By Anna Bielak | May 21, 2012
It is 1997 and New York City is in a state of intense flux when documentary filmmaker Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt) first meets Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth), a handsome but closeted lawyer in the publishing field. What begins as a highly charged first encounter soon becomes something much more, and a relationship quickly develops. As the two men start building a home and life together, each continues to privately battle their own compulsions and addictions. A film about sex, friendship, intimacy and most of all, love, Keep the Lights On takes an honest look at the nature of relationships in our times.
Writer-director Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On won the Teddy for Best Feature Film at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival. Our European contributor Anna Bielak chatted with Sachs at Berlinale.
Anna Bielak: During the Q&A after the Keep The Lights On screening at the Berlinale you said that there are about three thousand people you would like to thank. What kind of problems did you face during shooting the film?
Ira Sachs: To be honest I need to admit that shooting Keep The Lights On didn’t take lots of time. I finished the script in January 2011 and had lots of freedom on the set. I was using money as it came in slowly, but from many different sources. I got enormous support from various homosexual societies in New York, which were interested in my project because of its subject.
AB: Eric and Paul’s relationship lasts ten years. Viewers meet them in the late 1990s. Did you stick to that time period because it was a specific one for homosexual culture in New York?
IS: I wouldn’t like to think about the film as an image representative for a specific culture and time. I would prefer if you watch Keep The Lights On as a simple love story. Time is interesting only if it shows the emotional evolution of the relationship — breaking ups, comebacks, changes. Moreover, the action starts in 1998 and finishes ten years later. Thanks to that, it is a much more contemporary story than one may think. I didn’t want to focus on the time period by marking the details which could help viewers situate episodes at a specific time. We only changed the cellphone models for older ones, and we used older versions of computers… The plot is focused on emotions, sexuality, looking for identity and acceptance of changes. What interested me most were secrets hidden by Eric and Paul. I was trying to figure out how those mysteries buried deep down in their souls could influence their visible gestures and reactions. This is a story about secrets. Its title alludes that we should keep the lights on — never hide anything in the shadows…
AB: The plot is based on your own love story. What happens with your memories during the years? Do you look at them with a more optimistic attitude now? Edie Brickell sings that “it’s hard to see when the lights go down”. Is it easier to see when the lights are kept on?
IS: Yes… In this regard Keep the Lights On is very different from Forty Shades of Blue (2005). There is a kind of transgressive dimension in it. Along with the time, emotions have been going through changes as have my memories about them. It is a natural ability of human psyche. In a way, the cinematic images became transparent too. It is easier to work with them, editing them. The Eric and Paul identities are based on materials I was collecting during those years in my mind. Experiences are like documents we keep in files. Yet, both — the files and archives are nothing more than my psyche. I didn’t focus on the reality. My inner side was the most important issue for me. It shapes the world around the heroes.
AB: You’ve changed the nationality of Eric. He was a New Yorker, now he is Dannish and Thure Lindhardt plays his part. Why?
IS: I did it for Thure! He is perspicacious, curious, and terribly talented. As soon as I saw him at the audition, I already knew that it was a part written for him. His appearance combined with his specific sensibility and sexuality gave me all what I wanted from the actor. Moreover, when I turn my memories into stories in the script they change into kind of prop that needs to be outplayed. It is like a spectacle and Thure finds himself in the leading part of the show directed by me.
AB: It is your second film that the main protagonist is not an American, however the action is set in the U.S. There is a Russian actress in Forty Shades of Blue – Dina Korzun. Metaphorically speaking — it is all about emphasizing the feeling of strangeness?
IS: Yes, I like stressing the presence of outsider, which is very important for me on many different levels of its meaning. Yet, there is one more reason I cast the European actors — I love their ways of expressing! The style of European acting is very different from the American one. Europeans lets themselves improvise. Emotion is the basis for everything they are doing on the set. It fascinates me. Thanks to Thure, I brought onto the set Paprika Steen one more time [she plays a peripheral role in Forty Shades of Blue]. I think she is the one of most talented actresses in the world, so having opportunity to work with her — I couldn’t say no!
AB: You work with Arthur Russell Jr.’s music. His pieces fit perfectly into the plot and atmosphere of the film. As far as I know, the musician’s story isn’t far off from the topics you take on?
IS: A few years ago, I saw a great documentary about Arthur Russell Jr. called Wild Combination. I was stunned by his compositions! Most of them hadn’t been released before his death. I have been listening to them over and over again and I found beauty devoid of sentimentality and depth without pretentiousness. I wanted to have that type of music in my film. I am currently working on biographical story about Arthur Russell Jr. and his relationship with Tom Lee — his last, long-term life partner. Arthur was dealing with an incurable disease, but he never stopped composing. His enthusiasm and pertinacity are very inspiring. His photo was hanging on a wall in the editing room while we were working on Keep The Lights On. Russell was lying on the beach, listening to the radio, singing… The atmosphere of this photography accompanied me while working on this film.
AB: Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography is very picturesque; the images are like the painted sketches we see in the background of the opening credits…
IS: The images from the prologue were painted by my husband — we got married a month ago. Every single picture is a portrait. Keep the Lights On is also a portrait of two men. Yet, there is a specific humor in those sketches that appears thanks to conscious cropping. At the very beginning Thimos Bakatakis was afraid that the shots we were planning to do could be too heavy, too pathetic. He got rid of every doubt the moment he saw the opening sequence of images prepared by my husband. The light was essential for both — sketches and shots. Yet, I already knew that the cinematographer I chose knew perfectly well how to make a useful tool of light. He was the cinematographer of Dogtooth (2009) and Attenberg (2010). I was sure that he knew how to work on 16mm and felt comfortable with human body.
AB: What does human body mean to you?
IS: While I was working with Thimos Bakatakis I noticed that he looks at the human body as he looks at a lamp on the table. The body in film is nothing more than a form, a figure, a model that appears on the screen as it could appear on the painter’s canvas. What is also important? Not dividing sexuality from the everyday life of a person. It is a part of it, a crucial part. Sex and carnality are parts of every story.
Go to Interia.pl for the original Polish-language version of Anna’s interview.