Ira Sachs :: Putting the Lights On
Since "Keep The Lights On" appeared at Sundance earlier this year, the buzz has been palpable for the movie, Ira Sachs’ account of the ups-and-mostly-downs of a relationship between a New York filmmaker and his lawyer boyfriend.
That buzz increased when the film traveled to the Berlin Film Festival the following month and won the Teddy Award as Best LGBT Feature, making it the most sought-after film in the increasingly competitive arena of LGBT film fests. Over the past few months, it has been screened at festivals from QFest in Philadelphia to Outfest in Los Angeles, where it won the Outstanding U.S. Dramatic Feature Film. It will be given a commercial release - rare for gay films these days - this fall.
What drives the film’s notoriety is that its central relationship is based on one that Sachs had with Bill Clegg, a literary agent who published the best-selling memoir "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man" in 2008. That book offered a harrowing account of how Clegg lost it all - career, relationship, home, family - because of his crack addiction. Clegg wrote about his experiences with the drug: "It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand."
Nothing else to hide
Crack also plays a crucial role in "Keep The Lights On." If sex (to paraphrase Pauline Kael) is the great leveler, then drugs became the great divider between these men. In an early scene, Erik (based on Sachs) and Paul (based on Clegg) hook up after meeting on a phone-sex line (in pre-Manhunt 1998). Paul takes out his drug paraphernalia and smokes. "It’s my dirty little secret," he says, while Erik sits by a bit fascinated. As their relationship develops, Paul’s addiction becomes their dirty shared secret. His behavior becomes more and more erratic as Erik desperately keeps trying to make things right.
The film, which follows the two over the next ten years, is a series of postcards from the edge and the secrecy that goes with them. Early on, Sachs wanted to call the film "The Closet," and it could be seen as his coming out as an enabler.
Instead he selected "Keep The Lights On": "Eventually we chose a more upbeat title. I really think the film is about an encouragement for people to keep the lights on and live more transparently. It’s so difficult, but ultimately what liberates these characters and myself as well is that there is nothing else to hide."
A common story
Just the same, it took some time for Sachs to process this harrowing personal experience.
"I wrote a draft of the script before I started working with Mauricio Zacharias, the co-writer, and I put it in the drawer for a couple of years. When I gave Mauricio that script, he said, ’This is the movie we should be working on together, and this is the story you have to tell.’ At that moment he gave me permission to tell that story. His relating to it and finding it familiar in some ways and not shocking is what I needed to move to the other side. I realized my story was pretty common. And the ’commonness’ makes me feel that the things that I’ve done, that this is the behavior of our generation. This is part of many gay men’s lives."
It is an often-harrowing journey. Early on, Paul disappears for days at a time. Once, while having sex, Paul messes the bed (not uncommon among users); and during one of their separations, Erik sits by while Paul has sex with a hustler. What develops between the men is a dynamic not so unusual in such connections.
"In my relationship, there was a good/bad dynamic," he said. "There was the idea that I was the good guy and he was the bad guy, which I don’t now believe. But within that dynamic, the bad guy is too shamed to bridge those two roles, if that makes sense. I wasn’t the good guy. It was just the roles we took on in some ways, but we didn’t believe them."
During the entire experience, Sachs kept much - probably too much in retrospect - to himself. "There was so much shame I couldn’t share with my family," he said. "I could barely share with my friends. It was even difficult to share many of the things that were going on with my therapist, which means I couldn’t look at myself. I couldn’t accept myself."
What fueled the covert behavior is what Sachs said he considers "an aspect of gay life of the generation that I am part of - the idea of living a secret life, which I think I held onto from since I was 13 and started having sex. I began to learn how to keep things hidden. I realized when everything exploded at the end of the relationship, I couldn’t live in that kind of closet anymore. By the time I was ready to write the script, I had done a lot of the work of processing the experiences, so I was comfortable to tell the story."
Sachs freely admits that his onscreen counterpart (transplanted to be of Danish descent in order to cast actor Thure Lindhardt) comes off as well meaning at best controlling at worst in the way he dealt with Paul (Zachary Booth, known from the television series "Damages.")
One reason for this came to Sachs’ attention after a screening. "A psychotherapist in his 80s said that it was a film about obsession, and why someone gets caught up in an obsession is that it closes off all the other worries that one might have - failure in one’s career, lack of intimacy - whatever it may be," Sachs said.
"If you can be obsessed with something, it seems that you’re safe because at least within that small world, you can focus. It shuts off all the other noise. Going out with a crack addict, it shuts off all the other noise because there’s just this one really large bang that’s in your head all the time."
Another aspect of Sachs’ extended timeframe is that his film parallels the significant changes in gay life. It begins the year "Will & Grace" premiered and ends about the time that California voters passed Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the Golden State. Sachs sees that the lines between gay and straight as having blurred during those years.
"I think that many of us live in urban centers where our gayness is not ’other’ anymore," Sachs said. "It’s no longer foreign in a mainstream way. I don’t consider my gayness as something that separates me from the community I live in 90 percent of the time. Ten percent of the time I am still fearful of a few things: kissing my husband on a subway platform, for instance. The fear is still something, and the shame that inspires hasn’t disappeared, but it has mellowed."
When the film played Sundance, some were shocked by the explicit sex. The film begins with Erik playing with himself as he works the phone lines and, within minutes, shows the couple’s first hook-up. "There is something European about the way the film is made and its sexuality, the openness of the images," Sachs said. "This film is about people that have secrets, but they are displayed very openly. The sex in the film is depicted very honestly. It is not a repressed film."
His leads, Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth, immediately hit it off, Sachs said. "They are both wildly comfortable with their bodies and liked each other instantly. They became great friends. They helped make the film as free as possible. They liberated us as a group of filmmakers.
"Someone advised me to shoot the first sex scene on the second day of filming, and it was a great recommendation because we had full-frontal nudity and full-on simulated fucking within 48 hours of us getting together as a crew.
"The day was fun and joyous and silly and sexy. After that, we had closed sets, but we didn’t keep them closed because it wasn’t necessary in our little band of players because there was a feeling of freedom. And I think that’s the exact opposite of what the characters felt in living the film. I think the physical intimacy that these characters have is a substitute for an emotional intimacy they’re not able to have."
Keeping it real
Keeping it intimate and real may be helping the story resonate with audiences.
"What has been most rewarding for me is that most everyone I speak to after screenings tells me about their own relationships and experiences that were triggered by seeing the movie," Sachs said. "Making an entertainment story that encourages this kind of conversation and contemplation about one’s own life made making the movie worthwhile. It’s what you hope for when you make something that is very personal and based initially on autobiographical material. If you get the details right, then one’s life looks like a lot of other people’s lives. The dynamic between the two characters - that within the gay community there’s a lot of familiarity with the issues of drugs and addiction - is very common. These are people who hold onto something against all right thinking - that if they don’t make this relationship work, their lives won’t work."
Sachs noted with regret that our community no longer heads out to the theaters to see LGBT movies - even ones that receive that all-important buzz. The new distribution models have steered us away from theaters to home screenings, "On Demand" and direct-to-DVD.
"The film has been very well-received - one of the more recognized gay films of this year," Sachs said. "But it is unclear if it will make its money back, because there is not a tradition anymore of gay people going out to see their stories. There is something about the system that isn’t working. I’m hoping by having a film that has a higher profile and will be seen in theaters, we can make some economic sense of making queer cinema."
"Keep the Lights On" is currently playing in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and Philadelphia. It opens in other U.S. cities in October and November. For a complete list of theaters, visit the film’s website.
Watch the trailer to Keep the Lights On: