Few American filmmakers working today are able to capture the essence of everyday life with such nuance and grace more than Ira Sachs, and his latest feature, Little Men, is as quietly powerful as anything he’s crafted so far.
The film centers on junior-high student, Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) who, following the death of his grandfather, moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn with his parents. As it turns out, Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear) a struggling stage actor, and his mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist, have inherited a building that the former’s late father had previously owned; a dress shop operated by a Chilean woman named Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García). Upon their arrival, the shy, artistically gifted Jake immediately befriends Leonor’s inspiring-actor of a son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), but their lives are deeply affected following a financial dilemma between both of the children’s parents.
In the following interview, Ira Sachs discusses how this film was based upon elements of his own adolescence, his deep ties to the Sundance Film Festival, and how he aims to captures a sense of community within each of his works.
As with all of your films, this seemed like a very personal story. Were there elements of Michael and Theo’s friendship that were based on one you had in your own life at that age?
Ira: So many. I work very closely with Mauricio Zacharias who’s my co-writer. We talk about films, and we talk about stories, then we talk about our lives. And somehow it kind of grows into the particular movie that we’re making. I had another close friendship with a boy who was from a different background when I was growing up, and, for various reasons, [although] nothing as dramatic as [what’s] in the film, our friendship ended around the age of adolescence. And I think that was a really compelling memory for me.
Mauricio is from Rio, and his family was actually in the middle of a battle over a store [when he was growing up there]. That brought up so many different dramatic moments, and also so many questions [on the nature] of [what’s] right and wrong. So in a way, those two things overlapped, and became the genesis of Little Men.
This is your third collaboration with Mauricio, the first being Keep the Lights On, and the second being Love Is Strange. What’s it like to work with him? And considering that all three of these films take place in New York, would you say that you two have crafted an unofficial “New York Trilogy” of sorts?
I would… I think that we made films about the city we both lived in for a long time, we made films about relationships between men at different ages… This was a film specifically about boys. Mauricio and I, we’re collaborators, professionally, but we’re also family to each other. He’s the godfather of my son, and we share birthdays, and holidays, and that question of what [defines] family, continues to be really compelling for me. [I explore it] specifically in this film, because I’m a parent; I have [one] family [in which I’m] the father of two kids and a husband. But I also have [another] family, which is the community that I live in.
What was the casting process like for the film? This is Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri’s first feature, correct?
This is their film debut. They were 12 and 13 when we shot the film, and now they’re 13 and 14!
They’re kids! They really are kids. They’ve both been interested in acting for a long time. Michael had been taking classes at The Lee Strasberg Institute for a couple of years. He was really committed to being an actor. We actually shot the acting class scene in his actual classroom, with his acting teacher.
Oh, wow. That’s great!
And Theo, his father is [both] a screenwriter and director, and he lives in Los Angeles. Theo’s actually making his own little films now; he’s a very precocious, artistic kid. And what’s great about [Michael and Theo] is that they fit together, but they’re very different in terms of their sensibilities as actors as well. I think of one as a Robert Bresson actor and the other as a Martin Scorsese actor.
What was it like to work with Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle and Paulina García? I thought they all gave terrific performances as parents who were all just trying to do the right thing.
Thank you. I find [all three of them] to be very compelling, identifiable and empathetic characters; each with flaws that could be my own, [who] make their own choices in their own moments. I try to cast people who I think from the very beginning will add something to the connection with the characters.
I think that Greg is such a natural. He does great things with the script and the dialogue, and that’s a real pleasure to watch. He is also not afraid of darkness; he’s not afraid of crating a character that seems really contradictory. I first saw that in Auto Focus, [and] I was really blown away by his performance. I think he’s a great actor.
Paulina I’d seen in Gloria, which is the Chilean film by Sebastián Leilo, and we wrote the part specifically for her, because we were so blown away by that performance. And what I like about her is that she wasn’t afraid to be ugly. She wasn’t afraid, as a character, to make the wrong choices, and to do something where [you as a viewer] want to just close your eyes because she keeps making the wrong strategic choices. But I think she understood that that character was someone who was making the only choices she knew how in order to protect what she had.
And Jennifer Ehle generated so much warmth, intelligence and strength [as David’s mother.] She’s really great.
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When you introduced the film at its world premiere, you stated that you have a deep connection with Park City. Could you discuss that?
My father has lived here since the late ’70s, so I’ve been coming to the Sundance Film Festival since I was a teenager. And initially, of course, I was not part of the industry, so it was just a time to see and discover films; independent films, as well. So, I discovered Samuel Fuller and John Cassavetes, I met Seymour Cassel… And then I just got involved.
[Little Men] is my seventh film at the festival, my first short played here in 1995, and it’s just been a place where I’ve been able to grow and take risks. I’ve also been very involved with the Sundance Institute. Initially, as someone who was part of the lab projects there, with a project that I was making, and now I’m an advisor who’s advising future generations. I think questions [regarding] generations and community [are ones] that I thrive on.
Would you say that you have a deep connection to New York as well? I know that’s a bit of an extension from one of my previous questions, but the city seems like a character in and of itself within your past three films.
Oh no, it’s fine! I first lived in New York during the summer of 1984, so I’ve seen it change a lot, and I actually moved to a block in Brooklyn [where], in many ways, I was actually the first gentrifier of that block. I was a white college kid moving into a primarily Italian and Dominican neighborhood, and the distinctions between people in such close proximity were [both] very compelling and very sad in some ways.
And while I’m [addressing how] these issues [exist] in New York, they exist in every city and every community. They’re questions of how do we live together, and they also [bring up] questions [regarding] class.
Absolutely. Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) both come from different financial and cultural backgrounds. Would you say that Tony’s lifestyle mirrors Mauricio’s childhood to a certain extent, and that Jake’s represents yours?
I would actually say… My husband, Boris Torres, is a painter. He and his mother came to New York from Ecuador when he was 10 years old. She was a single mom, and he was a kid who ended up going to LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts. So their story was certainly one that I found to be very poignant.
I work with a Romanian music editor, Suzana Peric, who’s also worked with Jonathan Demme and Roman Polanski. She’s an amazing woman, [and] has a 14-year-old daughter, and I’ve watched her raise that kid as someone who’s not from this [American] culture… And I find there’s a sense of heroism to being a single mom.
I completely agree.
I also raise my kids with a single mom. There’s a filmmaker here [at Sundance, Kirsten Johnson] who directed a documentary titled, Cameraperson; my husband and I live next door to her. And every time I drop off our kids at her house, I always think, “Wow… Good luck!”
Your previous two films [Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange] were both centered on love stories between two men. Little Men is centered on the friendship between two boys who are in the early stages of adolescence; would you say that they share a form of platonic love for one another?
I would say it’s a romantic friendship.
Yeah, that’s a great way to define it, because I interpreted that Jake was in love with Tony in ways that he didn’t even fully realize yet.
I think that’s certainly in the film, and part of the nuance of who these kids are. These kids are really young; the actors are really young. I didn’t want to impose any future on them. But, there’s the personal experience of being a young gay kid who also is artistic and out of place in masculinity [in this film].
I myself am gay, too, and I’ve actually had a crush on a straight best friend as well. Despite being at a bit older than Jake when this infatuation took place [high school, as opposed to middle school], I saw a lot of myself in that character.
I’m so glad, because I think that’s one of the stories being told. And I think everybody has a memory like that. Everyone has a friendship that, for some reason of difference, [you as] children were not able to maintain [once you] became part of the adult world.