Everybody loves taking a vacation. For director, Ira Sachs, Portugal provides a lush, new setting for his textured family drama. In “Frankie,” Isabelle Huppert plays a dying woman who takes her family on a vacation to Sintra, Portugal. However, Frankie’s real motivation turns out to be playing Cupid. She hopes to fix up her son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), with her former co-worker Ilene (Marisa Tomei). Ilene complicates the plan by bringing along her boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear).
As both a writer and director, Ira Sachs excels at developing rich interior lives and conflicts for his characters. Movies like “Love is Strange,” “Little Men,” and “Keep the Lights On” have looked at the human damage of New Yorkers who’ve had to deal with real estate changes and addiction. He deepens his collaboration with actors like Tomei and Kinnear in “Frankie.” Additionally, he finds a wonderful new muse in Huppert.
Ira Sachs was kind enough to speak to Awards Circuit about his new film. Read below for the interview.
Christopher James/Awards Circuit (CJ): Your last few films have been really wonderfully specific [depictions] of New York. This [film] sends you all the way to Portugal. What made you want to travel to Portugal for this film?
Ira Sachs/”Frankie” (IS): I had seen a film about 10 years ago, an Indian film about a family on a vacation in the Himalayan Mountains, and I really loved the film. I love the idea of looking at family life in the context of when a group of people are outside their normal everyday life. [It’s] when they’re somehow separated from all the things that usually kind of give them cover. Something about travel is very heightened in terms of emotional and intimate relationships. You don’t have anything to lean into except each other so it can bring families and couples to another place.
I was also interested in considering and thinking about these characters in the context of a natural landscape. I felt that nature was very central to the themes of the film and the struggles of the character. So this particular area of Sintra, Portugal, was very emotional to me and I felt like it could be a big part of the film.
CJ: How do you feel the natural landscape added to [the] emotional core of the film, specifically with how it deals with grief, dying and mortality?
IS: You know, to me, it’s almost like a playground for human life. There’s something very artificial about the film, or maybe the better word is theatrical. In that way it sort of recalls some of the Shakespeare comedies in the sense that magical things happen in the woods. That fairytale nature was was important to me. In a way, [it] gave me a place to be playful with story, story-lines and with comedy and with romance. All these things are as much a part of the film as questions of mortality and life and death. In a way, what the film focuses on is how people live until it’s over. They live it with such passion and such needs that you can never avoid the elements of life, even as you’re facing death.
CJ: Absolutely! I think you hit on something really interesting with the difference between the vacation world, where Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) and her family start, and a bit of the local regions of Sintra, Portugal. I’m thinking specifically of this great scene where Frankie is walking through the woods and happens upon this woman’s birthday. [She] becomes entangled in the celebration. How did you think about weaving in the tourist destination parts of Sintra with the lifeblood of the people who live there? Was that conscious? How did you try and have them bleed into each other?
IS: I think I’ve always been interested in where fiction filmmaking meets documentary filmmaking. In all my films there are usually scenes in which our central characters interact with some world that seems to go beyond the edges of the cinematic frame. [This world] seems to exist before the movie began and will exist afterwards. For me, that scene, for example, I “cast” [in air quotes] a real Portuguese family to play this large group of people have gathered to celebrate for a birthday. I knew that they would bring their history with them and that the character, Frankie, who I was sort of injecting into that world, would instantly be an outsider. There would be allegiances among the family that Isabelle Huppert could never enter.
I guess I’m trying to look to give the audience an authentic sense of place which allows them to believe that there’s always something and some world just beyond the frame that they are just having a tip of access to. I think it creates curiosity in a certain way, because you feel like, if the film works, over the course of time you become intimate with with a real family that has slowly, through the course of the movie, let you in.
CJ: You touched upon this a little bit, but Isabelle Huppert is so amazing in the central role. Did you always envision her playing the role when you started writing the film, or did she enter the project later?
IS: Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, and I wrote this part for Isabelle. We had been talking for probably a year. She and I [spent] a lot of time together and so we did write for her. I also wrote for Marisa Tomei, Jérémie Renier, who plays Paul, and for Greg Kinnear, who plays Gary. So, we wrote with a lot of actors in mind. I will say that often I write with actors in mind and they don’t end up doing the movie. For me, it’s a helpful strategy because it gives flesh to the bone. You can really see the character and feel them and hear their voice. In this case, it turned out those actors [wound up] playing these roles.
One of the things about spending time with Isabelle was that I felt like I got to know someone different than the character I had seen on screen. The actress — or the icon — of Isabelle Huppert was very different than the woman. I encouraged her, in this role, to let as much of herself into the performance as possible. [This] doesn’t mean that she’s playing herself, but I asked her not to push far and to keep things very simple. I think she liked that. It was a challenge, in a certain way. You know, I don’t rehearse with my actors before I start shooting. In a way, what I’m asking them to be is to show up, be, and respond to what’s around them.
CJ: That’s really interesting.
IS: They have to be brilliant actors at the same time, by the way. If I showed up and was just myself, I would be completely uninteresting and false. I’m not denying the talent and the craft [which] is involved, but I want them to trust that craft without having to actually construct it.
CJ: Absolutely. I feel like someone as iconic as Isabelle Huppert brings a sort of relationship she’s already established with audiences through the years. To mold that [persona] into a character is really interesting. You talked about how Isabelle Huppert, the icon and real person, initially differed from Frankie. What were some of the main differences you saw as you got to know her as a person that you made sure to have her tap into when filming started?
IS: She’s very passionate about her family. I think it’s, as much as anything, something she is engaged with on an intimate level, thinking about her children and her husband and her relatives. She’s a very intimate person and I think that intimacy is a big part of the film. She’s also a truth teller. I would say that is very much who Frankie is. She’s not frightened to ruffle the waters by being very honest about what she sees. She’s not polite.
CJ: Are there any choice…truth-telling moments that Isabelle had on set?
IS: I would say everyday Isabelle has no fear of sharing her beliefs and and her experience. She’s not shy. But in a way, that’s the person that maybe you’ve seen before in her performances. [You’ve seen] the toughness. But she also is a person who really listens and has very natural curiosity about others and also about the process of acting. So I felt very close to her [while] making the film. I felt like she wanted that intimacy and it’s an intimacy that is is around our work together, but it’s very real and tangible in the moment. [Isabelle’s] amazing. She’s amazingly deep, thoughtful and funny. She’s a funny person. I’m not sure that I would have guessed that in advance. She’s got a wonderful sense of humor.
CJ: That’s great! I think she, like Frankie, is such an interesting character. The way [Frankie] approaches her illness is [that she] never [resigns] to self-pity. In fact, she spends a lot of the movie managing other people’s emotions, rather than her own. How did you come up with this sort of spin on the “ailing matriarch” type of narrative and make it more specific and unique?
IS: I, in the last few years, have been around three women as they faced these challenges in their lives, all of whom have have died since since… I was struck with each of them. I think … probably anyone facing the end of their life … is trying to figure out how to deal with what life they have at the moment. Also there’s a willful inability to understand one’s lack of actual control. I think it’s hard to accept that you have no control. So I think there’s often the reaction of trying to control everything.
Isabelle compared the role of Frankie to the film director. She’s the one who tries to see everything, play out the stories and write everyone’s final scenes. She doesn’t succeed in the way that she expects, but then something else happens. That’s really what making a movie is like. You set out with an idea. You think it’s going in one direction. Then, it becomes something else and then that’s the thing that lasts.
CJ: It’s funny that she saw her character as a film director because there is quite a lot of “Show Business” involved in the movie. Frankie is an actress and there are a lot of funny bits between Marissa Tomei and Greg Kinnear [who are] working on [a new] “Star Wars” movie. How did you come to the decision that you wanted show business to factor into the lives of this group of people so much?
IS: You know, I’ve often written about creative people. I think that’s because that’s the world that I live in. I occasionally will have an idea about a story about someone who’s involved with real estate or a scientist. But then I’m at a dead end because I have no experience to draw upon. But I do live in a world as a filmmaker. My husband is a painter, my children’s mother is a documentary filmmaker, my sister is a filmmaker, [and] my other sister is a writer. I live in a world in which these are people’s crafts and these are people’s careers. So it’s a very natural inclination to write about creative people. I think of it as like a creative class. It’s not just that they’re people who are who are artists, but they’re people who live in a particular economic culture that I’m familiar with.
Also with this idea of trying to get Isabelle to give as much of herself and to reveal much of herself, it felt very natural to me that she would play an actress. I never want the actors to have to transform themselves into other kinds of being. That’s not the kind of director I am. So I’m often looking for something where you feel like it’s inevitable that they seemed like they were born to be whoever they’re playing.
