Ira Sachs on ‘Passages’ and bringing sex back to the screen: “People behaving well doesn’t make for good story”

Ira Sachs on 'Passages', the impossibility of defining love, and the roadblocks faced by indie directors.

Passages is a film that gets under the skin — it’s febrile, pulsates with life, and realistically depicts the excesses of human emotions amongst the more ubiquitous. It’s director, the acclaimed Ira Sachs [Love Is Strange, Forty Shades of Blue, Little Men] tells HUNGER that it was a conscious decision to make a “small, intimate” film post the Covid-19 pandemic, but Passages stands out (and has certainly made a splash) in a climate where Marvel’s sanitised, sexless universes continue to dominate and funding for indie films grows smaller each year. 

The film, which premiered on 1st September in the UK, stars Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw as the married couple Tomas and Martin, a German film-maker and an English graphic artist respectively. Their relationship is open-ish, but more so on Tomas’ side — he is a man who would rank on the narcissism scale, and moves through life with a single-minded propulsion to meet all of his whims and wants, no matter the fallout. Things take a turn in the couple’s bourgeois, Parisian lifestyle when Tomas dances with Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Agathe, a French school teacher, at the wrap party for his latest film. They have sex, and the next day, he tells a resigned Martin that he “felt something I haven’t felt in a very long time”. A ménage à trois commences with devastating implications.

Passages has received a lot of press for a movie of its size; it features graphic scenes of gay sex, and likely was slapped with a NC-17 for it (Sachs and its distributor MUBI chose to release it unrated). But, still, this is a film that is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s the rare kind of feature that exists outside of time, in the moments of flux and change that we nearly always miss in our own lives; we don’t know if they will transpire to be good or bad, but they will certainly come to define relationships, or perhaps even lives. As Sachs tells me over the phone from New York: “I think of this film as a series of middles [because] it’s that moment in the middle where things really change, and I think it’s so beautifully captured by the camera. I want to present for that; the small infinitesimal changes.” 

Here, HUNGER speaks to the director about Passages, and its space within the film industry right now. 

Nessa Humayun: Hi Ira! You initially said that post pandemic, you wanted to create films about intimacy, was Passages a gateway to doing that for you? 

Ira Sachs: Yes, I guess I also felt like I had nothing. None of us knew if we would still be around after this dark period, and there was a sense that I had nothing to lose, and so I should make the film that I most wanted to see. To me, that meant a film committed to the stories that are the most individual. I guess I wanted to honour what happens between people in a way that I felt was disappearing in broader cinema. And I wanted to say that this story counts because I’m making it, and because we’re making it together; it’s not a big story, but it will be big because we will do it well. So… believing there’s a kind of grandeur in the intimate. 

NH: Completely. One thing that stood out to me is that in films about relationships, you often see a lot of focus on the past, so flashbacks to previous relationships and the like, but with Passages, it’s completely grounded in the present. Was that a conscious choice and why? 

IS: That’s interesting, because it’s a film that won’t actually contain the past. There was a scene we shot that was a conversation about things that had happened in the past and it didn’t work, it doesn’t hold because the movie is so much made in the present, and it’s also about the experience of the present that the camera is able to capture — storytelling doesn’t really have space there. So I think of this film as a series of middles. The whole movie is a middle where the past exists but isn’t stated, and the future is something that you can’t define. It’s that moment in the middle where things really change, and I think it’s so beautifully captured by the camera. I want to present for that; the small infinitesimal changes. 

NH: In that sense, I think it becomes very easy to relate to Tomas, Agathe and Martin, despite some of their decisions. Even Tomas, who is the villain so to speak, is easy to sympathise with.

IS: Someone told me last night that they had just watched the film and they felt so moved by Tomas’ struggle as a human being and his vulnerability and his loss and his sense of want. For me, it’s important to love the characters that I create, and to not consider myself better than them. They’re maybe not doing things that I think are wise, but they’re doing them out of animal instincts that I understand. 

NH: There’s been a lot of discourse in the past few years about creating ‘likeable’ characters, has that ever been something you’ve been conscious of? 

IS: I’m careful to the extent that I edit the film, and so I pay attention to a balance if that makes sense. I wanted to preserve ambivalence, and I also wanted to make him human, not inhuman. But in terms of characters being likeable or unlikeable, I feel very engaged with a long history of literature, art and theatre, where you have protagonists, and you have drama, and so you need to have conflict. People behaving well is not a good story. 

NH: As you said earlier, this is a film about intimacy, but a lot of it ends in heartbreak. Is there something you’re trying to communicate about the nature of love?

IS: I don’t know about you, but I’m in a long term relationship that I feel very supported in, and is filled with kindness, but that wasn’t always my history, but there’s not a movie to be made about my relationship. But I made a film called Love Is Strange, and that film is to some extent closer to the relationship I’m in now, which is long and loving. But… No relationship is static and I think the word ‘love’ deserves 3000 pages. So I think what I’m trying to do is observe the variations from moment to moment. There’s moments where you can feel connected and there’s moments that you feel disconnected, and watching that shift is something that the camera can do. 

NH: Have you always been someone who’s been fascinated by relationships and observing them?

IS: I would assume that I was born as an artist out of separation, and to some extent out of loneliness. My job benefits from me being very sensitive, but that’s not the greatest attribute in the rest of my life. It’s like a give and take in terms of understanding. I grew up as a gay, Jewish kid in Memphis, Tennessee, and I think those essential elements of who I was made me a little removed from certain things. I would go in the other direction, when I was a kid, I loved the novel, I loved to read and to try to understand myself through literature and narrative, so my relationship with making cinema is much more out of pleasure than pain. 

