“If someone pulls out a crackpipe,” says Ira Sachs, “don’t move in. That’s the greatest advice I can give.” As advice goes, it’s pretty damn good. Keep the Lights On, Sachs’ fourth auteurist venture, is based on his own experience not following it. A Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance and winner of Berlin’s Teddy award, the film tells the story of Erik, a documentary filmmaker who sets off on a years-long, emotionally tortuous relationship with Paul, a relationship that tries desperately to pull itself out of chaos and into light. But the film, more than a cautionary tale, is an exploration of the parts of queer life that are kept, literally, in the dark. I spoke with Ira Sachs and Zachary Booth, who plays the role of Paul, to discuss the dark heart of Keep the Lights On.
In interviews you often say that you wanted to make a film that reflected a part of your life that you don’t see on screen. I wondered if you meant gay life in general, or something more specific. Gay life seems to have become the province of TV alone.
Ira Sachs: But on TV it’s commercial, it’s a homogenized version. It’s a paint-by-number version. Nothing against TV, but I’m old enough to be connected to the history of the art film and art cinema and I like that form aesthetically, and that’s different from what you get on TV. There’s a certain manner of how to tell a story which the genre of art film is its own kind of set of possibilities—including pace, including sex, including a kind of openness that this film has that would obviously never be on television. But I think in general TV has taken the place—where people used to go to the cinema to see themselves, they now go to TV to escape from themselves. And television has really become the go-to place to see soap opera versions of your own life.
What about something like The Sopranos?
Ira Sachs: It’s also not a realistic medium. The Sopranos works on the level of metaphor, and I think the metaphor that seems to be running rampant is the double life. Daytime chemistry teacher, nighttime meth dealer. Daytime transgender mother, nighttime killer. It’s always these dichotomies. In a way that’s what all my films have been about. The dichotomy of what’s visible as opposed to what is hidden. And I find it very compelling, too, because Keep the Lights On is in a way a shameless depiction of shame, and since I’m no longer living with that kind of shame, I’m no longer finding it interesting creatively. I’m making my first film not about double lives after this.
Zachary Booth: I think that dichotomy something that can be reinvented over and over again. But I don’t know why it doesn’t happen in a more real way in film. I think film has become a place for spectacle. It’s not going to give you a personal identification with the story. It’s more about being wowed.
Ira Sachs: One of the ways this film has been rewarding is that after screenings people have come up to me and started talking about their own relationships, and in the story of Paul and Erik recognized a version of their own dynamic and their own history. That’s what you hope for. I think this film in some ways—when I talk about putting images up there that I haven’t seen before—it talks about a nocturnal life that you have within the gay male community that we collectively, quietly speak about amongst ourselves but never share with others. And I think what I was trying to do is question the cost of that illicit behavior on our relationships.
Why do you think these things go undiscussed?
IS: Because we don’t know that we’re just minutes past Stonewall. I came out of the closet when I was 16 and I went into another closet a day later. The closet isn’t something you exist and stay out of. We, as gay people but also in general, find ways of structuring our lives to hide parts of ourselves, and I think for gay people specifically there are great reasons to do that: fear, violence, hatred, self-hatred, all those things exist. We didn’t create that model, we responded to it. And one of the ways we responded to it is by creating a culture which allowed us to be free behind certain closed doors and in the shadows. What I’m asking with this film is to start a conversation about whether that culture still works for us—individually and within our relationships.
Do you feel like you’ve been having those conversations since?
IS: I sense that people are asking themselves those questions. I still feel people shy away from actually speaking about them with others. But I think the film demands people—encourages is probably a better word—to question their own behavior and to try to consider what’s working. But I still find there’s a great shyness about people, specifically with talking about sexual behavior, around monogamy, around hookups, the internet—how that’s all intricately part of people’s daily lives is something people don’t talk about. I find it’s one of the great gifts of the recovery world, the 12-step world, which is there’s rooms in which people are actually talking about what they do, collectively. And it’s set up so that people do so with a sense of safety. Narratively it’s fascinating. I’ve been in various ways in that world and I think that it’s extremely rare. In some ways I think of the recovery world as the most successful contemporary religion, except there is no god. It’s a communal space in which people come together to share their woes and their space and their life stories, and they do so without any hierarchy and with a certain sense of freedom of response. There’s not a dictation of what that religion should be for an individual. I think that’s been very helpful for me to be able to tell this story probably. I don’t feel like I was ready, during the course of the relationship depicted in the film, but I was also completely ignorant that recovery was an option. I didn’t think that I had any option except to hold onto that relationship as if it was life itself. And I think it took the destruction of that relationship to think ‘oh, maybe there’s another way to do it.’ But I wish I had found the rooms earlier.
Relationships can be an addiction in themselves.
IS: Totally. I have kids with my husband, and their grandfather on their mother’s side is like an 83-year-old psychotherapist. He was the person who said ‘this isn’t a film about addiction, it’s a film about obsession.’ I really found that enlightening. Obsession is a way—similar to drugs—of trying to narrow and shut out the voices that are causing you fear and anxiety, and in a way these characters, Paul and Erik, believe everything can be solved if they can just make the relationship work. Little do they know.
There’s a way in which you could read the film as monogamy gone wrong.
But I wouldn’t use the term monogamy—I think more interesting is the idea of independence. Because I think how independence is structured in the context of two people living together is complex and I wouldn’t say there’s one way or another that makes it easier, but these two men don’t really allow each other to be independent and to have a life outside of that duality.
ZB: I think if you asked for a show of hands you’d have a lot more of a response if you asked people if they were in a relationship that lined up with what they wanted their relationship to be or their ideal for a relationship. You’d have a lot more people cop to that than say they had some kind of obsession, an unhealthy obsession or addiction that was compromising their relationship. Because it’s sort of hard to decide—they never talk about it in the film so it’s hard to decide what these two guys’ idea is of what they should have, but it’s very clear that neither one of them is in what they want. But they’re still holding onto it. Why is it that they’re doing that? I think that’s a more accessible place—part of that is the exploration of the private intimacy that they have.
IS: Which is real. And which is lively,
ZB: And incredibly valuable to both of them because they sacrifice so much of what is healthy to them. I think that’s something you find often with people that are dealing with addiction or compulsion, compulsive behavior—they’re not willing to sacrifice that good feeling for what they think they should be doing. They’re always living in this sort of opposition. A personal version of what we were talking about with television. An internal version of that.