The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Love is Strange.
Mr. Sachs, can you tell us about developing the story?
Sachs: This is my fifth feature, and all of my films – while not strictly autobiographical – are very personal to me, and connected to my own life on some level. In my 40’s I experienced for the first time a relationship where I thought that it might blossom with time, and that it had a future that could be beautiful. All of my previous films were about the nature of love to destroy everyone involved [laughing], so, uh, this was new, and there was an optimism that I felt. So I set out to tell a love story. But I wanted to do so with the idea that each of us has a different perspective depending on what point we’re at in our lives. So we have this couple, played by John and Alfred, but then you also have Marisa [Tomei] and Darren Burrows, who are playing a couple very much in the middle of their lives, and a young man who is discovering love – Charlie Tahan – for the first time. And to me, it was an attempt to really tell a multigenerational, epic story within a crowded New York apartment.
“It was one of the finest pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever read.”
Mr. Lithgow, when you first read the script, what was your response?
Lithgow: I immediately wanted to be in the film! It was one of the finest pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever read. I compare the experience of reading it to the experience of reading Terms of Endearment…. And that was twenty five years ago. It was just something that was so complete, and the relationship was so complete. I also read it with the knowledge that Alfred would be playing George. And I just thought we’d make a perfect gay couple. And you know, every detail was there. Here’s best example I can give you of how superb the screenplay is: The early scene in the kitchen, where we’re interacting as married couples do, and there’s no dialog—just quiet, every day actions. Every detail of that scene was in the script. And yet, Ira didn’t mention anything—he knew we had read it. We did it. It was the script come to life. You know, people talk a great deal about Ira’s work process, because it’s so germane to the experience of the film. He just simply lets it happen. I’ve never been given less direction, and yet known so thoroughly what the director needed and wanted. And it all came through our long one-on-one session together before we started shooting the film, and from the script.
Mr. Molina, could you talk about the process of working with these two gentlemen?
Molina: In a sense, there was very little to do—very often in a script, there are plot points or points of logic that you need to clean up or iron out… and you find yourself in the very unenviable position of having to repair something, or find something that’s lacking. But here, it was so finished, it felt like putting on a made-to-measure jacket; it was so easy. And of course that gave us more freedom in terms of how we played with each other, how we created the space between the characters. All of us, at some point or another, discussed this while we were on the set—I think we all had a very similar experience. So when people ask, ‘how hard was it to play these characters,’ or, ‘how hard was it to get this film together,’ it wasn’t hard at all! It sounds almost disingenuous, but in fact it felt very, very easy.
Lithgow: Although, interestingly, both Alfred and I had the experience of – we’re both theater actors – we’re masters of the ‘grand gesture.’ In both cases, it took us a day or two to get used to Ira. He just does so little… and wants us to do so little. It was like we dispensed with all of the tricks we – I should say I – rely on and fall back on, and it was the best thing for me.
Ms. Tomei, your character is so important to the film. Can you talk about developing the character?
Tomei: As it turns out, my process working with Ira was a little different from John and Alfred’s. He and I spent time talking through her scenes, making small changes here and there—I needed to understand more about what Ira had in mind. It wasn’t clear to me, at first, what her relationship was with her husband. So we spent some time figuring that out.
And that’s part of the joy of the film, for the audience—it’s not quite clear to us what their relationship has gone through lately, and the audience has to figure some things out…
Tomei: Yes, not to mention what’s going to happen to them after the film ends… Whatever it is doesn’t seem very good! But the family aspects of the film really resonated with me; we all know what it’s like to help family members, and what’s it’s like to get on each other’s nerves.
One of the most compelling things in the script is the way that Ben’s death is dealt with. How did you decided on that particular treatment?
Sachs: I am always interested in both the things that are in a film as well as the things that are not—the spaces that allow the audience to find their own place in the story. The ellipse is a very classic, and very novelistic, device to show that time has moved forward, and to me these are some of the strongest jumps you can make in a film. It was always very clear to me that this was not a film about death. I had very little to say, and the movie had very little to say, about the act of dying. That’s another movie. It was about loss, certainly. But it was mainly about the cycles of life and things moving on. And the story of this film was always going to be handed on, like a baton, to this young boy.