Filmmaker Ira Sachs bares all with his latest, "Keep the Lights On," an unflinchingly autobiographical look at a decade-long relationship between two men (Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth) wrestling with love, compulsion and addiction in New York City. Of course, it's not a documentary -- so there are some differences and fictionalizations. For starters, Sachs is not Danish, as the main character in the film is.
What is the attraction in drawing so directly from your own life for your films?
I kind of feel like it's all we have as artists. I mean, we have craft and we have skills and we have taste, but what we really have to offer -- or what I feel I have to offer -- is the things I know intimately. And I have always relied on my own experience as the base of my work. What I generally feel is that a story becomes visible to me as a filmmaker when I have a great depth of knowledge about the story and also a certain kind of distance, which makes it possible for me to be clearheaded as a storyteller.
And you felt enough time had gone by since this relationship?
Yeah, I mean I ended a relationship in 2008, and I was aware soon after that 10 years before there had been a first day of this relationship and then somehow in between the two was a really good story.
What made you want to cast Lindhardt, a Danish actor, as your onscreen counterpart?
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It was him, who was described to me as "the bravest actor in Denmark." The material in the film, it's very open and very sexual and very naked in a lot of ways, both physically and emotionally. I had a sense that I might not be able to cast it in America. For example, I sent the script to an agent in Hollywood who I've often sent scripts to before, and the response I got back was, "No one in our agency will be available."
The depictions of sex in the film are very frank and natural.
One of the things I liked about [cinematographer] Thimios Bakatakis' work is that sex scenes are not different scenes than a Christmas dinner. They're just other things that people do together. ... There isn't this kind of misty haze that covers the screen when people start to have sex.
When art imitates life
In the film, the main character wins the Teddy award at the Berlin Film Festival, which this film itself went on to win. Is that an example of a successful subliminal message?
I hope that wasn't the reason [we won the Teddy], but I'm certainly glad won. [Laughs] I won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and I thought that would be just too dead-on and too much about me. I had to think of a comparable [award], and that seemed in the scale. I didn't think it seemed fair for these characters to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It was fun to imitate the actor who was imitating a character based on me winning a prize at a film festival -- which I felt like I was doing. When I won the prize at Berlin, I felt like I was playing Thure winning the prize.