Ira Sachs shines a light into the darkest corners of gay relationships

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“Keep the Lights On,” written and directed by gay filmmaker Ira Sachs, is one of the most eagerly anticipated gay films of 2012.

The film shines a light into the darkest corners of gay relationships. In the movie, gay filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt) embarks on a roller-coaster relationship with crack-addicted publishing lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth). Sex, drugs and celluloid combine in a provocative, wrenching film. 

I spoke with Ira Sachs last month.

Gregg Shapiro: The title of the movie “Keep the Lights On” comes from Paul’s line to Erik toward the end of the film, about not wanting be in the dark with him. Why did you choose it as the film’s title?

Ira Sachs: The title has multiple meanings. In some ways the film’s title is a call to arms to the audience to keep the lights on and to share what we do in our lives with each other. There’s also a pun around “Keep the Lights On,” which is that the film is looking very openly at sex and sexuality.

Is this a personal story?

I began with autobiography. But ultimately I knew I was making a fictional film that was rooted in a very personal kind of filmmaking, so I never intended the film to be biography. I’ve made four features, and all of them began from a certain kind of intimacy of experience. It’s what I offer as a filmmaker. 

Erik is addicted to phone sex lines. Was it necessary to give Erik a dependency of his own to achieve a kind of balance?

I think these are characters who are so in desperate need of connection and love that they search for it compulsively in different ways. There’s a great line in an Emmylou Harris song where she says that addiction fits like a glove. I think for both these men their compulsive behavior is very, very comfortable because it’s so familiar. I think also … it’s a film about two men who believe that their only sense of worth is in another person.

Telephones seem to become characters in the movie. 

That’s very interesting (laughs). No one has pointed that out to me. To depict 10 years of a relationship, we did that primarily through the emotional shifts that these characters go through in the course of the story. But, in a way certain props became sort of totems to a changing society. So the cell phone, the ways people hook up, and laptops are three things that define time changing. 

The artwork in the opening credit is by Boris Torres (Sachs’ husband). Is the character of Igor (Miguel Del Toro) based on Boris?

Yes, it is! Boris and I met toward the tail end of (the relationship depicted in the film). The film in a certain way has a happy ending, not because you know certain characters might get together, but because there’s a sense of possibility in both Eric and Paul’s future. I am now married to Boris. We had twins seven months ago. We’re raising them with our friend, who is a filmmaker, she is the mother of the kids. We have a three-parent household with two kids. I’m very happy that we were allowed to get married and that we could in New York.

The difference in this relationship is that it’s a relationship that I lived honestly. From the beginning there was an understanding that deceit and secrets were the most destructive part of my life and that honesty was something new and that I needed to give a try. The difference between living a relationship that begins on that note is very, very deep. I think having an honest relationship is not something that comes easily to gay people. Because of our history it was very necessary to keep ourselves apart from other people in our lives and to maintain secrets. I think we’ve actually developed a whole kind of anthropology based on the idea of that. In a way this film urges people to ask what is the residual element of the closet that we still hold on to?

Artwork figures prominently in “Keep the Lights On.” Was that the result of Boris’ influence?

Boris is a painter. His work is very open, funny, sexual and unabashed. There is a joyousness to Boris that comes through his work and I wanted to include in the film. The film is about very dark times, but there is a level of pleasure. This is central to movies and to the hunger for life that these characters have. In a way a film like “Goodfellas” was a big influence. We watched the film several times, because “Goodfellas” is a film about bad behavior and had great energy and a lot of color. In a way what we wanted to do was depict this behavior, but not judge it and not demonize it – actually just embrace it as well as its consequences. And not shy away from the effect of drugs in our lives and communities and the effects of compulsive behavior. I think the film layers different attempts of different artists to depict what gay life looks like now. So you have Boris’ paintings, the filmmaker who is making a film about Avery Willard, the photographer and filmmaker in the ’50s and ’60s who tried to document gay life at that time. In some ways you could say the film was an attempt to make visible certain elements of gay life and gay history.

The late Arthur Russell’s music is heard throughout the soundtrack.

I had an idea to use Arthur’s music the way they used Simon and Garfunkel in “The Graduate” and the way that Aimee Mann’s is used in “Magnolia.” I thought, “I can take Arthur’s tunes and create a score from that music.” In a way I think Arthur’s music becomes another character in the film. It has great humor and it’s messy and it’s full of melancholy and full of passion. What’s very moving is that most of Arthur’s music was not heard in his lifetime. I hope the film manages to bring back Arthur and make him part of our lives.