Art of the Real (Estate): Talking to Ira Sachs about Little Men

little men Ira Sachs’s Little Men is a movie about little moments and how they can sneak up on you in big ways—at any age. Little Men constitutes the third in what might be considered a trilogy of Sachs stories about male relationships in the big city: before last year’s Love Is Strange, Sachs made Keep the Lights On, which followed the tumultuous love affair between a filmmaker and an addict living in New York. With Little Men, the writer-director shifts his focus ever so slightly towards the platonic friendship of two young boys (played by an impressively nuanced Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) and the fight to keep their bond intact as their parents battle over a piece of prime Brooklyn real estate. Like in Love Is Strange, economics are central to the drama here, and one can actually feel the weight of practical concerns bearing down on the emotional lives of these characters.

Part of the beauty of Sachs’s work is his even-handed attention to differing points of view: there are no peripheral characters in his films, only difficult questions with no right answers. Though Little Men is told from the perspective of the children, the audience is made acutely aware of the grown-up complexities surrounding the central conflict (due in no small part to the affecting adult performances from Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle and Paulina Garcia). With very little fanfare, Little Men manages to cover a lot of ground, touching on issues of gentrification, what it means to be an artist, coming of age, and of course, love and friendship.

There are so many different themes at work in this film. What was the starting point for the script?  

My co-writer Mauricio Zacharias and I had made these two films about male relationships [Keep The Lights On and Love is Strange]: two men in their 20s and two men in their 70s. We wanted to make a third film that was about younger people. And then we saw two films by Ozu: the first was Good Morning and the other was I Was Born, But…, which are both films about kids who go on strike. Ozu had been a big influence on the two of us for a long time—when we first met we ended up at IFC seeing a different Ozu film every Saturday for about twelve weeks, it was like an immersion at the right point of our creative lives. [Ozu’s] interest in domestic life as well as inter-generational conversation seemed really resonant. I’m a 50-year-old father of two four-year-olds, my parents are in their 70s, there’s this kind of sense of being in the middle. I would say [Little Men] is certainly focused on these two boys, but it’s really about any one of us trying to become some other version of ourselves—some next stage—and for Greg Kinnear’s character that comes in the wake of the loss of his father.

We certainly see the parents’ perspective in the film but the story is very much told from the boys’ POV. Was that always the desired perspective, or did it shift during the writing process?

I wanted to make a film about childhood as an adult filmmaker. I believe that childhood is both full of innocence and joy as well as being very, very serious, and I miss a kind of rigor around that time in today’s cinema for children. This isn’t technically a kids’ film, but for me it’s a film for kids and adults. To me my films are ultimately about capitalism on some level, in the sense that they’re about how economics affect character and create drama. In this case you could actually say to some extent the story works as a metaphor for the independent filmmaker: that space of the store—that sort of artisanal, handmade, non-economically viable product, is one that I certainly identify with.

You’re very much independent filmmaker in the purest form of the word—

And now I’m working for television. I’m creating two projects for TV… with a lot ambivalence to be honest! [Laughs]. I’m writing a script for HBO about Montgomery Clift with Mauricio Zacharias—we’ve been working on that for almost a year and a half for Matt Bomer. I’m also adapting a book that’s coming out this summer called Christadora about the East Village in the age of AIDS to the present by a writer named Tim Murphy. But there’s this question of autonomy, and instinct and how working in a corporate field affects that, which it will.

You’ve spoken very openly in past interviews about your films not necessarily being “economically viable.” Given your experience and clout and actors who want to work with you, how hard is it at this stage to get a film off the ground?

It’s not as hard as it was, but it’s hard.

Has the process changed in a practical sense as the industry has shifted?

It’s never the same processes because you’re part of a changing field. I would say a big change for me came when I really assumed—internally and externally—the role of producer. I work with other producers, but I take the responsibility of making the film and seeing to its life afterwards. So I’m very realistic—in general I’m very realistic about money, I think it’s not something you can kind of smile or laugh at, and again I think that’s hopefully connected to the stories I’m interested in. What I think is easier is that I’ve developed a group of wonderful individuals who believe in my work and want to see it for various reasons. So I’m able to make the films. Between the first and the second film it took me nine years—and I’m not taking nine years anymore, so that’s a change. I feel particularly fortunate to have a sustained career in the feature world, it’s not a given.

