The Many Shades of Ira Sachs

Ira Sachs won’t let me watch him bum cigarettes.

We’ve spoken for hours—about what it was like to grow up gay and Jewish in Memphis, the benefits of 15 years with the same therapist, and how it feels to have his 68-year-old father date 20-year-old women.

Sachs, eager for a smoke before noon, also shamelessly volunteers that although he bums five or six cigarettes a day, he won’t succumb to the temptation to buy a pack. And no, he doesn’t consider this habit to be bad karma. “I get good interactions,” he says, noting that when

people say no, it provides helpful negative reinforcement.

But just as I’m ready to watch him carefully select the right benefactor outside of his lower Manhattan office, he politely shoos me away.

“It’s personal,” he says. “It’s like

masturbation.”

Filmmaking, however, is decidedly collaborative, even for a writer-director like Sachs.

With Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and will see a limited US release this month, Sachs formed the original idea in solitude but then gathered an army to execute it. His army fought some internal battles along the way and even broke apart in one instance, but as Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has said, you go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you wish you had. And Sachs came through with an artistic
victory.

Forty Shades of Blue tells the story of Laura, a Russian woman played by Dina Korzun, who has married and had a child with Alan, an older man and legendary Memphis music producer played with gruff warmth by Rip Torn. Sparked by the return of Alan’s petulant, married son (Darren E. Burrows), Laura grapples with the realization that her life has drifted into a rhythm that she can’t really dance to. Alan can be charming, sentimental and tender. Or boorish, insensitive and unfaithful. Her life is comfortable, but her spirit is restless.

Sachs always wanted to make a movie about a character who is familiar yet rarely the focus in most mainstream films. “I wanted to look at a woman who’s usually on the periphery, in the shadow of a powerful masculine man,” Sachs says, his tightly-trimmed beard and gold-rimmed glasses revealing an easy, brainy power of his own. “Turn the camera on her and ask who she is. Let’s just follow her; forget Dustin Hoffman [in 1978’s Straight Time, for instance]—let’s follow Theresa Russell.”

Sachs also chose to set his story in Memphis, the city of his youth and location of his first feature film, The Delta (1996). But most of the writing for Forty Shades fell to friend and co-collaborator Michael Rohatyn—a first time screenwriter and musician who scored the music for The Delta , as well as for Rebecca Miller’s films Angela (1995), Personal Velocity (2002), and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005).

The relationship between Sachs and Rohatyn became prickly—more Sid and Nancy than Ron and Nancy (without the heroin and knives, of course) during the seven years of re-writes and attempts to secure financing.

“Any director who continues to work has to learn that’s part of the job,” Sachs says, speaking of skirmishes with meddling financers. “Ultimately, if you make a compromise, that’s a disservice—you haven’t been a good director, haven’t navigated the waters well. Having control and facilitating control is what directing is. I got to make exactly the kind of film I wanted to make.”

But when asked about his current relationship with Rohatyn, Sachs flashes a nervous grin and plays the “if-I-don’t-have-something-nice-to-say-I-won’t-say-anything-at-all” card.
“As a collaborator, I sort of felt I was writing it for him, but not so much with him,” Rohatyn says of Sachs. “He would carefully read it and give his notes on it, and we would argue those notes. Then whenever he would leave, I would let him do what he wants.”

But there was no denying Sachs’s film knowledge and talent. “Ira taught me about movies,” Rohatyn says. “He has incredible taste and is really the most sophisticated cineaste that I’ve ever met. He would send me to look at movies by these directors, like Maurice Pialat, which was like listening to The Beatles for the first time. And then to try to write a movie like that —Forty Shades of Blue winds up being something I’m very proud of and a great tribute to Ira.”

Tellingly, Ira rarely refers to Forty Shades as “my film,” which shines a light on some behind-the-scenes bruised ego hubbub. But the film obviously has roots in Sachs and in Memphis. Sachs was born in Memphis in 1965 to Ira and Diane Sachs. His mother, a sociology professor at Rhodes College, divorced his father when Ira was three, then took Ira and his two older sisters on long trips to Europe, spending weeks at a time in England or a farm in France.

But it was his father who perhaps made the biggest impression on him, at least as far as Forty Shades of Blue is concerned. “My father is a real original,” Sachs says. “One of the most original people I’ve ever known. He has very little superego; no shame or guilt. Luckily he’s not a psychopath.” Sachs smirks. When people ask Sachs’s father what church he belongs to, his father responds, “The Church of What’s Happening Now, Baby.”

The elder Ira has seven children between the ages of 8 and 43, from four different women, three of whom he married. But Sachs wants to set the record straight. “My father is a sweetheart—he has no temper, and he’s very generous,” he says. “The character in the film is not my father.”

Which isn’t to say his father isn’t a character. “I’ve always marched to the beat of a different drum,” Ira Sachs, Sr. says from his home in Park City, Utah where he housed 11 of Ira’s cast and crew during Sundance. “Perhaps it was some inspiration for Ira to do the same.”

Perhaps, although his son, out of the closet since he was 16, has been through his own share of formative experiences. Growing up and especially as president of his temple youth group, Sachs says that he experienced more anti-Semitism than homophobia. While attending an inner-city high school, “boys would throw pennies at you.”

He tells such stories with a wry, unfazed smile, which is probably the result of 15 years in therapy. “I believe in the talking cure,” he says. “For me, it’s very much a part of my creative development—understanding human interaction. Good therapy helps you understand people better, and bad therapy makes you feel you are more important than you are.”

Sachs immersed himself in the children-run Memphis Children’s Theatre from sixth grade through high school. “It had the most diverse group of people I’d ever been involved with,” he says. “Black kids, white kids, rich kids, poor kids.”

He made his directing debut in high school (Our Town) and went on to direct mostly experimental theater at Yale. But it was during a semester abroad in Paris that he gained his most valuable education. “I was a lonely college student who didn’t speak too much French,” he says. “So I saw 181 movies in a three month period. I had never seen a Cassavetes film or a Fassbinder film. It was like baseball card collecting behavior.” Despite these influences, Sachs wound up modeling his style after Ken Loach, whose camera remains mostly fixed and observant, allowing the actors to own their space.

In 1992, Sachs made the short film Vaudeville, financed for $50,000 by his parents and with a few small grants. He returned to Memphis after a 10-year absence in 1994 to prepare The Delta, a personal film about a boy coming to grips with his sexuality and the unintended impact his privileged status has on someone even further outside society.

In happier times with Rohatyn, Sachs took the Forty Shades script to the Sundance Writer’s Lab, where he received guidance from Stewart Stern, who wrote the screenplays for Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Last Movie (1971). “It was comforting to hear people who knew more than you tell you that you were doing nothing new, and all you have to do is go back to basics and tell the story well,” Sachs says.

While the origin and intelligence of Forty Shades can be traced to Sachs and Rohatyn, its emotion oozes out of its actors: Korzun, Torn, and Burrows.

Burrows doesn’t have to dig deep to praise Sachs. “Ira has so much self-confidence, especially for a director new in his career,” he says. “There is often a fear with a new director that they hold on so tight it almost slips through their fingers, but he had complete control.”

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t conflict. Torn says: “Making a film is like a military operation. It’s not lovey-dovey all the time. Brothers can wrangle.”

Burrows applies a more positive spin. “I think Ira thrived on the tension,” he says. “It’s all a part of the creativity and the dance. Like a big ballroom dance, and if there’s just one guy telling everyone how to dance, it becomes stale.”

Choreographing his life and art from Memphis to Paris and New York, Ira Sachs seeks fresh interactions—not shrink-wrapped and uniform, but loose and unpredictable.

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