NH: I imagine then that you loved a good bildungsroman…

IS: Oh, yes, yes. I think that’s true.I find myself in my films in ways that are very personal, but I’m also telling a story and the story is generated by plot and suspense. In the last few years, I watched a lot of Hitchcock and it was wonderfully relevant because those are films of action and loneliness. I watched maybe 20 Hitchcock films with my husband, my two kids and their two moms during the pandemic, and we got to Vertigo and it was just so incredible, and all of our jaws just dropped, from the nine-year-olds to the 50-year-old. Mark Cousins, the filmmaker who made My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, recently asked me whether I was watching a lot of Hitchcock in terms of how I shot Adèle Exarchopoulos, and I remembered that we had a screen-test for lighting and there were all of these pictures of her, and she was just Kim Novak — and how do you shoot her like Novak in Vertigo? You just love her, you adore her with the camera.

NH: You set the film in Paris, but I thought it could also be set in other international cities. Why did you choose that particular location?

IS: It just worked. It’s also a city I know very well, I’ve spent a lot of time there; I’ve had relationships, breakups, and my producer is based there. And once I’d cast Franz in Europe, it was a simple move. It could have been in New York also because I think the film reflects the international quality of my own life again, the bildungsroman, meaning my husband is Ecuadorian, my co-writer’s Brazilian, my producer’s Tunisian… You know, that’s what my life looks like, and since the dominant language in this film is English, it all felt comfortable to me. 

NH: Speaking about literature, the film features a ménage à trois, was there any specific literature or references you were inspired by? 

IS: In film there was 1980s LouLou starring Isabelle Huppert, Luchino Visconti’s The Innocent, and William Wyler’s Dodsworth. Those were the films that best featured the triangle for me, but I had also had success, at least in my own mind, with the triangle in my earlier work. The triangle creates tension immediately, you know there is a dynamic where somebody wants something they cannot have, and so it keeps shifting in really dramatic ways.

NH: I also read that 5% of Passages wasn’t scripted, was that due the chemistry between the actors or was it something that you actively prescribed? 

IS: It’s a strategy that I’m very comfortable and familiar with. I want the lines to give shape and form and story, but I also want things to happen in the moment so that the audience feels freedom. For example, in the lunch scene with Agathe’s parents, that scene was fully scripted until Franz left the table. We kept running, and he decided to come back in, so after his return, everything was unscripted. You have to leave space for things to happen before and after ‘action’ and ‘cut’. 

NH: One of the big talking points around Passages is the sex scenes, and the fact that you chose to release it unrated after the MPA [Motion Picture Association film rating system] handed it a NC-17 rating just two weeks before it was due to be released. What are your thoughts on sex scenes in Hollywood over the last decade or so, I believe they have either been incredibly sanitised or of ‘gross out’ ilk as seen in Lena Dunham’s Girls. 

IS: My feeling is that it goes broader than no sex in cinema, right now, there seems to be no adults in cinema. To see adult life on the screen seems to be becoming more and more rare. I think that it is because of globalisation, in the sense that by a disappearance of human difference, we make commodities that are more sellable in broader markets. So to make films about superheroes, which mean non-humans or dolls that also mean non-humans, it is a way of creating a global market. And it also becomes a cycle of what do people expect from the cinema and what should they get. There was this idea in the 1950s that television was gonna destroy culture, and I think that it has. 

NH: There are such great shows out there right now, though. 

IS: I agree with that, but it’s taken away from people’s relationship to other art forms, that is just the nature of ritual. Television didn’t do it on purpose, I’m not saying it was vindictive, but in the US no one is going to theatres or to see plays anymore. I don’t want to be nostalgic, but it’s just a fact. And I guess I will say that for me as a filmmaker,  at every point there is resistance to me telling the story I want to tell, which is the most personal one. It’s from the point of financing to festivals to distribution to press… Everything is a process of exclusion that I’m privileged to actually make my way through, but you know, I’m a white man. I’m Jewish and I’m gay, but I’m a white man first and foremost, so I am able to navigate things that a lot of different voices can’t find space in. 

NH: Passages has a very explicit gay sex scene, do you think that’s one of the main reasons why it was slapped with a NC-17? 

IS: I would assume a lot. What’s interesting to me is not why the film was given a NC-17, but why does this board still exist? Why has a progressive, nominally liberal industry allowed for this kind of censorship, that’s really the question. There’s this idea that the rating system is some kind of god and that we can’t question its existence. 

NH: I recently spoke to [the filmmakers] Ken Loach and Paul and they were saying something very similar. Loach said that when he made Cathy Come Home in 1966, there were more people in the cinema compared to what he’s seeing now in 2023. That’s crazy, no?! 

IS: Ken and Paul are such heroes to me, and such big influences. I’m working on this film right now about the photographer Peter Hujar, which Ben Whishaw will be starring in, and just today I was looking at images from [Loach’s] Family Life. That and Looks and Smiles were super significant to me as a filmmaker. Ken Loach was the man that got me off [the director] John Cassavettes, and he showed me a different way of achieving a kind of realism that I connected to. If you look at my films, the space between the camera and the actors is quite Loachian. 

NH: Definitely, and I think there’s also something to be said in that about the mystique of the cinema going away… 

IS: The challenge for me is to not get nostalgic because change happens, and to be nostalgic is to be a little reactionary. You have to consider that some of the things that come with change are positive, like what an individual with an iPhone can do; they could be as powerful as a studio executive, and that’s pretty interesting. 

WriterNessa Humayun