“You can’t play death”: Frankie director Ira Sachs discusses his portrayal of grief at Cannes 2019
Ira Sachs’s latest film Frankie is defined by the proximity to death. Isabelle Huppert stars as the titular protagonist, a legendary actress who brings her fragmented family to the rolling hills of Sintra, Portugal, so as to find closure, to reach something definitive before the inevitable. She’s dying from cancer. It’s a subtle and melancholy tale, the sort of which has become the director’s trademark.
We interviewed Sachs after the film’s Cannes premiere. We talked about his relationship with death, working with Isabelle Huppert, filming in Portugal, and struggling in the industry.
What do you want to leave behind?
My children. I think my films but I run an LGBT nonprofit called Queer Art. If I’m thinking about something that’s a legacy – and I mean not legacy as in people remember me but that it has this continual after-effect. There’s an industriousness of a community because I’m interested in the community. I believe in emptiness. And I think like in the film I’ll die. New York won’t blink.
I think the last five years I’ve been closer to death – not myself – but with very close friends of mine and my grandmother who was 100. I had a very dear friend who died of breast cancer at 50 and I had never been that close to the experience before. It’s very strong. I am five years on this side [of the AIDS crisis]. I came to New York in 1988 and I was involved in ACT UP and AIDS activism but it wasn’t my group of friends.
Has thinking through the themes of illness and death changed your perspective on the subject?
I think it’s also being middle-aged and being on my feet. I was really struck by how illness and death weren’t what I would have imagined. There was comedy and tragedy and also great pettiness. There were a lot of interests and money. Hopefully, my films don’t show these as blandly. There was so much life.
In the process, I was interested in life and that’s what the film is drawing attention to. The performers of ensemble films have a way in which you can’t say that there’s any one melodrama because they’re all playing against each other and they all relive certain moments collectively.
I’ve been thinking about it with my co-writer [Mauricio Zacharias], talking about [Yasujirō] Ozu. Even in the saddest of his movies, there are always four stories and I think it’s smart – Shakespeare and Chekov did the same.
What was the influence of Éric Rohmer on the film?
Rohmer gave us permission to have a film in which there was a lot of talking and being comfortable with that. I would say the film was more influenced by Rohmer visually – to the extent that we were very closely watching a couple of Rohmer films and understanding a certain kind of visual language of films of the 1970s and late 60s. So it’s not just one man. It’s an idea that the actor is given space.
When we were shooting what I was seeing – totally to my surprise, and I don’t make the comparison to elevate me – was [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, because of the way that you actually see the actor and the character. It’s never just Maria Braun it’s also [the actor who played Maria Braun] Hanna Schygulla.
That’s very interesting to me in a way in which you’re noticing the beauty of the medium and you’re not hiding that. You’re not making realism; you’re making a theatrical medium.
The setting and the nationality of the lead actor is in a way crucial but at the same time the story could happen anywhere. How did Portugal and Isabelle Huppert meet the themes that you wanted to talk about?
Well, that’s true of many of my films. I’ve worked with the Russian lead actor and a part that was supposed to be going to a Southern American woman. I’ve worked with a Danish actor who was supposed to play me. I’ve worked with a Vietnamese actor. It shifts based on the people I meet. So like suddenly the person seems to be right for a role, which doesn’t mean anybody is replaceable. There are specifics that come with that.
I saw a film about 20 years ago by Satyajit Ray called Kanchenjungha, which was an amazing film in 1962 about a family on a vacation in the Himalayas. I was really struck by the structure of the film and its effects and I thought about it for a long time. It’s just a really good vessel for a story that I would relate to and I could make sense of.
So when Isabelle approached me, we started talking about working together. It just occurred to me that this would be the story that would work for us because I would never make a film with Isabelle in America because French people in America are not very interesting. I mean not that they’re not interesting people but it’s just in terms of their relationship to America. That’s not an immigrant population that we have. Usually they leave; they don’t stay. I would never make a film with a bunch of French actors in France. This is because I don’t have enough intimacy with it.
This film felt like the right opportunity to tell the story and then you create a cast based on an understanding of acting. Brendan Gleeson and Isabelle’s pair [of characters] are very similar. There’s an intimacy with their performance styles that made me feel that there could be an intimacy to their emotional styles.
How did you pick Portugal as the setting?
My co-writer Mauricio Zacharias is Brazilian but his mother’s family is from Portugal. He recommended that we consider Sintra. We wanted a place that wasn’t too loaded with expectation by the audience.
Once he mentioned Sintra I remember that I’d been there when I was 14 with my mother and my two sisters on a family vacation. I actually had a diary on that trip. But then that was all abstract. We ended up going on a trip to Sintra and spending ten or twelve days there.
The specifics of the locations we ended up choosing, like the Quinta de Sao Thiago. The family there together was just a location that spoke to me emotionally. The park around the house, which is like an Eden that has a forest feeling. And the top of that hill which is a place called Peninha. I knew I could construct a narrative around space that isn’t real in those three locations. Sintra is not just a big hill. But in my movie it is.
It’s an ensemble film, but how did people react to Isabelle?
Isabelle is a very approachable person. She’s an amazing and very curious person. There’s a lot of strength but there’s humility and tenderness. So I don’t think there was intimidation [for the other actors].
I always try to think about a character that feels like a natural fit for someone. I’m not asking for transformation because I’m not interested in that. There more films of transparency. I’m not going to cast her as a farmer. It’s a very natural fit and she looks like an actress, right? Like the way that she’s led her life. There’s a certain number of things that you can imagine that she could be. And one of them is an actress. In my last film, Greg Kinnear is an actor; my next film I’m writing is for an actor.
