Ira Sachs: “‘Passages’ is only in the present and each scene is an event that occurs only once”

“Passages,” the latest film by American screenwriter, film director and producer Ira Sachs (b. 1965), focuses on a gay couple’s marriage and their comfortable domesticity that is upended when one of them falls in love with a young woman. It results in a film that is an intimate and honest, and is an insightful exploration of human beings and the complexities of love and relationships. Set in Paris, “Passages” follows the shifting dynamics of a romantic triangle that is fueled by love, desire, and a longing for the unattainable.

It’s Mr. Sachs’s eighth feature film, and he works in a cinematic tradition that prizes attentiveness, immediacy, and beauty by creating images that are rich in meaning as he tells a very human-scaled story. In collaboration with a European all-star cast of three extraordinary and adventurous actors—Franz Rogowski plays Tomas, a German film director; Ben Whishaw is Martin, an artist and his husband; Adèle Exarchopolous portrays Agathe, the young woman, a schoolteacher—Sachs builds a world where fictional narrative is enriched by the personal experience that all bring to their craft.

“Passages” (2023, trailer)

The NC-17-rated portrait of three people tangled in their own desires is Mr. Sachs’s fifth film with his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, and his first feature since “Frankie” (2019), starring Isabelle Huppert. His previous films are “The Delta” (1997), “Forty Shades of Blue” (2005), “Married Life” (2007), “Keep the Lights On” (2012), “Love Is Strange” (2014), and “Little Men” (2016). His actors in those sharply observed independent films include Marisa Tomei, Rachel McAdams, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, and screen veteran Rip Torn.

American film critic Glenn Kenny states in his “Passages” review on that ‘Ira Sachs is one of American cinema’s most reliable crafters of human-scaled cinematic dramas.’ Mr. Sachs is also the founder and executive director of Queer/Art, a non-profit arts organization based in New York City that supports LGBTQ+ artists across disciplines and generations.

The following interview with Mr. Sachs was conducted in Brussels last June during the Brussels International Film Festival where “Passages” was screened. The film is now playing in theaters in various territories.

Mr. Sachs, in your films, the characters are always vulnerable and sensitive. That’s your niche, isn’t it?

Some people go to films to be carried away, and others go to films to see themselves. I’m more interested in the kinds of films where you identify with the details of experiences that are betrayed in the film. There are films where you are taken away from your life; I’m drawn to films that bring you closer to life.

You’re a highly acclaimed film director for the character studies you make in various settings. In “Frankie” [2019], for example, you have these beautiful and magical sceneries, while the setting for “Passages” is the opposite. It’s much more limited, it’s very tight.

Yes, the rooms are small, particularly in Agathe’s home. It’s a box; there’s no way out. But I look at them as different kinds of films. “Passages” is an action film; it’s a film about the present. There is no past in that film. “Frankie” is a film in which the past and storytelling is really central to the experience. For example, when I shot “Passages,” there is a scene that was like storytelling where two characters were describing sort of why they were who they were, and I had to remove it from the film. It’s a different kind of storytelling; it didn’t work. The film is only in the present, and each scene is an event that occurs only once.

And each scene is also very crucial, although some of them might seem a little bit trivial on the surface. But if you take the dinner scene with Agathe’s parents, it comes at the right moment when her mother questions Tomas’s intentions and what kind of future her daughter will have.

Yes, and that scene is very well acted. Everyone is at the top of their game, and I think they bring each other to a higher point. That’s something you can hope for, but you can’t count on. But it also means the stakes of each day of shooting are very high because if nothing happens, then you have nothing there. That’s why each scene has to count. But it also has to count without effort—you can’t see the effort. That’s the challenge in the act of directing: to figure out how to elevate the experience of everyday life to the level of cinema. Not easy.

How do you make it work?

I rely on risk, meaning I haven’t rehearsed in advance. I’ve never heard the lines read in advance, the actors have not practiced with each other. This is crucial because it means that the experience of shooting is the possibility of capturing something that will only happen once—it’s the opposite of theater. So I resist conversations about motivation, for example, I resist subtext as a conversation because as soon as something is described, then it’s made literal and becomes less complex. If I would make things literal, I would be a novelist. I would have a different career. I’m looking for the things that go unspoken, so I have to create an environment for that. And I think that for actors, it’s very exciting to know that I will create a world that is very real for them, so they know the other actors will be good. I ask them to imagine as little as possible; I try to give them everything. The relationship that I have with my actors is based on mutual trust. When we shot the sex scenes, the actors established boundaries for me; there was no conversation about what will be and won’t be in the film. They shared with me what they were comfortable with.

