Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On is the luminously wrenching chronicle of a ten-year relationship between two men, Erik (Danish actor Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth, best known as Glenn Close’s antagonistic son Michael on Damages). Erik is a sensitive and open-hearted documentary filmmaker, while the more reserved Paul has a successful job as a lawyer at a major publishing house. After meeting at random through a gay party line (remember those?), the two form an instant connection that long outlasts what could easily have ended as a one-night stand. There is, however, a problem: Paul is a drug addict. And not just any drug. Despite his lucrative white-collar Manhattan life, Paul is a crack addict. Another problem: Erik is in love with Paul, and doesn’t know how to respond to his addiction except by continuing to invest in their relationship. And so the stage is set for one of the most assured independent films of 2012, and arguably the most powerful American gay relationship drama since Brokeback Mountain.
If the film has a distinctly eloquent authenticity to it, that’s because it is a very personal story for Sachs. The relationship between Erik and Paul is inspired by Sachs’ former long-term relationship with Bill Clegg, a successful Manhattan literary agent who was also a crack addict. [Clegg has since penned two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery.] After the success of his 2005 film Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, opened the door for him to direct Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams, Chris Cooper, and Patricia Clarkson in the higher-profile drama Married Life in 2007, Sachs took his time developing Keep the Lights On, a fully independent production redolent with a similar sense of the boldness and possibility that infused New Queer Cinema in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Gorgeously lensed with painterly color and composition by Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth) and scored by a hauntingly evocative collection of posthumously released Arthur Russell music, it is very much a showcase for Lindhardt and Booth, both of whom boldly bare body and soul as the addiction-ravaged lovers. The film has been frequently compared to Andrew Haigh’s hugely acclaimed and recently Criterion-minted British drama Weekend, and for good reason; rarely is a relationship between two men portrayed on film so knowingly and with such artful grace. Spinning Platters sat down with Booth and Sachs while they were in San Francisco for the Frameline Film Festival in June, shortly before their film went on to win the Grand Jury Awards for best dramatic feature film and best screenwriting at Outfest in L.A. (the film had previously won the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival).
Frameline was the second gay film festival to which you brought this film. How have gay audiences responded?
Ira Sachs: The film is about a gay relationship, but we’ve found that it’s pretty accessible. It’s about a relationship, so anyone who watches the film seems to connect in a personal way to the story. It’s also an art film. The form of the film is not typically American, so there could be resistance [at a gay film festival] against the form instead of the subject.
Have you observed differences in responses between American festivals versus European fests?
Sachs: Berlin was so different from Sundance. That was really striking, because I think in Berlin this film seems very typical of European cinema, while also seeming very American, which they liked in terms of content. Sundance is a wonderful, terrible place. It’s a market. Usually if you go to Sundance it’s your first screening, so you’re selling your film and determining its value. It’s really a complex thing. With this film, there’s the potential of the niche market and there’s the ceiling of the niche market, so it’s both your calling card as well as your limit. You really feel your difference in a place like Sundance.
I think the film speaks to the fact that gay stories are no longer marginalized in the way that communities are formed. It’s not like people are like, “You’re the gay guy.” I mean, that’s not true in almost any city in American or most Western cities in the world. And I think the film reflects that, because it’s not a ghetto film. It’s not a film about the ghetto. It’s a film about a particular kind of culture clash that you have in these urban centers that are very merged and mixed, and so are the stories.
How was your experience using Kickstarter to help raise funding for the film?
Sachs: Kickstarter was one part of a multifaceted approach. It was probably one-thirtieth of the budget of the film, but it was also a process of involving various communities in supporting the film, which was necessary. This was a totally independent film, and I think it feels like that. It doesn’t follow the norms for casting or cast-contingent financing, and it also looks like an independent film in the sense that it has a freedom to it. I’m sort of a community organizer in New York. I run a film series called Queer/Art/Film; I organize a group of film directors in New York who meet on a monthly basis. I positioned myself as part of a number of communities and I called on them to help. So we had an art auction, and we had a benefit which individuals attended to support the film. Kodak donated film and Panasonic gave us a free camera, and it’s because of their support that we were able to shoot on film.
Did your experience on Married Life inspire you to follow it with a more stripped-down independent production?
Sachs: I find each film that I have made feels the same to me in the course of making it. I can’t get involved with something unless I feel like I have a particular relationship to it, which usually means I have a great intimacy with the story, but a certain amount of analytic distance that allows me to tell it as a story. Ultimately, actors are actors; you build sets and then tear them down. My process has always been the same, which is to get together a group of people that I am excited and inspired by, who share some goal of making something that has a lot of life in it. That was true working with Zach, or with Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams. It’s all just different people.
I will say I think there are a lot of forces that make people walk away from something that’s too specific to one’s own life as a filmmaker. There’s not necessarily the economic support there to follow those stories. I think there’s a migration of filmmakers who are gay away from gay subjects, and I’m interested in trying to figure out why that is. For me, I think I am very valuable within the possibility of being able to tell this story in a way that not a lot of other people could.
You’ve mentioned that part of your inspiration to tell this story was the sense of not seeing much of your own life reflected onscreen.
Sachs: Nothing looks like my life. My life does not look like Woody Allen’s life. That’s not just because I’m gay; I think my life does look like a lot of people’s lives. It’s not like mine is so special. It’s just that there’s a lack of realism in American cinema these days. In a way, I feel like my job as a filmmaker is to define characters’ experiences within a time and a history and to do so as accurately as possible.
When it came to casting your two leads, what were you looking for?
Sachs: Well, I was hoping to see good acting, which means acting I don’t see, really. With the character of Paul, played by Zach, it was important for me that the actor had as much empathy and lack of judgment for the character as I try to have as a filmmaker. There’s a great quote by a 13th century Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria. He said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And to me, that’s what I look for in an actor and as a director. I look for someone who understands that battle and becomes one with it. And Zach certainly did that.
Zach, how was your first experience of reading the script and your first impression of the character?
Zachary Booth: Reading it for the first time, I was just drawn to the language of it. It made a lot of sense to me. I felt that the information was there for me to create a character that I understood, and that’s good. Even if it doesn’t seem obvious or intuitive to everyone else, as long as it seems that way to me, then I have something to work from. I had a good relationship with Ira from the beginning, so that was really great. When you trust someone you work with, you can take those risks. And then building the character was a mixture of Ira’s experiences and research I did about addiction and sex and crack, and just also my own personal experiences. I was always saying, What parts of him am I sympathetic to? How can I find my way into the choices he is making? And also trying to understand that with someone dealing with addiction, there’s a lot of conscious choices, but there’s also a lot of choices you’re powerless over. So which were choices, and which were just the result of this disease I was dealing with?
Was this a difficult character to leave behind at the end of the shoot?
Booth: There were times that it was. I was sick the first day that we shot the crack-smoking. There’s tobacco that we use to make the smoke, and it was just making me really nauseous. We were shooting nights as well, so I’d get home at 5am and be nauseous and really feel like I’d been on a drug binge. I was really paranoid, because I’d been exposing so much of myself. Those scenes are really deep, so my mind was really racing. There were days that were really, really, really tough, but then there were also days when you’ve left this hard work and you’re returned to this beautiful community. We went upstate for a week, and it was like summer camp for filmmakers. We would do this great work all day or all night, then we’d wake up in the morning and go swimming or take runs together. It became this sort of playful group.
You didn’t really get to spend much time with Thure before the shoot, right?
Booth: We knew each other for a week or two. Ira introduced us, then we hung out. Ira set us up on a date, so we went out and had dinner together.
Sachs: Was that hard? Did it feel like a blind date?
