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How director Ira Sachs takes a closer look at bromance

The filmmaker behind Keep the Lights On tackles bromance with his latest film Little Men

Little Men is about two teenage boys who take an oath of silence and refuse to talk to their parents. Tony and Jake grow particularly close to each other in a way that hasn’t been explored since the bromance in Stand By Me (1986). The film, which will play at Los Cabos International Film Festival in November, is poignant in the way that it observes the pair’s relationship without explaining their closeness or shoving it down the viewer’s throat. While other problems stack up in their lives – Tony’s mum gets into a rent dispute with Jake’s parents, both their neighbours and landlord – the constant is these two boys’ love for one another.

Ira Sachs started with the idea that these kids would take a vow of silence in protest. It came from Yasujirō Ozu’s Good Morning (1959) and I Was Born, But… (1932). “Specifically, these are two films about kids who go on strike against their family,” says Sachs. “I think that’s a very strong way of talking about the relationships between children and adults.” While Sachs is best known for his stories of gay love with films like Love Is Strange and Keep The Lights On, his latest brings that sensitivity to straight male interaction, framing masculinity in a touching new light and effectively murdering heterosexuality.

Is it at all different writing for gay characters than straight characters?

Ira Sachs: Hmm, yes. But more because they’re just different people, not necessarily because they’re gay or straight. And then I think I have an intimacy, or understanding of a gay man’s desire, so it’s very personal for me. And I hope it doesn’t limit the kind of characters that I’m able to write, but that’s because I can relate to people that I know well – and that includes gay men, obviously. I know myself pretty well.

I know you didn’t want to impose any sexuality on these young characters, but I’m curious if the relationship could be read as a metaphor for a gay man falling in love with a straight man and that sort of unrequited love?

Ira Sachs: You know, personally watching this film I don’t think that Jake has that. He knows that the relationship isn’t about lack of reciprocation, it’s about something else. The pain comes from separation. For me, that’s my interpretation. And I think personally that’s because I didn’t sense in Theo the kind of eroticization of the relationship from his character’s perspective.

“I’m not tortured by my sexuality, which I was when I was younger. I’m less vulnerable and less fragile than I used to be” – Ira Sachs

In what respects are you still the same person now as you were as a child?

Ira Sachs: Hmm, good question. I think I’m sensitive in ways that are symbolic to what I was as a kid. I’m attentive and aware, that’s very much part of who I’ve always been. I’m less vulnerable and less fragile than I used to be. I know myself better and that allows me to have a level of security internally that is different from when I was young. And I’m not tortured by my sexuality, which I was when I was younger – and not just my sexuality but other people’s responses to my sexuality.

Do you feel that your security and being less vulnerable comes with age or is that something you worked on?

Ira Sachs: It definitely comes from a lot of experience and work, to the extent of both therapeutic work and communal work. And a lot of pain, you know, trying to learn how to do things differently because you’re experiencing pain and trying to understand my involvement in creating those unhappy situations. What choices could I make that would be different?

How did you and your writing partner, Mauricio Zacharias, write such an intimate relationship between these two boys?

Ira Sachs: I guess from memory and experience and also the natural instincts that the two young actors have to play their roles. I think both Mauricio and I were able to recall what it was like to have a very close friend when we were in elementary school and teenagers, so I think we brought that to the table. And then there was something about these boys – the actors – they connected so organically to the material that I think they bring a level of authenticity. 

Did you draw upon any personal experiences of friendships from when you were younger?

Ira Sachs: Definitely. My best friend growing up was one of two African-American kids in our all-white elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. We came from different backgrounds in some ways, and I think those memories of our time together, and that environment we were in was one of the very few in my life that was a truly integrated environment across class and race in Memphis in the 1970s because we all got together to make plays and put on shows. And I think that has a semi-utopian community, it’s something that happens more with children than adults. Adults tend to partner off into their own corners.

“Certain films have changed my life and I feel like I know them the way that I know my family or experiences I’ve had personally” – Ira Sachs

Do you watch a lot of films and read a lot of books and then get inspired?

Ira Sachs: I do. I think films have changed my life. Certain films have changed my life and I feel like I know them the way that I know my family or experiences I’ve had personally. And I learned from how other people tell stories in a real way, and I borrow – I borrow narratives, frameworks, not details but frameworks. So, I think when Mauricio and I begin to work we tend to sit around and talk about movies and we talk about life, and somehow swapping between the two allows us to make something that often gives us the idea of the plot and then specifics about character. 

What was the last thing you saw that you wish you had made yourself?

Ira Sachs: That’s interesting, I don't have an answer for that. I less look for something that I wish I had made and more look for something that would somehow be a key to something aesthetically or emotionally that I haven’t yet discovered. And for me that’s one of the reasons I go to the movies, to see if a film can still change my life.

Little Men will play in the Los Cabos International Film Festival’s American Specials section in November and is out in UK cinemas now