The film Keep the Lights On opens with a lusty, furtive whisper, its blond thirtysomething protagonist shirtless, reclining on his bed. It’s 1997, and Erik, a documentary filmmaker with a bit too much time on his hands, is on a phone-sex line. There he finds Paul: pretty, delicately glum, and evasive, who, once they meet and have sex, informs him that he has a girlfriend — so “don’t get your hopes up.”
He probably shouldn’t have, especially given that on one of their early dates Paul, who is played by Zachary Booth (best known as Glenn Close’s feckless, Waspily furious teen son on Damages) lets him in on his little secret: He loves to smoke crack, apparently to unwind and feel a bit friskier. But that’s no impediment, and may be an aid: The pair quickly move in together, to Erik’s comfortably grown-up apartment, and build a comfortable grown-up life, with Erik making films and Paul working in the book-publishing industry. How that relationship was bent, over a decade, by a rollicking crack habit and each obsessive man’s obsessive desire for control is both the subject of both this beguiling film and a story that’s actually already public knowledge: Keep the Lights On’s director and co-writer, Ira Sachs, based the film on his life with literary agent Bill Clegg, who, two years ago, published his own version of some of these same events in a frenetic drugs-and-sex memoir called Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man.
Portrait’s success made Clegg a dashing symbol of personal and professional recovery: In a hothouse New York culturati way, he’s a big-deal literary agent again and well known enough to gossip about (as when the Times reported that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi’s poems about an unrequited gay crush that brought him out of the closet were about Clegg). The memoir made Sachs, who had been a quietly respected independent moviemaker, into a weird kind of sympathetic public figure — the humiliated boyfriend — even though he never commented on Clegg’s book. And it means that Booth, who has had roles in Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse and the upcoming Aidan Quinn military-loyalty thriller Recalled, is finding his breakout role playing a version of the director’s ex-boyfriend in a movie, based in large part on a relationship first described by his real-life counterpart, which will likely be the subject of gossipy scrutiny by a small audience of very engaged (and local) viewers, many of whom already know, or feel they know, both halves of the actual couple.
Not that that’s how Sachs would like the movie to be perceived, even as he emphasizes its autobiographical nature. He wrote it (with Mauricio Zacharias) by pulling from the journals he kept over the course of the tumultuous ten-year relationship; at one point, he thought of calling the movie Shame. The somewhat irresistible urge to compare the two accounts aside, that is the film’s actual subject: the rot of secretiveness.
“I love that it starts with that one-night stand, meeting on the phone line,” says Booth. “Even with dating websites there’s this shame about how you met: Did you meet in the traditional way?” At 29, Booth came of age post–550 numbers, and is quick to show me a picture on his iPhone of him trussed up in a red dress, looking very much like Close in Dangerous Liaisons (he was in costume for Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, which he did this summer at Bard).
We’ve met for lunch at Otto, the Italian restaurant on the ground floor of One Fifth Avenue, which is where Sachs lives, in the same apartment where he filmed Paul and Erik’s life together (In Portrait, it’s like a third character in their relationship). The real-life elements of the movie are almost claustrophobic. Erik is, for example, in Berlin winning an award for a movie, in the movie, when Paul falls into a self-immolating crack spree. Back in actual life, something like this happened to Sachs, while he was touring festivals with Forty Shades of Blue, his 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning feature centered on a self-mythologizing philanderer played by Rip Torn and based on Sachs’s own father; he filmed it in his hometown, Memphis. The self-dramatization, in other words, is nothing new for Sachs.
“Honestly, it didn’t take much to figure out who Ira was and who his ex was,” says Booth, who got the script from his agent and put the pieces together easily on Google. “I look like this guy, and I feel like I can represent him,” he realized. “It didn’t seem like there was much work for me to do. It all made so much sense.”
