Zachary Booth & Ira Sachs—Keep the Lights On, Damages—6/21/12

/content/interviews/359/1.jpgIra Sachs took the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for his sophomore feature Forty Shades of Blue (starring Rip Torn and Dina Korzun), which he followed up with Married Life (starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams). His latest, Keep the Lights On, pairs Zachary Booth with Thure Lindhardt in a romantic drama about love, sex, and self-destruction. Booth is best-known for playing Michael, the son of Glenn Close's Patty Hewes, on the TV drama Damages, but his film resume includes Todd Solondz's Dark Horse, Jodie Foster's The Beaver, and Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, as well as Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Assasination of a High School President. I spoke to Sachs and Booth, at the offices of Larsen Associates, when they were in San Francisco for Frameline 36 (The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival).

Groucho: The couple in the film explicitly and implicitly point out each others flaws—which I took as one meaning of the title.  There's also that broader sense of the title about not living a life of secrets but living a more transparent life. Can you talk about how you see those dynamics, on that personal level and maybe also as more a kind of global theme?

Ira Sachs: Yeah, I think—there's also a sexual pun, by the way. I mean, "keeping the lights on" as a choice people can make in a bedroom as well.

Groucho: Right.

Ira Sachs: So that's just one other—

G: That, to me, plays into the idea of the flaws. People...say ["keep the lights off"] because they don't want people to examine their flaws carefully, right—in a sexual context?

IS: Yeah. I mean, for me, many of us spend a lot of our lives trying to control how we appear publically.  And there's usually reasons. It's not something people invent. It's actually often societal. And in this case I think there is a combination of shame around a lot of the issues these two characters arrive at this relationship with and carrying—that then becomes fueled within the specifics of their dynamic. So that's around sexuality, that's around being gay. That's around alcoholism and drug use. That's around family. There's different things that these two characters carry with them so that once they come together, it's like "Okay, so let's close the door together." And I think this film, in a way, is the evidence of something that shifts for the characters, but also for me as a filmmaker having lived through this relationship. And that post-this relationship, there was a sense that things had to be done differently—and I would say "with the lights on."

G: Right. And there's this kind of thread in there about the long-term weight of living with fear, whether it's about a secret coming out,—about living in the closet or the drug closet also—and then the HIV scare scene that's in there puts sort of the context of fear for Erik. 

IS: I also noticed yesterday there's some—and this is true in this relationship, but [to Zachary:] how many times do you [as Paul] surprise the character of Erik? There's a surprise party, there's a gift that's in the middle of the bed, there's all these "don't get too comfortable, something might happen." And I always thought that surprise party in life was so strange in a way—because it was wonderful that actually—I mean now we're sort of crossing back and forth, but there was a way in which—why surprise people?  Like there's something aggressive about surprising people. 

G: Mamet says that in Oleanna.  It's the end of Act One of Oleanna.

IS: What does he say?

G: Something about—that there is something very violent or aggressive about surprise. [Ed. "There are those who would say it's a form of aggression."]

/content/interviews/359/3.jpegZB: Well, I think it's an idea that Ira tossed around a lot to me when I was working on this character was control. And I think there is control in that. It's sort of you can control the before, the during and the after. You get to control the sort of build-up, you get to control the moment, and then afterwards you've sort of laid the plans for who you are and what a good person you are. And you've done something nice. And I think there really is—it was something interesting for me to play with was to find those places where you could be possessively loving of someone and do it because you care about them but also on another level to do it to protect yourself. Because you know what you cost them. And in this way it sort of balances it out. You know, like one of those people who "I'll cook you a three-course dinner but I won't give you a hug at night." There's this sort of withholding there that if I behave in this way and I control this image of being a great boyfriend, then I don't actually have to be a great boyfriend. Or when I'm not a great boyfriend, I've got a couple other knocks on the other side to say like "Oh, I guess it balances out."

G: Well, that then brings up again that pivotal moment with the gift. It's very easy to read that as a grandly romantic gesture, but on the other hand he's also buying an apology without ever actually giving one. 

