Veteran indie filmmaker Ira Sachs is renowned for exploring sex and relationships, queer or otherwise, with honesty and authenticity. His latest drama, Passages, is no different. In it, a self-involved director, Tomas (Franz Rogowski), steps out on his husband, Martin (Ben Wishaw), to pursue a passionate affair with a young schoolteacher, Agathe (played by Blue Is the Warmest Colour's Adèle Exarchopoulos).
"This was one of the most joyful sets I've ever been a part of," Sachs enthuses, "because though it was a film about pain, it was made with great humor and love."
Passages is the latest collaboration between the New York-based writer-director and his longtime co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, with whom he's made such films as Love Is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016). Like those films, Passages premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; in a first for Sachs, it was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association. He rejected the rating and distributor Mubi instead chose to release it unrated.
"One of the things I wanted to do was to make the kind of film that has always been the most interesting to me, which is a movie in which the artist and the actors reveal themselves in ways that are human," Sachs says. "Let's hope that's not as rare as it might seem."
A.Frame: Where did the title come from? It's not immediately apparent. What does Passages refer to?
To me, the film comprises a series of middles. It's a film that begins with no beginning and ends with no end, but something incontrovertible changes along the way. The characters and mood and the sense of power and position have changed. One of the things that cinema does so well is capture that ineffable but indescribable possibility for things to go differently. These three individuals are at a moment in their lives where they're trying to imagine their long future, and it's still a moment of discovery.
It's an interesting love story, where some people are learning to love themselves, others are learning how to love someone else, and there are also lessons about how not to love selfishly.
[Laughs] Yes. I think of love as a word that is bottomless in terms of an understanding. It makes sense to me that Proust wrote 3,000 pages, because there's nothing simple and there's always something individual about one's experience of the word love. Part of this film is an exploration of love, but also power, and how power becomes part of the entanglement between individuals.
Relationships are a key theme running through your work. Like filmmaking, they are a learning process. What from your previous work and experiences influenced how you approached Passages?
The idea that because I'm making films about relationships, that that seems in any way rare or specific says to me something about the nature of modern cinema. In terms of Passages, I felt that I was accessing many of the instincts that I had when I first started making movies, but I was doing so with a level of maturity and craft that felt very new. I felt like I could do what I wanted to do in a new way. I also felt free to do so with great liberty, because I make each film now as if it might be my last.
Is that something that has changed in the last couple of years?
Yes. I think it has to do with the pandemic, with me being in my late 50s, and it has to do with the changing nature of the industry. There is a feeling that maybe this won't be possible in the future, which gives you more freedom. It's almost strategic. Passages is not going to be my last movie, but if I proceed as if it is, I will put my entire body and soul into it.
Casting the three leads, and them having the kind of connection required, is so vital. How did you get this lightning-in-a-bottle trio, and when did you know it worked? It's like a delicious, rich sauce with a perfect balance of flavor.
And it was very delicious. A director who saw the film said to me, "I could tell you loved those three." I was not surprised that the film conveyed and transmitted that feeling, because that's so much what I felt on set. I wanted to indulge that love, because I felt like it was the pleasure of the film. I wrote the film for Franz Rogowski. I had seen him in Michael Haneke's Happy End, and I was devastated by his performance in the best of ways. I needed to find actors who were equally open and brave and unguarded. The thing these three have together is that they're not hiding themselves in their performance, and they encouraged each other to take more risks. Each one thought the other was better.
For me, it was evident in some of the sex scenes. There is this intoxicating haphazardness to the sex that is authentic. How did you get them to a space to keep it as natural as possible? Directing moments like that, do you want to do as few takes as possible to ensure it feels real?
With sex scenes, I don't do many takes. I would say each of them in the film was two takes. It's part of why there are not multiple angles. It's a strategy also, because I'm trying to situate the camera in a position in which they are privileged but not omniscient. They're both included and excluded, so I don't need many camera setups. In a way, what I'm doing is asking the actors their boundaries, and then I'm proceeding from there. The most important thing for me is to avoid getting in the way and to trust the improvisational nature of these trusting performers.
There is actually very little skin in this.
You can see skin like in a mid-drift.
And a butt cheek here or there.
I think I find people with just a little bit of clothes on or off usually more sexy than naked people. I think that's because you're playing with what is seen, what is not, and what is revealed and not revealed.
Once the decision was made to release Passages unrated, did that change the final edit? Did you want to go back and tweak anything?
No, I made the film I wanted to make and completed it in January of last year. That's why I'm an independent filmmaker and don't make films that are too expensive. The more money you have, the more people are involved, and the more you have to figure out what is allowed. I have one producer, Saïd Ben Saïd; and he trusts me, I trust him, and I make the movie I want to make.
While the script is very rich, there is an economy of words as well. The dialogue has room to breathe. How much of that was on the page, and how much came to be when you were in the moment on the set that it felt right to do that?
I think it's an aesthetic process, which is to understand the value of both language and silence. I write with Mauricio Zacharias, this is the fifth film we've made together, and we both think of cinema as a form of action. I think of Passages as an action film, because it's about the combustibility of bodies when they interact with each other. To me, that's action. It's a film about movement; it's also very much set in the present. Every moment is present tense. For that, I find Cassavetes is one of the most important influences, which is the camera only captures something now, so you need to make something alive in the moment. That's also partly where the title comes from. It's like literally anything could change at any moment, and I want the audience to feel that possibility and that freedom.
The silence is very evident and present in the last scene in the movie, as Tomas is cycling through Paris. It must have been logistically tricky to execute, because you didn't close roads for this. Was that difficult? Did you ever wish you hadn't set yourself this challenge?
Franz Rogowski is an unbelievable bicyclist who is comfortable with speed and risk, and that's how he lives in Paris and Berlin. It's really a part of him, so I wrote the scene knowing his relationship between the bike and the city, and we were just there to capture it. I had a great cinematographer, Josée Deshaies, and the images she created in that last moment are purely cinematic. I feel like it's not just an accident, but is the accident of the characters interacting with the city of Paris at the end of a film that has primarily been a movie of interiors, with Albert Ayler playing this beautiful piece of music, "Spirits Rejoice," written in the mid-'60s, this violent combustive jazz full of the same kind of conflict as the images. We tried to make a piece of cinema.