04 Jun 21
We're back with a mini-interview special! Our next full episode of the podcast will return in early June.
In this shorter episode, host Sam Clements talks on Zoom to writer and director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Little Men, Keep The Lights On) about his new film, Frankie.
Unfolding over the course of a late summer's day in the stunningly beautiful Portuguese town of Sintra, the wonderful new film from acclaimed director Ira Sachs follows a family that has gathered for a holiday organised by family matriarch Frankie (Isabelle Huppert). In this fairy tale setting, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers – all stirred by their romantic impulses – discover both the cracks between them but also unexpected depths of feeling. With an outstanding cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Jérémie Renier and Greg Kinnear, Frankie delivers a funny and utterly engaging cinematic treat.
Frankie is in UK cinemas now.
Ira Sachs, interviewed by Sam Clements
Ira, thank you so much for talking to us today for the Picturehouse podcast. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thank you for inviting me. I'm looking forward to talking about the film.
For you it's been sort of a slightly longer period of, you know, connecting with audiences around the world because of the pandemic, of course, but I was actually lucky enough to see this film at its world premiere in Cannes Film Festival in 2019.
What do you remember from that, that experience, that world premiere?
I remember being scared. [Laughs] I remember being excited. I remember dressing up and getting dressed with my husband and putting on a tuxedo. I remember the warmth of the audience. I remember being with the actors who- we had not seen each other for probably six or eight months since we had all been together on a sort of work vacation making this film in Portugal. So we were all on a sort of adventure together. And I think that became part of the film in a lot of ways.
...And then you must have agreed "We'll only meet in mainland Europe."
See you in Portugal, see you in France.
Exactly, exactly. It was my destiny.
That's quite nice, that's quite a nice agreement. You know, the film stars Isabelle Huppert, and when you're at the Cannes Film Festival with a film, you know, starring French royalty like that, that must be getting you noticed as well in the crowd?
Well, the amazing thing about Isabelle – there's many amazing things about Isabelle Huppert. I mean, and I say that because of the privilege, and some amount of intimacy of working together, and getting to know her not just as a screen presence, which I..you know, I'm in my house now, and I have like, books about Isabelle Huppert to my left. But Isabelle Huppert lives in the presence, in this really extraordinary way, which I think is part of what makes her such an amazing actress. So she seems to enjoy the moments that she's in. And so you almost forget the history that she's a part of. I mean, you don't, because suddenly you flash to an image. And you recognise that that same face was in a movie you loved from the 1980s or the, you know, some other periods, something that meant something like, like a good art film, or a Pialat film, or these things that are very in my head. So I would sometimes jump back to her past, but she really lives in the present in this amazing way.
I mean, yeah, you know, they say good acting is reacting. And maybe that's part of the secret to her being such a, you know, just incredible performer.
She's very passionate about what's in front of her. She's also a really like, she's like an old school...to say intellectual would be the wrong word, because she's not highly theoretical, but she just consumes art and literature and movies, and she's in theatre. And so it's... she's exciting to be around.
Oh, yeah, that sounds like you guys must have had a good conversation or two.
Very much so.
When you started working on on Frankie, what was the beginning of the idea? Was it always going to be set in a different country to where you usually work, for example?
You know, about 10 or so years ago, I saw a film by Satyajit Ray, the Indian filmmaker, called Kanchenjunga, which is the name of a mountain, and it's about a family on a vacation in a Himalayan mountain top and it takes place in one day from the morning to the late afternoon. And there's a crisis in the middle. And that film, it has to do with a marriage, whether a young woman will marry the right suitor or the wrong suitor. And I was extremely affected by the film. And it stuck with me for a long time. And maybe 10 years later, my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias and I, I showed him the film and he understood immediately that there was an essence to that structure, to that story, that was really meaningful to both of us. So we we took that structure: family on a vacation, single day, central crisis, and we brought our own lives to it. For me, being in my 50s in the three or four years before I made this film, there were many experiences I had with death and illness that were new to me. I mean, I've been fortunate enough not to be that close to mortality until I was in my 40s. And I was struck, particularly by a friend who was diagnosed with cancer, I was struck by how for everyone, the whole family it was, and her, life was more prominent than death, and how almost ironic that was. No, you can't look death in the face. You can only look life in the face. And so I think that this is a film about life in all its, you know, ironies and and foibles and humour and failures, and petty relationships that we have. So I think the contrast is really what was interesting to me in terms of the film.
You said you had, you know, the genesis of this was, you know, 10 years ago. During that time, you know, do you keep adding ideas to that? Do you discuss potential future projects?
Of course. I mean, I think that's one of the the wonderful things about making what I consider personal cinema, is that I'm always able to be very direct with what's interesting to me, and what's what's moving to me. So I feel that my films, hopefully, like Isabelle, are in the present tense. That I continue...you know, I find when I'm working on a film that almost anything that I'm interested in becomes possibly part of the film. Sometimes you think you're thinking about another film or and you're like, 'no, it's this film that's on my mind'. So yeah, it's very, very porous, I would say.
Interesting, isn't it, collecting all of these experiences and sort of blending them together in this one sort of piece of work.
And then also, one of the things you're collecting is a bunch of people to make the film with you. So I think that I tend, I tend not to cast... I mean, I cast people who I think are wonderful actors. But part of what I love about certain kinds of acting is people are given the opportunity to bring themselves. So you're really casting people, not actors. And that becomes a huge part of the making of the movie, the faces and the histories and the way people speak; the select group of people who end up making the film with you.
And this film being set in Portugal, did that open a whole new sandbox of potential actors to work with?
It did. Well, there's one main role within it by a Portuguese actor named Carlotta Kota. And he was really wonderful, and I knew him from other Portuguese cinema. You know, Portugal was a place we chose partially because my co-writer is Brazilian. And so he had a history with Portugal. And I had actually gone to Portugal on a family vacation when I was about 12 or 13 years old, the age of the young girl in this film. It's also a country that is not sort of overwhelmed with the mythology in the rest of the world. People are less familiar with it than maybe some other countries. So there was a neutrality that allowed our characters...I mean, our characters are interested in Portugal, but they're actually really interested in each other. And I would have to say that Portugal- we didn't make a film in Portugal, but we really made a film in Sintra, which is this town outside of Lisbon, that I found so compelling to me, and so unusual and poetic and resonant. And so I feel like I made a film in Sintra more than I made a film in Portugal to some extent.
It's really nice to see on screen as far as, you know, I might be making a gross [over]statement. But do we don't get to see Portugal on screen very much in cinema. And, and I still remember, you know, being sat in the Palais Theatre in Cannes, you know, just like drinking in this amazing looking landscape. You really captured something which I don't think audiences get to see.
Well, I think it was also important when we chose Portugal as a location that, you know, 90% of the crew, including the cinematographer, the costume designer, the production designer, were all locals from Portugal, from Lisbon. And, and I feel like they, they made sure I wasn't a tourist, as a filmmaker, or they helped me not be a tourist as a filmmaker. They were...I felt like they knew, my cinematographer Rui Pocas really knew the light in the area that we were shooting, knew how to capture something about it that was very revealing of what it feels like to be there.
What was it like just, you know, I guess a day to day working experience, working out, you know, outside of America, Was this your first time working abroad as well?
I had made a film in Vancouver in Canada, but it had been a film that was set in the US. So that was, it was a period film. So that was a bit different. But it was a different experience. I think what I have found is, you know, I've been making films for about 30 years now. So I have a certain way of working collaboratively with a group of people and a crew that I was able to bring with me to Portugal. I think there was a familiarity with a kind of film, [with] European cinema by the almost the whole crew that felt intimate among us, like we share a history in cinema. I would say that. I mean, I'm an American filmmaker, but European cinema has been so significant for me. And there was you know, good lunches and wine at meals and certain things like that which were, which were new!
Sounds like yeah, nice, a nice new thing to be introduced to. How did you... so you've got Isabelle Huppert at the centre of the film, was she the first person cast?
She was the first person cast, we wrote the film for her. I had met her maybe three or four years before and we had started a conversation about working together. And I really, I wouldn't attempt to make a film with Isabelle, most likely, in France, because I just wouldn't. I felt like we both needed to be in some place in which we were a little out of our own elements. And so this story felt very much right for something like collaboration with she and I. So, so we wrote the film for Isabelle. And then we proceeded to cast Brendan Gleeson. I had almost worked with [him] in 2004. So I approached him again, and we got a chance to make this movie together. You're always trying to figure out which actors just naturally seem like they would make sense with each other. I worked with really great British actors Vinette Robinson and Ariyon Bakare and Sennia Nanua, who play a family in the film, so they kind of brought in the British texture to the movie. There's a kind of acting in Europe, which is...I consider it kind of the history of naturalism and, and a very comfortable way of being, bringing, again, bringing oneself to the film. And so this was like, these actors felt very right with each other.
The dynamic between them, because there's so many family members here, as well. And it's, it's quite relatable. I think we've all been on a family holiday where you can sort of see little bits, you know, that you see in the film, and I guess there has to be, you know, people bringing their own experiences to, you know, to the party for something like this.
Well, I think we tried to make a very natural film, which also has the heightened sense of drama. So. But there is, for every family who arrives, there is a conflict that needs to be resolved in the course of the day. It's both a natural film and an unnatural film, because the construction is so theatrical. And it's almost, you know, I mean, to say it's Shakespearean, meaning it's just using sort of theatrical tropes in order to construct an event in which hopefully things will be revealed both about the characters and about life through these kind of intertwined exchanges of characters. One character becomes representative of what another one maybe might want. I guess, it's just like something happens in the forest. That's what we felt in this movie. And that really works with with Sintra because Sintra is such an unusual and magical place.
Absolutely. It was really nice to see Greg Kinnear and Marisa Tomei in the film as well. I think those characters, the characters they play in the film are people who work on film sets. They work in movies, they're working on a big Hollywood blockbuster at the moment. I did wonder if that dialogue was sort of inspired by conversations you've had with your fellow filmmakers, when someone happens to be working on a big studio film, and they want to talk about it and brag about it, but they can't really say too much?
Yes, very much. Before that actually, Vinette Robinson, who plays Sylvia in the film, she had actually just come from a set where she couldn't tell us what the movie was. So I actually now need to go back and see if it was a Star Wars film. But I really...I once met a cinematographer who was an indie arthouse cinematographer, who was shooting the next Star Wars film. And I found the contrast was really amusing to me to some extent, between the high and the low, and the sense of both, like uncomfortable feeling of being both proud that it's Star Wars but also slightly embarrassed, but not sure which they should be at any one moment.
It was, yeah, it was kind of fun. Quite a fun moment, I think.
And, you know, I'd worked with Greg Kinnear on a film called Little Men, and I've worked with Marisa Tomei on a film called Love Is Strange. And so we have a natural rapport as collaborators that was really great. they're both so brilliant as actors, they both are amazing. I love them so much in the film and and as actors
I'm a huge fan of both of them. And I thought that scene with Brendan Gleeson when he first bumped into him was was really delightful.
Brendan is...yeah. I mean, I was really lucky to work with this group of actors.
So cinemas have just reopened in the UK, and it's been really busy actually, it's nice to see people who have you know, they haven't been able to go for eight or seven months now. And people are returning to watch films back on the big screen. I wonder if, you know, are you a fan of going to the cinema yourself?
Very much so. I mean, this is the kind of movie you hope people will get a chance to see, at least initially on the big screen, because it's a landscape film. It's really about the landscape and the light and the image. And so, I'm excited to know that it will be in this...in the movie theatres. I have, my husband and I have, two nine year old kids and we started taking them to the movies when they were like four, and had been pretty much going to the cinema every week before the pandemic. And you know, it's just an amazing and different experience to watch movies in the theatre. So I still, you know, I'm attached to the, I'm attached to the movie house. And I'm also attached to the form of the narrative fiction feature, the hour and a half, two hour work that you sit and watch in a single setting with other people. And I'm still it's like, I feel a little like I'm participating in a troubled art form, but not yet dying. So I feel very fortunate.
It's lasted. It's, you know, it's seen off television and videotapes, and Betamaxes and DVDs and things. Hopefully, we can get through this as well. And it can evolve to carry on surviving, you know. I consume films all day long, but going to the cinema feels like still feels like a treat.
Well, I think you have a different kind of viewing. I think you're in a different state of mind than you are at home. I mean, I've gotten used to watching movies at home during the pandemic, I never used to watch movies at home at all. And now with my family, we watched, we have three movie nights a week, and we watch a lot of movies, but they need to be plot driven. And I actually love a lot of films that are also about atmosphere and poetry and space and quiet and silence. All those things are very hard on TV.
No, absolutely. Yeah. You sort of need that neutral ground don't you, to truly immerse yourself into certain types of film? I find anyway.
Yes, it's the space for abstraction. But you know, Frankie's a kind of film that I'm really curious how it will play, and how people respond to it. Now, after this year, a year plus that we've all gone through, because I think it's a film...I felt that this year was a very reflective year, in sometimes very difficult ways. But it was a film that made you think about what was important, to make you think about mortality, certainly. It made you think about nature and our control or lack of control. And I think there are certain resonant elements in Frankie that I think make it a really interesting time for the film to be viewed and to be available.
I fully agree with that. I think on so many levels, you know, people haven't been able to see their families, haven't been able to travel, you know, to see Portugal in real life, for example. And I think this film, this film does a lot of that. And yeah, you can truly be transported back onto a family vacation with Frankie. Well, thank you very much, Ira. We're really looking forward to playing the film in our cinemas, newly reopened, we have audiences, and yeah. Fingers crossed for the future.
Nice talking to you, thanks Sam.
Thank you very much.
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