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The use of time is really interesting in your work, which often covers very large time spans, without ever feeling sprawling. You’ve spoken about the influence of the French New Wave and I read a quote where you said something about your approach being changed by the discovery that you could make a film by putting together a series of middles. Can you speak about that in relation to this script?

I think I like to throw the audience into a world where they have to find their way out. And to find their way out, they actually have to get closer and closer to the characters. So there’s kind of a disorientation, which I think shifts in the course of the movie. Particularly with Little Men, one thing I notice is that it starts off being a film about a world and about communities, and it ends up being a chamber piece about five individuals. Suddenly you’re really attached and you’re right in the middle of the conflict. And you’re in the middle without being able to easily to chose sides. In that way I think Chekov is an influence on this film and I found this film one of the more challenging ones to edit, because it needed to be very fine, if that makes sense. It’s a refined story and you couldn’t make a false move in terms of the narrative, but finding that balance was kind of a terrible and wonderful process [laughs]. There’s blood on the floor!

The films is very much a build-up of these small—or fine—moments. Like when Jake [Theo Taplitz] gets made fun of by a teacher for coloring his sky green with yellow stars, or the fact that his father throws out his paintings in the mess of moving house. These very well might be the moments that define his personal and artistic future.

 Those are the human moments and by understanding their resonance, you’re able to identify the dramatic meaning of the film: you believe that the small injustices, or moments of pain, or violence are what makes a life.

How do do you pinpoint those moments so that they feel significant, without “dramatizing” them?

Well, I think you have to know what the drama is in terms of its arc. I’m always interested in a very conventional log-line for my films so that I know that there is a drama. Then I can pull back in order to make that drama feel unforced, but I need to know where the conflict is. I’m a reader of the novel and I think that I’ve internalized a sense of the shifts that make a story work, and how necessary they are. I’m a big fan of Patricia Highsmith, for example, and I feel like even in a character drama, you rely on suspense and expectation and you have to create that: What does a scene ask? What question is in the air? You want every scene to lead with a question, so you need to create a series of questions as well as a sequence of events.

So your approach is quite classical despite never going to film school.

Yes! But it’s instinctual. And I think having now taught at film schools, I try to encourage people not to follow charts, but rather your own guide as to how to tell a story, which I think everybody has. In this moment you and I have a sense of how narrative moves—and it is not technical, but it is craft.

I’m curious about your casting, specifically how you landed on Paulina Garcia, who’s kind of a giant in Chilean cinema [the character she plays is also Chilean]. Did you write this character specially for her or did you cast her and then tweak it around her?

Mauricio and I had seen Gloria and we wrote Little Men for her—not knowing her and not knowing if she would respond to the material. But we finished it, and she did, and that was very much to my good fortune. It was her first major American role. And she’s a phenomenal actress, she’s a towering actress in a very naturalistic way. What I love about her work is that she also adds a note of theatricality, she doesn’t shy away from bigger gestures when they work. To me, actually, her performance is very similar to Dina Korzun in Forty Shades of Blue, in the sense that it is effortless and constructed simultaneously. There’s something fantastic to me about that combination and that makes her really fascinating to watch.

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What about the boys? How did you find them? I was so struck by Barbieri… and his accent! I always thought of that accent as such a generational thing.

Theo Taplitz came to us through his agent. He’s from LA, his parents are in the film business. He’s a wonderful kid. Michael Barbieri we found through an open call we had. He’s a student at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. We put a sign up, and he came in, and I cast him immediately. And that’s his accent. I was really struck by his authentic New York-ness. He just did The Dark Tower with Matthew McConaughey and he’s now going off to do Spider-Man—it’s really interesting thing to have met this kid and to see how his life changes. I always thought one of them as my Robert Bresson actor, and the other as my Martin Scorsese actor, and I really worked with those ideas in mind. With Theo the job was to let what emerges from the inside appear, to keep him very still. And with Michael it was to let him go free, the improvisational elements are much more within his character in a kind of Joe Pesci kind of way [laughs].

I read that you don’t rehearse with your actors which is surprising—the actors have such a natural chemistry together.

Well, we don’t rehearse our lives so I think that if you become overly familiar with your choices as an actor in a scene then you start to play the choices instead of responding to the moment. It’s a strategy that I’ve now used for four or five films, I know the challenges which often have to do with learning lines, and creating business. Those are the two things that actors have to find on set. And you do rehearse, because you don’t shoot a scene once, you shoot a scene many times. So it develops—but it develops without stopping, in front of the camera from the first take to the last.

