Ira Sachs is a filmmaker known for deeply human independent dramas such as Love is Strange and Little Men. His latest film Passages focusses on a complex emotional love triangle between characters played by Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos. We spoke to Ira ahead of the film’s screening at EIFF 2023.
Can you can you tell us a bit about Passages?
I think I wanted to make a film of intimacy and pleasure. So I set out to do that through creating this love triangle, which is a heightened form of desire, right? Everybody wants something that they can’t have in the film. And so that means it’s a film of passion, and also a film of want. And I think that feeling is really strong between these actors. I also wanted to make a film that was very frankly and honestly and pleasurably about intimacy. So that includes certain images of sex and love but also tenderness. Adèle Exarchopoulos says the most difficult scene in the film for her, the most vulnerable, is the one where she had to sing. Not when she had to make love.
Are the characters, particularly Tomas, drawn from any real experience you’ve had working in the industry?
Sure, I mean, I think my own experience of being a man with power as a film director and what I do with it is always interesting to me, and sometimes troubling, I think, specifically the film director Maurice Pialat. I found a behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of Police where he’s, he’s directing a young woman who’s an extra and I found that fascinating. Because I have such respect for Pialat, but also the violence in that moment was easy to see. And also, I think, in the film, Tomas is a bit like my father and a bit like other film directors that I’ve known personally. So I think he’s a lot of different men. Yeah. And that he’s also Franz Rogowski is significant.
Would the character have worked with an actor that was not that wasn’t as charming as Franz?
I would have cast anyone who I couldn’t find love for, sure. And also, that I wasn’t turned on by.
Were the the three central characters written with those specific actors in mind?
Franz I saw in Michael Haneke‘s Happy End where he performs a wonderful karaoke of Sia‘s ‘Chandelier’. I sort of was like, ‘Who’s that guy? And one day I hope to write a movie for him’. So that was this film. And the other two became the characters. Actually one of the things that I think is interesting about the movie for the audience, and I noticed this when I talked to people about the film, is there’s a kind of fluid transition between watching Tomas, Martin, and Agathe, and watching Ben, Franz, and Adèle. like you really feel like you don’t know what you’re watching. Are you watching the people? Are you watching the characters? And I love that and I think [John] Cassavetes is a great inspiration for that kind of cinema, where you leave room for the soul to come forward.
I was going to ask what influences you brought to the film. You mentioned Cassavetes as a big one; were there others?
Cassavetes I actually was was very, very influenced by when I was younger, and then I had a boss who I respect who said, ‘You need to stop watching Cassavetes’. And I did for a long time. But somehow when I finished this film, I really felt grateful for my years of Cassavetes, this obsession. Other filmmakers like Maurice Pialat as we mentioned, but also Chantal Akerman and specifically a film called Je Tu Il Elle, which has a great sex scene in the film. A film called Taxi zum Klo; 1981, Berlin, queer, gay, totally explicit film about sex and love. I think I needed to go back in time to discover what kinds of images I had permission to make.
As you’ve said, it’s a very frank and sexual film, not just in the depiction of sex itself, but in how sex motivates people. Do you think films are becoming more sexless? Is there almost a kind of new puritanism in modern cinema?
I think they’re becoming less human. Let’s begin with that. Yeah. Superheroes don’t have sex.
Do you watch those movies?
Yeah, I do.
Do they have sex?
Just Watchmen and they got that badly wrong.
Okay, in general, they don’t. Like, Batman doesn’t have sex. So I mean, I think that there is a sexless quality to people wearing lycra. Well, unless that’s your thing [laughs], unless it’s your thing. But that’s not the [type of] movies we’re watching. So I think globalisation has had a big impact on sex and cinema, and honesty and cinema, because there’s a way in which things need to be generalised. I was talking earlier today about Bill Forsyth, like the space for Bill Forsyth is what I want to preserve.
Going back to the character of Tomas specifically, why do you think narcissists are able to get away with their behaviour and what what makes him so compelling?
Well, you’re asking kind of two questions, because in a way, you’re asking about the character but you’re also asking about the actor and I think it’s interesting to understand the distinction between the two. If it was a documentary about someone like Tomas, we might be repelled, but because it’s a fiction film about someone playing a character like Tomas, we can be engaged in a different way. Franz and I watched a number of films starring James Cagney, as a great example of a wonderful person playing a sociopath. And the pleasure is almost the pleasure of the Fringe, it’s like Vaudeville. It’s a performance, and I think the performative nature of of Franz’s depiction of Tomas is great entertainment.
How difficult is it currently to get a film made in the current climate, especially one that depicts its themes in such an adult way?
It’s there’s at the centre of the film as a gay couple, which in itself creates extraordinary hurdles for production, and also for reception. I mean, I think the festivals of this world are run by straight men who are comfortable in their positions of power. You look at Cannes, who do they want to put up first as the most important political action of this moment? Johnny Depp! Is that really what we need to go to the barricades for? There are a lot of problems in this world. And I can’t say Johnny Depp’s problems are the ones that are most important to me. It’s interesting, though, right? Like you have this platform and you can you can pick any film you want to say this is what’s the most important to me, in the world and in cinema.
And do you currently have any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m working on a film with Ben Whishaw. About a day in the life of the photographer Peter Hujar. 10th December 1974, New York City
Any other any actors that you’d love to work with? Are there any dream projects that you you’d like to make?
I’d like to work with Judi Dench. I can’t say that I can imagine a film for her but I just think she’s so extraordinary as an actor. I felt the same way about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and I missed the time. Yeah. You know, I think that there’s so many people who inspire you.
Passages screens as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival