Confession: I adore interviewing director-producer-screenwriter Ira Sachs. I’ve interviewed him three times now and every time he greets me with a huge smile on his face, and the most recent two times he immediately took my hand, looked me straight in the eyes and said warmly “it’s so nice to see you again!”. What a mensch! The truth is I would take any opportunity to chat with him because his poetic films (Little Men, Love is Strange, Married Life, amongst others) are some of my favourites. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, he brought his most recent film, Frankie, which boasts an award-worthy performance by its leading lady Isabelle Huppert.
I sat down with Sachs and Huppert in an intimate roundtable to chat about the film, and the following is a condensed and edited version of that lively conversation.
*This interview was originally published on November 8, 2019*
Brief Take: What did you like best about collaborating with one another on this project?
Isabelle Huppert: Oh I liked every moment of it! Even from when it started, I started the conversation with Ira a year and a half before shooting the film. For me, it was quite extraordinary the way the writing was so accurate, so precise, so full of complexity and ambiguities. On the other hand, I felt completely free, also because of the staging – with these long shots, the long walking shots – sometimes it gives a lot of liberty because you can really create your own space, your own rhythm and silences, you can express so many things. Ira does a lot of sequence shots and he does very little cut shots, so you feel like the camera is completely for the actors. He doesn’t intervene – he wouldn’t do a close-up, then a closer shot, then a longer shot, because the camera is very gentle and so close to the actors. I really like the way he films. You feel it as an actor – you feel that the camera is exactly where it should be so that you deliver the best performance.
Ira Sachs: Thanks for that question. [laughs] For me, it’s so many things. It’s been a really great experience and now, this new experience of getting to share the movie with audiences. I think it’s the human relationship, I think we care about a lot of the same things, so there’s an intimacy and curiosity that I really love to be a part of. Then I think it’s an emotional ambition within the cinema, which is that Isabelle wants to make the film as true as possible, and she wants to make it as good as possible. She’s driven in the right way that I care about, so there’s a partnership. It’s like raising a child – you want to give them everything, and I think there was something about that that’s really thrilling and encouraging and trusting.
IH: I like to make people forget that it’s fiction. But of course you cannot do this with everybody. That’s my idea of making movies – make people forget that it’s fiction, to make people think that it’s a reality. Since it’s directed and acted, it’s a film, but you forget it’s a film. People tend to ask me “Are you Frankie?” and I have nothing to do with Frankie, that’s true, I have nothing to do with this woman. But his ability to create this sense of reality is so extraordinary, and it’s also my idea of acting – to be as real as possible.
IS: That’s what I’ve always loved about Isabelle’s work, which is that she can disappear and she can say so much in such simple ways. [to Isabelle] I don’t know if you feel this, but (Maurice) Pialat is something between us. In a way I arrived to Isabelle’s work through a film called Loulou, and I feel like I’m trying to continue in that vein and in that way.
IH: And I don’t think it’s anything to do with naturalism. Nothing is naturalistic in Ira’s movie because it’s very constructed and there’s something theatrical. I love the way he shot nature, for example, with this stillness. Most of the time we walk in nature, we are in movement, but nature is very still. I like the contradiction between the movement and the stillness in nature in his film, it’s like a Japanese painting. There’s a kind of mystery to this nature and also it’s frightening. Nature is beautiful but it’s not always welcoming, and that’s what the movie is about.
BT: Did you have a particular scene or moment in this film that you’re proudest of?
IH: I am proud of that scene with the old lady at the birthday party, I love that scene.
IS: In all my movies I create a moment where there is a world in which I have created that world and I have to let go. So there’s always a party because I like what it brings – the community and the feeling of intimacy. In that scene, not only did I have that party, which was a real family and they all knew each other and they had history, and we got them together to do this, but also Isabelle was in there in a way where I didn’t know how she’d respond. I was fascinated by what I was observing, but I also was like “I’m out of this one”, this was happening between her and this group of people. So that’s something quite extraordinary.
IH: And it’s interesting that you came up with Pialat because most of the scenes are very precisely written, there’s no improvisation. You think that there’s improvisation but in fact, nothing is improvised. So that scene, yes, there was a kind of improvisation. This woman would come up with what she said, but that wasn’t really written. It’s exactly the same kind of mixture in Loulou, it reminded me…
IS: ..I could cry!
IH: But it’s exactly the same statue in the film and in the final scene around the table in the country. You know that scene? Where you feel like everything is falling apart between Jean and myself..
IS: … and there are other people there..
IH: ..and it’s exactly the same, you know? You know all the other scenes were not improvised. Well some of it.
IS: What about the disco?
IH: The disco was improvised. But it’s the same combination.
IS: I understand.
IH: It works together.
IS: This is the balance of making fiction and documentary, and I think all films are a combination.
Frankie is now available on DVD