Ira Sachs Examines Married Life


It’s been three years since Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and while his new movie Married Life explores similar relationship themes, it might seem as somewhat of a departure, being a period piece set in the ’40s.

It stars Chris Cooper as Harry Allen, a married man who decides to leave his wife (Patricia Clarkson) for his younger girlfriend Kay (Rachel McAdams), plans that get sidetracked when his best friend (Pierce Brosnan) also sets his sights on Kay. It starts as a light relationship comedy, gets more dramatic and even turns into a thriller by the third act when Harry decides that murdering his wife might be kinder than divorcing her. sat down with Sachs to talk about this odd mix of genres and the talented cast he brought together to visualize it. When I saw your movie, I didn’t realize it was based on a book, and one I know nothing about.
Ira Sachs: It’s an out-of-print kind of pulp fiction book called “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” which was written by John Bingham in 1953 in England. Bingham is actually an interesting character because he was a mystery writer, but he was also a spy, a member of the MI5 and he was John Le Caree’s mentor in the secret service and also the character is mildly based on John Bingham. When you look at Chris Cooper’s character, it’s a level of everyman quality, but he’s also much more complicated, which I think relates to John himself, and he named one character Richard Langley. I like movies from this time in a certain way because they understand the nature of entertainment. I think they don’t take themselves too seriously, I think this is a real page-turner and it’s a popcorn movie in a certain way.

CS: How did you discover this book? Was it something you had lying around or was it something you found by accident?
Sachs: I spent a summer where I went down a rabbit hole of used books and mystery websites and out-of-print books. I spent the summer sitting around with a hundred books and this one really caught my interest from the first page, and I was gripped by the story–it’s a real page turner–but I also like the metaphor of the story. The audience doesn’t need to think about it on a literal level. It’s fun to watch, but underneath I think it speaks to certain truths about human relationships and the fact that we are all sort of on our own island even when we’re in a marriage, and there’s a sense of always rush and repair in a relationship I think, and this film speaks to a lot of things that I relate to in a relationship.

CS: Was this something you read after “Forty Shades of Blue” or something you read a long time ago?
Sachs: I found this book in 2001, so I was working on “Forty,” and in truth, they are very different in form, but I don’t necessarily think that they are very different in interest. In certain ways, I think they are compelled by the questions of intimate life and how people find ways of being with other people.

CS: Why did you choose the title “Married Life”? It was called “Marriage,” at one point, right?
Sachs: It was called “Marriage” at one point, but I think in a way the film is really not about the institution of marriage. I mean, I am a gay man and I approach this film as if it was about the relationships. It’s about married life as a term referring to a long, intimate relationship with another human being, and I think like the play on word “life,” the playful nature of the film is also about death.

CS: You talk about the film’s playful nature, and from the opening credits especially, you assume it’s going to be a whimsical comedy with double entendres, etc. There’s a bit of that obviously, but it gets pretty dark as it turns into a thriller. Can you talk about switching genre gears like that?
Sachs: I think the basic premise is funny, I think the idea that a man decides that to divorce his wife will cause her too much pain, so better to kill her.

CS: That is funny… there you go.
Sachs: That in a way sets up the whole tone of the film, and we played it quite straight and I think comedy and tragedy are pretty linked. In a way, it’s a romantic comedy, this film, not in a sense that we might use that term today, but I think it recalls suspense films or Hitchcock or Joan Crawford movies, but it also recalls the comedies of remarriage of the thirties and forties– Claudette Colbert movies, stories about marriages that are about to break up and get back together again… “The Awful Truth,” “The Palm Beach Story,” any of these films as well, and I think it’s a comedy of manners is really what it is on some level.

CS: I know that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were influences, but you didn’t really have a character like either one of them, no real femme fatale.
Sachs: I’m more talking about the plot of these films rather than the acting style. I think for these actors, they could be cast in a Bergman movie, or as much as they were in Noir in the forties, and I think they were going for the emotional truth of the story. That’s the interesting texture of the film and I think that’s why people get frustrated by it… or other people find that the most pleasurable part of it. To me, all these different genre stories are just stories. I feel like stories from my grandmother are not that different from stories like “Mildred Pierce,” “All About Eve,” or “All the President’s Men.” These are all just different kinds of ways of looking at life and I think all of it is in my imagination to tell you the truth, so I don’t think there’s a post-modernist approach.

CS: Do you think the movie would work as well if you were telling the same story in the modern day?
Sachs: Yeah, I think you would have had different elements, all the modern ways in which people communicate, cell phones and computers and everything.

CS: But that would change a lot of things.
Sachs: Yeah, a different kind of mechanics and I also like the glamour of that time. I think we wanted to think of 1949 as if it wasn’t the past, but it’s still very romantic and I think there’s a romance in the movie.

CS: Was there a lot more research involved with setting the movie in the ’40s and did you work with the cinematographer to get a very specific look?
Sachs: I worked with Peter Deming who shot the film and who I knew from his work with David Lynch on “Lost Highway.” He did not do my previous film, but I really loved his use of shadow and light in this film. We watched Gordon Willis, we watched “The Godfather,” we watched “The Parallax View.” We watched all sorts of filmmaking styles that I think were evoking the kind of emotional texture of the film that we were trying to make. A lot of directing is hiring, so I hired well. I think in general you try to get people that have a similar approach. All of the people, the costume designer and the production designer, were all working with a certain level of detail and accuracy in terms of the time, but without any fetishism. We weren’t like, “Oh, this is the greatest time.” We were trying to create a world where these actors could inhabit and live.

CS: What about the location where the story is set? Does it make a difference if the movie takes place in New England or the South?
Sachs: It is never mentioned, but in a way it is very mythic America, a post-war 1940’s America. You have to make a choice on that, and we did that only because eventually you have to put a license plate on a car. You have to pick out what phone book you want, but besides that we wanted to keep it ambiguous because in truth, it’s really about this couple and these people within their houses and their homes and their lives and their beds really.

CS: Was there a specific order to the casting?
Sachs: We started with Chris Cooper because I needed to build the ensemble around the character Harry. I needed to make a choice, but also I needed someone in that role who was likeable doing some very unlikable things. Chris has a sort of everyman quality that makes people identify with him.

CS: Pierce does as well.
Sachs: Pierce too. I didn’t really realize what a good physical comedian he would be in a sense of he’s a comedian in the old school certain kind of way. He’s an actor and has a sense of humor, but in this role he has an amount of vulnerability that I think Pierce defines the texture of the film because he’s both very funny, but he also has a lot of need and want and that’s really what drives the film.

CS: He must have done “The Matador” by the time you shot that, so had you seen him in that?
Sachs: He’d done “Matador” and I’d never seen him as James Bond, so I cast him knowing “Matador.”

CS: And what about Rachel McAdams? This is her first movie in a while after a year packed with movies. I’d assume that you knew she could do period from her role in “The Notebook”?
Sachs: I cast her based on “Red Eye.” I saw something that I responded to. I think she’s one of the most interesting actors working today and particularly of her generation. She reminds me of Montgomery Clift. She has that element of emotional life that’s just on the surface of her that’s very vivid and I think the audience connects to. I think she also has a great element of mystery and how acting is about what you show and what you don’t show. She’s obviously very beautiful, but I don’t think the beauty is what draws the attention, it’s the stuff going on just beneath the surface that she is able to convey.

CS: You definitely feel like Rachel’s character Kay is the most innocent person in the movie, like she really doesn’t know what’s going on around her with all the deceit of the other characters.
Sachs: Yes, but eventually she is able to embrace her own desires over someone else that she’s close to and I think that each of these characters gets driven to change something in their lives, their driven to make their lives different and I think that’s what makes the film interesting

CS: What do you think Kay sees in Harry?
Sachs: I think it’s a relationship that might’ve initially formed around a paternal sensibility and I think that has transformed over the course of their relationship to something more romantic, but I think maybe they feel different things for each other.

CS: Yeah, that seemed pretty obvious to me.
Sachs: Well, it’s kind of like you’ve found someone that you think will make your life better and then you meet Pierce Brosnan.

CS: Also, at the very end it’s almost like everything’s returned to the status quo.
Sachs: I would say that even if the external looks the same, I think relationships can change very much internally by what people go through.

CS: Have you watched the film since its premiere at the New York Film Festival six months ago?
Sachs: I showed the film in Dubai, I showed it in Rio. What is interesting is that people have responded to the film very similarly wherever we’ve shown it. There is some basic level of identification that people have for the characters in the story in these variety of places and I also think that this film is interesting to see with an audience besides critics. I think people approach the film very freshly and there is a kind of rollercoaster element to the story that I think the audience seemed to enjoy.

CS: It must have been interesting to show it in Dubai with their different religious and social beliefs.
Sachs: Yeah, but in truth I think it’s a rapidly Westernized place, and I think Shakespeare would play in Dubai. I’m not comparing my film to Shakespeare, but there’s some basic human things that I think people have in the course of relationships.

CS: (chuckles) You co-wrote this with Oren Moverman, who I presume has a theatrical background…
Sachs: No, he’s a film guy. He was a co-writer on “Jesus’ Son” and on “I’m Not There.”

CS: Ah. When I spoke to Todd Haynes, he mentioned that Oren was involved with helping the movie make the transition into a musical.
Sachs: But his background isn’t theater. He’s got a real cinematic imagination which is something that I think he brings to the project. He’s about to direct his own first film, and we both try to write films as if we are directing. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in adaptation because from the first moment you’re writing, you’re actually filmmaking.

CS: You’re visualizing the movie while you’re reading the book and know what you want to do, but with that in mind, when did you bring Oren into the equation?
Sachs: I started working on the film before I met Oren, but one of the reasons I met him was that I saw his talent and I thought, “Oh, he would be a good collaborator.” On the new film, we are working on it from the first together.

CS: So you already know what you are going to do next?
Sachs: I’m working on this script with Oren Moverman, it’s called “The Goodbye People” which is a drama set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960’s based on the work of Gavin Lambert.

CS: It’s another adaptation and another period piece.
Sachs: Yes, indeed. It’s a film about sex and love and drugs and Charles Manson and Hollywood and beautiful women and beautiful men, and mostly about how difficult it is to maintain innocent life, so it’s very similar.

CS: So you’re following some of the same themes of your other films.
Sachs: It is, except it’s not about deceit. I’ve made three films about deceit and I feel like I’m done with that trilogy.

CS: You’re making a movie about L.A. without any deceit?
Sachs: Exactly.

CS: Maybe I’ll try to read that one before seeing it.
Sachs: The book is fantastic, it’s really great. It’s actually two books that we’ve optioned, the other is called “The Slide Area”, they’re by this guy called Gavin Lambert who wrote “Inside Daisy Clover.”

In the meantime, Sachs’ latest Married Life opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.

Thanks to Victoria L. Negri for her help with this piece.