Booth: It felt like a blind date with a lot of pressure on it! Binding, like an arranged marriage where you’d already given the 30 goats to his parents and he had to take me. [laughs] Because it was essential to our success. I didn’t really think about it, but there’s this sense of purpose or ambition that kicks in where you’re like, Oh, I’d better make this work because this film is important and I want it to be good. So we faked it a little bit, but we figured out the things that the other person liked and what we could do that would be fun. We went to see Billy Elliot and laughed our way through that. We went out dancing. We took a video for Ira and sent it to him so that he knew we were out having fun together. I just admire and respect Thure a lot. I watched him in Flame and Citron, and his performance was so good. I knew he was somebody I could stand to learn a lot from. When I found out he was a nice guy, I was like, Okay, I can put the walls down. And we just sort of fell for each other in that professional way. We knew we were safe, and we knew we were going to continue challenging each other.
Sachs: And then two days later they were having sex in front of a camera and crew.
Booth: Yeah, sure.
Sachs: And I think they brought us all somewhere we were happy to be, which was liberated in terms of the images we were trying to make. For the film, it was really important for it not to be precious or reserved in terms of the sexuality. One of the ways the film is constructed is there’s not a lot of difference between how we shoot scenes that are about sex or about drugs or being with your family or work. There’s a similarity of approach to all of those scenes, and that was an important part of the texture of the movie.
Zach, was it more intimidating as an actor to shoot that first intimate scene with Thure, or to film your first big scene with Glenn Close on Damages?
Booth: [laughs] I don’t know. I think probably the scene in this film was more intimidating. That first scene with Glenn, it wasn’t so much that it was her. She’s really sweet, so she was able to make it seem like we were just friends hanging out. And it was the scene I’d auditioned with, so I knew I’d made the right choices and was going in the right direction. I was sort of baffled by all the camera movement around me, but I’d had enough experience to know that if I just showed up and did my thing, I’d be good. There were a lot more question marks in that first sex scene with Thure. We just had to choreograph the whole thing, and it wasn’t supposed to be what it was.
We had this sort of negotiation with Ira like, “Well, I don’t wanna show this while this is happening, and I don’t wanna do this while this is happening.” “Well, great, I don’t either.” “Well great, then what do you wanna see?” “I need to see this moment with these lines and I need to see this moment with these lines.” There were three parts that Ira wanted to see, so we sort of choreographed the whole thing altogether. Like, “Well, if I get up and take my underwear off here then you’ll only see my butt.” “Okay, then we’ll move to this part, and if we do that you won’t see that.” Then we were good, and Ira was good, so we just went for it. And six minutes later, it felt like Ira was just like, “…okay, cut.” [laughs] And I was just like, “Dude! What happened to the three parts?” Because it all just ran together. But that’s the way that it should have been, and it was working. I don’t know that anyone thought…Ira certainly didn’t think it was going to go there.
Booth: He came in after, and it was very clear he was pleased with how far it went. He got the sex he wanted. [laughs]
Sachs: You can take the camel to water but you can’t make him drink, and I think that’s certainly true of acting for actors. You can give them suggestions, but they have to run with them and own these things. And when they do, usually they take you someplace you don’t expect. That’s really true of every shot, not just the sex. It’s like you’re hoping for the surprise, but the unexpected doesn’t mean it has to be out of the realm of the expected. But you’re really hoping that they’re responding to each other so that it’s totally new at every moment, and that’s what was happening. Sex was like conversation, it was just another way that these people were engaging with each other.
In the wake of Shame, Michael Fassbender has endured constant references to his nudity and genitalia in countless interviews, as well as speculation that it cost him an Oscar nomination. Zach, do you ever have similar reservations about putting too much out there and being asked about it for the rest of your career? [Booth also appeared fully nude in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock]
Booth: Yeah, but I think that’s all the fear that I’m never gonna get to the place that I want to be, which is a place where I can continue to make films one after another and continue to work in television–
Sachs: So far, so good!
