Passages is easily one of the most exciting films of the year and with Ira Sachs attending screenings at the 76th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival I was fortunate enough to get to chat with the director.
SYNOPSIS: Celebrated filmmaker Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) makes a breathtaking return with PASSAGES, a fresh, honest and brutally funny take on messy, modern relationships, starring Franz Rogowski (Great Freedom), Ben Whishaw (Women Talking) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour). Set in Paris, this seductive drama tells the story of Tomas (Rogowski) and Martin (Whishaw), a gay couple whose marriage is thrown into crisis when Tomas begins a passionate affair with Agathe (Exarchopoulos), a younger woman he meets after completing his latest film.
Perceptive, intimate and unashamedly sexy, PASSAGES sees Sachs bridge his usually tender style with a uniquely European sensibility, providing an insightful and authentic take on the complexities, contradictions and cruelties of love and desire.
AM. Was it fun writing the character of Tomas? Because he gets to make all the wrong decisions
IS. It was very fun to create the character, particularly working with Franz Rogowski who is a delight, and a sweetheart, unlike Tomas. Finding the tone and the texture of the character was a great pleasure. I had to convince him at a certain point that behaving badly would be permissible. I think he thought, “How far can I go?”, and I said, “Don’t worry, I got you”. We watched a couple of movies, James Cagney movies, because Cagney often played a sociopath, impossible characters who were prone to violence but he did it with such beauty that they are endearing and indelible.
AM. I watched your first film Vaudeville. I thought it made quite a nice pairing with Passages, and because the Edinburgh Fringe is on at the moment with all these plays that will have three people in the audience. There is also this character there that is teasing people, and pulling bad decisions out of them.
IS. Yes, Charlie Guidance
AM. Did you see a link between the two?
IS. I thought a lot about my early work making this movie. I think almost all my films have had central characters that are white guys behaving badly and doing things they shouldn’t. Cause I think I’m interested in exposing myself, in putting myself in the centre of my films as a way of understanding my role in the universe. I think also I had certain instincts of observation as a filmmaker which were at play there. I was also watching a lot of Cassavetes when I made Vaudeville, and I think I was also channeling my love of Cassavetes with Passages as well cause I think of it as a form of actors’ cinema, where the camera, and the director, and the story give a lot of space for the actors to do things that are unexpected to themselves. So the script is a blueprint but the performances are a moment.
AM. So you talk about giving them the space, and the camera takes quite an observational perspective, there are a lot of mid-shots and wide-shots, and then the close-ups feel false.
IS. What do you mean by false?
AM. Because of how much time when you spend with intense emotions at a wide, when you move to a close-up you think, “I don’t quite trust this”
IS. That’s interesting
AM. So you choose to frame quite wide, and you say that is to give the actors space, but there are some very deliberately framed shots that are painterly, and they [the actors] tend to hold in these positions. Did you have any specific inspiration for each type of shot, did you spend a lot of time planning in advance how it was going to look?
IS. I’m trying to think of close-ups
AM. It’s when he tells Agathe he loves her
IS. It’s pretty close to a shot in John Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore. To me, each shot has its own integrity. So there is a sequence of shots which is a collage or a montage, and so they can have very different qualities but lined up against each other they create a rhythm. I spent six or seven weeks, three or four hours a day with my cinematographer figuring out how we would shoot the film, the visual strategy. We would watch a lot of movies, or parts of a lot of movies. We actually look at the specific construction of scenes to arrive at our own language. I storyboard the film when I arrive on set with that material. And then things change, you discover things with the actors. I don’t rehearse before we start shooting, so I don’t have readthroughs, I don’t talk to the actors about motivation. I try to let the script and the costumes, and the atmosphere create an environment that is authentic and real, and then what happens is to a great extent a form of emotional improvisation. The scripts are followed, I would say 92% of the film was scripted, but there is room within that for the unexpected. For example, when Adèle Exarchopoulos is singing that song, she had never sang it to anyone but herself before we had started shooting, so you are really seeing something happen for the first time.
AM. I was going to ask about how many times you shot scenes. Because that first dance scene, you can almost feel the pheromones off the screen. How many takes did you do for that?
IS. One of the hard things about shooting a club scene is if there is dialogue there is this artificial imposition that happens unless you do it in a very different way because you turn the music down to let the dialogue be heard. So that means they’re actually dancing to silence. Once the dialogue is over then you turn the music back up and suddenly things come alive, but you lose a lot in that process technically that I still question. I shot a lot of dancing and then really what you’re seeing is the impact of editing, cause it is picking the moments that tell the story. The story is told there of seduction, it took a lot of time to figure out the right images, to tell and condense the period, and without dialogue, two people falling into lust with each other.
AM. It feels that there is quite a strong colour theory to Passages – it goes from hot to cold, certain characters obviously gravitate towards particular colours, Martin always wears blue, did you plan a lot of that in advance? Was there a big plan with costume design and production design?
IS. Yes, but not with any interest in metaphor and meaning. It was just colour, how can colour be impactful? Everyone wears red in the film, nobody doesn’t wear red, so you can’t say anybody owns red. I don’t know if you know the film À Nos Amour, Maurice Pialat, in English it is called To Our Loves? It is this film with this wonderful young actress at that point, Sandrine Bonnaire, she was like a muse to the visual creation of the film [Passages], and every actor, every character is Sandrine in the film, how colour is used on her body in that film. To me colour is memory. It is not meaning, it is not language.
AM. Yeah, everything is abstract.