IS: Well I think that—I don't know, for me in the making of this film that was a genuine gift. And it came from a really deep sense of love and wanting to show that love. But again, you don't have that feeling, I don't think, to prove your love if you don't on some way know that it's lacking. Or if you don't on some level know that your behavior is inappropriate. You won't have this sort of need to show so much how you feel. You can just be. And that's okay. You become a person of actions rather than a person of words. And I guess buying a gift is an action, but it's sort of this grand gesture and again, it's very possessive. This is a big possession that I'm going to give you and now I've got another piece of you. 

G: And the way the story is edited anyway—that being followed so directly with him acting out, disappearing again—it's almost like he's bought himself that bad behavior again. 

IS: Well, I think—I think what's interesting now is Zack is able to analyze the actions. As an actor he wasn't doing that. And I think that's partially—in a good way. Because if you were analyzing, you're more outside—

G: You can't judge your characters.

IS: I think it was [to Zach:] you were not judging the character, and you weren't understanding the motivations in the way that you do now. I think that there is-it's a character in conflict. That's really what the character of Paul is-it's a human being who's in conflict and who is really trying, I think, to do the right thing and to be the right lover and to be the partner, but is struggling with this other force which is more destructive. 

G: As you mentioned before, this is based very closely on a relationship you had-inspired by that—and ultimately fictionalized to some degree. 

IS: Yeah.

G: But I guess it has to be sort of an exorcism of the relationship, and I know that you sort of started the process of turning it into fiction by doing a forensic examination of the relationship. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

IS: Well, I think by the time I was able—the time the idea came into my head in a way that I could actually follow it through, I think I had already exorcised the relationship. Writing for me is never a form of therapy. The therapy usually comes earlier, whether that's with a therapist or alone. I think by the time I see a story that would make a good film, I have a great intimacy with the material but also a sort of analytic distance that allows me to understand how it might work as a story. So by the time I was writing with Mauricio Zacharias—my co-writer—I think that I was mostly a storyteller, to tell you the truth. It was trying to mine events in my life in a way that would be fruitful for the story. But I will say that the way I did that was pretty interesting; it was unlike anything else, and it actually is significant for how the movie works, and I think I went through journals and e-mails and Post-its and letters—all these—and some of the music of the time...I really created a chronology that was just based on one next to the other next to the other next to the other and in that way the film plays like a journal. It has the kind of gaps and ellipses that happen within a diary. And you can actually...that's one of the ways that propels the story forward is how an event is next to another event is next to another event. What I was able to do with Mauricio, and what Mauricio was able to do with this material, was then craft it into a story which has its own unity, which is really the challenge. It can't just be diaristic. It actually needs to have the characters and the themes and everything needs to be written ultimately in a sort of more novelistic fashion. 

G: Along those lines, what was the ratio of filmed material to actually used material?

IS: I'd say there's—maybe a sixth of the movie didn't make it in. I would say—there's a couple of scenes of Erik's, particularly, who's the character played by Thure Lindhardt—there's a couple of scenes of his that were kind of one dimension too many—like the film couldn't carry that. He suddenly seems schizophrenic, to tell you the truth, based on the blowjob scene where he gets kind of violent. It's just like the film couldn't contain it. 

G: So Zach, this character is a deceptively buttoned-down lawyer. And there's this kind of, I think, archetype of the high-powered young urban professional who is—his career expects of him almost and enables this addiction. It's sort of understood that somebody under that kind of pressure, perhaps at work, would do that, and then, well, you're just going to cover for that guy. Is that sort of how you saw it?

ZB: Honestly, I didn't consider too much the pressure of—oh, that's not true because—

IS: You keep saying, "My job. My job!"

ZB: There is that scene. But for me that—just the having of a job, again, was just this sort of way to control the image. 

G: Mmm.

ZB: You know, this sort of exterior. And I didn't really—

G: There's a relationship leverage in that too.