Greg Kinnear’s character in the film works on Star Wars. This is a very deliberate choice. Why did you choose that hyper commercial work?
I knew a cinematographer who came to Europe and worked on Star Wars and I knew his struggle with his sense of what was high and low and who he was within that context. I know a lot of people who work at Star Wars weirdly because it’s such an industry. It’s a job and I also know a lot of people who work in the commercial cinema or television industry and they struggle with that.
When you have a script, you have got to do things economically – not financially so but in terms of the space in which you can divine something. So you think of things that can be very precise, that people will believe, and that seem authentic.
I’m not interested in winking so much. There is a humorous element; there’s a level of satire of its character. That’s how things work dramaturgically. They create contrast and what’s interesting with Greg is he’s able to make a character that becomes empathetic even though he’s a buffoon. But he’s a buffoon who you end up really feeling for. So that’s a typical comic trope.
The anticipation of grief saturates most of the characters, their interactions, and the way they speak to and look at each other. How does this anticipation affect the performances and how did you try to direct that?
This was interesting working with Brendan [Gleeson]. It was very important to him as a writer of the part to hold back as much as possible. He knew again he’s playing a type. He’s crying at the beginning and he’s like the sad sack and there needs to be a transformation in the course of the film. What I asked the actors to do is to play the moment and to respond to what’s in front of them and to not try to add subtext. In doing so it’s what it’s like to be around death because you can’t play death and you can’t always remember death. None of us can. You forget death constantly. We talked very little about it.
Did you work entirely with natural light?
Natural light with augmentations. There were lights. I hired four cinematographers based on their lighting. We tend to go into a particular way of shooting that becomes a very deep conversation between my partner and myself.
The interesting thing is making a film that’s set in one day and making it over 30 days in a place that’s a microclimate. So it’s changing rapidly. You had to be playful with the idea of weather in the course of the day and accept you’re not going to beat it. The film ends up benefiting by those transitions.
Do you believe in eternal love, just as one of your characters seems to?
I believe in love. I don’t believe in anything eternal because I believe in death. Death is final, not eternal. In my youth I believed that love was only about pain. I don’t feel that way now. There is beauty in love. The conflict of love in this film has to do with nature, particularly when talking about Jimmy [Gleeson] and Frankie [Huppert], and the struggle of these two people against larger forces.
You must get it a lot that people expect gay characters or a gay love story because you’re a gay filmmaker. How do you deal with these expectations? Are they frustrating and is that something that you think about? Do you feel a responsibility?
It’s a complicated question because as a filmmaker you’re not outside of forces of economics, you’re not outside your own shame, and you’re not outside your own desire to belong. What I try to do is be conscious of when those things are coming into play as best I can, and when I’m avoiding stories that seem really important to me. I’m interested in representation, which doesn’t mean that I’m trying to send the message. I don’t try to make message films.
My husband is an Ecuadorian gay man who’s always asking me to think about questions of representation and race particularly and I think that’s interesting when I have different audiences. I wonder who is the character that they most relate to and I remember an African-American woman saying how happy she was to see the character of Sylvia [Vinette Robinson] because she’s not usually in a film like this, in a bourgeois role.
Does this film show a post-racial world by way of example?
No, it’s not a post-racial world at all. You need to be open to a variety of different ways, to different histories and experiences. My world is a very mixed world and the film world may be less so. So I try to be more honest to the world that I live in.
Can you talk about the last shot?
The understanding of landscape is very deep. That shot is resonant throughout our lives. The intention is that this is a stage and at that point there is a cast of characters and they’re taking their last vow. I was just really struck by that vantage point on location. It was about being responsive to what was in front of me.
What was your biggest misconception of being close to death?
This idea that life didn’t stop in the process. How incredibly physical it was. I have seven-year-old kids. I remember the first couple of years of their life thinking what’s so fascinating is that as a parent you feel like it’s totally unique. Everything that’s happening seems extraordinarily unique and yet there is nothing more universal or mundane than a child growing up and learning to walk, for example. So it’s like this place in which you’re both aware of the kind of specialness of one’s own relationship to a person who is sick and dying and also it’s just this natural process. The dichotomy that you can’t hold on to sadness too long in the moment and that you can’t live in sadness, either.
Did having children change your perspective of death?
Definitely. You know there’s a cycle. It’s humbling. I was ready for that responsibility. I was 46 so I was ready. It’s hard though. It’s complex. I’m always interested in this generational conversation. You deal with your parents and now I deal with my children and there are these expectations that go in both directions which seem to be often not fulfilled.
You have taught filmmaking. One of your former students, Danielle Lessovitz, has a film in Cannes called Port Authority. Does legacy come into play here? Do you feel a little pride in her film as well?
I took pride in her not my relationship to her. A film is always up against difficult birth rates. There’s a struggle. It’s impressive and strong to make it happen. I got a lot from teaching. I was sort of stuck in 2008 after the recession. I couldn’t finance a film and ended up making a ten-minute film at the same time my students were making short films. I really put all my heart into my craft and that was really empowering – this sense that nobody can take that away from me, that this is mine. That’s a really important thing. I’m not sure it’s about legacy. I think it’s about my way of being. The challenge is that people don’t take themselves seriously at film school. They see themselves as students, not artists. What makes you special or unique or powerful is when you are developing something.
These students in school are coming up with $175,000 debts before they’re out. I teach them to take economics seriously. I don’t teach them how to succeed: either you can make something or you can’t and it’s all about money. You have to not imagine that someone owes you something. It’s a tough, tough business. It’s about overheads and salaries. You have to respect that.
Photos: Ambra Vernuccio (portraits), Guy Ferrandis (still)
Frankie does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer and some clips from Frankie here: