Passing Through: Ira Sachs

Posted 9 months ago in Film Features

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Irish Film Institute Archive + Meeting House Square

Director Ira Sachs is in Dublin for the first time in support of his latest film Passages. We sit down in the IFI on the morning of its premiere. He arrived the night before and managed to make it to the sea with his good friend Séamus and ended up at Panti Bar. “I feel very moved by Dublin quite quickly,” he says. “It’s a new relationship.” We later dropped in for a Q&A after the premiere also.

“He knows me so well.” – Tomas

“So that’s why you left him?” – Agathe

The ‘navigation of intimacy’ is a concept we keep circling back to in our chat about Passages,  a Parisian-based drama which unfolds when Tomas (Franz Rogowski) begins an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The twist in the tale is Tomas is married to Martin (Ben Wishhaw), though their relationship is floundering. What is set in trail is a story of passion and desire – one which emerged from Sachs’ own personal experience of lockdown.

“I think for me desire is another name for want and I try to make a cinema of want,” he explains. “Achieving intimacy at home is the central desire of all the characters in all my films and so there needs to be obstacles.” This one leads to a sensual explosion with Tomas at the centre of the emotional Venn diagram.

“I used to describe him an anti-hero but now I think he’s a hero in that you identify with his desires and you feel, to some extent, the pleasure of him not achieving them but, in other ways, you want him to be whole. You want him to find stasis which doesn’t seem possible.”

As a queer film-maker, Sachs’ has always been finely attuned to the world he knows best since his debut feature The Delta (1996) which explored closeted desires through Love is Strange (2014) which dealt with an older gay couple keeping their relationship intact via new living arrangements. Restraint and credibility have been staples of his work and even though there is a sensual volatility pulsing through Passages, it stays anchored to a narrative we invest in.

“I think for me desire is another name for want and I try to make a cinema of want.”

“My relationship with Mauricio (Zacharias, his co-writer) begins with an idea and weeks of conversation around a story idea, other movies and our own experiences. Then he goes off and writes the first draft and over time I write the last one which is very much influenced by what I discover in the process of making the movie – the actors, the location, the city – for example, I didn’t know the film would end on a bicycle until I met Franz who is an extraordinary crazy bike rider.”

They originally wrote the script for Rogowski who first blew his mind performing karaoke to Sia’s Chandelier in Michael Haneke’s Happy End. “It’s cinema incarnate full of violence and humour and physicality.”

This free-wheeling sense of escapism can also be seen as an elusive search for a happiness, one which Tomas struggles to define. In terms of his approach to film-making, Sachs says he tries, “to consider films as open-ended but with completion. There may not be resolutions but if it works well there’s satisfaction. I consider each scene in this film like a series of middles, the whole film in itself is a passage and a moment of transition which is something cinema captures very well. You can imagine there’s a past and there’s a future but it’s not stated.”

When it comes to the affair at the heart of Passages, Sachs offered a candid insight into it that evening in the IFI, “I’m a 57-year-old gay man and I wrote the script and gave it to my 57-year-old friends and they were like, “Well I don’t know if I can believe he’s (Tomas) going to sleep with a woman and I was like, ‘it’s going to be hot,’ and I think that’s because identity was so important to establish for my generation because it was so denied. When I made the film with a generation younger than myself that question of identity just disappeared.”

Sachs is also an ardent cinephile and is at great ease discussing what informs and influences his work. “There’s always a possibility there’s a movie I’ve never seen will change my life and I exist in that expectation. That encourages you to voraciously consume. I saw a movie with Barbara Stanwyck called Remember the Night with my kids. In it there’s a scene where a family gathers together and a man sings A Perfect Day. In that moment I have an image and a feeling which the movie has given me which becomes nourishment and content.” He ended up having Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s parlour song from 1909 sung in a country house scene in Passages.

“I don’t think progress goes in one direction. The world is pretty complicated forever and literature and art has a role in trying to understand those complexities…in some way you can say the world has changed but Shakespeare and Proust are still relevant. That’s because there are some essential questions of human nature and desire that don’t get resolved.”

This leads us on to him to showing some of his Notes which include a Vimeo list of movies he needs to have constant access to as reference points and also an extensive list of movies he has watched with his children Felix and Viva who he has co-parented with his husband Borris Torres and director Kirsten Johnson and her wife.

“I began with Loony Tunes and then introduced genre. You begin to realise kids can watch anything which is actually the inverse of what popular culture is doing which is dumbing down what adults are seeing. I consider the Scorsese direction in terms of what did he see as a kid? (He has shared this list with us and we promise to feature it in the magazine or online in the near future.)

When the credits role thanks is given to his long-term friends and supporters with some familiar names such as Andrew Haigh, François Ozon, Kelly Reichardt and Rachel Cusk cropping up. On these relationships Sachs says, “the only way to survive is to create trusting relationships with other people who are trying to do things similar to you. I’ve created a non-profit called Queer Art which was this idea that if the apparatus existed, then possibly the artist can sustain their practice. Without relationships, I wouldn’t know where to find strength or comfort.”

And when we get round to the hustler skills Sachs has developed to get his singular adult dramas made, he values his independence, “I exist in a range where what you are seeing is a hand-made act, a piece of art made by somebody that whether you like it or not it is mine and I share it with you hoping you will find pleasure from it. That is what independence is. It is not an industry, it is how much you can preserve the individual voice.”

And we circle back to the central thread of Passages when it comes to the true spoils of his craft. “The richest reward is the experience of intimacy with my collaborators and an intimacy I hope for with an audience. It’s about wanting to be connected.”

Films which recently excited Ira: No Bears, Saints Omer, Zola, Zero Fucks Given.

 Ira is currently reading Anthony Trollope, “everything is about money, every character is defined by their position and relationship to class.”


Passages is released by MUBI and in cinemas from September 1.  #passages

Read our review here.

Words: Michael McDermott

Photos: Donal Talbot


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