Described by The Village Voice as "a front-runner for best American film of the year," "Keep the Lights On" is the latest feature from Memphis-born writer-director Ira Sachs.
The film's title acquired distressingly literal meaning this week with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. The storm knocked out power to Sachs' Fifth Avenue apartment and shut down New York's airports, making problematic Sachs' scheduled arrival in his hometown Thursday for the 15th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Sachs, 46, is set to be feted this week at the festival, which will screen almost his entire filmography, including several shorts, his three previous features and, in its Memphis debut, "Keep the Lights On," which is the Saturday night "gala" film. (The movie begins a regular theatrical run Nov. 9 at the Malco Studio on the Square.) Assuming flights from New York resume, Sachs will attend and answer questions after each screening.
"I think there is a hunger for stories about adult people in dramatic situations," Sachs said about his new movie. "Though the film is specifically about the relationship between two men, the dynamic is clearly one that resonates with anyone who has been in a longterm relationship. I've had divorced women, married men, gay men all tell me they recognized themselves."
Sachs is eager to return to Memphis for a visit, accompanied by his 9-month-old twins, Viva and Felix. (The kids will spend most of the festival with their grandmother, Diane Sachs, a retired Rhodes College sociology professor.) And although his festival calendar is crowded, it can't be any more hectic than his New York schedule. In addition to fulfilling the responsibilities of parenthood and movie promotion, Sachs has been active as a — yes, let's use the weirdly demonized term — community organizer for the re-election of President Barack Obama. His activism, in fact, preceded his filmmaking: As a younger man in New York, Sachs was involved in ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy group. He also co-curates the monthly Queer/Art/Film screenings at New York's IFC Center, and its affiliated Queer/Art/Mentorship program.
Sachs grew up with progressive parents during the civil rights era and the heyday of Memphis soul music, and he credits his hometown with making him an artist as well as an activist — with "wanting to live counter to the mainstream," in his words. "I feel like that is something that still gives me inspiration in terms of the kinds of films that I want to make," he said.
This can be seen in "Keep the Lights On," an extremely intimate and sometimes harsh drama — a sort of "transformed" autobiography, according to Sachs — that chronicles the troubled yearslong relationship in New York between an open-hearted Danish documentary filmmaker (Thure Lindhardt) and a closeted lawyer (Zachary Booth) with an addiction to crack cocaine and risky sex.
"My approach to New York was not dissimilar to how I approached Memphis in 'Forty Shades of Blue,'" Sachs said, referring to his 2005 made-in-Memphis film with Rip Torn that won the Grand Jury Prize in drama at the Sundance Film Festival. The award brought sudden attention to a filmmaker whose only previous feature had been the micro-budgeted "The Delta" (1996), the story of a Memphis teenager who begins an affair with a young Vietnamese man.
In the Memphis movies, "the art and music of that city become part of people's lives," Sachs said. "You can't actually separate it from the people. And in New York it's similar." By scoring his new film exclusively with music by experimental cellist-singer-songwriter Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992 at age 40, the film becomes "an excavation of the history of that time through a very personal life story."
If the reality that inspired "Keep the Lights On" was painful as well as fruitful, in cinematic terms, its sequel is happy and stable, Sachs says. He and his husband of almost 10 months, artist Boris Torres (whose paintings appear under the new movie's opening credits), are raising the twins in an apartment they share with the children's biological mother, Kirsten Johnson, a documentary cinematographer. "So there are two dads and one mom, and we're raising the kids together."
To this end, "Keep the Lights On" — co-scripted by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias — is a movie that "encourages individuals to 'keep the lights on,' and to me that means to try to live a more transparent and thus a more honest life," Sachs said. The movie is "what in many ways you could consider a middle-age coming-of-age film," he said. "I've come to realize that all my films have been about an individual coming to accept one's self, trying to understand the difference between what one reveals publicly and what one is privately, and the tension between the two."
"Keep the Lights On" was shot on 16-mm film on a budget of about $700,000, with Memphians Adam Hohenberg and Iddo Patt "deeply involved in the fundraising and the creative process of the film" as two of the film's 11 credited producers, Sachs said. The movie premiered at Sundance and began its theatrical run Sept. 7 in New York and Los Angeles; so far, it has earned the best reviews of Sachs' career, with raves from The New York Times, Roger Ebert and other sources. It also has been embraced internationally: Next week, in testimony to the European love of "art" films, it opens in 32 cinemas in Poland, and it will be showing on 100 screens in France. In comparison, the Music Box Films release so far has reached a total of about 30 U.S. screens.
Sachs said returning to Memphis is always an emotional experience. He remembers shooting "The Delta," a movie by "youthful people, when I was not frightened or concerned about who I was in the industry of film. The only person watching us was Linn Sitler," he said, referring to the longtime Memphis film commissioner who "gave encouragement to someone who needed encouraging. There was something very moving about being embraced by Memphis in that way."
Thus, the Indie Memphis Film Festival's Ira Sachs retrospective becomes a sort of affirmation of a native and wandering son.
"It means I'm still standing as a working filmmaker," Sachs says, "and that wasn't always a given, and that isn't easy. It recognizes the effort, and I hope also gives inspiration to other filmmakers about the power of perseverance and the possibility of personal cinema."
Indie Memphis Film Festival Ira Sachs Retrospective
“Forty Shades of Blue” (2005): A Russian woman (Dina Korzun) shares an unhappy life with an aging Memphis music producer (Rip Torn) in this Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner. Screened in a 35mm print. Friday, 6:45 p.m., Studio on the Square.
Ira Sachs Shorts: Program includes “Vaudeville” (1992), “Lady” (1994) and “Last Address” (2009). Saturday, 11 a.m., Circuit Playhouse.
“The Delta” (1996): A Memphis teenager begins a romance with a Vietnamese arcade worker in Sachs’ debut feature as a writer-director, which includes a scene inside the old Barrister’s rock club. Saturday, 2 p.m., Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
“Keep the Lights On” (2012): Sachs’ acclaimed new feature, which chronicles a troubled years-long gay romantic relationship in New York, has its Memphis debut. Saturday, 7 p.m., Playhouse on the Square. (An after-party follows in the Playhouse Festival Cafe.)
“Married Life” (2007): Adapted from a suspense novel by John Bingham, Sachs’ most elaborate film is a wry noir-influenced melodrama with Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams, Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson. Screened in a 35mm print. Sunday, 7:15 p.m., Studio on the Square.
Sachs is scheduled to attend all screenings and participate in question-and-answer sessions after each film. For advance tickets and more information, visit indiememphis.com.