You are such a quintessential New York Filmmaker, Mr. Sachs, but now you’ve made this film set in Portugal. I was wondering how the story came to you and how you worked with your writing partner, Mauricio Zacharia, to develop this film?
Ira Sachs: Probably around fifteen years ago, I saw a film by Satyajit Ray, the Indian master Filmmaker, called Kanchenjungha. It’s about a family on a vacation in the Himalayan mountains, and it takes place in one day. There are nine stories; there is a crisis that brought them together. The role of nature in that film is part of what makes it such a resonant film for me. It stuck in my head for a really long time as a really great set of boundaries about how to approach a film. When I met Isabelle after Love is Strange, she had seen the film and we started talking about the possibility of working together — among other things like life, family, and art. It seemed to me that this mountain project would be a good one to go on with Isabelle, because we would both be somewhere different from our home. I then went with my co-writer, whose family is from Portugal. He recommended that we consider Centra. When he said that, I remembered I had been there on a family vacation when I was fourteen with my mom and two sisters. So my co-writer and I went back there. I visited maybe three or four times in the course of writing the film. This is not a film about Portugal, but it is a film about the landscape I discovered in the time I spent there. I had a very strong and intimate emotional response to the things I saw and felt. So we wrote the film specifically for the locations that are in the movie.
I think there is a certain amount of mystery to all good scripts
Isabelle, do you want to talk about your first reactions to the script?
Isabelle Huppert: We had conversations before I got the script from Ira. We started this conversation about two years before and we expressed the wish to work with each other. I had no idea what Ira had in mind, I knew that he was going to write something for me, but I had no idea what it was going to be about. He then sent me the script and I thought it was wonderful. It was well written enough to leave some blank spaces so I can fill it with my own imagination. I think there is a certain amount of mystery to all good scripts in a way. A script is a very weird material. It’s not a book or a film. It’s an amount of indication and information. The two main lines for me were that she was an actress and also that she was going to finish her life. The third fact about the film was that it was going to be shot in Portugal. I think the film says it all about the relationship between the drama that the landscape carries and the inner drama that all these characters have. This family’s journey and the landscape have a mirror effect. I was really excited when I read it because it was very promising.
IS: I think for me there are two ways of thinking about that sense of what is not known at the beginning of the film. As a director and a writer, I’ve always had an instinct to position people somewhere in the middle of the story. This way you get a sense that there is a movie and a set of stories that happened before the film and there will always be a set of stories after the film. There’s a sense that part of watching a movie is finding your way into the middle. That is done elliptically. It is not easy to create intimacy. When a movie asks you to engage with the conversations and in that work, I think there is a relationship that is between the audience and the characters. The other thing was that the film was a very personal one for me. It was not an autobiographical film, but a personal film in the sense that in the past five to ten years, I have been closer to illness and death in a way that I had not been in my thirties; I am now in my fifties. One of the things I felt very powerfully was not a secret, but that there were so many other conversations about life. That life is what goes on until the last moment. I felt there were many different genres going on. Not long ago I was very close to a very good friend who died of breast cancer at 50. I felt that I could have done in any one day, with her and her family and friends, done a story about money, sex, love, generations, loss. To me this film is less about dying and death, but is ultimately about loss.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your shooting style. With so many wonderful long takes, it feels like one flowing piece instead of like fragments. Can you talk about the scene where Mr. Gleeson purchases some pastries and then talks with Frankie?
IS: There was definitely a shooting style to the film, which came from a wonderful Portuguese cinematographer named Rui Poças. When we started, we thought about making a film about people walking and talking through nature and outdoors. We took a look at Éric Rohmer. We discovered a very particular language in Romer that we adapted for this film. It involved that there was no cutting without the actors making a movement that generates the reason for the cut. You never get to cut in for emphasis. What this ends up doing is leaving the actors with the space, and you are watching both the character and the performance, which I think is part of the pleasure of this movie. Its watching how the characters get from one place to another. In that particular scene, it is very choreographed work and we planned on doing it in three sections. As we were shooting, a hurricane, which was the first in 200 years, started coming into the region. What was supposed to be a twelve hour day became a one hour day. We thought we could come back and Brendan Gleeson said, “Well we have twenty minutes. Can we do the whole scene in one take?” There is this playful, joyous performance that happens between the two that feels very natural and very much what they as actors could bring to the scene. I’m glad it worked out.