by Anthony Frajman

US independent filmmaker Ira Sachs has made a career out of defiantly personal films, which offer unflinchingly honest looks at the difficulties and complexities of relationships.

His acclaimed 2012 film Keep the Lights On was a haunting and frank examination of a decade-long romance that unfolds over a decade between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker in New York, and Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted lawyer.

His thoughtful Little Men (2016) traced the burgeoning friendship between two teenagers in New York.

So, it may not come as a surprise that Sachs considers his latest feature, Passages, as cut from the same cloth.

Starring Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos, Passages follows Tomas (Rogowski), an egotistical German film director, and graphic designer Martin (Whishaw), a long-term married couple whose marriage is thrown into chaos when Tomas has an affair with a young teacher Agathe (Exarchopoulos).

The film was partly inspired for Sachs by the pandemic. Sachs, who had just come off his acclaimed film Frankie starring Isabelle Huppert, which screened at Cannes in 2019, says this was a period he found both frustrating and liberating.

“During the pandemic, I felt a sense of death. And after the pandemic, I felt a sense of freedom and I really made the film that I wanted to make, without a lot of thought about whether the audience and the money would be there to follow,” Sachs tells FilmInk.

“I made a film from my gut, and I think in many ways I was drawing upon instincts that I had when I was much younger and when I was less conscious of what I was doing. But I would say at this age, I have a better developed craft. So, it was exciting to be working out of instinct, but also feel that I’d grown up in a lot of ways and this film felt like something new for me,” Sachs adds.

Sachs, who has always made films entirely on his own terms, says Passages was possibly his most fun filmmaking experience, and it marks a turning point for him as a director.

“I felt very independent on Passages. And independence is all about one’s relationship to money and storytelling. I felt like I was making the film that I wanted to make. And I feel like that’s something that as you get older, it’s really a challenge to hold onto because you start fitting yourself into other people’s expectations. And, in a way, the film is about what it is to be a man in this society and to have power. I think the film is an exploration of the complexity of male power.”

One of the boldest decisions Sachs makes in the film, is to make lead character Tomas unapologetically selfish and determined to go after what he wants, throwing tantrums on set with little regard for anyone else, or as Sachs puts it, pure “ID”.

“I cast someone [Franz Rogowski from Undine] who’s really charming and has a great sense of humour and is wonderful to watch. So, I think all of that means that there’s a charisma which lets him get away with a lot, both in the story and in the film.

“Men can be so horrible,” he laughs. “I feel like Tomas was trying to do his best. The character of Tomas, his best was just messy and had impact on others. But there’s also this appeal of someone who follows their own instinct. I feel like directors see themselves as Pied Pipers. People follow them, and we see in this film how far. Also, directors are not gods. They do not have ultimate control. I think seeing someone who acts like a god, being taken down and struck by an arrow, is very pleasurable to an audience.”

As Sachs quite often does, he wrote the role of Tomas with the actor in mind. He first saw Rogowski in Michael Haneke’s Happy End, and knew that he wanted to work with him instantly.

“I wrote the film for Franz Rogowski. I had a cinematic crush and felt like I could do something in collaboration with him that would be exciting. And that I wouldn’t know the edges and boundaries of what we could make together. And that’s what is exciting. It’s like you feel like you have the potential to fall into a river together. And then I wrote the script and cast the other two roles once it completed, based on an instinct that I could collaborate with these types of actors. I’m often working with non-American actors because there’s a kind of fluidity that’s different in European and non-American actors.

“I think if you look at the difference between Vivien Leigh and Judi Dench, even though Vivien Leigh was British, she worked in America, (or) Elizabeth Taylor, another Brit working in America, or Cate Blanchett – who is in exactly the same mode as Elizabeth Taylor (laughs), that’s a very particular type of acting which is very different than Judi Dench. I think I tend to be drawn to these almost documentary kind of actors. They’re doing something which is not real. And they’re creating performances that are otherworldly, but they fit into the world in a very interesting way,” Sachs continues.

“It’s also the relationship to the body. When I did Keep the Lights On in the US, I couldn’t find any American actor that I wanted, who wanted to work with me, because they didn’t want to be a part of the physical life of the film. They were uncomfortable with the nakedness of the film. And I think that the body is viewed differently in European cinema,” Sachs adds.

For the role of Tomas, Sachs took inspiration from a very unlikely cinematic source: Jimmy Cagney.

“There were moments when Franz was nervous, like, ‘don’t you think I’m going to be unappealing? And don’t you think I need to be a little bit more careful with what the character does?’ And, my evidence that he didn’t need to be was Jimmy Cagney, because Jimmy Cagney is an anti-hero, but he’s also a hero. There’s no question that he’s the hero of his films, and he’s the magnet. I think that has been true throughout history. I guess what happened is that Franz trusted me enough that when I told him he would come off well and that I would watch out for him… He believed me, and I think that was really important. He had trust in me, as his director.”

Sachs says Rogowski, Whishaw, and Exarchopoulos gave everything to the film.

“I watched [Ethan Hawke’s documentary series on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward] The Last Movie Stars recently, and I watched it because it’s really well done. And, also it made me think about the method as a form of, of acting. And I don’t know if Franz, Ben and Adele would say they are method actors, but I think they bring themselves in a way in this film that is a method (laughs) and it means not separating themselves from the performance.

“I think that’s something Franz has actually said about this movie that I thought was very astute. When you watch the movie, you vacillate between watching Tomas and watching Franz and watching Adele and watching Agathe. And I think that is part of the audience’s experience.”

Following Frankie, which was set in Portugal, the Paris-set Passages marks the second feature in a row Sachs has made in Europe. While as with Frankie, this was a creative decision, Sachs acknowledges that it also reflects the increasing difficulty of making the types of films he does in the US.

Sachs says he also enjoys working in Europe, where there is an accepted culture of cinema, as opposed to the US, where things are business-centric.

Frankie was made with French money. And that film was written to be outside of the United States. It was a film about a vacation. So, I think that was very significant. I think it’s an alignment of many things, including the preservation of personal cinema in France and Europe, which is not insignificant to someone like me. But I wouldn’t have made a film in Berlin, for example, because I know nothing about Berlin. I know quite a bit about Paris, and I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I’ve had relationships there, I’ve had affairs there, and I’ve had arguments there and I’ve had a life there over a 20 year period. So, it felt very natural to make this film there. I also do have a really deep and consistent relationship with French cinema that means I feel comfortable working in that environment.

“To sustain a career of personal, independent cinema in the US, is next to impossible. I mean, there are exceptions and most of them are white men, so, maybe that’s why I’m having this conversation with you (laughs). I think for my generation, a sustainable career has been harder and harder to find,” Sachs admits.

Despite the myriad challenges facing independent filmmakers, Sachs remains optimistic about the future of cinema.

“It’s just beginning. And I think we have to assume it’s just beginning. I have to say, when John Cassavetes was making his films, there weren’t 30 John Cassavetes. He was existing independently from the mainstream. And, it was marginal and it was marginalised.”

Sachs says that what surprised him most about Passages was not the making of the film, but the reaction to it.

“The response to the film has surprised me the most. Because I feel like there was a generational difference between what I expected as someone who works within an industry of older men, and an audience of younger people, and the audience sees the film as their own life, and the older men who run this film industry see it differently.”

With Passages slated for global release via distributor Mubi, whom Sachs says has a fierce passion for independent cinema, the filmmaker is already working on his next film which will be a return to his home city, his first New York-set narrative feature since Little Men.

“I’m making a film that’s set in the East Village in the nineties. So, I go back to punk rock, experimental cinema, Jack Smith, and people who were working outside the margins and embraced their non-bourgeois opposition. And I think that that’s kind of necessary, even though I’m a super bourgeois person,” he ends with a knowing laugh.

Passages is screening at the 2023 Melbourne International Film Festival