Married to the movie: Ira Sachs directs actors Patricia Clarkson and Chris Cooper. (Photo by Joseph Lederer, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Ira Sachs on "Married Life"

Dennis Harvey March 11, 2008

Ira Sachs’ third feature Married Life, which opens this week, is a balloon-pricking look back at that ostensible last stand of all-American nuclear-family wholesomeness, the ’50s. (Well, to be fully accurate, the year given as setting is 1949.)

It stars Patricia Clarkson and Chris Cooper as a long-term marital pair, Rachel McAdams as the young thing he’s besotted with, Pierce Brosnan as his profoundly self-interested “best friend,” and David Wenham in a role whose significance can’t be revealed without spoiling a plot twist.

There are a fair number of twists in this adaptation (by Sachs and Oren Moverman) of John Bingham’s novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven. It eventually becomes as much a retro-noirish crime thriller as it is a wry satire of complacency and intrigue in the pre-“swinging”—but still restless ‘n’ randy—sexual climate of Eisenhower-era suburbia.

Married Life represents something of a departure for Memphis native Sachs, whose prior films had few-to-none name actors and were all contemporary Southern stories he’d conceived himself. His debut, The Delta, was a striking, wholly non-formulaic tale of an upper-middle-class white Mississippi Delta teenager’s tentative gay coming out. His brief involvement with a stranger of vastly different current circumstances, background, and expectations results in tragic misunderstanding and vengeance.

A long professional pause followed until 40 Shades of Blue, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2005. It was a layered, atmospheric drama about an unlikely love triangle between an egomaniacal, legendary Memphis producer (Rip Torn), his much younger Russian girlfriend (Dina Korzun), and his semi-estranged son by a prior marriage (Darren E. Burrows). When the latter visits, he falls hard for dad’s live-in squeeze—even though Junior is himself married to a pregnant spouse.

Married Life is something else entirely, a highly stylized meta-genre period piece. We checked in with Sachs prior to its SF opening.

SF360: How did you find dealing with a whole quintet of pretty famous actors in Married Life? This must be the smallest film Pierce Brosnan’s been involved in for decades.

Ira Sachs: It was no different. Every actor has something in particular they bring to any project. For a lot of people in Hollywood, this Married Life is the kind of movie they got into movies to make. I built the cast around Chris Cooper, the first person cast. It’s a tough role because he’s a sympathetic person doing unsympathetic things. We needed to cast someone the audience would feel forgiveness, even empathy toward.

What I didn’t know is what a kind of fluid actor Pierce is. He’s old-school—he would have been a great character actor in the ’40s and ’50s. There’s an almost acrobatic sense to his movements and face. He provides the wit of the film.

I knew Patricia and Chris had worked together previously and were quite close. I had always been struck by the kind of joyous nature of her performances—there’s a level of warmth, as well as a sexuality that had maybe not been tapped in this way. Hers is also the most modern of characters, and the one who’s life is endangered.

All the actors were very comfortable taking emotional risks—it was as if they were doing Bergman or Cassavetes in the middle of this ‘thriller’ story.

SF360: What attracted you to the source novel? It was written by a (deceased) English Lord!

Sachs: And a spy. He was a member of Britain’s MI5, mentor to John le Carre, and the basis for le Carre’s spy character Smiley.

I was interested in using the suspense elements to get at something more resolutely truthful. This is a humanist drama in the form of a suspense film, but the book was more of a pulp fiction. It fulfills genre conventions which in a way the movie defies.

Watching all the Joan Crawford movies from the era had gotten me interested in writing a film where plot drives character more than character drives plot. People have camp associations with these over-the-top films. But when I watched *Harriet Craig*and others I found something very serious going on, in the realm of metaphor that’s direct and insightful about domestic life.

I’d been working in a realistic form in my previous films. Here, the narrative itself is nonrealistic and over-the-top, but the actors approach it with such honesty and directness. It’s not an ironic film—but I think it’s a non-literal film, in way.

SF360: This has a much more stylized look than your prior features, which were impressionistic, naturalistic, contemporary Southern stories. Were there particular influences?

Sachs: Well, a kind of classic cinematic storytelling that I feel is not old-fashioned. Hitchcock, Preminger, certain Welles moments. Storytelling that is simple, but elegant and expressive without being self-conscious. The suspense elements were ones that I felt I needed to stretch myself to pull off.

Since I was using movie stars, I was attuned to a certain larger-than-life quality to the faces, the colors, the world. Which is why I put in a clip from a very visceral and lyrical Ava Gardner movie,Pandora and Flying Dutchman (1951). Married Life is a film filled with quotes, but I don’t think you need to recognize them.

In terms of general influences on my filmmaking, I feel like Vincente Minnelli is as important to me as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hitchcock as much as Altman.

SF360: One thing I really liked about The Delta was that it so deftly nailed how uncertain you are at that age—the teenage protagonist not only doesn’t know what he wants, he doesn’t really understand what others (like the half-Vietnamese guy) want either. He just lacks the life experience. As opposed to something like Juno, in which the pregnant adolescent character magically has everything in the world already figured out.

Sachs: There’s a something a little regressive about all these current anti-abortion movies by the supposed Hollywood Left.

All my films have been sort of an examination of fractured identity and the pain and confusion that results from that. I think Chris Cooper’s character is the confused, repressed person in Married Life.

SF360: Why did it take so long to make a second feature [40 Shades of Blue]?

Sachs: I think the second feature’s the hardest one. The first you can make on friends, family and bank cards. Then suddenly you need real money. That took a long time. Also, the film I was making was an art film, and basically those aren’t made anymore. It’s hard to make an original work at this point in time.. There’s also a concept now that from inception the marketing plan for the film should be contained with the film itself. Which I don’t have a problem with…but 40 Shades was not that kind of movie.

SF360: It would appear this came together pretty quickly after 40 Shades.

Sachs: It was a film that was written for name actors, also it’s driven by plot. Both are important in terms of commercial American filmmaking. And 40 Shades gave certain people a confidence that I was an ‘actor’s director,’ somebody who could make a film that looked good, et cetera.

It’s much easier to get people to sign on to be in a movie than to pay for a movie.

SF360: It seems general knowledge that Rip Torn is a handful—though he certainly delivers, especially in 40 Shades.

Sachs: A brilliant handful. On 40 Shades I also had very difficult producers. This Married Life was by contrast a harmonious shoot with a great crew. Yet ultimately, it doesn’t matter—you’re driven by your ambition for the film no matter what. You try not to be an asshole, but you have a single-minded focus and that’s it.

SF360: What’s next?

Sachs: I’m working again with [Married Life co-scenarist] Oren Moverman, who also co-wrote Jesus’ Son and I’m Not There, on an adaptation of two books by [late film critic, screenwriter and Hollywood insider] Gavin Lambert, The Slide Area (a 1959 short story collection) and The Goodbye People (1971). The latter is one of the great books about Hollywood. It touches everyone from on Joan Crawford to Charles Manson. One of Lambert’s ex boyfriends was [Rebel Without a Cause director] Nicolas Ray, so he interpolated some of Ray’s stories into the novel.