Ira Sachs has been making films in his own way and his on his own terms for twenty years now, but his path into filmmaking was not the most straightforward. Before he began filmmaking, Sachs was a director of theatre. “At some point I moved to Paris for three or four months, and I didn’t speak French very well. I ended up just finding myself most comfortable in the movie theatres. In those three months, I ended up seeing 197 movies, and I was like, oh I think I like this.” Long renowned as the capital of cinephilia, Paris is a city that fosters an admiration of cinema, and Sachs found himself pouring over the classics. “I’d never heard of Cassavetes. I’d heard of Truffaut, maybe, but I’d never heard of Fassbinder. Pialat, a lot of people. I found out that I love the cinema.”
With a foundation in viewing film, he developed a craving to make it. “I applied to film school and didn’t get in, which is a story I like to tell. I applied to NYU and UCLA, and now I teach at NYU. It worked out okay for me.” Indeed, for Sachs, there are many routes in, and the path to follow doesn’t need to be an academic one. “The benefit I had, I think, is that I was never a student. I took myself really seriously as an artist at the beginning, which I think is key. In my mind, and my mind alone, when I was making my first film I was competing with Denis, Fassbinder, Cassavetes and Welles. They were all my peers, which is not to say I was up to them, but it meant I didn’t give away my authority, which somehow has been really crucial in becoming a filmmaker.”
Sachs made a couple of shorts, before making his feature debut (The Delta) in his hometown of Memphis. The story from then seems a smooth one, Sachs having made six more features, each attracting a wider audience and increasingly reverent critical response. But, as with many cases when you delve deeper, the reality differs. For him, navigating the film industry has proved “torturous, and really challenging in terms of strategies of sustenance and sustainability.” Between his first and second feature was a gap of nine years. “The first film I could make on the dollars and savings of friends and family, and the second I couldn’t. It was a very hard process to try to raise real money to make my second feature.”
He explains further, with an anecdote from his later career. “In 2008, I was working on a film with a lot of actors that you would have heard of, and I couldn’t raise a dollar for it. It was 2008, there was a major worldwide recession.” Unperturbed, Sachs has pursued various means to make his films, all the while maintaining an independence that is essential to his process. “I’ve really had to recalibrate my approach to financing since then. I’ve done this in a way that seems uniquely American. I’ve developed between 20 and 50 individual relationships with potential funders who seem to come around to funding my film.”
To new filmmakers struggling with financing. Sachs recommends “being realistic about what is possible, whatever the systems might be.” For his 2012 feature, Keep The Lights On, he had 450 investors, “because there was an crowdfunding element. Since then, I’ve tried to raise the level of individual investment and decrease the number of investors, so that it doesn’t take me 450 investors each time. You can’t quite generate enough money.
This is the case for his latest feature, Little Men. “I have 23 financers which means, as an independent filmmaker, I have the situation where there is not one single entity who has creative or financial control over the work. This means I’m truly independent. This means I can still be instinctual, I don’t have to verbalise everything to someone else.” That said, Sachs is now stepping into television, working with HBO and Paramount for a biopic of Montgomery Clift. “That’s a whole different situation. It’ll be interesting to see if I can retain my independence in that environment.”
It seems likely that Sachs will find a way. In a career that now stretches over twenty years, what comes through in Sach’s films is his commitment to people, to those he depicts and those he works with. “My relationship to other filmmakers and artists has not just been lip service. I wouldn’t be here making movies if I didn’t develop that community and support other people. When I was younger I was involved with an organisation. A group. It wasn’t an organisation because we had no rules and no meetings. But we were a group and we called ourselves Dependent Cinema. We were independent filmmakers from France, Germany, Brazil and America, and we relied on each other and asked each other a lot of favours. Somehow that kind of attachment really has been significant.”
Sachs continues to give back to the communities that matter to him through his work with New York based non-profit Queer | Art. In 2011, Sachs established Queer/Art/Mentorship, an annual programme to help develop LGBTQI artists in the city. “Probably the most positive element of my life as a filmmaker is the communal one.”