Booth: Yeah, and it’s been fine. Of course there is that fear that it’s, like, a mistake to show that much, but I don’t think about it in terms of, Will it haunt me? There’s nothing about this film that anyone could say that could be negative. I’m positive and proud of every moment of it. The trick is that it has more to do with what they think you’re capable of; like after you do something where people are like, “Oh, you’re only capable of doing that?” I’ve had some people make comments to me like, “Oh, you’re keeping your clothes on in this one?” That sort of shit. And you’re like, “Well, whatever. If that’s how you want to view the world.” But I would hope that Michael Fassbender continues to get the recognition that he deserves, because he’s a fabulous fucking actor. It takes a lot of balls for someone like him, who’s in the public eye, to do something like that. It take more balls than it does for someone who’s not. I really respect and admire him for doing that.
Sachs: It’s also what he sells — not the nudity, but the openness. I think there’s nothing shocking about the images that we’re creating in this film. They’re just everyday life. What’s shocking is how unusual those images are, as if everyone’s not having sex and not naked. Like, come on! And I think within the context of non-American cinema, there’s nothing even risqué about it. But it was important for it to be an open film. Zach talking about the questions about one’s career and what choices one makes…I feel like what was freeing about this film was to decide early on that it was going to be an imperfect film, and that choices are imperfect in general. You try to embrace the unknown of things, and that’s an exciting energy for a piece of art, that it’s not careful.
Ira, how have the responses been from audiences who relate to the film’s frank depiction of being in a relationship with an addict?
Sachs: I find that if I talk to almost anyone who takes the time to talk to me after the film, they tend to talk to me about their own relationships, and they see some version of their relationship reflected in the story. That’s been a wide swath of people, and both addiction and non-addiction. It’s also sometimes about obsessive bonds that people create in love relationships. I think the specificity of addiction is one that I know well, and I hope that I shared honestly. I had so little perspective when I was in the relationship on which this is based. I had so little perspective to know what my inclination was in that, really. I didn’t have any insight that there wasn’t something totally unique about my relationship with my ex-partner, and also that I was making a choice to be there. It was not apparent to me that I had a choice. It only seemed like things were happening to me, and I think to understand that choice is empowering…depressing…illuminating.
Another relatable but considerably more lighthearted moment in the film is the ’90s opening scene, in which Thure attempts to find a hookup on the phone through a gay party line. It benefits the film to begin when it does chronologically, since that sequence is far more cinematic than just showing someone tap-tap-tapping on Grindr.
Sachs: It’s really the performance that makes the phone sex scenes work. One of the things you’re never supposed to do is too many scenes on a phone, because it is a little bit deadening. But somehow the performance of Thure makes that scene super-funny and alive. It’s really well-performed. There’s something kind of beautiful that happens when an actor can just take the moment and go with it and create this drama. All his auditions were the scenes he does by himself, because when he auditioned for the film, he was on a set in Spain. He was in a hotel room, and he auditioned by himself with his cell phone. So he sent me that tape, and he ended up picking lots of phone scenes because those were scenes he could do by himself. And it worked for me as a director, because I could see how exciting he’d make them. How old are you?
Sachs: So phone sex was before your time.
Well, I grew up toward the end of the pre-Internet age, so my earliest attempts to forge some sort of gay connection still involved looking at gay party line ads and furtively sneaking calls from my family’s phone as a teenager.
Sachs: You know, the character mentions in the film that the first time he had sex he was 13, and interestingly enough, that was based on an experience that happened for me here in San Francisco. So it’s been interesting for me to be back here, thinking about the 33 years in between, and how much those first early years of trying to find a connection stayed with me. This film, I think it’s universal, but it’s also specifically about a generation of gay people who learned about themselves in shame and isolation, and how that education perpetuated certain kinds of relationships, which I really think it has.
Indeed. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the film before we wrap up?
Sachs: Did I talk about the title?
No, please do.
Sachs: Well, it’s called Keep the Lights On, which has a number of meanings, including sexual puns or innuendo around bedrooms and behaviors and “keeping the lights on.” But it’s also a call for transparency, and it is a direct address to the audience. The film is not an activist film per se, but it is an attempt to encourage people to own up to who they are and how they are and what they do, and to share those things with other people, and to keep the lights on.
Keep the Lights On opens in San Francisco on Friday, September 14.