When you were casting the two boys, then, how did you know that the chemistry would work between them on set?

Theo sent us an audition tape from the script and it felt like a documentary. It was very strange—it was such an authentic piece of film and I knew he would have no trouble connecting to the material. I will say that I put Theo together with other boys, and it was wrong. So I did see situations where the chemistry was wrong and a lot of it had to do with age. These boys are at the same age in terms of maturity, in terms of adulthood, in terms of their bodies, and sexuality on some level—which is pre-sexual, I would say. But it’s interesting, because at that age a kid can feel very much older and only be a few months older. It was more finding that right middle ground of maturity. But they were never in a room together. When they did get here I sent them off on a day together—they went to the movies, and hung out.

Can you talk about your process with your DP? To me the style was quite similar to Love is Strange, particularly with regards to the kind of caressing shots of the city.

I worked with a wonderful Spanish cinematographer, Oscar Duran, on this film. He and I were really committed to the medium shot and to being very simple in our construction of the scenes—and to not giving ourselves too many options, in a way. I think of the film as a very modernist work: there are a lot of clean lines, and a lot of whiteness. There’s open space around the figure, and that was all very conscious and emotional in some ways. There’s also the opposition between the kids and the adults: the adults are very still and there’s a lot more movement with the kids and that creates a kind of cinematic tension.

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Both this film and Love is Strange films deal with real estate as a central source of drama. In both cases there are miracles of NY real estate that often save certain characters, and conversely, disasters that break them.

Home, land, and property are age-old dramatic questions. How do you hold onto your land? How do you have a roof over your head? What kind of house do you have? Jane Austen is pretty much all about property, land, and love, and how those things interact. I think that we’re defined in very intimate ways by those challenges. So it’s not like I’m making another movie about real estate, I’m making another movie about everyday life.

You never explicitly identify what neighborhood in Brooklyn the house is in. Where is this supposed to be set?

In my mind it’s Bay Ridge/Bensonhurst. It’s a not fully gentrified neighborhood and it still has a lot of the residual history of its immigrant community that first laid down roots there. It was also very important that the conflict not be between the very rich and the very poor but two families that are both kind of struggling for the middle class. I think that is what makes it ambiguous in terms of the audience identification—there’s no villain, there’s no hero.

And where did you actually shoot? Where’s the store?

We shot in Williamsburg, in front of Treehouse Brooklyn. The woman who owns the store, her building is owned by brothers and sisters whose parents inherited it from their parents and they really love her and they want her to stay there. It’s funny, we kept running into the story at almost every location we went to.

I wanted a two-story house, not a three-story house. So that ended up defining where we shot. If you had a three-story house you’d have to end up defining what’s on the middle floor. A lot of what we tried to do in the film was get the details of the neighborhood right. So all the people at the funeral at the beginning are Italian and Polish and German immigrants that live in the community, we went to community centers and said do you want to be in a movie? And the kids are from a wonderful theater school in Bensonhurst called Acting Out—those are all Brooklyn kids.

When you moved to New York at the end of the 80s, it was a completely different place—much less wealthy. What is it about the city—or perhaps in this case the borough of Brookly—that still stimulates you either personally or creatively?

I moved to NY in 1988, and I moved to the corner of Smith and DeGraw. I was one of the first gentrifiers of the neighborhood—for better or worse. I was a white college kid moving into a neighborhood that was primarily Italian onto a Dominican street. There were three social clubs on the corner, one of which invited us in on the first night we got there and we were too tired at the time so we didn’t go—after that we never spoke again, and they were gone within a year. Noticing those changes, being a part of those changes, question what is my responsibility for those changes, is all something I’m very conscious of.

I now live in Manhattan, but my kids are starting school in Brooklyn in the fall. There’s something about the community where clearly I identify. I’m a 50-year-old that’s a father of four-year-olds, and I find more parents of my age in Brooklyn than Manhattan.

My partner moved to Williamsburg with his mom when he was ten, with his single, Latin-American mother. He ended up going to LaGuardia High School and now works as a painter. To me, that story of how art opens doors—as does being a gay man, in terms of class and culture—is very relevant to me. I’m very inspired by the single mom. I’m a three-parent family, so the idea of a single mom is really interesting to me. I’m inspired by my kids’ mother—who is also a filmmaker. Half the time my kids have a single mom; they also have two dads.

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