Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth as Eric and Paul in Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On.” | JEAN-CHRISTOPHE HUSSON
In an empty hotel bar on a summer Sunday morning, openly gay filmmaker Ira Sachs spoke about his award-winning new film “Keep the Lights On.” This searing drama about Eric (Thure Lindhardt), a filmmaker whose lover Paul (Zachary Booth) is a drug addict, is based on the filmmaker’s experiences in a toxic, co-dependent relationship.
In hushed, almost confessional tones that suited his thoughtful answers, Sachs demurred at the suggestion that making this film was a way of exorcising his demons.
“I don’t begin to write a film until I have both the intimacy of the experience but also the distance to view the story as a storyteller,” he said. “The analytic distance is as important as the emotional intimacy for me. I feel this film is a rebirth for me. I think that in the wake of the experiences on which this film is based, I’ve become more comfortable with myself, and that’s shifted my work and the openness of my filmmaking. I think this is my freest film.”
“Keep the Lights On” is certainly Sachs’ most personal project since his extraordinary first feature, “The Delta,” back in 1996. That film concerned a closeted 18-year-old in Memphis who begins a clandestine affair with a man from a mixed Vietnamese and African-American background. “Keep the Lights On” is also Sachs’ first queer-themed feature since that debut.
Sachs’s new film is his most passionate — not just in its eroticism, but also because it is so heartfelt. The characters’ despair and desire are palpable.
“As a filmmaker, I’m always mining my own experience — because it is what I know best,” he explained. “I try to make films about things I know more about than anyone else. But I never sense that privileges my story over others.”
Filmmaker Ira Sachs (r.) on the set with Thure Lindhardt. | JEAN-CHRISTOPHE HUSSON
“Keep the Lights On” is a strong, extremely well crafted story that has universal appeal. While it will resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship with an addict, the film will also speak to viewers fascinated by the intricacies of human nature and behavior. Eric and Paul each keep secrets as they find ways of coping with the corrosive nature of their relationship. How they each fare by the end of the film is telling.
Sachs described his drama as a “tabula rasa”; most people who have offered him their reaction to it, he said, have focused on their own relationships. Some have told him they don’t consider it a “gay” film. A psychologist in his 80s said it was “not a film about love or addiction, but about obsession.”
“That was very clarifying to me,” Sachs said. “I think what happens for a lot of people — and this can be through other individuals, it can be through sex, it can be through drugs — is that by narrowing the range of what compels you to another person, you kind of silence the loud noises that are surrounding you. Obsession is a very comfortable place to be.”
After a pause, he said, “Addiction stays on tight like a glove,” quoting from the Emmylou Harris song “Where Will I Be.” He continued, “I thought about that often in my life. I think addiction can be to a person as much as a drug.”
Sachs said that Al-Anon helped him learn what he could from his experiences –– “how my behavior was cyclical and unenlightened in terms of the role that I played within the dynamic of this relationship.” The 12-Step sister to Alcoholics Anonymous, he added, also served as “research” in formulating the content of his film.
Following the lead, Sachs said, of Martin Scorsese in “Goodfellas” –– of all films ––he aimed to “depict bad behavior, but not judge that behavior or shy away from the consequence of what we do in our lives. I attempted to make a film about shame, but to do so shamelessly. I wanted to look, without judgment, at the behavior and the actions of these characters.”
Viewers will likely empathize with Eric’s struggle to help Paul through his addiction and downward spiral. His commitment to maintain hope for the relationship is evident even at his lover’s lowest moments.
“Keep the Lights On” unfolds over ten years, with episodes occurring within a single day and over longer stretches of time. The narrative gathers force as the relationship between Eric and Paul shifts from warm and caring to cold and contentious, but always retains some element of love.
“The script is like a diary,” Sachs said. “If you think about diaries and journals, they are made up of events and ellipses. You write in your journal when something bothers you. So the film is like all the high points.”
In one incredibly tense moment, Eric places a call to see if he has contracted HIV. A seductive scene has Eric being offered drugs, which he warily tries, perhaps in an effort to understand what Paul finds so alluring about crack and crystal meth.
Thure Lindhardt’s revelatory performance as Eric is a key strength of “Keep the Lights On.” Sachs, a Jewish guy from Memphis, explained it was liberating to cast against type in his choice of a Danish actor as his alter ego.
“I was free from any attachment from the past,” he said, going on to offer high praise for Lindhardt.
“I didn’t set out to cast a Danish guy,” he said. “I heard Thure was the bravest actor in Denmark — and one of the best. I sent him the script, and he auditioned by doing a few scenes from the film on his cell phone. He chose all the scenes he could do alone — which meant a lot of masturbation scenes. There was a fearlessness — even in the audition — that was apparent, as well as an extraordinarily vibrant energy.”
Sachs revealed that the film’s explicit queer sexuality made it difficult to cast in the US.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “I sent the material to an agency in Los Angeles that I always send new work to, and I got the response, ‘No one in our agency will be available for this film.’”
Sachs remarked that his film is part of today’s “new queer cinema,” which focuses more on relationships and less on coming out stories. This film, he said, examines “the nocturnal world of gay life.”
Sachs was emphatic about the void he hopes “Keep the Lights On” will help fill.
“I think we have to recognize that there are still so few images of what gay life looks like, particularly around sex and drugs,” he said. “We as individuals and as a community have re-closeted ourselves. We’ve created a safe space where we can have certain kinds of experiences, and then we’ve stopped talking about them and stopped looking at them. There’s very, very little about gay life as I know it on film.”
The film’s title, Sachs explained, is a call to arms for the audience.
“It’s a direct address for people in the cinema to not live in the darkness,” he said. “I think as gay people, we have learned — out of need — to live with secrets. This film, in a way, is a testament to the destruction those secrets can create. The film is very, very open about two men who keep everything closed.”
“Keep the Lights On,” Sachs insisted, is not an “anti-drug film,” but he said people need to talk about the issue, especially the role of crystal meth in the gay community.
Likening the impact of meth on gay sexuality to the introduction of crack in the African-American community a quarter century ago, he said, “It was a fuel that set off a huge fire, and I think we are in the middle of that. But there is a way of ending it — and that’s to admit it. I think it’s another closet. We’re very used to creating closets and staying in them.”
Sachs can get angry when he discusses these issues, but overall he displayed a calm demeanor based on the happy place he has reached in his life today. Sachs and his partner, the Ecuadorian artist Boris Torres — whose beautiful and sexy artwork is seen under the film’s opening credits — have been together for five years.
“I feel like I came out at 40 in a lot of ways,” the 46-year-old Sachs said. “I live a very different way now. This relationship I’m in now is the first honest relationship I’ve been in.”
The couple recently had twins — a boy and a girl — and the proud father showed off photos of two adorable, smiling babies. Sachs cooed about the infants and said, “I tried to start keeping a journal when we had kids. Because I found it complex to be a parent — and fascinating and wonderful.”
Then acknowledging the journal effort sputtered, he mused, “Maybe it’s too wonderful to write about it.”