ZB: Yeah. Exactly. And to me, that sort of had more to do with evening the score with Erik than it did with myself.  I mean, I think that the pressure that I really was aware of for Paul was early on in the film when he's still in the closet and dealing with that. I think that was the sort of pressure that weighed on him pretty heavily. And there was a sense of responsibility that he had to continue, you know, to show up at work. And I think in a certain way he could—he played the work and the relationship off each other. That's sort of what I was trying to say is that I could be behaving badly and know that that's what I was doing. But again, I've got this job. I'm working really hard. You know, "Who are you to criticize me?" You know, "I've got this under control." And that I could sort of play them against each other. And I'm sure that I've never been in that world. I'm sure that it did. I mean the world that I live in certainly enables that kind of a lifestyle. I think there are a lot of them. I think that, watching this film in a city—I've sort of had this experience here last night at the Q and A, that people were responding to it personally, and I think that's because they live in this sort of intense environment where people are like move, move, move and—I don't know if that makes sense. 

G: Yeah. Yeah. It seemed to me there's also—it's never really text in the film, but maybe the subtext, that there's some kind of a self-punishment going on—maybe for both of the characters to some degree—in the sex and in the drugs and maybe not feeling deserving of more, that sort of thing.

IS: I think in a lot of ways there's a lot of masochism in the relationship. And a sense—

G: Well certainly the threesome-ish scene comes to mind, for example.

IS: Yeah. Well, I've also—I've thought about the fact that I made four films in which there's a central protagonist who in some ways is trying to figure out how to like him or herself.

G: Mm-hm.

/content/interviews/359/6.jpgIS: That there's some conflict going on that is about self-hatred and self-loathing. And what situations you put yourself in when you just don't like yourself. And I think Erik is another one of those characters. In a lot of ways, they both are people who like some elements of themselves. And they're really, really trying to be some good version and they want to make something of their lives. They're ambitious people. But I think that something is saying, "You don't deserve." And I think that maybe that's the course—that's the very simple narrative of the film is how do you come to feel like you actually deserve to be with someone who, in a way, complements you instead of hinders and hurts you? And I think that's for both characters. Really, totally—it's equal for both characters. They come to the point where they realize they like themselves well enough that they need to be with people who also like them. 

G: Yeah. Right. Hmm. Zach, I heard you talking in an earlier interview about—that a "crack expert" basically was brought in, you know, to kind of help you figure out how to—

IS: A drug coach. 

G: A drug coach.

ZB: A "retired" expert. 

G: Yeah. Right. For the mechanics of it, but maybe you also got something of the psychology there. Is that right?

ZB: Yeah, the sort of—I don't know. I was really sort of turned on intellectually by that process. I remember that day was a really—I had some fun with it. I mean, just showing us what would look real and what would feel real was important to me because I wanted that behavior to be organic for me. And to know at different stages: early on in the film to know that he might have one crack stem and a bag of rocks in this like sort of kit. You know, we talked a lot about this kit. And this sort of like controlled environment that could kind of come out and be put away. And then later in that hotel room from this—

G: Laid out.

ZB: Stems all over the place, and it's obviously the progression is existent, and I wanted that to just sort of be—to happen naturally. To not have to be aware of that, to not have to worry about it.  And then it was important for me to learn about the timing. You know, what does it feel like? Where does it hit you and how long does it take? You know, is it in your head? Is it in your heart? And he explained to me that it's sort of a chest feeling and that it was almost immediate. You know, by the time you were exhaling the smoke, you were feeling this rush. And just to know that, and again, to have that just be organic was important because you don't want to have to worry about playing it. The bigger challenge came, in that scene like the hotel scene where you have to sustain for a long period of time this sort of frenetic energy that would exist in somebody who's been up and down, up and down on these drugs for a long period of time. That was something that he wasn't specifically able to help me with. But there's other ways of researching it and reading about it and getting into the mind of somebody that is in that position. What are they thinking about? What are they paying attention to? What are they hearing?  I mean, all of that stuff is completely altered. You know, you're not listening to the other person in the same way. You're listening more to yourself, I think, than to anybody else in the room. You know, what kind of sounds are you going to respond to  outside? What's your reaction going to be to light? But I was really into that sort of moment-to-moment early-on reaction to the crack, and I didn't know how well it would turn out. I mean, it sounds like I'm patting myself on the back, but really I think it's more a compliment to Ira and Thimios [Bakatakis, the cinematographer] that there were some moments that I really was in love with when we were on that couch smoking. And I thought, "Wow, that really—those moments were real."

