I spoke with Ira Sachs this week about his new film Frankie, starring Isabelle Huppert. We discussed the film’s Portugal setting, audience relationships to the characters, and Huppert herself. We also gave each other several film recommendations, but I tried to keep our focus on his film!
BOSTON HASSLE: How did you end up getting Isabelle Huppert for the role of Frankie?
IRA SACHS: She had written me when Love is Strange had come out. We started a conversation, as she had really responded to the film. We started talking and met, but it was a long time before I thought ,“Oh, I have a film that would be exciting to make with her.” She’s amazing, but I wasn’t sure if I was the person to work with her until I remembered this movie I saw a decade ago called Kanchenjunga from 1962. It is a film about a family on vacation in the Himalayan mountains, and it takes place in one day with nine stories and a central crisis– just a piece of art. So I thought, to make a film with Isabelle about a family on vacation, we would both be in places where we would be strangers. I don’t think I would make a film with her in France, she would have too much on me.
BH: She would have the high ground there.
IS: Yes. So my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias and I had Isabelle in mind, but we also drew from a lot of personal experiences around family and illness. I had recently had a friend who died of breast cancer. The experience was far more different than I expected. I wanted to make a film about that unexpected discovery. I learned that life is stronger than death. Everything that’s going on in a life happens until the moment it’s over. This film is filled with comedy, family drama, romance, all these different things that are paramount.
BH: And all the while they’re talking about working on Star Wars.
IS: We wanted to make a film that was close to farce, honestly. It moves like a comedy. We watched Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which ended up being pretty inspiring. It is a film where characters almost become caricatures. They are pushed to the edge, and we made those kind of choices when writing Frankie. There’s something inherently theatrical about a film in which nine stories are told in one day. It’s not realism.
BH: You pair off characters to great effect, especially Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei. Their characters work all over the world and they have each other. The relationship feels organic and real.
IS: I felt like I was making a women’s buddy picture. Their relationship is central to the film. There were lots of different ways to think about family in the course of writing.
BH: Do you find new and different ways to challenge yourself when making a movie?
IS: Every film has its own questions and demands its own rules. Each one feels totally new. You draw upon experience over the years, of course. This film was shot almost 90% outdoors; we were working a lot with nature. It was a challenge to work in a climate where the weather changes almost every hour. There was an extremity to things. We experienced the first hurricane in 200 years in Portugal. There was a forest fire that burned down one of our locations. My strategy was to accept nature for what it gave me, which ultimately I think was the theme of the movie. I wasn’t going to beat nature.
BH: Frankie even loses her jewelry in the forest.
IS: The woods felt like this magical space, almost like a Shakespearean Eden. The characters are discovering each other without the protection of their everyday lives.
BH: Have you seen any films this year that you’ve found really exciting?
IS: Synonyms. It’s quite extraordinary and alive. I loved Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory as well. It’s nice to have heroes who still do work that is surprising to you. I learn a lot. I run a non-profit called Queer Art where we provide mentorship to young queer artists, and they’re so inspiring. I look at them and Almodóvar and I get an example of what is possible.
BH: In a way it feels like queer artists can get cut off before they can have long careers.
IS: It’s very hard to sustain a personal career as a filmmaker. In 2010 I made a short film called Last Address. It was a pivotal moment because the industry didn’t give me any money, but I was able to raise $2000 and make maybe the most personal film I’ve ever made. It gave me direction. It said, “Hold onto what’s important to you.” I feel that Frankie is that kind of film, the kind of movies I got into this career to emulate. Films where the artist is really sharing something deeply personal.
BH: What is something you’d like people to take away from Frankie overall?
IS: I hope they will feel something and reflect on the film like a novel. I hope they will form relationships with the characters and themselves.
BH: You can feel the personal histories of the characters, even though we’re just watching them for one day.
IS: The challenge is to give enough, but not too much. You want the audience to build intimacy through the course of the film. I often think I am creating films where there is a sense that there was a life before the film and there will be a life afterwards. And you become a part of that life.
BH: Finally, I just want to say how much I want to hang out with Isabelle Huppert.
IS: She’s more amazing in person than I could have imagined. She’s just extremely in the moment. She is a very present person who is always in search of the next rich experience. People asked if I was intimidated and I said no because she approached Frankie like it was her first film, her most important film. She’s so engaged in the emotions and the work. She’s a great collaborator.
Frankie opens at Kendall Square Cinema Friday 11/8