Adèle Exarchopoulos with Franz Rogowski in “Passages” | Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions/Imagine Film Distribution

And since you don’t rehearse, casting is crucial to you.

Yes, it is crucial, but I also trust my process. The hardest thing to cast are people playing small roles because it’s very challenging for people to come into an environment that everybody’s living day after day and for them to enter that in an authentic way. It’s easier in some ways for the lead actors. Also, I really know what I’m looking for when I cast a lead actor. I’ve seen what they can do on screen and I’m trying to access something that’s very easy for them. I don’t want them to transform; I feel that I use costumes and sets as a way of transforming individuals into characters. I want them to show up as themselves. As a director, you try to set up a reality using a group of people, a group of technicians, a group of artists, and you try to set something up that works a little bit like a documentary, which doesn’t mean that a craft is involved. When I say I don’t rehearse, it doesn’t mean I don’t block and it doesn’t mean that I spend an endless number of hours trying to figure out how I am going to shoot the film. Because I storyboard my films completely without being locked into a storyboard, but I’ve done hours and hours of preparation. So when I arrive on the set, I have a plan of attack, and if I didn’t, I would be in up shit creek, as we say [laughs]. So I don’t rehearse my actors in preproduction, but I spend like five hours a day with my cinematographer [Josée Deshaies], day after day after day, trying to figure out the visual language of the film and of each scene.

So she’s your most important collaborator?

I’m a very collaborative artist, I work in collaboration, and I make three films: I write one film, I shoot another, and then edit the final film. Each one is different, and I have a different marriage in each stage. I work with a co-writer, and we create a script together; then I work with the cinematographer, and we create and produce the film together. She is my other half; I can’t do the work without her. And then I edit with a third person [Sophie Reine], and we really are like a couple creating the film. We’re a couple, but I have a little more power which I think they enjoy in the sense that the relationship is not equal. We have different roles.

You have more power. Does that mean that you have carte blanche?

Well, only to a certain point because I can’t act, or I can’t light. In filmmaking, I have great pleasure that people will bring things to me that I can’t do myself. So I’m creating the possibility for freedom and that freedom is really essential to the actors’ film. So I don’t direct the way Tomas does in the beginning of the film. It’s me in the sense that I’m a white male film director with a certain amount of power in the world, and the film is about me losing power. That’s the whole story, from someone seemingly with all the power to someone on the ground. That’s it. You’ve got to get from the stairwell to the floor. The film is really a remake of Luchino Visconti’s “L’innocente” [1976, a.k.a. “The Innocent,” starring Giancarlo Giannini and Laura Antonelli]. In that film, he ends up on the floor, and he shoots himself. In my film, I don’t do that, but it’s the same story. It’s about a man with power who loses it.

Are you more attracted to European filmmakers than American filmmakers? Also, because “Passages” looks pretty European.

Since the pandemic, I have enjoyed watching many films with my family and my children, and I have discovered the American cinema of the 1930s. I discovered Westerns and gangster films in a new way; they’re so easy and so incredible. There’s so much richness and so much depth. That was a brilliant period. So I’m impressed by American cinema. But visually I’m more engaged with European cinema, and Asian cinema, too, with Yasujirō Ozu or Hou Hsiao-hsien. But the most direct line for me is through French cinema, which I come back to often.

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ben Whishaw in “Passages” | SBS Productions/Imagine Film Distribution

Is that also the reason why you shot “Passages” in Paris?

I think it’s not an academic approach. In Paris, I’ve had a life. I lived there when I was twenty. I didn’t speak French too well, I didn’t know anyone there, so what did I do? I went to the movies and saw two or three films a day. Paris is a city of cinema that changed my life, and where I had relationships, break-ups, friendships, and I’m very familiar with life experiences in Paris. Unlike anywhere else—besides New York and Memphis, the two other places where I have made a number of films. So Paris does not feel foreign to me.

You just mentioned a few filmmakers. I compare you with Samuel Fuller. You’re both passionate and independent filmmakers who make very personal films, and actors are key in your films.

“Passages” is an action movie in a way that Fuller did. It’s a film of impact, and the impact is relentless. You mention Samuel Fuller, but I was also watching James Cagney movies, thinking about go bold, go strong. He was someone Orson Welles said was the greatest actor ever in front of the camera. I think Samuel Fuller is a punk rock filmmaker, and I’m much more bourgeois than he is, but it’s an energy that I can gain from.

