By Amir Ganjavie.
One of the great entries at this year’s Berlinale, Ira Sachs’s Little Men centers on the coming-of-age story of two Brooklyn boys who test their friendship after a conflict between their parents. The challenge of this genre is to avoid the usual boy-meets-a-girl trap that often involves a routine portrayal of budding sexuality. Little Men, however, concentrates on two 13-years-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), who are not yet fully aware of their sexuality. More interested in art and computer games, they soon become allies, not only against the other kids on the block, but against their own parents. The movie is certainly blessed by great performances, especially by Taplitz and Barbieri, who convey considerable energy to the audience. This multilayered movie will attract not only young adults but also older generations thanks to its concentration on the universal themes of love, friendship, class, and gentrification. Following the screening at Berlinale, I had the chance to discuss the film, and his work overall, with Sachs.
The movie is obviously about friendship but also about gentrification and you said that you had some experience like this.
Right. Well, you know, all of my films are very personal so I think they come from things that I’ve observed, usually from my own experience on some level and then they come up and are transformed by the story. However, with this film specifically I have very short memories of a friendship from my childhood that struggled with a difference between the two of us due to both class and race. Now, I’m trying not to give anything away, like spoilers, but we know that it’s a struggle to make friends as adults; for kids in a way there is a kind of freedom to choose the people we’re close to in a different way. It’s interesting. It’s the same kind of thing that happens in a way around gay sexuality, but that’s a different story. I think that crossing class barriers is very difficult in our culture so that was interesting to me and then all of the sudden these kids manage to do it. I moved to New York in 1988 and I lived on a block in Brooklyn that was an Italian neighborhood. There was a Dominican street corner, and I was the white college kid coming in to really gentrify. I was the gentry, I guess, and I think seeing the transitions that happened in that neighborhood were really moving to me. You could really see the struggle in every shop in every corner. I think that’s something that happens in every city and in every culture.
And the relationship between these two boys – is it only a platonic relationship or is there a love relationship involved here?
To me, these kids are kind of pre-sexual. think if it is a romantic friendship. There’s a romance to being young and to their intimacy but it doesn’t seem to me to be of a sexual nature. Who they become is the question that the film raises and that’s for interpretation by the audience of what people see in the film. It’s definitely a film by an artist so I think that it’s also about becoming comfortable with that kind of expression.
Why did you want to make this movie now? Is it because you’re a father yourself?
I think that the films that I’m making today have a lot to do with being a parent but they are also about being a son. Because my parents are of a certain age and generation where you have real questions about your role then as their generation passes on it’s very compelling to me and to my friends. Everybody is shaking their heads because I think we all connect to that. Maybe some less but, you know, I think it was when I started working with Mauricio Zacharias that he and I were talking about movies and we ended up in a festival over many weeks of Ozu films, and it was interesting to see those films at 40 for the first time and really feel such a connection to these questions of generations, which is a big part of my life.
So some of that comes from the education that we give to our children and I guess that’s also a question that you often ask yourself as a father.
Yeah, I think that for better or worse we teach our children through what we do and not what we say. So you hope that you can teach them a way of being, but I think, you know, that I never looked down on people for the choices they make during difficult times. I think that these define character but I don’t expect nobility.
One of the most challenging issues in making a coming-of-age story is that these movies usually talk about how a boy meets a girl or something like that so questions of sexuality are always involved. However, your movie is very clearly not in this tradition. It does not follow this pattern and there is very little discussion of sexuality, especially since you’ve put the characters at an age before they are really conscious of sexuality, though there are a few very small hints about sexuality. Do you have any comment on this?
Yeah, we made a conscious choice to be a little earlier in life with these kids, partially because it’s very difficult to make a film about adolescent sexuality in America. It’s very, very hard to do so and I honestly wouldn’t know how to do it, to tell the story in a way that I felt could be fully honest, so I haven’t done it.
And how was the experience of working with the two kids in the movie? Was it easy?
And the characters that you wanted them to develop – did you let them express themselves or did you try to control them in their acting?
No, I never control an actor. I mean, I’m really not trying to tell an actor how to act as much as I’m encouraging people to do a certain thing. I want them to try less and not try harder but to try harder to try less. So I think that with these kids it wasn’t easy because less actually sometimes means more. It’s a hard thing to tell but with these kids I did what I often do with actors, which is to try being attentive to who they are as people, not as actors. Once I had met Micheal Barbiery and cast him as Tony I rewrote the script in ways that would be adaptive to who he is, so I wrote new dialog for him; these were new words that I could easily hear his voice saying. So we shifted the writing connected to these boys. About 90% of the film was improvised. I mean, it’s scripted but there are a few scenes like the acting class or the kids hanging out in the park or in the subway that are improvisational.