IS. The only point I would say that I would use colour to say something would be white for Ben Whishaw
AM. Yes, at the end.
IS. Why not? And I thought of Fassbinder who uses white in a wonderful, wonderful way. But there is also this aesthetic process of pairing things down, not to have six colours, but to have three. I think that creates resonance for the audience. I think people don’t remember story, they remember image.
AM. I was wondering if there was a film that you had in mind, Le Bonheur, the Varda film, did you think of that at all?
IS. No, I didn’t think of that film, but I know it. Vagabond, have you ever seen Vagabond?
IS. That’s Sandrine Bonnaire
IS. So she was 18 in that film and in À Nos Amours she is 16. I really recommend tracking that movie down.
Why do you think of Le Bonheur?
AM. There are a lot of parallels about the supposedly happy man finding another woman, the printworks where Martin works kind of reminds me of the factory where the husband works, and because you move into Autumn at the end and that is how Le Bonheur ends as well. But of course, your character receives some sort of comeuppance whereas Le Bonheur has a very different ending.
IS. Wow. There is a film called The Innocent, which is the last film of Visconti, you know Passages is a remake of The Innocent.
AM. Are you allowed to say that?
IS. It is direct. Some of the lines are taken directly. There is a line at the end of the film, “You look ugly now”, is directly from The Innocent, it is what the mistress says to him right before he blows his brains out. So it is an aristocrat with a mistress. I mean this film is also a remake of Loulou by Pialat, it’s also a remake of Dodsworth by William Wyler, I mean they are all triangle films, they are all films about people trying to figure out what kind of life they want, what kind of life they have, that tension between having everything and then wanting something else, they are domestic films. All of my films are remakes, basically.
AM. I mean you could call every film a remake.
IS. Yes, but some are more explicitly. And I would say I am one of those filmmakers.
AM. So you keep your characters active, mostly eating, drinking, dancing, fucking – it keeps the film moving, it is quite a short film at ninety minutes and it has this kinetic energy. Did you think you had to keep your characters active the whole time?
IS. Yes, there is one scene where they are not active and it is not in the film, it didn’t make it.
AM. Is it for that reason?
IS. It didn’t work. It just felt like a different movie, this is a movie of action. Also, there is no past in this film, there is a sense of history but there is no description of it. And that scene was one in which the past was discussed. It just felt like it was from a different film – it was from Jules and Jim! So we were making a film of the present.
AM. Do you enjoy taking bits from other films and remaking them in your own image?
IS. It’s not that I enjoy, it’s just a process, it is how I work. It is not like I make a reference that I think is interesting to anyone per se. I am trying to share with you the procedure, to be open and transparent about how I work, but I think in a way other films are part of my memory, they are part of my family, they are a part of me. So as much as I think about that have happened in my own life I think of things that have happened to me watching a movie.
AM. I was interested because some people say, “You shouldn’t watch anything and go off and make something!”, and others say, “Watch everything and then go off and make something!”.
IS. Yeah. You know it is interesting because when I work with my cinematographer I tend not to ask her to watch movies, I tend to show her certain scenes, which is what is significant to me. It is about how is the camera used to convey emotion and tell a story? It is like going to the Louvre and studying what is on the wall.
AM. Something I thought was quite interesting about Passages was that you use the verticality of the frame very well. There are scenes where heads are chopped off, and there are dividing lines like in Je Tu Il Elle…
IS. What do you mean by dividing line?
AM. As in a horizontal line, with someone framed below it, and then nothing above. Is that something you consciously think about?
IS. Right, not as you describe it. I think of the image of the film frame as a cube, not as a rectangle. So I want to think about bodies and space, I want you to also feel that outside the cube is the rest of the world. And I think that is something that Pialat does beautifully, it is kind of a decentred frame, you never know where the centre is, and in some ways that involves the world outside the frame. But that is way more intellectual, I don’t really talk in theory in making the film, I talk in instinct. An image either comes alive or it seems dead to me. If I am on set sometimes what I’ll say is, “This looks like TV”, and then we’ll have to figure out what has gone wrong. I mean I have a lot of pictures on my iPhone which look like images from Passages. I’m often interested in the corner of the room because the corner creates a cube, you can see the wall and you can understand that there is height, that there is an angle, and these things create an aesthetic feeling that I respond to.
AM. You see when you say that there are images on your phone that look like Passages, are they images that you have taken yourself whilst you are going about, and thought, “Oh that looks interesting”, and then taken it back and used it as a reference?
IS. Sometimes I’ll do that, and sometimes I think that the film looks like my eye, it looks like what I see, and what I want to see, and it looks like what turns me on. I mean you exist you are between these walls, and light comes in, and that creates a certain kind of, almost a romance… Light is romance. And I think that is something that I talked to Josée Deshaies, my cinematographer, about.
AM. Because you have these kinetic scenes, you choose not to have non-diegetic music.
IS. Was that a choice, it didn’t…
AM. Did you try music at any point?
IS. No. I mean there is a significant cue.
AM. Yeah, at the end. But besides that, there is 85-88 minutes without.
IS. Yeah, but I saved that one cue, it has great impact, because it has great impact because it comes from a different tradition, right?
IS. It reminds you that you are watching a movie. These images wouldn’t take score, it just wouldn’t.
AM. So you knew that from the start?
IS. Yeah, I knew that from the start. I mean, people suggested to me trying things, and I was like, “Sure, I’ll try them” [sarcastically], but I had a feeling that the music would come from the action and from the life.