After experiencing success with 2012’s Keep The Lights On and 2014’s Love Is Strange, Ira Sachs presents Little Men, the final in his trilogy of New York-set films which he wrote with his regular writer, the Rio de Janeiro-born Mauricio Zacharias. The film tells of two 13 year-olds, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) whose friendship is threatened by the deeds of their parents, yet nobody is doing anything wrong.
Following the death of his elderly father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), a mostly unemployed actor, has moved with his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and their son Jake (Theo Taplitz) into the Brooklyn apartment they have inherited. Since Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) must also figure in the inheritance, she insists they triple the rent of the downstairs shop run by Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Leonor, who had a strong friendship with Brian’s father, cannot afford to pay. Given the gentrification of Brooklyn, Audrey says the rent should be even more. Conflict ensues.
We talked to Sachs at the Berlin Film Festival.
Watch Little Men trailer:
Your recent trilogy deals with the drama around New York real estate. Have you had real nightmares there?
Not so much, but I feel there is a story in every home around money. Actually for me the two things that seem to be most compelling are money and love and all my films are certainly about both and how we navigate our needs in those two places.
What was the starting point for you on Little Men?
Mauricio and I wanted to do a film about childhood and the ways in which it comes into conflict with adulthood. We started watching movies, which is where we often begin, and we found two films by Ozu: I Was Born, But..., a 1932 silent film that he remade in 1959 as Good Morning. Both were about children who go on strike, so that was enough of an idea. Then, as we began writing, Mauricio’s family was in the process of evicting a tenant from a store they owned in Rio and he was hearing chapters on a daily basis. I was hearing from one side and I was empathising with both sides and it seemed to me a really powerful story of conflict.
You’re such a humanist in your storytelling.
I think humanism comes out of being empathetic with the characters in your stories – and that is all the characters. Someone said that all the people in your film are so warm and asked if I only cast warm people. I said, “Well if you've met them all, it might not be this thing you notice on the surface, but most people are warm if you get to spend the right time with them.” And I think in the film you want to spend the right time with them. You want to know them.
In Sundance, critics were bowled over by the boys’ performances (especially Michael Barbieri one of this year’s breakouts who has since been cast in The Dark Tower and Spider Man: Homecoming). How did you find them?
I work with Avy Kaufman who has a real eye for finding young talent. She found the kids in The Sixth Sense, Life of Pi and The Ice Storm. We found Theo through an agent in Los Angeles and he was just a natural and Michael came to an open call in New York. He was a student at the Lee Strasberg Institute when he was 10 and now he’s 13 and we ended up shooting in the Lee Strasberg Institute with his teacher. So that was a nice way of including real life into the fiction.
How is it working with kids?
Kids are easier than adults. They don't have an insecurity built in yet, like the rest of us, and I think that's part of what you capture in the film, the lack of self consciousness of childhood and how it gets inflicted with adult issues and pressures.
Do you have children?
I have twin four year-olds with my husband (Boris Torres, a painter originally from Ecuador who grew up in Brooklyn.) We raise our kids with their mum, Kirsten Johnson, who lives next door to us. She’s a documentary director and cinematographer who works with Laura Poitras. (Johnson shot Citizenfour.)
"Kids are easier than adults. They don't have an insecurity built in yet, like the rest of us, and I think that's part of what you capture in the film. "
Have the marriage laws in the US affected you?
It became legal in the summer of 2011 in New York State and we got married in 2012. Our kids were born a week later so we got married partially to have our kids be legal. It’s legal in Australia, isn’t it?
No, it isn’t. (Sachs looks stunned.)
I think these laws are hugely impactful and I’m particularly happy for my kids now that we’re married. There is a shift in the system and it’s big. Whatever you think about marriage, it's the institution on which most of our culture is based.
Why was it important for you to shoot in New York?
It’s where I live and it’s what I know best. It’s what I can offer. If I shot anywhere else I’d have to do a film about people and a city I don't know. That said, I’d like to do a film in Paris, but it would have to be about someone who knew nothing about Paris, because I don't have any depth and I don't think you can fake depth.
What are you working on now?
Mauricio and I are working a script for HBO about Montgomery Clift.
Filmmakers have been trying to make a film about him for a while.
I know. I know all of those people. They’ve all talked to me.
Since our interview, Sachs and Zacharias have been commissioned by Paramount TV and producer Cary Fukunaga to adapt Tim Murphy’s new novel "Christodora" for a limited series that Sachs will direct. An interlocking character drama set in an East Village apartment building, the Christodora, the series begins with the initial devastation caused by AIDs in the '80s and focuses on the communal connection that developed and has been maintained up until the present day.
As Sachs told Deadline: “Tim Murphy’s book is a masterful and panoramic story of New York City and the East Village from the 1980s to the present. As Mauricio and I both lived through this period firsthand, we felt an immediate connection to the material, and are excited to bring this Dickensian narrative to life.”
'Little Men' opens in limited release around Australia on December 8.
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