Film director Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1981 | Film Talk

What also makes “Passages” very interesting, you have the character of Tomas who is very dominant and wants people to behave the way he wants, and Agathe is the opposite. She’s a very low-key character. As a filmmaker, I imagine you must find a perfect balance between your characters to make the story work. How do you do that?

That’s the dynamic of the film: contrast and conflict. What’s interesting is what’s written, but also what Adèle Exarchopoulos brings to the role of Agathe. When I started writing, I had passive characters and had passive people play them. That was not as interesting as writing possibly passive characters and having very active people play them. Adèle is extraordinary. She’s the Jeanne Moreau of our time: she’s of the earth and of the sky. She is all present, and there’s nothing recessive about her. There’s the tension between what she’s doing and who she is that makes it very compelling, and ultimately she’s very decisive in the film. She recognizes something she wants because this man happens to be married, but that doesn’t stop her. She’s equally directed by her desires more than her beliefs. Which I think is common among the three of them.

When you finish your screenplay and start shooting, do you think about all that?

No. That’s why I find talking about the film so stimulating; it’s narcistically appealing and it’s pleasurable to meet people who care about the same things you do. There’s not that many of us. There’s not a world full of people who want to talk about Samuel Fuller. But I don’t talk about any of these things with my actors, and in a way, I don’t articulate them to myself. I tend to follow the script and figure out what the story is—that’s instinctual more than intellectual—and in this process, you’re speaking in a way that’s not unnatural to me. But we’re talking about a film that exists, and that makes me a critic too.

From a practical point of view, when did you shoot the film? During the pandemic?

Are we still in the pandemic now? [Laughs.] I mean, I went to the Berlin Film Festival last February, and the day I got home, I had Covid. So, I don’t know. When we made the film, we were more in the pandemic than we are now. It was between two peaks in Paris, but everyone on set wore masks except for the actors. So I guess it was a pandemic film. What’s interesting is that we’ve erased the pandemic in the film. I think one person on the street is wearing a mask because in Paris, people were still wearing masks regularly.

‘”Passages” is “L’innocente” [1976] and “Loulou” [1980] in inspiration,’ Mr. Sachs says
Do you remember what the timeline was like? 

After “Frankie,” I worked on a new script with my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias. When it was done, something happened to me that has never happened before: I didn’t want to make it. It was like a crisis in our relationship—not personally, but creatively. Because we had spent a year and a half writing on something that didn’t work. That was towards the end of 2019. Then we saw “L’innocente” and said, ‘Okay, now we have structure.’ In general, my films are remakes; they’re all versions of other films. “Passages” is “L’innocente” and “Loulou” [1980, directed by Maurice Pialat, starring Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu] in inspiration—triangle films, bourgeois films, intruder films, family films, bedroom films, body films, sex films, all these things. So I thought, ‘I want to make one of those.’ We outlined the film until the day before the pandemic, and then we separated because we were in lockdown. Then there was this long pause when I wasn’t sure if there would be cinema anymore, and I wasn’t sure if Mauricio and I could make cinema anymore. In the middle of 2020, he presented the first draft of the script—which I’m supposed to have this week for my next film with him, so that’s nice. That’s always a big moment: he writes the first draft. That first draft was very encouraging. From then, it was a process of raising the money and putting everything together. So from the middle of 2020, I felt like I had something to do.

“Passages” with Emmy Award-winning actor Ben Whishaw, who played Q in “Skyfall” (2012), “Spectre” (2015) and “No Time to Die” (2021), and Franz Rogowski, who appeared in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” (2017) and “A Hidden Life” (2019) | SBS Productions/Imagine Film Distribution

How many days did it take you to shoot the film?

We shot it in twenty-eight days, which is kind of normal. I would have been happier with thirty-one and would have loved thirty-five [laughs]. Twenty-eight is hard. But I don’t think the film would have been any better if we had a few more days. There’s just one or two scenes… No, it wouldn’t have been better, I don’t think so. I edit before I shoot so I know what I need. And I never say, ‘Okay, we gotta do seven takes in five hours!’ That’s not possible; I would never do that. I know what it takes; we need a certain amount of time, and we had that time. That’s the experience I feel I have in this film. This is a film in which my craft caught up with my instincts. My instincts are the same as when I was twenty-five or thirty, and I went back to those instincts with a new level of craft. That was exciting.

You show your soul in your films. What does it take to be such a truthful director?