ZB: Those guys—they were flying. 

IS: What's interesting for me to hear this—this is an example of—I don't rehearse my actors, so we talk but we never do a scene before we start shooting. And I generally believe that the actor's work is private. And so, just to hear in this little situation so much of the work that [to Zach:] you did around playing the high that I wasn't aware of—at least to that extent at all, and the thing—and it's all resonating to me now, and it's readable on the screen and I can hear it in a way when I watch the movie. But it's sort of—I don't want that stuff to be verbalized, because I think it ends up intruding and becoming a telegraphing situation. And what I want to do is create a situation where it's all about response. It's not about sort of commentary. 

G: Yeah. Well, maybe you guys can get "in crack veritas" to catch on.


G: Anyway, I wanted to ask you about—it's kind of an obvious question, I suppose, but creating intimacy. It is such an intimate film. There's such a truthfulness that is essential to the film being what it is—between you and Thure. 

/content/interviews/359/4.jpgZB: Well, it was essential to the story. I think obviously, there's an intimacy that exists, as we've talked a lot about, between two people that have sex within moments of meeting each other. There's an intimacy that exists in a city like New York where the apartments are so small. And all that energy is bouncing off such a small space. You know, it couldn't really work in a mansion in Orange County. I just feel like you'd go to the other room.  They'd escape from each other. But if your bathroom is right on top of your bedroom, you know, you're never really away. You can never really let the silence be. So that intimacy, I thought, was important. And Thure and I: he's just such an open, wonderful person. And it was something that I experienced from Ira. I mean, he was throwing around this word "transparency" within like twenty minutes of knowing each other. And I was really inspired by it, and we ended up having this great discussion about another project that I was working on, and he was really helpful to me. And I think that in the interview—during the film when he's making the documentary and that guy sort of says that you can tell—what is it?—that you can tell—someone looks like their insides. You can sort of tell they're attracted—

G: Oh yeah. The physiognomy thing.

ZB: Right, right, right. He's talking about Nixon. And Ira's one of those people that he's just so beautiful, and he's beautiful on the inside—Thure's the exact same way.  And I always think, "Oh, this is such interesting casting because they're so different. But that energy was there. And he and I were able to just get along. 

IS: I think you also—again, they're both—that was convenient. They really did like each other and sort of loved being around each other and had a lot of fun; the three of us had a lot of fun together. But I also think you're both very ambitious actors. And it's really important for me—ambition is a positive term, and in general, I want to work with people who are trying to achieve greatness—whether they do or they don't, that's another question. But I think they both—you guys knew you needed each other. So it's a little like ecstasy or something because within a first day, they're going to go way farther. Like what we did—it sounds really superficial but somehow, it seems to work from my two films that I've done this—is that I've set up dates for the actors without me. So like in Married Life, Chris Cooper and Rachel McAdams went out together and they spent an evening together and I wasn't there.  Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan also went out without me, and they probably got drunk.


IS: But I think there's a sense that actors know they're going to need this, so they're willing to take these emotional risks with other actors that they have to be close to before it would be usually possible. In a way, it's almost like the movie. [To Zach:] You guys didn't have sex, but you went somewhere very intimate fast. 

ZB: Yeah.

G: And then you shot chronologically, I assume?

IS: No. 

G: Or no you didn't? You just started at the start. 

