over the world with works of art like Last Address and Forty Shades of Blue. He’s a community organizer with projects like Queer|Art|Film, an educator with students at both Columbia and NYU, and an award winning filmmaker who, despite his success, still has to work tirelessly to get his films made, confiding, “Success is the ground to stand on. It’s a base of encouragement, but it doesn’t make the films possible because I tell stories about marginalized people; I don’t make commercial films, so it’s not like each film produces the next.” But in spite of that, he’s still managed to induct himself into the pantheon of queer artists, and he’s hoping Keep the Lights On will not only entertain, but inspire others to do the same. “I’ve learned that there’s a hunger for stories like this,” he says, “and I have a passion and an understanding about things I’ve experienced that I want to continue turning into films. And I hope that Keep the Lights On finds an audience that will allow other films like this to be made because it says to the powers that be that these are important stories, and they have a place in the market.”

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Keep the Lights On will be playing in Los Angeles at the Sundance Cinema Sunset 5, starting September 7th. For more information on venues in your neighborhood where Keep the Lights On will be shown, please click on the following link: THEATERS.