CJ: You talked a little bit about how you wrote with certain people in mind. You also mentioned Marissa Tomei and Greg Kinnear, who you’ve worked with in prior films to great success. Do you find that you like to go back and create this group of players, or actors that you revisit in your films? Is there a shorthand that you have [with these actors] from having worked [with them] multiple times? Does this also extend behind the camera? Are there certain key collaborators you like to keep around with you?
IS: I have grown to think that way. Initially, when I was younger, maybe I just didn’t have that experience. I have grown to feel like I can work repeatedly with actors in a way in which we can build on trust and discover new things. I also have noticed that some of my favorite directors, whether that be Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, [Yasujirō] Ozu or a lot of people, have worked in a way that returns to the same performer. Part of that is that you are interested in new characters, but you also want [the actors] to bring themselves as a performer and you’re interested in [their] performance. [For example,] I love Marisa Tomei as an actress and I continue to find incredible new things each time I work with her. It’s exciting. The familiarity doesn’t mean that you won’t have the new.
In terms of [other] collaborators, I have made seven feature films with seven different cinematographers. Sometimes I’ve wanted to work with a cinematographer twice, but it hasn’t worked out. That’s been something where I’ve often found new and intimate relationships creatively. In terms of my co-writer [Mauricio Zacharias], we’re writing, right now, our fifth film together. We share a lot of our lives and I think there is a personal intimacy. He’s my godfather’s son and we live in a very connected world and our curiosities really align. It’s a very natural fit. He also has craft and skills that I don’t have. I know that I wouldn’t be able to be as productive or maybe as deep without his collaboration.
CJ: When you both are collaborating on these stories, such as “Frankie,” “Little Men,” “Love is Strange,” and “Keep the Lights On,” everyone seems to have a really rich backstory like they enter on screen having lived a life. Do you write out their backstories or do you work with the actors on detailed visions of who these people were before the actions of the movie? How do you build this world that exists outside of the confines of the movie?
IS: That’s a good question. At the writing stage and then again when I begin to work with actors, I try to give them enough story that they don’t have to imagine the basic details. [Some details include] when you got married, what your job was, how old you were when you met each other, who your parents were, where you were born. I do try to answer those basic questions.
On the other hand, I never answer questions. I’m interested in conversations about motivation or subtext. I never talk about “what you’re looking to accomplish in this scene is” because that limits what happens during the scene. It ends up that an actor begins to try to play that subtext and I want them not to be able to literalize subtext into a series of words. I want it to be beyond words. I do try to give them enough that they don’t have to imagine very much, but not too much that I become part of the conversation in their minds.
CJ: There must have been a lot of juggling these different story points in your mind, because there’s such a strong ensemble throughout the film. Do you find it easier or harder to direct these big ensemble pictures? Do [the actors] all go to each other to figure out their own interpersonal dynamics?
IS: The balance in terms of dramaturgy and storytelling was one of the challenges of this movie. [How does one] give each story its own weight, while at the same time no story [takes] center stage? It is an interesting balance. I think about people like Robert Altman or Jean Renoir, people who do multi-character narratives, and I learn from those people. I do encourage the actors to spend some time with each other, but I actually ask them not to talk about the movie or their roles at all. On the day of shooting, I will give them everything they need. They will have a person across from them who they can experience as the character that I’ve written for them to interact with. There’s no play world, it’s really all there. I try to make things as tangible as possible.
CJ: You mentioned you’ve done seven feature films and had seven different cinematographers. Your work with the cinematographer on this movie, Rui Poças [was great]. It seems like everything was so rich and luscious. In particular, no spoilers, I loved the final shot. How did you work with him on crafting the visual language of the film?
IS: [We worked] very very deeply, very very intensely and rigorously. He said he’s probably shot 40 plus films and this was the hardest movie he ever shot. Though it seems quite simple, in terms of the visual strategy, it was actually quite rigorous, the decisions we made about how we wanted to shoot the film. It took a lot of thought and hours to plan the film together.
I was also benefiting from the fact that he was Portuguese and that this was his place and his land. For example, in that final shot, Rui was the one when we got there, having been there many many days… who said, “You know, in 20 minutes there’s going to be a very specific effect on the ocean by the sun, and that’s because of the nature of the clouds this very day.” That intimacy with place is something that I couldn’t create. So there was a really rich collaboration with Portuguese artists that I think becomes part of the movie.
We would like to thank Ira Sachs for taking the time to speak with Awards Circuit.
“Frankie,” currently playing in limited release, is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.