Thure Lindhardt, left, and Zachary Booth in "Keep the Lights On." (Jean-Christophe Husson,…)
For most of us, the assorted bric-a-brac of an old relationship is something to put in a box on a back shelf somewhere, eventually to find its way to the garbage bin. For filmmaker Ira Sachs, the reminders of an old flame became the basis for his new film, "Keep the Lights On."
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is playing in L.A., depicts with disarming emotional and sexual intimacy the 10-year arc of a couple who become locked in a crushing cycle of addiction and enabling. Erik (Danish actor Thure Lindhardt) is a filmmaker in New York City who falls for a lawyer at a literary agency named Paul (Zachary Booth, recently seen on "Damages"), and as Paul's drug habit spirals out of control it sweeps their relationship along with it.
This fictionalized portrait of Sachs' past is complicated slightly in that his former partner, Bill Clegg, published a memoir in 2010 also depicting their relationship. Sachs is cautiously guarded not to speak directly about his ex, not even allowing whether he has read Clegg's "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man."
By way of explaining the relationship between his film and his life, Sachs said, "'Annie Hall' is not about Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, but clearly there is a lot of them in that film."
His previous films include "Forty Shades of Blue," which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005 with a searing performance by Rip Torn as a character based partly on Sachs' father, as well as 2007's "Married Life," a 1940s domestic melodrama of secrets and deception starring Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams, Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson.
And his 2010 documentary short film "Last Address" is a moving elegy to a generation of artists in New York City cut down by AIDS. The project pushed Sachs, who moved to New York from his native Memphis in the mid-1980s, to reconsider his connection to the city, the arts and his own past, providing something of a catalyst to begin the process of "Keep the Lights On."
"I think that I started writing the film by going back to the journal I kept during the 10 years of what was a very difficult relationship," Sachs said. "And in a way, the structure of the film mirrors those journals because events are followed by gaps followed by events. You tend to write about the drama when you're writing to yourself.
"I knew there was an end to that story. I knew there had been a last day of that relationship, and I knew that 10 years before there had been a first day of that relationship. Mostly what I was trying to do was document the events that got us from one point to the other."
Sachs reached out to Mauricio Zacharias, a Brazilian-born screenwriter living in New York, who sifted through Sachs' journals and other materials as something akin to primary research.
"When I finished reading it I was so moved," Zacharias said. "I could see the people, I could see the relationship, I could see the problems. He really wanted, I think, someone else to give him permission to say, we can make a movie out of this relationship."
Zacharias then set out writing a first draft of the script on his own, the story stretching from 1998 to 2008, presenting to Sachs something the filmmaker could then approach more clearly from the standpoint of storytelling.
"For me, I wouldn't have started writing it until I was ready to let it go," Sachs said of any lingering emotional attachments that might have impeded his sense of dramatic clarity. "As soon as you start to craft it as a story it becomes something else, which is the exciting part. I would say to the actors as well as the costume designer, production designer, my history was a resource, it was like a drawer they could pull from, but it was just one of many resources that we had available to us when we made the movie."
When Sachs and Zacharias finished the script early in 2011, Sachs made a commitment to himself and several collaborators that he would get the project shooting by summer. That sense of energy and conviction continued once the film was in production.
"That set a tone that was independent and liberating," Sachs said. "The film in a way feels different than my other films because it's not made in the context of what is allowed — in terms of imagery, in terms of sex, in terms of a certain kind of openness, which is ultimately the theme of the film as well."
In the continuing interplay between fiction and reality, "Keep the Lights On" features a scene in which Lindhardt's character wins the Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award, which recognizes gay-themed filmmaking. Sachs' film then went on to win the Teddy Award this year in Berlin.
Sachs and Zacharias just finished a new script about a gay couple together for 38 years, titled "Love Is Strange." Sachs said it partly represents a projection of his current relationship with Boris Torres, an artist whose work is featured during the opening credits of "Keep the Lights On." Sachs hopes that the life lessons crystallized by "Lights" can continue to move him forward.
"What's interesting to me is the distinction between my old life and my present life," he said. "Not so much now that I'm married with two children, but in the wake of the events depicted in the film, I for the first time learned that I needed to live an honest life. And I think that is really what the film is about; it's about shame, but it's told shamelessly."