IS: Well, what we did is we started with—do you know, Antonio Campos made a film called Simon Killer? It's coming out—he made a film called Afterschool before it. He and Brady Corbet, who's the actor in the film, had just shot the film, and there's a lot of sex in that movie. And actually, they gave me really good advice, which was to shoot the sex first, early in production. Because if you do that, it sort of liberates everything. And so we did it on the second—we shot a sex scene. A major sex scene, which happened to be early in the movie, on the second day of shooting. And that was really freeing to everyone involved. 

G: I did want to ask one question about Damages

ZB: Sure.

G: Damages is coming to a close shortly.  I guess, since it's coming to a close, I can get your perspective on what it's meant to you: personally and for your career and for your craft. 

ZB: I can't really say enough about it. It's been a gift. It's a great opportunity. I sort of walked into it blindly and didn't know what I was getting into. And I got—

IS: How many years?

ZB: It's been five years; we started in 2007. And we took a year or two off, and we almost died with the writer's strike, and we were cancelled and picked back up. So it's been a—

G: A ride.

/content/interviews/359/2.jpgZB: You know, a sense of community spirit amongst us, and we've had this—most of our crew is intact for the entire five years, and they're just so, so brilliant. I mean everyone that works on the show. The writing is so good. I get to sit opposite Glenn Close at every scene and learn from her. And as I've grown, she's been able to teach me different things. And she's just been really nurturing to me as an actor and as well as a person, teaching me how to do this thing. How to exist in these places and be on sets and how to deal with the people that you're working with. So it's really just been a great ride for me. And I can't believe that I've gotten to be a part of it as long as I have been. 

G: Yeah. It occurred to me too that the acting style is so different. I mean, with that show there's this kind of heightened "revenger's," you know—delicious, wicked...melodrama to it. And of course, on stage, you have to sort of project yourself more. And with a film like this, you must have to almost retrain yourself a little bit or reorient yourself a little bit for the mode of acting, seemingly. 

ZB: Yeah. I think that that's true from—I would say, from an outside perspective. 

G: Right.

ZB: And they are different, and there are challenges in different areas, in diffent medias.  And other actors are able to do some better than others. Personally, for me it all has to come from that place of truth and honesty and that's where it has to start. What I loved about Ira's style of directing and the way we went about making this film was that it felt like being in a play.  There was an arc to this character that I got to explore. There was a story that I got to just live truthfully. And I didn't ever feel the need to make any moment work. I didn't ever feel a pressure to—well, that's not entirely true. But those pressures were self-imposed. I never felt that Ira was sort of saying to me, "I need this tear," "I need this anger," "I need this punch."  And as far as Damages is concerned, I think a lot of that credit has to go to the writers and to the guys that shoot that show. They do such a great job and the music and the different filters that they put on it: that really creates that sense of revenge or whatever it is that you're talking about. We're just sort of there being these people. 

G: Right.

ZB: And then, they really craft it. And in TV, there's just so much more editing, I think, that they can really throw it in there. You know, they give you a lot of "off Glenn," "off Zach," you know. And it sort of teaches the audience the formula for the show. And you don't get to do that in a film. You know, you don't get to teach somebody "come back next week."

IS: You don't have to do that. 

ZB: Or, you don't have to. (Laughs.) That's a good point. ‘Cause it's nice to not have to do that.

/content/interviews/359/5.jpgIS: Well, I think I'm also interested in a film in trying to create an open frame where the audience is able to look and to have their own feelings, their own associations, and and a little more freedom with the response that you have to the film. And also I think I'm interested in trying to capture things that might only happen once. And that's really different than a play—in the sense that there in no need to repeat—even though you have to repeat. But actually, we're just looking for the "one" that we end up using. And you want it to be—I really think of making a fiction film as a documentary; it's exactly the same—you're creating a situation where you use the camera to capture reality. And that's something that you do a lot of work to—and once it happens, you really hope they're just with each other. 

G: Well, I think you guys succeeded brilliantly. I hope the film is all onward and upward from here. Thanks a lot for talking to me.

Both: Thank you. 

ZB: That was an interesting conversation.

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