Interview with Ira Sachs, director of Passages
Director Ira Sachs discusses his latest film Passages, as well as his love of European cinema and the ongoing online discourse around sex in cinema: "It's a fabrication of a conversation"
After a recent run of films that includes the likes of Keep the Lights On, Love is Strange and Little Men, American filmmaker Ira Sachs has a strong track record of exploring relationships on screen with insight and sensitivity. His latest is no different, with Passages delving into a thorny love triangle between an impulsive filmmaker (Franz Rogowski) who strays from his husband (Ben Whishaw) to begin an intense affair with a female teacher (Adele Exarchopolous). The film is as fascinating as it is steamy, with a script that nods to classic European cinema and a trio mesmerising performances at its centre.
After successful screenings at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year, the film is now one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Sachs was on hand to discuss the film, his love of European cinema, and the ongoing online discourse around sex in cinema.
How did Passages come to be, and why did you choose this as your next project?
I wanted to make an actors film, a film that privileged the intimate space and the intimate experiences that happen between actors in film. I was also interested in making a film of pleasure. Missing that kind of cinematic pleasure, partially because of the pandemic, but also because it seems to have disappeared – human lives seem to have disappeared – from cinema. So I had a kind of film I wanted to make, and then I was interested in the power of a love triangle, and the question of what it is to be a man with power, especially a filmmaker. So these were all floating images and ideas that landed on this triangular love affair between a filmmaker husband and a female.
You talk about the intimacy of the film. I don’t know how much you’re across the discourse about the “necessity” of sex scenes in film.
Well I have a question for you, because I keep hearing about that, but I asked every journalist who brings it up: have you met a person in real life who actually believes there shouldn’t be sex in film?
No, because I don’t think it actually exists. Literally I’ve been in rooms with 200 people and I’ve asked does anyone actually feel that way and no-one does. So I think it’s funny, it’s like a fabrication of a conversation. I don’t think it’s a conversation anyone is actually is having. No-one has been able to say oh, I have this friend who has this interesting argument. There’s no human there. It’s just bots!
It does seem to be a big social media discourse at the moment.
I just would say that it’s not really something that you or your readers – or me – are particularly compelled by. I think what’s more interesting is what it takes to create images of intimacy on screen. For me, I have to go back in time and look at films like Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle which is a wonderful film in which the filmmaker, at a certain point, is exposed and has sex. I think about films like Taxi Zum Klo which is a German film made in 1981, or Passolini’s films in general. I have to go back in time to be reminded about what I have permission to shoot because we live and we breath and we exist in the time that we are part of, and the culture and the repression that forms us.
You mentioned a lot of European cinema. Was it a conscious decision to make a European film, with these actors?
I think European cinema is part of me wherever I shoot because it’s part of my education in the most formal and profound way. I’m totally American, I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, but like Henry James, Europe has been a central part of my education.
You work with three incredible European actors here who all give excellent performances. Were those actors that you have wanted to work with for a while?
Franz Rogowksi I first saw in Michael Haneke’s Happy End and I was blown away by the power and originality of his performance. I especially recommend that your reader go on YouTube and watch his karaoke performance of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ in the film, it’s indelible in my mind. I had been looking for a project I could bring to him. Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, and I ended up writing this film for Franz. Ben I’ve been interested in for a long time, I first saw him play one of many Bob Dylans in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. We actually met many years later on Instagram messenger and started talking as two people do who have similar interests, and we’re still talking. Adele I knew from Justine Triet’s Sibyl. I guess what all of them have in common is beauty, and power, and transparency. They share themselves with the audience and with each other as performers.
What did they bring to the film and how did they shape their characters?
They bring everything to the characters. They are the characters and the characters are them. I don’t rehearse with my actors before I start shooting. I block and I spend time with them but we’re not talking about things like subtext and motivation and back story. What I ask of them is to bring themselves and then I costume them, and in a way I give them character through the script and through the armour, which is their wardrobe. Really, what I’m asking them to arrive on set with is themselves as fully as possible. There’s no distance between Franz and Tomas, Adele and Agathe. They are different sides of the same coin.
In a film like this where you do shoot a lot of intimate scenes, how do you foster that level of trust between yourself and between the actors, where they’re comfortable on set but still able to deliver such real and raw performances?
I think trust is built from the very first conversation we have. I think we get to know each other as people, and as people in a relationship with each other. The first thing I ask them concerning those scenes is what they’re comfortable with and what their boundaries are. Then those questions don’t need to be asked again, because they’ve established where they feel comfortable. The atmosphere of this set was one of trust all around.
Franz’s character is a filmmaker in the film. Is there any of you in that character?
Sure. “Madame Bouvary c’est moi”, right? That’s what Flaubert said about Madame Bouvary, “she is me”. So I think there’s also a lot of other people I know, including my father and other film directors, in Tomas. And there’s a lot of play in the creation of Tomas, meaning we enjoy the bad behaviour. He’s like a living id for the audience, he does things we wouldn’t and shouldn’t do. He’s like a combination of Travis Bickle and Buster Keaton. (laughing)
That’s an interesting way to put it!
But don’t you go, “you’re right?” (laughing)
I know the film had troubles with the MPAA and censorship. Is that still a challenge in terms of getting a film made or has that changed now that cinematic release isn’t the be all and end all of a film release?
The streaming model has I think in a way made individualisation and independence and personal voice more difficult because there’s the concept of global being necessary. And I like the local, in filmmaking. I think of Bill Forsythe. It can only be made where it’s made, and it speaks of the real in people’s lives. I think streaming to a great extent erases a lot of that and it becomes a different kind of commodity.
The MPAA, with a moment like Passages went through, is like a warning shot, like if you make certain images, you will be punished. So I think it’s the definition of censorship. Its intention and its impact is one of control.
I have to wrap up, but what films do you have on the slate next?
I’m working on a film with Ben Whishaw about a day in December 1974 in the life of a photographer named Peter Hujar. It will be shooting in the fall.
Passages screened as part of the 2023 Edinburgh International Film Festival and release in the UK on September 1st.