Ira Sachs didn’t set out to create a gay love story with Love Is Strange, but rather a love story in which the characters happened to be gay.
That’s an important distinction that might defy the expectations of moviegoers looking for the latest fist-pounding diatribe about hot-button issues and battling injustice. The filmmaker said he wasn’t concerned with that, and that perhaps a larger statement can be made with no such statement at all.
“It’s never been my interest to make artwork that is propagandist,” Sachs said during a recent stop in Dallas. “I’m interested in how politics and culture affect human life. This film contains events about contemporary politics, but it’s universal. It talks about human truths.”
The film follows painter Ben (John Lithgow) and pianist George (Alfred Molina), longtime gay lovers whose marriage winds up getting George fired from his job as a music teacher. With no income to pay for their Manhattan apartment, they’re forced to live apart with their respective families, where the relationship is tested.
While he wanted the film to be romantic, Sachs also aimed to make a film in which the New York setting was distinct, along the lines of Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters.
“[Those films] had a slice of New York life, and we thought we were going to create a different slice in a different New York, one that’s very contemporary and one that’s also very diverse – and also one in which not everybody can afford their apartment,” Sachs said. “I’ve lived there for 25 years and I love it. I wanted to share that love.”
At the same time, Sachs, 48, admits his perspective toward the city has changed over the years, as he’s settled down and raised a family with his partner, Boris, a painter whose artwork is featured in the film.
For example, when he began writing the screenplay with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias in early 2012, he was living alone in his New York apartment. By the time the script was finished several weeks later, Sachs was living with Boris, their two children, their mother, and occasional visiting family members.
So while the film is not directly autobiographical, Sachs said those personal experiences helped to shape the story and characters.
“Ten years ago, I couldn’t have made this film because I wouldn’t have felt so optimistic about love. It’s about the possibility of love to grow,” he said. “If you’re doing your job well, you’re making something that’s timely and timeless, that speaks to an audience in the moment but hopefully will last.”
Molina and Lithgow had known each other for almost 30 years before signing on for the project, but had never worked together. Sachs credits their on-screen chemistry not to rehearsal – the filmmaker intentionally avoids it – but to their experiences spanning more than a generation in movies and television, and on stage.
“They had a kind of friendly history that was not close,” Sachs said. “In the course of making the film, they became very close. Often we would have to quiet them down because they had a lot of stories to tell. They really shared a lot of common bonds, almost like two kids who went to camp together. They raised the bar for each other.”
Sachs cites a sequence late in the film, when the two men are together in a bar and share a hearty laugh. At their suggestion, the scene was filmed at an establishment that Lithgow and Molina visited frequently during production and developed a rapport.
“They wanted the movie to have some of that,” Sachs said. “It gives texture to the love of Ben and George. You believe this couple has been together for 40 years, but in brief moments you get the sense that it hasn’t all been easy, and that’s just as important.”