Ira Sachs • Director of Frankie
“I am interested in people being, not acting”
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2019: We met up with Ira Sachs, the director of Frankie, a French-Portuguese-Belgian-US co-production shown in the main competition
In his Cannes main competition entry Frankie [+see also:
interview: Ira Sachs
film profile], US filmmaker Ira Sachs swaps his beloved New York for Portugal’s Sintra. An international cast, led by Isabelle Huppert and Brendan Gleeson, use their differently accented English to tell the story of a famous actress diagnosed with cancer and preparing to die while surrounded by her bickering loved ones.
Cineuropa: Everybody seemed so surprised that you decided to leave New York. But your characters still can’t help talking about it.
Ira Sachs: Someone said to me that, in a way, my film represents the future of New York. It’s like an imaginary dream town. I started out making films in Memphis, which is where I grew up, and then I moved to New York. It’s not easy to have a sustained career in America making dramatic features – there are maybe 20 of us, and we lost an entire generation of really wonderful filmmakers to television. But I always had this idea of making a film about a family on holiday. Twenty years ago, I saw Kanchenjungha by Satyajit Ray, about a family in the Himalayas. It takes place in the morning, daytime and afternoon, and I really loved the structure. To me, there is something about being away which brings people closer to who they are. Mauricio [Zacharias], my co-writer, already knew this town – his mother is Portuguese, and I was there as a teenager as well. But it wasn’t even Sintra specifically as much as these locations. I felt I could build a film around them.
You said at the festival that you wrote the part of Frankie for Isabelle Huppert. Why?
She is the kind of actress I love – there is a certain fluidity to what she and Brendan do. You can’t figure out how they get from one place to another. American acting, even if you look at icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, is all in capital letters and broad strokes. Isabelle is more about detail and presence. In this film, I asked her to be as close to her real self as she could, which is what I ask of all my actors anyway. I am just interested in people being, because you are making a documentary when making a fiction film – you are documenting the experience that happens in front of the camera.
Initially, when we were writing, we watched Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray again, and there was a humour there that was very important. It’s all about walking and talking. But then I was thinking about Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla, especially when I was watching Isabelle. Because you always know it’s Hanna Schygulla, but she is also Maria Braun. In my last movie, there was an actor; in my next there will be an actor. It’s pretty appropriate for actors to play actors [laughs].
Your film is an ensemble piece, but Isabelle’s scenes with Brendan Gleeson feel especially intimate. Their characters know what’s happening, yet choose not to talk about it at all.
A lot of what you do as a storyteller is about setting things up so that people don’t have to speak about what is central. You may not say everything, but you can’t leave everything vague. Vague is a problem – that’s what I learnt from Henry James.
The moment when you see him look at her lying in bed… By that time, the audience has already caught up. Until that point, they didn’t have all the information. Isabelle disagrees with what I am about to say, but they are both in long marriages themselves. I think it allowed them to convey that sense of intimacy as well as a potential for loss.
For many of your actors, like Isabelle or Pascal Greggory, for example, English isn’t their first language. Did it influence your writing in any way?
In my previous films, I already had Vietnamese actors speaking English or Russian actors speaking English. I think it might be related to what my life looks like: my husband is from Ecuador, my co-writer is from Brazil, and my kids are bilingual. It’s something I feel comfortable with. With these people, you can imagine that they actually speak English as part of their lives.
They are lives that are all very different – you got to develop quite a lot of storylines rotating around Frankie.
The thing about ensemble films, which I came to understand more, is that they are a way to avoid melodrama. I used to like making it, but I feel it’s not me any more. In Frankie, there is a recognition of the beauty and lightness of things because all the seriousness of one story is quickly undercut by another: there is one about a woman dying of cancer or one about a wife trying to figure out if she has enough money to leave her husband, but also one about a girl meeting a handsome boy on a Portuguese beach. They are all taking place at the exact same time, and they are all equally important.
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