How do you manage to make a movie every two years? Did you consciously choose to do one every two years? Is it a rhythm?
Yeah, it has been since it’s a pace that works really well for me. It’s a pace that gets you a certain kind of momentum but it’s also the pace that gives you some down time. Right now in March I will start a new script with Mauricio and we have until November to finish it. That’s actually an easier process than kind of climbing the mountain of making a film when you have this burden on your back. So, as of this festival the burden is off. For me in this pattern, it’s like the burden is on until Berlin so it’s nice to be here.
I would actually like to come back to the gentrification topic. Of course, as an artist maybe it’s not your place to comment but you see this happening. Berlin is gentrified a lot but it still has a long way to go compared to London or New York. There’s no way to avoid it though, right?
Certainly there are different ways to have an impact. I would just ask – what are laws about? What are values? However, there are also many decisions made by governments that have an impact every day on what happens in communities. I’m not an activist filmmaker though so I think that I’m presenting things and the issues that I’m presenting are timeless. They are certainly relevant and specific to this time but the questions of space and ownership and struggles around property are certainly universal.
As a New Yorker, do you still feel like this is the New York that you want to live in? I aske because a lot of people I know have alternatives these days because they cannot afford it and they don’t want to afford it.
You know, I still love the community that I live in there in New York and the friendships and the family that I have there so it’s a very specific experience that I have and that I still cherish.
You talk about the fact that governments would, for example, do or say something with regard to gentrification but at the same time your movie suggests that the whole issue is mostly private and is related to private decisions. For example, the grandfather who decides to help the tenant to stay there or the son who wants something else. It appears that all of the decisions are up to the individuals so there’s no discussion about any state involvement in the whole issue here.
Yeah, I think these things are entwined in New York though because there are a lot of rent laws and laws around evictions so there are places where these things come into a kind of conversation between the state and the individual. The individual does not exist outside of the state.
There is an interesting figure in the movie – the father who works at the United Nations. You just hint at what he does during one piece of dialog. Why did you feel it was necessary to talk about this missing father?
Well, I think that there are different ways in which you identify or empathize with Leonor, Paulini Garcia’s character. My my husband moved to New York with his mom when he was ten and they lived in Williamsburg as it underwent a lot of change. He was a painter and went to LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts, which was a transition for him in terms of class and possibility. Art enabled that kind of move for him so I was interested in that story. And the single mom is inspired by a woman named Susanna Parrick, the sound editor of the film. She’s Croatian and has a daughter so I could watch what it’s like. Mike has been raised by my husband and they were next door to us. She’s a cinematographer and director named Christen Johnson and you’re thinking about what it’s like to be on your own with children. My mother was one of these women so I feel that single parents are really something – there’s a heroic aspect to that.
Do you have any comments on the character of Jennifer in your movie? Sometimes she seems kind of mean, like when she came to the son and told him how badly his father thought of him. At other times it seems like she wants to use the child as a means to get what she wants.
Well, I think that Paulina Garcia and I really understood Leonor in very similar ways and that she was someone who would fight back when pushed into a corner. Maybe the way that she fought back was not the most sophisticated in terms of strategic planning but she used every resource that she thought she had to protect what she needed to protect. So I have a lot of respect for her as a character.
I am interested in the question of space, especially the building in the movie, which has two floors – the first floor, which is the family’s apartment, and the underground floor, which is a store. The issue of class is also involved, with the upper seeming to be more affluent, and the store owners, who seem to be in a more precarious economic situation. Why did you pick this specific location with these specific characteristics for your movie?
Well, I tried to make the odds more even in terms of the two sides. Brian and Kathy are not super wealthy and Leonor is not a poor woman and their educations are very similar. There are a lot of similarities between these two people and in a way you can say that the film is about the struggle of the middle class people who are trying hard to remain solvent. Regarding the house, an interesting thing is that it was hard to find it – that exact store-house with one right on top of the other. I kept looking since I really wanted it to be that way because if it had one more floor, which is what a lot of those buildings are like, then I would have had to write for the middle floor and the people who lived there. Really, I was like, “Okay, if I have to do it then I will. It will be like some old lady.” It was a challenge to find the right place in New York. Of course, we used some cinematic tricks of the trade to make this work since the house that you see from the outside is not the same house that was used for filming the internal scenes.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.