In "Frankie," Isabelle Huppert plays an actress who has gathered her large extended family together in the exquisitely beautiful oceanside town of Sintra, Portugal. Director and co-writer Ira Sachs spoke to rogerebert.com about making his first film outside of New York, why family stories are always at least in part about money, what he never tells his actors, and learning to embracing accidents.
I have to start at the end and ask you about that absolutely stunning last shot of the film, with the characters climbing a mountain.
I like my films to seem as if they’re completely happening by accident but I also want the audience to have a kind of internal confidence that they’re heading somewhere. For me, I always knew that this film was headed to the top of the mountain. That's the orchestration that’s important for an ensemble film so that you feel that there is emotional unity that is achieved and a certain kind of resolution not necessarily in terms of where everyone's life is heading but in terms of a completion of something. When I discovered that location in the central region I was very clear that if I couldn't get that location that I wouldn’t be likely to make the movie there; it really was so important to me to be in that spot. I had such a strong visceral experience arriving there myself when I was scouting for the movie and thinking about the movie.
A lot of things happened that came into play including the fact that two weeks before we shot there having spent six months preparing for this movie that had to head to that top of the hill, there was a major forest fire set by arson and the entire field at the top of that hill was burnt so the color of the ground was the color of burnt dead forest instead of being green. We thought of course we would have to leave and then I realized no, actually we can stay. That will become part of the movie. This film, which is set in one day from morning to afternoon but shot over a six-week period, so I was always in confrontation with nature. What I realized very quickly was that I needed to accept what nature gave me and now that I’ve finished the film I realize that’s what the movie is about.
It wasn’t something just for the characters in the film, I just thought strategically that I need to be accepting. For example, the scene with Greg Kinnear and Isabelle Huppert. That scene was set to be outdoors in the sunlight and then there was a rainstorm and so we found cover in the same way that the characters found cover. Accepting those accidents and realizing that the movie would incorporate them perfectly was a big part of making the movie.
The other thing about that last scene was that I was working with almost completely Portuguese crew. And though the film really isn't about Portugal it matters to the film that I was working with people who were from that place. For example, Rui Pocas my cinematographer, was the one on that day who based on like how the clouds were forming knew that there would be an effect of sun on the water in about 20 minutes. I of course would never know that that’s going to happen, so having that local crew meant that I did have some intimate relationship with the landscape which I think was significant.
The reflection of the sky is so magnificent in that shot it really took my breath away.
Yes, the drama played out in real time. There's a movie called Kanchenjungha made by Satyajit Ray in 1962, his first color film. I saw that film about ten years ago. It’s a film about a family on a vacation in Himalayan Mountains. It takes place in one day, there are nine family stories, there's a crisis that has brought them together and I really love the film and it had this profound impact on me. I've been thinking about it for a decade and this is my reverie about a very similar structured story which is both very naturalistic but also very theatrical to the extent that it’s not usually in a day so much happens but I think that theatricality is part of for me what is the pleasure and the artifice of the movie.
One of the things that I love about your films is that you have so much respect for the audience that you let us form our own conclusions about the connections between things and what is going on with the characters. That takes a lot of courage.
It’s very instinctual, I do feel like I'm giving the clues which over time build intimacy with the audience and the stories that they’re watching, It's what I have learned from the novel to some extent. I believe you need to have clarity and you need to have direction and you need to give enough context that the audience believes in the reality that they’re are handed but they also just understand on some basic level that they’re only getting kind of a cut of the whole picture and that way you feel that the whole picture is so much larger which I think is really important for the film.
You’re working with a very international cast here. Did that present any challenges?
It’s a casting instinct that somehow people will make sense together and some of that is based on who they are as people and some of it is based on who they are as actors, their performance styles. It was very easy for me, for example, to imagine Brendan Gleeson and Isabelle Huppert together because I think they're similar kinds of actors in a lot of ways. A lot of it for me is how an actor moves between dialogue and between silences. There's a huge amount of detail in those pauses and in those spaces for the actors that are most responsive. They're going to share those pauses together. I don’t know if that’s a little bit technical but these are actors who are looking for to explode the moment, not to narrow or define the moment in a set of very specific kind of sub-textual decision. For example, I've never talked to any of my actors about subtext and I never talk them about motivation; to me it would be anathema because it would mean that together we are finding language which is going to limit what meaning is.
That really plays into the next question I was going to ask you. Two scenes that really stand out for me reflect exactly what you are describing: The estranged married couple eating or rather not eating together at the restaurant and scenes with the teenage girl. So much is unsaid. So, in that case do the actors then talk to each other about subtext, did the married couple work out a back story for why they're so mad at each other?
I talk individually to each actor to give them enough information that they don't have to imagine the reality. I often send my actors out on dates together to spend time together and I ask them not to talk about the film because that being said I independently try to give them facts. So you’ve been married for seven years or ten years, or you met here or you are in college; I try to give them just literally a paragraph which can give shape to who they’re playing and I make sure those line up but they don’t need to talk about that together because I have learned that if the director starts talking too much then the actors try to please or play for the director and actually the only thing I want the actors to think about is how to respond to the person in front of them who is another actor.
Over time, I see your films increasingly deal with the conflicts and connections between generations.
I would say it’s because I discovered Yasujirō Ozu. But there's a good reason I discovered Ozu in my early 40s; I was the right age. I’m now in my mid 50s and I think I can’t look at a character without thinking about the generation before and the generation after. So for all the characters in this film you have a sense of it's certainly not an accident but at some point you learn there is another generation that came before. I feel that now in my life I can't understand character without thinking about generations. And you can't think about character without thinking about money.
Money is one way that generations communicate with each other and there are some very painful examples of that in this film.
Also money is never far away from any conversation or understanding of death.