Gay Director Ira Sachs Stares Down Death in the Family Drama "Frankie"

The filmmaker discusses his Portugal-set latest, which stars Isabelle Huppert as an actress living out her final days.

Although he was born in Tennessee, Ira Sachs has long been considered a quintessential New York filmmaker. His acclaimed NYC-set features include 2016’s Little Men, a coming-of-age tale about the friendship between two very different boys; Love Is Strange, about an older gay couple forced to leave their apartment and live separately when one of them is fired from his teaching job at a Catholic school; and 2012’s Keep the Lights On, a raw, semi-autobiographical work inspired by Sachs' turbulent relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, who struggled with addiction.

Now the gay director has left the Big Apple for Europe to make his latest humane, character-driven drama, Frankie. In it, Oscar-nominated French actress Isabelle Huppert plays the title character, an iconic film actress with a terminal illness who assembles a group of family and friends for a vacation in a bucolic Portuguese seaside resort town to impart directives about how to carry on after she’s gone. Among her guests: her husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson); her son Paul (Jérémie Renier); her hairstylist Ilene (Marisa Tomei); Ilene's cinematographer boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear); and Frankie’s gay ex-husband, Michel (Pascal Greggory).

Co-written by Sachs' frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias (who’s half Portuguese), Frankie is Sachs’ first film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. This month, he also released his digital short film, Before I Forget, part of a series commemorating the 30th anniversary of trailblazing (and very queer) indie distributor Strand Releasing, which released Sachs’ 1997 debut feature, The Delta.

Sachs spoke with NewNowNext about his bucket list, his queer projects that fell through, and a humbling experience he had at Cannes.

Why did you want to tell the story of Frankie now?

At each stage of my life I have a different perspective, particularly when it comes to a family facing a crisis together. This film is a direct translation of my having been very close to three women faced with terminal illnesses, including Barbara Hammer, a filmmaker friend who died of breast cancer in March, and what I learned from all those women in different ways, and how much life is stronger than anything else.

Barbara was a prolific, pioneering queer experimental filmmaker. Did you spend a lot of time with her in her last months, when she dedicated energy to the fight for legal, assisted euthanasia?

I did. I was not a close friend, but we did a lot of things in Queer/Art [the nonprofit arts organization] together. At her memorial service there were five people in the middle of collaborations with her who were all going to keep those collaborations going. I was so struck by how full a force Barbara was even as she faced something terminal. So you could say this is a film about money, family, love, intimacy, parents and children, and moviemakers, and I've been experiencing all those different things at once over the past few years. I wanted to speak about those contrasts, because I found it very inspiring that in some ways death doesn’t win.

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Isabelle Huppert and "Frankie" director Ira Sachs.

Isabelle Huppert (left) and Frankie director Ira Sachs.

What would be on your to-do list if you knew you had only a short time to live?

Isabelle Huppert said she came to think of Frankie as a stand-in for me as a filmmaker: Frankie is trying to orchestrate the future and control everything, and I can imagine that would be my modus operandi. I guess a bucket list implies you can think about the end, but really, all you can think about is what’s going on now.

Would you ask the doctors to at least keep you alive to vote on Election Day 2020, for the sake of your kids’ futures?

Gosh, every minute I’m trying to figure out how long this nightmare is gonna last.

Did you have any epiphanies while shooting Frankie?

Well, to actually spend a good chunk of time outside New York and realize there were places to live that weren’t this city was very transformative. I’ve been here for so long with such a narrow focus, so that was really meaningful to me. One thing I feel that’s been lost in NYC is interiors. So few public spaces carry the history of the city with them. Everything has been torn out. It makes me want to travel.

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Isabelle Huppert in "Frankie."

Isabelle Huppert in Frankie.

How was working with some European arthouse cinema icons like Isabelle and Jérémie?

It was really great. We shared a lot of references and a curiosity, and they’re both so good that I knew my job was to set them up and give them everything they needed to surprise me. I think Jérémie is an incredible actor—he was very good in the Ozon film Double Lover recently.

Although Frankie has a gay character, this isn’t a “gay” film à la Love Is Strange or Keep the Lights On. Did you consider having a more prominent LGBTQ plotline?

Well, first, I think Pascal’s character is kind of all-knowing. He’s now living his life as a gay man, and it was important to us for that voice to be there. I guess I also think about director George Cukor [who directed Judy Garland in A Star Is Born]. As a gay man and queer filmmaker, I feel very happy when I’m working with female actresses, on the level of Isabelle and Marisa specifically, because I have some amount of sensitivity to the female story. If I’m lucky I can be called a “women’s director” as much as I can be called a “gay director.” I hope.

Variety called Frankie an “immaculately crafted version of an Eric Rohmer film.” How do you feel about that comparison?

It’s being compared to films I love, so I have no complaints. As far as Rohmer, it was less in the writing process, but we were definitely watching 1983’s Pauline at the Beach very closely [Pascal co-starred in that film]. One of the things I really love about Rohmer is there was a relationship between his cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who was a gay man, and Rohmer, who was the director of these films. There was a mutual love of the body, of skin, and of color and brightness, and it was non-hierarchical. The adoration of the male body was as important as that of the female, and there’s a sexiness in their work together that I felt akin to and learned from.

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Isabelle Huppert in "Frankie."

You also worked on two projects for TV between shooting Love Is Strange and Little Men. What were they?

A Montgomery Clift project for HBO and a limited series based on writer Tim Murphy’s novel Christodora, neither of which happened. Both are super queer and super gay, and the economic challenges of making commercial queer work are as prevalent as ever.

Are they totally dead projects, or can they be shopped around to other networks like Hulu and Showtime?

They could be shopped around, but I’m not sure I’m going to be the one doing the shopping. I’m unexpectedly still making personal indie feature films, and I’m perfectly happy if that’s all I get to do. I feel very comfortable.

You and Mauricio always seem to have another film brewing by the time your latest is released. What’s on tap next?

We’re working on a film set in New York about a father and his three daughters.

As a first timer at the Cannes Film Festival with a film in competition, did you have any memorable moments there? You know, like spotting George Clooney across the room or paying $80 for a martini?

There was one night around 1am when Boris [Torres, Sachs' husband] and I were walking through the town in tuxedos because we’d just been at a screening, and a man stopped us to take our picture. I thought for a moment, Wow, I guess I’ve arrived. Then afterwards he gave me a card because he was stopping everyone to see if they wanted their picture taken and then they'd pay him for the copies. So that was immediately humbling. I’m still learning the ropes!

Frankie is currently playing in select theaters.

Main image: Marisa Tomei (left) and Isabelle Huppert in Frankie.