Ira Sachs Is Dedicated to Telling Queer Stories on the Big Screen

The Passages director on independent filmmaking, censorship and the dynamics of power

BY Ira Sachs AND Chloe Stead in Film , Interviews | 14 DEC 23

Premiering at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Passages tells the story of a toxic menage et tois between two men and a woman in Paris. As messy as it is sexy, the film has since been nominated for a host of awards, including Best Feature at The Gotham Awards and the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards. Its lead, Franz Rogowski, even took home the award for Best Actor at The New York Critics Circle, beating out Ryan Gosling and Cillian Murphy. It’s a magnificent return to form from writer-director Ira Sachs whose decades-long career as an independent filmmaker has been, in his own words, ‘hard fought and hard to sustain’. Here, he reflects on the reaction of audiences – and censors – to his newest creation.

Portrait of Ira Sachs. Courtesy of the director and Mubi; photograph: Jeong Park

Chloe Stead What was the starting point of Passages?

Ira Sachs I start each of my films with a curiosity about certain ways of being in the world. During the pandemic and the lockdown, which is when Passages began, I was aware of what it was to be a man with a good amount of power, who wanted more. I felt a compelling interest in the distance between what I had and what I wanted. I asked myself, why? Why do I want more, and why do I think I should have more?

CS Many of your previous films were set in New York City. What was it about Paris that made it the right place to tell this story?

IR I lived in Paris in the mid-1980s. I’ve had relationships, breakups and sex in Paris; I’ve cried in Paris. French cinema is the national cinema that has meant the most to me in my creative life, and it was a pleasure not to resist that history when making the film. I also wanted to work with Franz [Rogowski], and I could imagine him in this city, which is one that invites many different types of creative people.

CS Rogowski plays a film director called Tomas, whose impulsive and reckless behaviour towards his lovers, Agathe and Martin, is what drives the film’s narrative. As a character, he’s incredibly manipulative but also charismatic and alluring. How did you get this balance right?

IS To be honest, I didn’t find Tomas a difficult character to create. I heard that the other night there was a Q&A in Estonia where someone described him as charming. I was so glad to hear it because I spend a lot of time hearing people say he’s repellent, and I’m like, wow, I really love that guy. In making the film, Franz asked the same question you’re asking: how do we make sure he’s not too much for the audience? My response was to show him James Cagney movies. The history of film is filled with men behaving badly.

CS On the topic of men behaving badly, the sex scenes in Passages have received a lot of attention. What was it you wanted to capture in these moments?

IS There are three sex scenes, two with Tomas and Agathe and one with Martin and Tomas.

What happens in these scenes is that the audience is both in the room and excluded, because there's an intimacy between two individuals in which they’re not invited to participate. The scene between Tomas and Martin, for instance, pushes the audience because it’s a long shot. In terms of the rhythm of the film, it's a singular moment. I was very inspired by Chantal Akermans Je Tu Il Elle [1974], in which there is an incredibly powerful use of duration to create intimacy. Ultimately, sex in narrative film isn’t interesting unless it does something.

Passages, 2023, film still. Courtesy: SBS Productions

CS Due to these scenes, Passages received a rare NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association (MPA), after which you decided to release it unrated. You called the rating a form of cultural censorship. Do you feel that the rating affected the reception and distribution of the film?

IR First, it was Mubi, not me, who had the power to make the decision about how to release Passages. I'm very grateful that I was never even asked to change it. For me, the issue is less my film, which was released as intended. The question is why this system of censorship still exists. It's important to recognize the history of the MPA's rating system comes directly out of the Hays Code of 1930s America – after this moment freedom was lost in American cinema. Not only were filmmakers told what images to see but also what plots to tell. The MPA rating system is a direct extension of something archaic, homophobic, repressive and stupidbut very powerful.

‘I’ve had relationships, breakups and sex in Paris; I’ve cried in Paris.ʼ

CS: You have been telling queer stories on the big screen since the 1990s. You've spoken in the past about how difficult these stories were to finance, often forcing you to crowd fund to get projects off the ground. Was there a significant difference between producing Passages and producing films earlier in your career?

IS I've built up certain opportunities for myself that are somewhat singular. I'm a privileged person, which is part of what this film is about. If you look at the gay, lesbian and queer filmmakers of my generation, most of them have primarily steered away from queer – or let’s say gay – content in their work to continue the possibilities of their careers. This is more of the case in 2023 than it was for [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini or Derek Jarman. The idea that progress is unidirectional is incorrect. What we see are moments of bravery and then moments of loss.

Passages, 2023, film still. Courtesy: SBS Productions

CS There's a lot of debate right now about whether straight actors should play gay characters. In Love is Strange, which was released in 2014, you cast two actors in long-term marriages with women to play a gay couple. Would you make the same choice today?

IS I don't ask actors who they’ve slept with. That being said, for me, there's pleasure in working with someone who has experienced a queer life that's close to mine, but it's not a necessity. Acting is acting, but I don't think it's meaningless that we cast people who are not identified as queer in queer roles. It's connected to capitalism; it's connected to homogenization; it's connected to white supremacy.

CS You've been incredibly supportive of queer filmmakers throughout your career. Who do you think we should be paying more attention to?

IS I started an organization called Queer|Art in 2009, and I’m astounded by the work queer artists are making, but I continue to see that there is a lack of economic support for that work. Gregg Araki has had an amazingly long career and yet never adapted to be anything but boldly independent. I’m very inspired by a couple of filmmakers in Brazil, Gustavo Vinagre and Fábio Leal, who were working under [former president Jair Messias] Bolsonaro and making incredibly free films – a new queer cinema of Brazil. I think Sebastián Silva is a treasure, a messy treasure! He seems to be making movies from a different time and a different liberty, and I am continually challenged and inspired by his attitude to sex, bodies and freedom.

Passages is available to stream on Mubi.

Main image: Passages, 2023, film still. Courtesy: SBS Productions

Ira Sachs is a filmmaker and the founding director of Queer|Art, which supports LGBTQI+ artists across disciplines and generations.

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.