Ira Sachs on Following Desire in “Passages”

It almost seems like part of the devious design of “Passages” that when a film director is the lead character, Ira Sachs is inviting audiences to think he’s getting autobiographical. Surely, there are instincts that Tomas (Franz Rogowski), the control freak auteur, has that have crossed Sachs’ mind, but for the great humanist filmmaker behind “Little Men” and “Love is Strange,” it is more likely that inspiration came from thinking of someone who approached art and life in a way that was diametrically opposed from his own. As it turns out, there is no better witness to the pitfalls of Tomas’ low-key obsessiveness as he completes a production where every detail is subject to his approval, and he’s ready to be treated accordingly off-set where after meeting Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at a wrap party, he hopes to indulge in an affair while still keeping his marriage to Martin (Ben Whishaw) alive, using the feasible cover of endless hours in the edit bay to prevent one from knowing about the other.

Inevitably, things blow up for Tomas, but Sachs presents it as an enthralling fireworks display with a sparkling trio of actors at its center that make “Passages” work well as both a compelling drama of characters drawn to each other on a chemical level, though their needs and wants threaten to tear them apart, and an irresistible sex farce as Tomas makes his way between bedrooms bicycling through the streets of Paris, aroused as much by confirming his own genius in manipulating the world around him to his liking as he is by seducing the person in front of him. The film is every bit as charming and smart as its lead character would like to think he is and after its premiere at Sundance and Berlinale earlier the year, it’s about the coolest 90 minutes you could spend in a theater this summer. Recently, Sachs spoke about wanting to follow his own desires after being in lockdown during the pandemic and how he’s developed the balance of what he and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias conceive in the writing process and what the actors bring to the table to give his films such lively energy.

I know this isn’t autobiographical, but did France come to mind after spending a similarly formative period in your life there?

I would say two things. One, I’ve had a real life experience in Paris. I’ve had relationships there. I’ve had breakups there. I’ve had sex there, I’ve cried there, so I feel very familiar with an emotional life in that city. During the pandemic, I felt a loss of intimacy, so I wanted to make a film of intimacy and pleasure and the kind of film that I was worried might not exist after the pandemic – the kind of film that is why I got into making movies.

I also have had a long relationship with French cinema that’s been very significant for me, and in some ways I look at the movies of France as like part of my own memory. They’re part of my understanding of the world, and I was open to that being an influence in the making of “Passages.”

Like so many of your films, this is just a tantalizing cast you’ve put together. Did these actors come to mind in relationship to one another?

I’d seen Franz Rogowski in a movie called “Happy End” by Michael Haneke, and based on my excitement of him, I wrote the script for him. I needed to find actors that were free, meaning a sense of liberty that would make the film even more alive than I could hope for, and as a group, we had a lot of joy between us that I think creates a contrast to the pain that the film conveys, so I felt very lucky working with these three.

I loved how the characters are continually revealing themselves to you and you only learn of their social circumstances and occupations as the film wears on. How much did you know about them when you first started developing this?

Certainly in terms of developing a depth, it takes time. The structure of the film being a triangle that focuses on this central male character was from the beginning, but then how it plays out, my films are a combination of fiction and documentary. They work from both directions. There’s a script that’s written on a page and then there’s a world that’s discovered in the making of the movie and I try to seamlessly bring those two things together. For instance, the lunch with the parents, is scripted until the end and the end only happened like that once [on set]. It didn’t happen again – when Franz stands up and then leaves the table and then returns, the camera just kept rolling, so what you’re watching is really four great actors. Part of the pleasure is how good at that point the improvisation is, how strong it is.

From the first moment we thought of the film, we knew Tomás would be a film director because I wanted to make a film that was personal to my own experience, though not directly autobiographical. But I feel like it’s a film that examines what it is to be a white man with power. Certainly in this case, the film director is that and in terms of the other jobs, it was part of the research of the film just to discover what felt natural, so I came upon the studio of Martin’s character before I knew [his] job – I found that space and it felt like the right place for Martin and when I make films is work with my script but also be very open to what I discover through the actors. Another example being that Franz Rogowski is a great bicycle rider, so I adapted the end of the film to that fact.

That’s particularly interesting to me because I’ve heard you say that one of the lessons of this film was how action became more important than words as a form of expression, or something to that effect, though you’ve never been one for overstatement. Am I onto something here?

What comes to my mind is something that the actor Robert Mitchum said when asked [about] his school of acting. He said, “Which way do I turn my suit?” Which I love because it really boils down acting to movement. There’s nothing but a man in a suit turning. That is acting – how the body turns. And I think Franz Rogowski understood that in a very deep way. He thinks of his body and acting [in general] as a form of sculpture. It’s like performance art, how he moves his body to tell a story. And if I’m going to look at any film to describe my strategy of acting, it would be “Au Hazard Balthazar,” a film about a donkey because I feel like that donkey is the most brilliant performance in cinema and certainly there was never any talk with the donkey about motivation or subtext.

You also learn so much about the characters from the clothes they wear in this. What was the collaboration like with the costume designer Khadija Zeggaï?

Wonderful, joyous, beautiful. The decision we made at a certain point is though we were making a realistic film, we were not making a realistic movie, if that makes sense. The acting is based in realism, but the images are based in cinema, so the costumes began as costumes of the everyday and ended up, for example, with Adele, she’s dressed like Brigitte Bardot. It is elevated. And that elevation, I think, is what gives the film a certain kind of resonance with the audience. It’s beyond everyday life and these are beyond everyday people. Their movie stars, so embracing the star quality of the performers was significant.

You also reach transcendence with the music. How much of the soundtrack may have been in mind from this from the beginning?

I just keep my ears open. I like music and films that exist on two levels – on its own and as part of the image. I don’t like those things to blur. I don’t want to manipulate the audience in a way that’s too direct. I want there to be a dialectic between the music and the image. So sometimes it’s a song that just somehow seems to me resonant in terms of the feeling of the movie. For example, the songs that Agathe and Tomás and Tomás sing to each other in the bedroom, they come from somewhere else and bring a history into the world, which is fictional, but very significant. And there’s only one piece of score toward the end of the film which is a piece by Albert Ayler that ends the film, and I first heard that musician in a movie called “L’homme blessé” – “The Wounded Man” – by Patrice Chereau, and it just haunted me, so I found this other piece by the same musician and it seemed to take the film to a new level.

The film really works on multiple levels, including simply being a lot of fun. What’s it been like to share with audiences?

I love that you say it’s fun because when I talk about the movie, I feel like I didn’t have to talk so much. When you’re making a movie, you don’t have to talk as much as when you’re describing a movie. And in a way, I feel like the movie exists on a plane that doesn’t need language. It’s hopefully a film of pleasure. What’s been interesting to me, sharing the film with audiences, is that it seems to be a form of social comedy, which I didn’t intend, but don’t mind.

“Passages” will open on August 4th in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center and Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre. Tickets for future cities and dates can be found here.

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