Interview: Ira Sachs Discusses Keep The Lights On

Keep The Lights On, an intense, haunting and gut-wrenchingly honest character drama from American writer-director Ira Sachs, makes its way into select UK cinemas this weekend. The film, which made its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last month, follows the intense relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), an outgoing documentary filmmaker, and Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted lawyer, as they attempt to battle the highs and lows of addiction.

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Ira about where the inspiration for Keep The Lights On came from, the sometimes difficult development process and his thoughts on queer cinema as a whole – a genre of cinema that Keep The Lights On is very much part of.

Interview transcription:

Q: Where did the inspiration for Keep the Lights On come from?

A: Life. I ended a relationship in 2007, and on the last day of the relationship I was acutely aware that ten years ago there had been a first day and that somehow in between those two points was a good story – one that I hadn’t seen before.

Because the story was so close to your chest, did you find the writing process to be therapeutic at all?

The therapy all came before I started to work on the film. I don’t think I’d be ready to make a film about my life experiences until I had a certain distance so as to be able to give the right perspective. I feel that, in a way, the film depicts that transformation and acts a continuation to the real story. For me, the big change in my life occurred in the wake of the events in the film where I realised the necessity of living a more honest life, and a more transparent life. It’s something that was hard for me. At this point in my life I’m aware that if I don’t remain honest to myself then there’s grave danger. And so the film, for me, came out of that.

Was it always important for you to be entirely authentic in your depiction of Erik and Paul’s relationship, regardless of their gender and sexuality?

I always approach characters as people. And I think that at this point in culture the questions of identity, gay or straight, are no longer as important. In cities like New York, Edinburgh and London there’s no longer a division between gay and straight people and the contexts are more internal. In that way, I wanted to simply tell a story about intimacy and it’s challenges, which is the main subject I’ve been interested throughout my entire career.

When in the development process did co-writer Mauricio Zacharias become involved?

I started working on the film about three years ago and I wrote many scenes. I worked from journals and emails – all the minutia of that decade that I had at hand. But I wasn’t able, in a way, to craft a screenplay out of it, so I put it in a drawer. Then I met Mauricio [Zacharias] and we started talking about another project and I said, “Let me just let you read all of this”. So I gave him, the poor guy, hundreds of pages of material and he came back to me and said, “We have to tell this story.” For me, one of the most significant ways he was a participant was to give me the permission and encouragement to make this film. He was then able to craft something that had its own organic structure and integrity as a film, and not simply as a real life story. I think that was a pretty important moment in the process.

What was it about Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth that made you feel they were right for the lead roles?

I think it was mostly the empathy and nakedness that they brought to their characters, as well as the transparently and emotional integrity that they were able to exhibit as performers. For Thure specifically, it was his ability to make internal decisions compelling, which I think it extremely difficult. I think he deeply understood the character on all levels. So much is going on in his face, and there’s so much hunger and drive in his eyes and physicality. It really made his performance so compelling to watch.

Did their casting have any effect on the script? Were they allowed to bring their own experiences to the table?

Yes. I mean, ultimately, you’re not casting actors, you’re casting people. They owned the script – it was very much their script and their story.

Was there much improvisation?

What I tend to do is blur the edges so that the script is very much used, yet in each scene I allow the actors room to breathe, room for them to have the possibility of taking the script in new directions, outside of the scripts outline. I also don’t let my actors rehearse, so when they come to shooting a scene their responses are very much natural and realistic. What I hope to capture is life on their face and the reality of those experiences.

What are your own thoughts on addiction? It’s quite an important and relevant subject to the here and now, but doesn’t seem to get much spotlight in film? Why do you think that is?

Well, I think people are uncomfortable with themselves. This is very much a story about two men learning to accept themselves on some level. And in the process each of them, like anyone would do when searching for fulfilment, look for other things to fill those empty gaps, whether it be drugs, another person, love or sex. It’s a very natural thing to do, and I’m very sympathetic to that. I don’t judge it. There’s a lot of similarities between a crack house and a church, particularly in the way people visit these places in an effort to feel accepted. And I think a lot of people are looking for places where they feel comfortable in themselves and able to express themselves naturally. Ultimately, this is a film about the hidden potentials within oneself and how one goes about bringing that out.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on the position of queer cinema in the here and now? Are you proud of how it’s evolved?

When I started to make films in the mid-90′s, there were issues of identity that were very much at the core of my own experiences and also queer cinema. I think that has shifted to some extent, so that you can now see a film like Weekend that’s more generally about a relationship, rather than specifically about identity. I think, to some extent, queer cinema has hidden gay stories because you can get away with talking through metaphor. I’m interested in breaking through that reluctance and exposing the reality of real, honest and relatable gay stories. The film I’m working on now isn’t about that hidden and illicit love, but about the potential love between two men has to grow and blossom, and I feel like that’s progress.

Thank you very much for your time, Ira.

Click here to read my review.

This interview was originally posted on HeyUGuys.

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