Artwork by Boris Torres
After years in which filmmakers have felt compelled to shy away from the sexual reality in gay male relationships, lately we’ve gotten intimate, explicit portrayals (Andrew Haigh's Weekend, Travis Mathews's I Want Your Love) that that don’t require imaginative leaps on the behalf of the audience. It could be described as mumbleporn, except in Keep the Lights On, director Ira Sachs has mined autobiographical material to give us a raw account of what loving in the 21st century can look like.
“There aren’t many films that look like the life that I live as an urban man in New York City,” Sachs explained when we met at Ferrara, a historic coffee house in New York’s Little Italy located near his office. “That’s kind of shocking.”
Soon after we took a seat, applause erupted when a young man proposed to his girlfriend. “I think he got on his knees,” Sachs said with a smile. The guys in his movie may do the same, but the romantic details are never that rom-com sweet.
You told me earlier that the title is significant because it relates to not having some sort of sexual shame, right?
It’s about the idea of transparency. I do believe that, even for gay people who are just discovering their sexuality, there’s still a process of going from something that was hidden to something that’s public. It seems that, for my generation, it was more violent. And I think this film is a coming out on that level.
A “coming out” because of political reasons or personal reasons?
Because of shame. Because of this society that we’re in. Because the fact that we’ve established a subculture in which we’re both embracing and uncomfortable with ourselves. Because we think we need to keep to ourselves as a gay culture, so we can’t always voice it in our visible life, which include anonymous sex, hookups, the drugs in our culture that many of us know are prevalent. A lot of those things are things we’ll talk about between ourselves, but we won’t talk about to other people. And often we won’t even speak to each other, either. I think that’s universal.
You also seem to have set up a conflict between an urban lifestyle and a more bucolic lifestyle in the country. Did you want to show that urban life as a negative thing in contrast to the life outside of the city?
It’s actually interesting because in the relationship that inspired this film, we often did go to the country as a way to avoid the issues of drugs, or the issue of sex and monogamy and sex outside of the relationship. It did feel like we could run from the addiction issues by going to the country. There were temporary respites, which were ultimately not the answer—formal recovery was the answer, not location.
It was like a Band-Aid on a wound.
Yeah, and it occasionally worked for a period of time. The culture had things that were wonderfully freeing for me as a gay man, coming in to a place that had a sexual culture, but it also had complexities involved. And I think the introduction of crystal meth and crack into the gay community—which was already sexually very active and alive—was a little like the introduction of crack into the African-American community. It was a bonfire. Taking sexual compulsion and adding drugs to it is something that was also a response from my generation to AIDS.
But that seduction of drugs, when we don’t tell people why it might make them feel great, just tell them not to do it, when they aren’t aware that it might make them feel free or...
Right. Is that why you thought about naming the film The Closet? Because it’s partly the closet that fuels the need for the drugs?
I just think this is a relationship fueled by secrets. About two men who learned about sex and love in secret.
Me! I’m not saying him being straight. I came out of the closet when I was 16, but I felt like I came out of the closet again when I was 40.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that I told people I was gay, but I maintained for the next 25 years other levels of secrets that I kept from the people that I was close to. Telling someone you’re gay does not mean that you’re open. It means you told someone you’re gay. And there are still levels of secrecy that create other closets. And for me, I was in a relationship that exploded because of the impact of drugs, specifically, which meant that I could make a film about my own sexual awakening. It’s not a memoir, but it’s based on material and certain things that I couldn’t even say to my therapist. And I'm now very comfortable having it in a film that’s seen in public. That’s a very big transition. The idea of keeping any more secrets was too painful. So I chose not to have any. And to maintain a life that, at a certain point, means I don't have secrets. I resist that with all my will.
I know that people are going to take pleasure in trying to piece together who and what this is about. Are you worried about that being a distraction from the message in the film. Is that one reason why you made the decision to cast a European actor as the main protagonist?
I just made a film about my own experience. As an artist, that’s what I’ve always been doing. I don’t talk specifically about my ex because it’s not my place to do so.
I have struggled, as most individuals do and as most artists have, with my place in the world. All my films are coming of age films. So far. This film is about awakenings. In that way, I think it's a very positive film, I hope.
But I do believe this film is significant because, rather than try to ignore the specificity of gay life, it reveals so much of the unseemly truth. That’s actually its strength.
I think there’s something you can gain from accessing your marginality. You also might lose other things, but to decide that your subculture is your strength, not your weakness. That idea has been inspiring as a filmmaker and has affected my choices.
So are you going to make another film?
I’m working on a new film about two men in their sixties and seventies, and and the consequences after they decide to get married.
I got married because I really love my partner [Boris Torres, who also did the artwork seen in the film], and I’ve had the experience of being in a loving relationship. It’s imperfect, but it’s nurturing and grows in a positive way. This next movie will be my first love story that’s not all about pain.
Keep the Lights On opens in select theaters September 7