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‘The Eye of the Camera Is Queer’

Talking with Ira Sachs about his new film, ‘Little Men’

In Little Men, the burgeoning friendship between Jake and Tony — two boys growing up in present-day Brooklyn — is tested by the messy, morally ambiguous actions of their parents. It’s a new film by Ira Sachs that’s been getting rave reviews; a sharp, minutely observed drama that operates on a stunningly human scale even as it tackles big, hot-button issues like gentrification. It’s also a sweet and subtle gay coming-of-age story.

Just trust President Obama: He rented it straight from the MPAA for his recent family vacation.

MEL spoke with Sachs about how a Memphis childhood inspired the work, why he hates noble characters and the ways in which Little Men is and is not a “queer” film.

In a recent interview, you said that you had feelings for a childhood best friend who was straight. Did this relationship serve as inspiration for the dynamic between Jake and Tony?
It’s interesting that that’s how you read the dynamic, which I think is a template that people can interpret as they wish. My experience with friendships was not sexual or romantic in that way; that wasn’t where I discovered my own sexuality or even romantic feelings. I think there’s a kind of innocence to the friendship that has a lot to do with these particular boys and most specifically with the character Jake, played by Theo Taplitz, who isn’t at that point in his own trajectory. I knew early on that I didn’t want to impose a more established sexuality on either of these kids.

At the same time, did you have the sense that there was something different about Jake from other boys his age?
Definitely, and when we cast the final scene in the film, where he is a student at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and you sense that he’s discovered a new tribe, it was particularly important for me that the kids who surrounded him would be queer or a community for him to enter that would include the possibility of gayness.

I love that attending LaGuardia High School is the dream each boy shares. When you were growing up in Tennessee, did you also dream of attending an arty school?
My husband, who moved to New York from Ecuador with his single Ecuadorian mom, was a painter and artist who went to LaGuardia. I drew from his storyline. By coincidence, Michael Barbieri, who plays Tony, also had that dream, and this summer, he actually got in, which is really amazing, like life imitating art imitating life. When you find a boy who’s as interesting as Michael is, who also seems to contain so many of the very particular details you’ve written, before you even meet him, you’re like, “cast the guy!”

When I was growing up in Memphis, I was very involved in the Memphis children’s theater, which was run by the parks department, and it was probably the only truly integrated community I’ve ever been a part of. It attracted kids from all over the city, from all different neighborhoods and classes. Many of us were gay kids — most of us were not out because it was the 1970s —and there was a queerness to the theater world that was very wonderful. And then I ended up going to Yale at a time when The Wall Street Journal published a piece called “One in Four, Maybe More.”

I also thought it was stunning how you captured this unrequited longing from Jake and yet didn’t make that the focus of the film. Art and creativity were the fuel for their friendship. Was that a similar dynamic to what you had with straight friends at that age — where everything took a backseat to sharing creative passions?
I feel like the gay lens is the whole film more than their relationship. The eye of the camera is queer and so is the exploration of both childhood masculinity as well as childhood difference. So that’s, to me, the way that it can be read within the context of queer cinema.

Those relationships that you’re describing, across sexuality, I made more as an adult than as a kid. Like at Yale, I directed theater for about five years with a heterosexual man. We were co-directors and we had a creative partnership that was very free and defines the kind of friendship that I still seek. A lot of that freedom is about finding out how to talk and reveal yourself in ways that don’t have a lot of boundaries.

It seems there aren’t a lot of films that realistically — or in any way — explore the gay-straight dynamic between two men. Maybe I’m wrong, or I’m just not thinking hard enough…
I think you’re right, I don’t think there’s a lot of that. There are films like Stand By Me, and you could talk about Huck and Tom. Weirdly, you could talk about Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, which isn’t about a gay-straight relationship but there’s only two relationships that he has in that movie. One is with Cathy Moriarty and the other is with Joe Pesci and they’re both really investigated.

Another big element of your film is real estate. What made you want to capture the emotional aftershocks that can happen when one member of a family suddenly inherits a piece of property?
As a writer you are constantly collecting these factoids in a subtle way that make up character and drama. In this film, we made a decision that the rich would not be too rich and the poor would not be too poor; they would both be on different edges of the middle class. That was significant to the moral ambiguity of the conflict, which was important to create emotional suspense. If it was easy to choose sides than the movie wouldn’t have been as engaging or make you question your own position in some way.

Right, and I really liked that Leonor (Paulina Garcia) wasn’t a noble victim and whispers these cutting remarks to Brian (Greg Kinnear). Did you struggle to ensure their dynamic wasn’t black and white — that Leonor had her own ugliness?
I have no interest in noble characters — then it seems like you just haven’t written them well. People can display nobility in their actions, which can be gorgeous, but that’s very different from something more simplified and reductive.

We found the edges of Paulina’s character in the writing phase and many people warned us that we needed to make her more likable, and that she shouldn’t say such nasty things, but Paulina never felt that at all. And she and I really bonded over an understanding and a love for Leonora that I think comes through in the film. She is a woman who is pushed into a corner and she will do what she needs to protect her own and protect her livelihood. She doesn’t really have the skills to do that very effectively. That’s the frustration one might feel with the character. You want her to do things differently and, in effect, you want her to be different so that she won’t make mistakes. But she makes many mistakes.

The story really builds so beautifully and realistically. You can see that there’s going to be a conflict but when it comes it doesn’t feel overdramatized and you don’t rely on any sort of convoluted plot twists. Why is this kind of storytelling most appealing to you?
I guess it’s the same kind of storytelling I’ve been interested in for the past 20 years in terms of the kinds of films that I respond to and the way that I want to tell a story, which doesn’t mean that I’m not very interested in plot, suspense and narrative motion, all of which I’m keenly aware of in a pretty classic way. I just also want there to be room in the film for an associative response from the audience. I’m trying to be subtle and yet evocative and clear as a storyteller so you, the audience member, actually do know what the problem is and you’re interested in how it will be resolved. It’s not a conscious choice. I’m not trying to be different; I’m trying to be myself.