Thank you. I think I’m rigorous in my preparation, and I have a focus which allows me to pay attention to what’s happening in front of me. I just worked with young filmmakers for the Sundance Institute—I was their mentor. I noticed that when they started shooting, they stopped paying attention to what was happening in front of them. They thought, ‘Okay, I have a script, I have actors, I have a camera, so this is what it is.’ But the hardest thing is to be constantly paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, to use those tools on set and adjust them so that they have a life. That’s the hardest thing. Sometimes it’s about moving the camera or changing the lens; sometimes it’s about removing a piece of dialogue or about suggesting a pause. That’s the kind of craft stuff that is hard to teach.

Book covers of Peter Bogdanovich’s interview books “Who the Devil Made It” (1997) and “Who the Hell’s In It” (2004)

Other than that, filmmaking is natural to you, right?

Yes, I think so. I think that I work well with other people. I think the only other job I could have had would be a psycho-analyst. That’s the only other thing I have the temperament and the personality for—and they’re very similar. For me, particularly, considering that I don’t rehearse with actors. I create the opportunity for the actors to discover the unexpected in an environment in which they feel safe. Is that psycho-analysis? But I get to talk more than an analyst does, and I get to manipulate in a much more active way… [Pauzes.] Have you ever read Peter Bogdanovich’s “Who the Devil Made It” [1997]?

Yes, I have.

Isn’t that a great book? I love that book. It’s incredibly brilliant! It’s out of print in the U.S.

Did you also read his follow-up book, “Who the Hell’s In It” [2004]?

Yes. For some reason, I didn’t find it as amazing, but maybe it was the moment. It must have been just as good, right? He was an incredible interviewer. His depth of knowledge was extraordinary, and he was never showing off.

Brussels International Film Festival
June 30, 2023


THE DELTA (1996) DIR – SCR Ira Sachs PROD Margot Bridger CAM Benjamin P. Speth ED Affonso Gonçalves MUS Michael Rohatyn CAST Shayne Gray, Thang Chan, Rachel Zan Huss, Colonious David, Charles J. Ingram, Mai Ballard

FORTY SHADES OF BLUE (2005) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Ira Sachs, Mary Bing, Margot Bridger, Donald Rosenfeld, Jawal Nga SCR Ira Sachs, Michael Rohatyn CAM Julian Whatley ED Affonso Gonçalves MUS Dickon Hinchliffe CAST Rip Torn, Dina Korzun, Darren E. Burrows, Andrew Lawrence Henderson, Elizabeth Morton, Joanne Pankow, Arielle Kight, Red West, Jenny O’Hara

MARRIED LIFE (2007) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Ira Sachs, Jawal Nga, Sidney Kimmel, Steve Golin SCR Ira Sachs, Oren Moverman (novel “Five Roundabouts to Heaven” [1953] by John Bingham) CAM Peter Deming ED Affonso Gonçalves MUS Dickon Hinchliffe CAST Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, Annabel Kershaw, Sheila Paterson

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON (2012) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Ira Sachs, Marie Therese Guirgis, Lucas Joaquin SCR Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias CAM Thimios Bakatakis ED Affonso Golçalves MUS Arthur Russell CAST Thure Lindhardt, Zachaey Booth, Marilyn Neimark, Paprika Steen, Sebastian La Cause, Julianne Nicholson, Sarah Hess, Jamie Petrone

LOVE IS STRANGE (2014) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Ira Sachs, Lucas Joaquin, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy SCR Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias CAM Christos Voudouris ED Affonso Golçalves, Michael Taylor CAST John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan, Tatyana Zbirovskaya, Darren E. Burrows, Harriet Sansom Harris

LITTLE MEN (2016) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Ira Sachs, Lucas Joaquin, Jim Lande, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, L.A. Teodosio SCR Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias CAM Óscar Durán ED Affonso Gonçalves MUS Dickon Hinchliffe CAST Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García, Alfred Molina, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri

FRANKIE (2019) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt SCR Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias CAM Rui Poças ED Sophie Reine MUS Dickon Hinchliffe CAST Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Jérémie Renier, Pascal Greggory, Greg Kinnear, Sennia Nanua, Ariyon Bakare, Vinette Robinson

PASSAGES (2023) DIR Ira Sachs PROD Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt SCR Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias CAM Josée Deshaies ED Sophie Reine CAST Franz Rogowski, Ben Wgishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Erwan Kepoa Falé, Arcadi Radeff, Léa Boublil, Théo Cholbi, William Nadylam, Tony Daoud, Sarah Lisbonis