Openly gay director Ira Sachs drew on a variety of deeply personal sources for his new film “Little Men,” which opens Friday, Aug. 12 in area theaters.
The first was his own recent work as a filmmaker (now being featured in a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). “Keep the Lights On” (2012) details the tortured relationship between two young men navigating their relationship and their careers. His last film, “Love Is Strange” (2014) stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an older couple who are forced to live apart.
“Little Men” turns to a different generation.
“My co-writer Mauricio Zacharias and I felt like there was a third story to tell and a third generation to focus on,” Sachs says. “That was the two boys and their relationship. That was the beginning,”
Following their established pattern, Sachs and Zacharias began their writing process by watching movies. One of the films was “Good Morning” (1959) by the late Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu which is about two boys who go on strike against their parents.
“We liked that as a plot device,” Sachs says. “Then we slowly filled out the characters and their lives and the struggles they were facing. We also added a bit of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to the story. There’s two kids who become very close in a romantic friendship, but their friendship becomes threatened by their feuding parents.”
Finally, Sachs added in some details from the life of his husband, the painter Boris Torres.
“My husband moved to New York when he was 10 years old with his single Ecuadoran mother,” Sachs says. “They lived in Brooklyn and he was a creative kid who went to the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. I always thought the story was poignant. I used to wonder, ‘What’s it like for an immigrant mother to take care of a possibly queer kid?’”
All of these elements emerged in the final script for “Little Men.” Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri) lives in Brooklyn with his mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia). She runs a small dressmaking shop on the ground floor of a building inherited by Brian and Kathy Jardine (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle). Tony quickly bonds with their son Jake (Theo Taplitz), but their budding friendship is threatened when the Jardines raise the rent on Leonor’s shop.
Sachs enjoyed working with the young actors.
“They’re both very different” Sachs says. “Theo is very internal and thoughtful and reflective. Michael is all external; he seems like a little Joe Pesci, straight out of a Martin Scorsese film. The contrast between them is very cinematic. It’s exciting to watch them together.”
Sachs even tweaked his script to fit his young actors.
“For example, in the original script, the character of Tony practiced capoeira, which is a form of Brazilian martial arts. Michael was never going to do capoeira, or at least do it well, but he had been studying acting since he was 8. So I transformed the character into a young actor.”
Sachs enjoyed working with the cast. He wrote the role of Leonor with Garcia in mind. He had first seen her work in “Gloria,” a Chilean movie about the whirlwind relationship between a free-spirited older woman and a former naval officer. Garcia won the prestigious Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival for her performance, and made a fan of Sachs.
“I loved her,” the filmmaker says. “She’s a fascinating mammoth talent. We both loved the character of Leonor, who’s a very thorny difficult uncompromising tiger for her family.”
Sachs notes that all three of the adult actors felt a deep connection the material and to their characters. Leonor, Brian and Kathy are all concerned parents, he says, “but even more than being parents, they’re all people trying to figure out how to live a good life. The excitement for the audience is the kind of moral ambiguity of right and wrong. You don’t know how these people are going to solve these complex problems.” You also don’t know, Sachs notes, how the adults’ actions will impact the growing friendship between their two sons.
Now that “Little Men” has wrapped, Sachs is at work on two new projects. The first is a biopic for HBO about closeted actor Montgomery Clift that will star openly gay actor Matt Bomer. The second is a miniseries for Paramount based on “Christodora” the sprawling new novel by Tim Murphy about life in Manhattan’s East Village during the time of AIDS.