Home Again 

On the eve of his new film's Memphis debut, director Ira Sachs talks about "Married Life," working with established stars, and growing up in Memphis.

A Central High School graduate who shot his first two feature films in Mempis — The Delta, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, and Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Grand Jury Prize there nine years later — Ira Sachs ventured to Vancouver last year to shoot his third film, Married Life, a period thriller and intimate human drama set in the late 1940s and shot with an estimated $12 million budget.

Sachs, who was raised in East Memphis, where his mother still lives, will be in town this week to celebrate the local debut of Married Life, which pairs the indie-identified filmmaker with a heavyweight Hollywood cast: Academy Award winner Chris Cooper, emerging ingénue Rachel McAdams, former James Bond Pierce Brosnan, and prolific character actress Patricia Clarkson.

Married Life, in which Cooper plays a man having an affair who decides to kill his wife to save her the embarrassment of divorce, evokes such 1940s Hollywood classics as Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window and Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt, but there's nothing postmodern about it. It's not about those movies so much as it's modeled after them. "It's not an homage," Sachs says with a laugh, "but kind of an exploitation."

Since the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Sachs has traveled around the world showing it. "I've played the film in Toronto and in Rio and in Dubai, and I have seen that there is a kind of ease with which people connect to the story and the characters, whatever their perspective is," Sachs says.

This month, the film goes into theatrical release. Sachs talked to the Flyer from his New York home in advance of his trip back to Memphis this week.

Flyer: There was a nine-year gap between your first feature, The Delta in 1996, and your second feature, Forty Shades of Blue in 2005, but only a three-year gap between Forty Shades and Married Life. Can we assume that this was an easier film to get made?

Ira Sachs: It was an easier movie to get made. But I also think the second film is a particularly challenging one for independent filmmakers to get off the ground. The first one you can do with credit cards and family. The second one is like real money. Also, Forty Shades of Blue was what could technically be called an art film, which is a dying breed. Married Life was written, constructed, and made with movie stars in mind, and I think having a cast involved is really what makes financers interested.

Married Life is adapted from a 1950s pulp novel. Were you inspired by the book or did you set out looking for this kind of material?

Back in 2001, I had spent a summer reading old pulp fiction, looking for something to adapt. I had, in the month before, watched a lot of Joan Crawford movies and film noir and [Alfred] Hitchcock.

I was struck by how those films were great entertainments — larger-than-life, over-the-top stories — and also able to speak to me personally when I watched them, almost on the level of metaphor. You know, at that point, films were still about what happened in peoples' homes. And I think now most of those kinds of stories are seen on television, not in the movies. Movies [now] are really about escape. And I understand that. I go to movies too. So [the goal] was to make a film that has the pleasure of escape while speaking to something truer or more complicated underneath.

I found this great pulp fiction, an out-of-print British mystery novel called Five Roundabouts to Heaven, which was written by a man named John Bingham. And I loved the book. I loved its frankness about relationships.

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The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue were both original screenplays that were rooted, at least in part, in autobiography. The fact that you were interested in doing something that was more period and genre .... is that what led you to outside source material?

I think that all my films are rooted in autobiography. I think I bring a lot of what I've experienced in my own relationships into this film — the notion of what you share and don't share with people you love and also an examination of a certain kind of co-dependency. There's a narcissism to Chris Cooper's character that I relate to very personally. So I think that it's an emotionally autobiographical film, I guess you'd say. And for me, it's also important to note that although the film is called Married Life, as a gay man, for me the term "married life" reflects not the institution but the experience of being in a long-term, intimate relationship.

Initially, Chris Cooper's character seems to be the protagonist, but over time the audience identification shifts across the four main characters.

That was one of the challenges of the movie and why I think it's unusual in terms of today's movies. In Hollywood, they call it "the rooting interest," and you need to decide both in terms of making movies and marketing them — who the audience is going to root for. For me, I'm more interested in a democratic approach to characters, which allows you to root in different moments for each of them because there is a common empathy for everyone in the story. [Robert] Altman is the great example of a democratic style of moviemaking. He's comfortable with sharing the identification. That's also what I think makes it a suspense film. Emotionally, the audience has a kind of suspense about what they want to happen, because [their identification] is shifting. And I think that's kind of fun.

Once the plot is set in motion and the tension builds, the real intrigue is how everything is going to end. A lot of movies like this in the '40s or '50s tended to have tidy endings, sometimes tragic, as in Scarlet Street. You're going away from that here.

