|Zachary Booth, Thure Lindhardt. PHOTO BY JEAN-CHROSTOPHE HUSSON
In an empty hotel bar on a summer Sunday morning, openly gay filmmaker Ira Sachs spokeâin hushed, almost confessional tones that reveal his thoughtfulnessâabout his award-winning new film, Keep the Lights On, which opens September 14 in the Bay Area. This searing drama, about Eric (Thure Lindhardt), a filmmaker, whose lover Paul (Zachary Booth) is a drug addict, is based on the filmmakerâs experiences in a toxic, co-dependent relationship.
Sachs demurred at any suggestion of making this film as a way of exorcising his demons. âI donât begin to write a film until I have both the intimacy of the experience but also the distance to view the story as a storytellerâthe analytic distance is as important as the emotional intimacy for me. I feel this film is a rebirth for me. I think that in the wake of the experiences on which this film is based, Iâve become more comfortable with myself, and thatâs shifted my work, and the openness of my filmmaking. I think this is my freest film.â
Keep the Lights On is certainly Sachsâ most personal project since his extraordinary first feature, The Delta, back in 1996. That film concerned a closeted 18 year-old in Memphis who begins a clandestine affair with a half-Vietnamese, half-African American man. Keep the Lights On is Sachsâ first queer-themed feature since his debut. It is also his most passionateânot just for being considerably erotic, but also for being so emotionally heartfelt. The charactersâ despair and desire are palpable.
He continued, âAs a filmmaker, Iâm always mining my own experienceâbecause it is what I know best. I try to make films about things I know more about than anyone else,â and added quickly, conscientiously, âbut I never sense that privileges my story over others.â
Keep the Lights On is a strong, extremely well crafted story that has universal appeal. While it will resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship with an addict, the film will also speak to those who want to understand the intricacies of human nature and behavior. Eric and Paul each keep secrets as they find ways of coping with the corrosive nature of their relationship. How they each fare by the end of the film is revealing.
Sachs described his drama as a âtabula rasa,â and acknowledged that most people who see it often talk to him afterwards about their relationships. He also indicated that some folks donât consider it a âgay film,â and cited an example of a psychologist in his eighties who said it was, ânot a film about love, or addiction, but about obsession.â
âThat was very clarifying to me,â the filmmaker observed. âI think what happens, for a lot of peopleâand this can be through other individuals, it can be through sex, it can be through drugsâis that by narrowing the range of what compels you to another person, you kind of silence the loud noises that are surrounding you. Obsession is a very comfortable place to be.â Sachs almost smiled knowingly as he said this.
He paused, and quoted Emmylou Harrisâ song, âWhere Will I Be,â which includes the lyric, âAddiction stays on tight like a glove.â
Sachs reframed this idea, âI thought about that often in my life. I think addiction can be to a person as much as a drug.â
The filmmaker explained that he was involved with Al-Anon, and learned what he could from his experiences. He described this âresearchâ as a way of formulating the content of his film, âhow my behavior was cyclical and unenlightened in terms of the role that I played within the dynamic of this relationship.â
Sachs further claimed that he worked through his guilt and pain about his relationship in therapy. He then referenced Goodfellas, of all films, to explain that his goal in making Keep the Lights On was to, âdepict bad behavior, but not judge that behavior, or shy away from the consequence of what we do in our lives. I attempted to make a film about shame, but to do so shamelessly. I wanted to look without judgment at the behavior and the actions of these characters.â
Viewers will connect withâand understandâEricâs struggle as he tries to help Paul during his downward spiral. His efforts to try to maintain hope for this relationship are evident even when the relationship is at the apex of its crisis.
Keep the Lights On unfolds over ten years, with episodes happening in one day in a particular year, or perhaps over an undetermined period in some cases. The oblique narrative approach is forceful, because it shows Eric and Paul relate to one another over the various jumps in timeâfrom warm and caring to cold and fightingâbut always with some element of love.
âThe script is like a diary,â Sachs commented. âIf you think about diaries and journals, they are made up of events and ellipsis. You write in your journal when something bothers you. So the film is like all the high points.â
These scenes include an incredibly tense moment when Eric places a call to see if he contracted HIV, to a seductive scene in which Eric is offered drugs, and he tries them, warily, perhaps in an effort to understand what Paul finds so alluring about crack and crystal meth.
Keep the Lights On benefits immensely from Thure Lindhardtâs revelatory performance as Eric. Sachs, a nice Jewish gay man from Memphis, insisted that it was liberating to cast the Danish actor as his alter ego. âI was free from any attachment from the past.â
He effused about Lindhardt. âI didnât set up to cast a Danish guy. I heard Thure was the bravest actor in Denmarkâand one of the best. I sent him the script, and he auditioned by doing a few scenes from the film on his cell phone. He chose all the scenes he could do alone, which meant a lot of masturbation scenes. There was a fearlessnessâeven in the auditionâthat was apparent, as well as an extraordinarily vibrant energy to have as an actor.â
Sachs added that he could not easily cast this film in America because of the queer sexuality and the explicitness of the material. âBelieve it or not,â he said, âI sent the material to an agency in Los Angeles that I always send new work to, and I got the response, âNo one in our agency will be available for this film.ââ
This leads to a discussion of the filmmakerâs feelings on contemporary queer cinema today. Sachs remarked that his film is part of todayâs ânew queer cinemaâ that focuses more on relationships, and less on coming out stories. This new work considers what Sachs called, âThe nocturnal world of gay life.â
âI think we have to recognize that there are still so few images of what gay life looks like, particularly around sex and drugs. We as individuals and as a community have re-closeted our selves. Weâve created a safe space where we can have certain kinds of experiences, and then weâve stopped talking about them and stopped looking at them. Thereâs very, very little about gay life as I know it on film.â
Sachs continued on this rant, as he insisted that even his filmâs title is a call to arms for the audience, âItâs a direct address for people in the cinema to not live in the darkness. I think as gay people, we have learnedâout of needâto live with secrets. This film, in a way, is a testament to the destruction those secrets can create. The film is very, very open about two men who keep everything closed.â
Sachs maintained that Keep the Lights On is not an âanti-drug film,â but he claimed that people need to talk about drugs. He hoped that his film sparks more conversation about the place of drugs, particularly meth, in the gay community.
The filmmaker likened the way crystal meth has been introduced to a sexualized community like the gay community to the introduction of crack to the African American community, âIt was a fuel that set off a huge fire, and I think we are in the middle of that. But there is a way of ending it, and thatâs to admit it. I think itâs another closet. Weâre very used to creating closets and staying in them.â
As angry as Sachs gets, his calm demeanor reinforces the very happy place he is in now. Sachs and his partner, the Ecuadorian artist Boris Torresâwhose beautiful and sexy artwork is seen under the filmâs opening creditsâhave been together for five years.
âI feel like I came out at 40 in a lot of ways,â Sachs, who is in his mid-forties, said, sunnily. âI live a very different way now. This relationship Iâm in now is the first honest relationship Iâve been in.â
The couple recently had twinsâa boy and a girlâand the proud father shows cute photos of two adorable, smiling babies who surely have
had a transformative effect on their parents.
Sachs cooed about his children, and admitted, âI tried to start keeping a journal when we had kids because I found it complex to be a parentâand fascinating and wonderful.â He mused, âMaybe itâs too wonderful to write about it.â
Â© 2012 Gary M. Kramer