GAY GLASS CEILING
Ira Sachs and ‘Little Men’: What It’s Like to Be Indie Film’s Most Celebrated ‘Queer Filmmaker’
Thanks to films ‘Love Is Strange’ and ‘Keep the Light On,’ ‘Little Men’ director Ira Sachs has become indie films’ most celebrated queer filmmaker. But is that also a liability?
Love is strange.
That’s the beating heart of filmmaker Ira Sachs’s work, specifically his recent New York City-based trilogy of sorts: Little Men, which was released this week; 2012’s Keep the Lights On; and 2014’s suitably titled—yep—Love Is Strange.
The films are connected because of, among other things, their focus on relationships between two men of different generations, the strangeness of that intimacy, as well as the challenges. Keep the Lights On, for example, examines how substance abuse and physical distance threaten the intense emotional and sexual connection between a gay couple in a long-term relationship.
Love Is Strange spotlights a gay couple who, after 39 years together, are forced to live apart when one partner loses his job and they have no recourse but to sell their apartment and separately crash on friends’ and family’s couches.
And here is Little Men, which charts the course of the once-innocent friendship between middle schoolers Tony (Michael Barbieri) and Jake (Theo Taplitz), whose relationship is tested when Tony’s mother (Paulina Garcia), a shop owner, is evicted from the store owned by Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear).
“I would say Love Is Strange and Little Men are most connected, because the problems the characters face are similarly external societal problems rather than internal psychological problems,” Sachs says, assessing this so-called trilogy. “These kids have a beautiful friendship that is impacted by adult problems, adult issues. The strangeness, in a way, is just living in this world.”
The simple act of “just living in this world” is sort of the revolutionary subject matter that Sachs has made his career on, a career we are discussing over coffee at The Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village, near where he lives.
More revolutionary, though, is the honesty and nuance with which he’s managed to depict that simple act with gay men as the main characters, making his films rare examples of giving the specificity of the gay experience a universality.
“In my mind, when I come up with a narrative arc, I believe it’s as dramatic as The Avengers in my head,” Sachs says at one point—probably my favorite summation of how he approaches drama on such human and personal terms. “It’s just going to play out on a different scale.”
Sachs, who is 50, lives in New York with his husband, artist Boris Torres, whom he married in 2012, and twins Viva and Felix.
He’s been making films since the last ’90s, but it’s the critical reception of Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange—not to mention, after a rave debut in Sundance and 96 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes ranking, Little Men—these past few years that have led to Sachs being crowned one of independent film’s most celebrated and most important queer filmmakers.
It’s certainly a deserved distinction.
Both Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange are unique and gorgeous depictions of love that that is both specific to and removed from its sexuality. In addition, Sachs is executive director of Queer/Art/Film, a non-profit that fosters relationships between established and emerging LGBTQ filmmakers.
It’s also becoming a more complicated distinction, especially with the release of Little Men, a film about childhood friends and the relationship between a father and son. But not, at least not overtly, about anything… well, particularly gay.
Nonetheless, it’s the gay community, gay film writers, and gay reporters that have expressed the most interest in the film, in the weeks leading to its release.
And it’s almost impossible, because of the knowledge that Sachs is the director and co-writer, not to view the intimacy of the relationship between the two young boys through a gay lens—perhaps there is a romance to this friendship that the boys, at this stage in their sexualities, are not yet aware.
So in the course of long and fascinating discussion about the economics of independent film, the real-life inspiration behind Little Men’s more aching plot points, and his own career I ask him: Does being consistently branded and discussed in the construct of being a “queer filmmaker” ever feel limiting?
“I feel empowered, emboldened, encouraged…” he begins, before take a brief pause: “and discouraged.”
Earlier this year, for example, Sachs presented the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival, for the Best Queer film.
“Within that context, with 1,000 people who were there with a particular passion and belief in the meaning of queer cinema, I felt really appreciated—let’s put it that way,” he says. “I was like, oh, there’s a particular value within this subculture that I should not deny. On the other hand, I feel like marginal space challenges economic ability”
When Love Is Strange was released, for example, its distribution happened to coincide with the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state, where it was set, and with national legalization right around the corner.
The film’s reviews celebrated it for being, as star John Lithgow told me at the time, “just a beautiful portrait of love, taking the sexual part out of it.” His co-star Alfred Molina echoed the sentiment: “It’s just a story about a relationship and the fact that they’re gay men, in a way, is almost irrelevant.”
The story was so timely and its reception so fond that Variety wondered in a headline, “Will Gay Drama Love Is Strange Shatter Hollywood’s Glass Ceiling?”
For all the media attention and critical notices, though, it’s worth noting that Love Is Strange failed to even reach the $2.5 million mark at the box office. Ah: The marginal space challenging economic ability.
Asked about that “glass ceiling” and how he observes it now, a few years removed from Love Is Strange’s release, Sachs points to the fact that the film was only released in 138 markets, rather than going wider to, say, 575 markets like an indie garnering that kind of buzz might ordinarily do.
“That would be the place where the glass ceiling is most experienced, where the distributor is not able to make the economic investment of more houses, and I think partially it’s because they read the limited acceptance of that story with the 400 communities outside of the major cities in America,” he says.
Loosely translated that means that distributors felt communities outside of major cities wouldn’t buy tickets to a gay love story.
“The question of whether they are right or wrong, I don’t know,” he continues. “Would the film have made $6 million instead of $3 million had they made that investment? I don’t know. That’s capitalism.” And, even tying it to his filmography, he concludes: “Again I think all my films are about intimacy and economics, and how those things play out together.”
He might be branded as a queer filmmaker, but a more accurate description of Sachs would be as a personalfilmmaker. His movies are grounded in stories of everyday life. Little Men, for example, is simply the story of two friends whose relationship is tested by, of all things, a dress shop lease.
“It’s unfortunate for me as a viewer that there are not more of these stories being told, specifically around children,” he says. “I think the idea that comic book movies about superheroes seems to be the only way that children get to experience cinema is a really narrow window.”
I try to imagine a major studio’s reaction to a movie pitch about a friendship in which the biggest obstacle involves a real estate translation. Sachs laughs and says that’s probably why Little Men was made without the economic support of anyone lived in the Los Angeles area code.
Illuminating the plight of a “personal filmmaker”—while simultaneously illustrating why notoriety as a “queer filmmaker” can, perhaps, truly be a liability—Sachs explains that after Love Is Strange’s buzzy release he sent his script for Little Men to 25 production companies, almost all of which expressed no interest.
“After the success of Love Is Strange you might have imagined that being different,” he says.
And so I ask again if he feels that being known as a personal, queer filmmaker has been a hindrance to any sort of success in the industry.
“It is a good question,” he says. “I’m sure yes and no. I’m sure maybe initially, early in my career, it was the thing that sort of marginalized me. And now it’s one of the things that sets me apart. It depends on the week.”
This week, at least surveying the reviews for Little Men, it is setting him apart. It’s rewarding, too, because, as he tells me over the course of our conversation, it’s as personal to him as any of his other films.
The eviction plot is taken from drama the family of Sachs’s co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, actually experienced in Brazil, where he’s from. Sachs’s husband moved to New York from Ecuador with his single mother when he was just 10, a similar backstory to the character of Tony, and his interest in art eventually led him to the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, like the character of Jake.
And it’s his own feelings about now being a father and also reexamining his relationship and responsibility to his own parents as he gets older that informed Greg Kinnear’s character.
For the sheer simplicity of the story and its scale, it’s unshakably profound. As A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review, “Little Men only looks like a small movie.”
Sachs gets visibly touched when I suggest its resonance, of the effect his film will likely have on people—fathers, sons, immigrants, anyone who’s ever had and grew apart from a childhood friend.
“And let me just tell you, the cover of the weekend section is going to be Suicide Squad,” he says. “So how are we all part of this conversation and mechanism?” He takes a beat. “I literally just pointed my finger, but I take that finger back.”
Then he, as has become his refrain for most of his Little Men press tour, borrows as quote from Jean Renoir, in Rules of the Game. “Everyone has their reasons,” he says. “To me, in my deepest self as an artist and as a person, understanding that is vitally important.”