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS

I think that's what makes this movie modern and also what makes it different from its source, the book. And it's also why the visual language changes, because at the end the movie breaks out of its convention and becomes something different. For me, what it becomes is a humanist film about intimate life, and that's ultimately what I'm interested in. At the same time, the audience can enjoy it for its primary function, which is as entertainment, a kind of roller coaster of who's going to do what to whom when.

Let's talk about the casting process. With The Delta you used unknown actors, and Forty Shades of Blue was written with Rip Torn in mind. How did this cast come together?

I cast Chris Cooper first. I needed to fill one of the four corners of the ensemble to figure out how to fill the others in a way that made sense. And Chris is someone who could make a character who does some really bad things still likable and still knowable. I knew Rachel [McAdams] from Red-Eye. She's really great in that movie. She has so much going on just under the surface of her face, which makes her amazing to watch.

I thought Patricia Clarkson needed a part where she could be really sensual. She tends to be in these character parts, and I knew her a bit and thought there was another side to her. And she's probably the character the audience identifies with most. I think a lot of women are happy to see a woman over 40 be carnal and frank and honest in a way we don't see very often but which is true to today and also to the 1940s.

And Pierce [Brosnan] I knew from The Matador. I had never seen him as James Bond. I had seen his humor, but I hadn't seen the level of craft he has as an actor. At the end of the day, he's the one who provides the film with its tone. There's a very specific wry, knowing but also hungry kind of need in his performance that gives the film its tension.

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Did the success of Forty Shades of Blue, particularly in terms of its actors — Dina Korzun was nominated for an Independent Spirit award and Rip Torn got rave reviews — help you corral a cast of this caliber?

Each of these actors wanted to see Forty Shades of Blue before they would decide to be in the film, and I think what they saw in Forty Shades was that I could make them look good, that I could make a movie. They needed to know that. I think they responded to the script also, but an actor agreeing to do a movie is really trusting the director not to embarrass them at the end of the day. Forty Shades of Blue gave them that confidence.

How was the experience for you different, working with such a high-profile group of actors?

It wasn't different. You know, I directed my first play at the Memphis Children's Theatre when I was 16 — Our Town. And I feel like I learned then that I liked the nature of collaborative performance. I like being in charge, but I also like learning from the people I'm working with. And I'm not a kid anymore. By the time I made this movie, I'd been working in film for 20 years, and it felt very organic to be with these people.

Are you working on another project?

I am. I'm working on another script with Oren [Moverman] called The Goodbye People. It's an adaptation of two novels by the writer Gavin Lambert, and it's a drama set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s. It's about love and sex and drugs and cults and the difficulty of not falling off the rails.

When did you get to the point of thinking, This is my career. This is what I do now?

I think between The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue I never stopped thinking that this was what I was going to do, but it began to seem like perhaps it was just a conceptual project. I had so many pieces of paper and scripts and things that were all about being a filmmaker, but I wasn't a filmmaker anymore, it felt like. I feel now that I'm making movies and hopefully will make another one soon.

Watching your career and Craig Brewer's, you get a sense of how hard it can be to get movies made. It seems like there's more work getting a production started than actually making the film.

I really embrace, and I think Craig does as well, that producing is intrinsically part of directing. You can't actually separate the two. I probably spend 80 percent of my time trying to get things made, but that is directing. That's never been untrue.

Married Life was shot in Vancouver?

It was shot in Vancouver, but I truly think it was inspired by Chickasaw Gardens.

Did you grow up in Chickasaw Gardens?

I grew up around Galloway, but my mother grew up in Chickasaw Gardens. And I think this film is inspired by my grandparents' generation and the people I grew up with in Memphis. The club where Harry and Richard meet at the beginning of the movie in my mind was the Petroleum Club. The house on the street in my mind was near the lake in Chickasaw Gardens. There was a certain kind of reference to my own memories of Memphis that I think I kept in mind while making the film.

Do you think you'll ever film a project in Memphis again?

Definitely. The worst part about the movie was not being in Memphis and not having that deep connection to the people I was working with and the town I was working in that I'm used to having.

The script you're working on now wouldn't make sense in Memphis, right?

No, it won't be in Memphis. But there are a couple of possibilities I keep playing in my head, and I will definitely make more movies in Memphis — if allowed back.

You haven't lived in Memphis for a couple of decades. How can you still feel so grounded here when you've been gone so long?

Well, I've made two movies there. I've lived there as an adult. I go back a couple of times a year. But mostly it's because you never leave. [Pauses] Memphis is the only city in the world where I'm very interested in what happens at every shopping center that I used to go to growing up. What's happening with Poplar Plaza? Did that liquor store on Highland close? What happened to the bookstore? For some reason, I still care about all these kinds of things as [part of] my city.

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