Aug. 26 2014 06:27 PM

Director Ira Sachs talks respect, time, friendship and his new film starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina

Love is Strange
Alfred Molina (left) and John Lithgow, together and apart

In Ira Sachs' quiet and true drama Love is Strange, people from different generations coexist without melodrama. Sure, there's conflict, awkwardness and a dash of miscommunication, but these interpersonal divots stem from real-world problems. 

"Relationships are defined by experience," Sachs tells CityBeat in a phone interview. "They are determined by what happens when you're with the people you love and how you spend time with them."

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have spent the last 40 years together living in New York City. We see them finally tying the knot in the opening scenes of Love is Strange, an experience they share with close friends and family. But making their marriage official produces a profound domino effect: George is quickly fired from his position as a music teacher at a Catholic school, forcing the couple to separate and stay with friends until they can find an affordable new living situation together.

For these two men, a life that felt cozy and warm together now feels alien apart. When asked how this interest in displacement came about, Sachs said, "I set out to make a love story, and in doing so, you need an obstacle. The structure is based on these two people who have an intimacy that is threatened, and I wanted to observe how they overcome that obstacle together."

Unlike most modern American independent films, Love is Strange avoids hand-held-camera visuals. Most compositions are static, allowing the actors to move freely through the frame in long takes. "I guess my perspective on life is more measured," Sachs said. "I think the audience can get closer to the characters if you, as a filmmaker, step back a little bit and let the camera observe." This approach invites the viewer to be more active, watching not only the actors' mannerisms, but also how the environment around them functions as a mirror to their emotions. 

One of the most striking moments in the film comes during the final sequence, when Joey (Charlie Tehan), George's teenage nephew, breaks down in a stairwell after a flood of grief washes over him. He spends much of the film resenting his uncle and parents (Marisa Tomei and Darren E. Burrows), but here we see this juvenile and often selfish boy begin to understand the complex rigors of adulthood without any pretense.

Joey's transformation in the film has to do with the ongoing dichotomy between experience and respect that interests Sachs. Ben and George's relationship provides a worthy center for the film in this regard, creating a space where generational divides are bridged by shared social interaction. 

"That sharing is really what makes history," Sachs says. "In lots of ways, it's the personal face of history." George and Ben prove this point during a fascinating scene at a gay bar, where the film reveals some of the cracks they've had to mend over the years. It's a perfectly lived-in moment, one that gains resonance from Lithgow and Molina's masterfully reserved performances.

If Love is Strange—which opens Friday, Aug. 29, at Hillcrest Cinemas—becomes a symphony of human interactions colliding against one another, its connective tissue comes in the form of musical interludes by Chopin. The Polish composer's works define the film's melancholic yet hopeful view of the world. Sachs says it was a deliberate aesthetic choice.

"I love in films when music is connected to the visuals, but it doesn't control the visuals. It has its own integrity," he says. Such is the case in an especially moving montage where George listens to one of his students plays Chopin, which incites a flood of memories, both good and bad.

Sachs' beautiful portrait of a marriage is full of such surprisingly powerful moments that carefully measure how we spend time together, and that means both in the moment and looking back from afar.

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