But the role was in other ways challenging. There’s a good deal of nudity and gay sex, not to mention crack smoking. Conveying ten years of a relationship in something filmed on a budget in five weeks isn’t easy either, for an actor as much as a director. And, yes, Booth read Portrait, though he didn’t feel burdened by his own character’s account of the story so much as well-informed. “I was able to take from it the psychological moment-to-moment life of someone who is in the middle of a crack addiction, the moment-to-moment insanity this person is living. I wasn’t really taking from it, Where did he come from, who are his parents, how did he feel about anything? It was really more about, What do you think about?”
For Booth, who admits to having “had plenty of experiences myself with lots of different substances,” the answer was more or less what he was thinking about. “I have a perspective on Paul where I’m making and rationalizing all these decisions myself, and also I’m looking back in the other direction and seeing someone who is struggling with commitment, who’s having all sorts of rendezvous with other men as well, and is in my mind just as guilty of tarnishing the relationship.” In the film, Erik’s shortcomings are certainly there, as he disconsolately seeks sexual affirmation outside of the relationship, dabbles in meth, and takes his sweet privileged time getting his films made. But while Clegg’s book was practically delirious with junkie guilt (which often masquerades as junkie swagger), self-justification, and status panic, Keep the Lights On is a much more mournful story, full of sad animal incomprehension, and well-balanced in its distribution of blame.
It’s also just solid emo melodrama, layered with hair-raising passive-aggressive dialogue that anybody who’s matched their clever dishonest wits with an equally determined romantic partner will recognize. “Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this really thinks Erik is nuts for staying with Paul, they think he’s compromising so much for him to be with him,” says Booth. “And then they still don’t want them to break up in the end.”
“You know, I think the core of their relationship is actually about obsession,” says Sachs of the film couple when we meet for breakfast. “I think I had the distance from my own experience which allowed me to see that what had been a very personal story was also emblematic.”
Sachs is a sensible-looking 46-year-old with a professorial bearing; he talks with a bit of earnest remove about things like “queer cinema.” He’s married to an artist who did the portraits of gay men that open the film — they are new fathers of twins they are raising with the mother, a female friend of theirs (a version of her desire to have kids with him is in the film, too — she wants to have Erik’s kids). They all live together in that same apartment at One Fifth.
And the last thing he wants to talk about is Bill Clegg — understandably, he’d rather Lights wasn’t reduced to some artistic riposte (The Enabler Writes Back) to his ex.
I ask what qualities he looked for in casting Paul. “Well,” he says of Booth, “he’s attractive.” A useful trait, given that much of the film involves Erik, who is played by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, gazing on Paul with a desire and a kind of confusion as to why things keep going so desperately wrong.
“There’s also a sexual charge between the two characters that fuels the [film] — it’s kind of like one step beyond their troubles,” says Sachs, who says he tried to shoot and edit the bedroom scenes in the same manner as, say, the Christmas-dinner scene. “Sexual behavior was included within the context of any other behavior.” This is one of the film’s agendas: Get the shame out. Which meant it was helpful that Booth didn’t have hang-ups. “He had an utter comfort with his body and sexuality and sex,” Sachs says. “It took our film in a completely other direction. He was the one who liberated our film. Really he did.”
Sachs, who doesn’t believe in rehearsals, sent Booth and Lindhardt out on a sort of date to get them to get along — they saw Billy Elliot, then went dancing, and became close friends immediately. “I almost think it’s like ecstasy,” Sachs says of the process of staging a romance for film. “Meaning as actors you have to assume intimacy way before it’s deserved.”
That search for simple intimacy is what the film is most hauntingly accurate in depicting. In one of the scenes that Keep the Lights On shares with Portrait, the addict Paul is holed up in a fancy hotel, smoking crack and waiting for a hustler to show up (in Clegg’s book, he’s Brazilian and charges $400 an hour); he invites the boyfriend over, too (the accounts diverge on who called whom). In both the film and the book, the scene ends with them holding hands, even while the hooker does his business with Paul. “It’s the moment where the two meet: the book and the film,” says Booth. “You can see the emotional stakes at that moment are equally high for both of them. So it’s a story, I think — it deserves or warrants a telling from both sides.”
That chapter in the book is called “Love.”
This story appeared in the August 20, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.