Little Men Director Ira Sachs on Gay Characters and Personal Cinema

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Listen, you and I both know that it's been a dire summer movie season, but trust me when I say that salvation can be found in the margins: Seek out the wonderful indie gem Little Men, opening this weekend, and drink it up like a restorative tonic. Directed by Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), the movie follows two young boys — quiet Jake (Theo Taplitz) and mouthy Tony (Michael Barbieri) — whose friendship is threatened when Jake's father (Greg Kinnear) debates evicting Tony's mother (Paulina Garcia) from his Brooklyn building so he can maximize the income that her small dress shop does not provide. Parents just don't understand, but the watchful Sachs does, and he portrays an innocence to the two boys' relationship that adults (and adulthood, for that matter) will surely muck up in time. Recently in Los Angeles, I sat down with Sachs to discuss the film's themes, the sexuality of Taplitz's young character, and the fragmentation of new queer cinema.

If I knew you as a kid, and I saw the Theo Taplitz character in this film, would I say, “That’s Ira”?
Yeah, I would say a version of me. It’s really that he’s emotionally sensitive, and I was as well. I certainly identify with that character, but once I cast Theo, it was important to be open to what he brought to the story.

What was your own experience like at that age?
I basically went to an all-girls school until I was in seventh grade. It was a co-ed school, but it wasn’t that co-ed, and all the teachers were women. And then, in seventh grade, I went to an all-boys school. And you know, so many things happen at 13, but they’re not what this movie is about. Theo was 12. I realized that when I started casting, I was interested in kids on that side of the equation in some ways.

To go from an all-girls school to an all-boys school … that’s some real cognitive dissonance.
It was brutal, and yet I survived. I went to a school where I was called “kike” and had pennies thrown at me for being a Jewish kid. Memphis University School, giving it a shout-out for being a bastion of violence against children. [Laughs.] But I was not tormented by my femininity or my sexuality, in the way that other kids were.

Did you torment yourself about it?
Oh yeah, of course. And then I spent the next 20 years trying to get over that.

I’m curious, did you conceive Theo’s character as gay? I assumed that he was, though it’s never explicitly stated.
Yes and then no.

It changed once you cast the actor?
Once I cast Theo, it was something that I could not project on him. Whenever I tried, it felt very imposed and external to the story.

In what way? Isn’t the character still the character?
Well, actors are people. In the same way, Michael Barbieri’s character performed capoeira in the script, and that wasn’t gonna work either once we cast him. You adjust to what’s there. Theo, particularly, in that realm is very young. It felt not like I needed to be careful, but that it wouldn’t feel real for me to make decisions for him about what was next. At the same time, I’m a gay man who made the film, so there’s a sensibility to the film which is queer. For me, it’s two things. One is that questions of love are multifaceted. Friendship can be a form of love without sexuality being central to that relationship. Secondly, one of the reasons why my relationships when I was that age were so easy and intimate — and I’m just thinking this right now — is that my sexuality was playing out outside of those relationships. Some people have different histories, but my histories with my best friends were not sexual.

Friendships don’t necessarily have to be sexual to have some sort of romantic component to them.
I’m not saying there was no eros, but they really were not the site of desire for me. There were other sites. We’re not talking about someone who was not aware of desire — I was, but it was very external from things that were close to me. I think, partially, that’s why it took me 30 years to have a good relationship. I was looking outside of revealing myself.

Why?
I don’t think I have a good answer to that. It was how my sexuality was constructed. Other friends had very different stories, even at that time. Some friends who were 12 or 13 were finding sexual adventures with each other, but that wasn’t me.

That’s what is interesting about queer youth today … there’s really been a sea change now where kids who are Theo’s age know themselves very well and are confident about their sexuality.
And I could have cast someone who was that, and I would have made a different movie. But that was not this kid. For the texture of my films, it’s really important for me to be open to who these people are, and that includes Greg Kinnear and Paulina Garcia. I don’t rehearse my actors in advance for a reason: I really want them to bring themselves to the moment in which the camera photographs them. I want them not to think separately from who they are, while at the same time, I give them a script that provides them with a world to inhabit that is fictional.

How did you find Michael Barbieri? He’s so charismatic, and Marvel has already snapped him up to star in the next Spider-Man.
I organized an open call in New York and we put up signs on bulletin boards, including one at Lee Strasberg School on 15th Street. Michael grabbed the number and came in. He’d never acted professionally, but he’d been studying at Lee Strasberg since he was 9. He came in on the day we cast Theo as Jake, and Michael had come to read for Jake. He had these big thick bottle glasses, and I was like, “Take those glasses off and read the other part.” It was a star moment, I have to say. He was so alive and so himself and so specific. I knew I had to cast kids that would be memorable, that would stick with you. And I found that with Michael and Theo, and cast them oppositional. I thought of Theo as out of Robert Bresson movies, and Michael out of Scorsese movies, and worked with them as such.

It’s rare to find talented young guys who want to become actors, at least in America. We don’t have that problem with girls, but there’s been a young-actor drought for years.
I have to say, I was working on a film called The Goodbye People which never got made, and I went in to a small theater on 13th Street because I’d heard about this kid from NYU who was really good. I immediately tried to cast him and it didn’t happen, but it was Alden Ehrenreich.

What do you think is happening with queer cinema these days? It was having a real moment in the 1990s, but so few queer filmmakers continue telling gay stories nowadays.
To me, the problem is somewhat allegorized in Little Men. You could look at the dress shop as the site of personal cinema or queer cinema, in the sense that its value is not economic. All my films are really engaged in that question of where does one find value, and I think the drama about queer cinema is about sustainability, similarly to the shop. If you’re 25 and you make your first good film that’s not just subtextually gay but in content a queer film, how do you make your next and your next and your next? Where’s the André Téchiné of our country?

Increasingly, you don’t make your next and your next at that level. To extend the real-estate metaphor, you can’t afford to live in New York unless you’re chasing the big-money gigs, and that’s true now of so many independent filmmakers who segue to studio filmmaking as fast as possible.
I have to say, I’m working on two projects now for television, both of which are very queer. One is a Montgomery Clift biopic with Matt Bomer for HBO, and another is adapting a Tim Murphy book into a mini-series that’s set in the East Village from the 1980s to the present. There is an economy where these stories are somewhat more viable, but the give and take of that for me is that I’m working within a system that is very different from being an independent filmmaker. There’s loss there.

Yes, although working for HBO is not like working for NBC.
Right, but you’re working within a corporate structure, and that asks different things. What I’m trying to preserve is the place where my instincts are most intimate in making things. With my films, there’s no one above me, and that’s very significant. I tend to be financed by a group of people, none of whom have leverage and all of whom have faith. All the decisions are mine, and I think that creates a different kind of work. Chantal Akerman would not have made the same kind of films if she’d worked at HBO. Aesthetics have to be shifted. That’s fine, and that’s the nature of a creative life, but it’s an interesting question: How do you keep a singular voice within a different structure?

This interview has been condensed and edited.