NEW YORK — Not many films capture the complex emotional and sexual intimacy of a romantic relationship with such bracing honesty and insight as “Keep the Lights On,” the award-winning new film from director Ira Sachs that opens in the Boston area on Friday.
The film centers on two gay men — one a Danish-born documentary filmmaker, the other a publishing industry lawyer — as their relationship cycles through periods of blossoming, renewal, and decay over the course of a decade. While Paul (Zachary Booth) battles a spiraling crack addiction, sometimes disappearing for days at a time, Erik (Thure Lindhardt) struggles with his enabling tendencies and an inability to be honest with his partner and himself. Both men evince a pronounced codependent streak. Critics have praised the film for its claustrophobic depiction of a long-term relationship that’s scarred by fear, shame, and compulsive behavior.
“Capturing intimacy is pretty much the only thing I’m interested in,” acknowledges Sachs during a recent interview over lunch at a SoHo cafe. “That’s what excites me and what I find beautiful in movies personally — that almost obscene sense that we shouldn’t be this close to these people. I find that very inviting and meaningful as an audience member.”
It’s no wonder “Keep the Lights On” portrays the ebb and flow and the subtle shifts of a long-term relationship with disarming candor. The film is an autobiographical refraction of Sachs’s own tumultuous coupling with the literary agent-turned-writer Bill Clegg. Adding to the intrigue, the story has already been chronicled from the other side of the equation by Clegg, who wrote about his secret drug problem and his relationship with Sachs in his 2010 memoir, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.”
Some writer-directors tend to run screaming from any suggestion that their films draw from an autobiographical source. But Sachs refreshingly embraces the personal inspiration in his work. In his 2005 film, “Forty Shades of Blue,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Sachs loosely based Rip Torn’s character, a narcissistic, larger-than-life record producer, on his own father. But with “Keep the Lights On,” his fifth feature, Sachs’s personal behavior is on more prominent display.
“I’ve always drawn upon my personal experience as the thing I know best and the thing I have to offer as an artist, a resonance that’s very deep that I can share,” says Sachs. “At the same time, as a storyteller I need to have some perspective and the ability to analyze behavior. I need to avoid being submerged in my own experience so much that I don’t have insights.”
So even though “Keep the Lights On” has an autobiographical origin, “I was never making biography,” Sachs says.
Bespectacled and bearded and looking every bit like the NYU film professor he is, Sachs says that he and his ex have agreed not to talk about one another publicly. Their relationship, which ended in 2007, has receded into the past. Sachs has since gotten married — to the painter, Boris Torres, whose work is featured in the film. And he enthusiastically shows off camera phone photos of their 9-month-old twins.
While the film contains some wrenching moments, nothing in it feels sensationalized or confessional. For Sachs, though, the film is about shame and the little secret compartments that we keep hidden, from those closest to us and even from ourselves.
“That’s where the title ‘Keep the Lights On’ comes from in a way: the lack of transparency between each of these men with the other and also them as a couple with the world,” he says. “That’s ultimately what was so destructive about their relationship.”
Dishonesty can be a powerful addiction in its own right and can spin wildly out of control, and Paul and Erik both traffic in secrets and lies. After Erik and his friends stage an intervention that propels Paul into rehab, Erik candidly tells his best friend Claire (Julianne Nicholson) why he never shared the truth about Paul’s addiction with her before. “I’ve been hiding crucial events in my life since I was 13,” he says of the secret-keeping tendencies that the closet can foster.
“This film talks about a lot of things that are very prevalent in gay life, including issues of monogamy and addiction, and the spaces between the things that you tell your partner you did today. All those spaces that I think gay people often just avoid,” he says. “I find that people in general recognize that in the film and they recognize it in themselves, yet they prefer still not to talk about it.”
Sachs says he believes that certain types of people willfully ignore the warning signs of a bad relationship ahead, signing up for trouble that they secretly know is coming. “In the first month of a relationship, if someone pulls out a crack pipe, 50 percent of the world doesn’t move in with that person. But the other 50 percent does,” he says. “A lot of people think, ‘This is a troubled person. This is someone I can help. Someone I think I can save. Someone who will actually love me — even if on some level that means I’m not loving myself.’ ”
Indeed, there’s a cycle of codependence between Erik and Paul that will be familiar to viewers in 12-step programs. (Sachs himself belongs to Al-Anon, for family and friends of addicts.)
“There’s this constant gnawing feeling that you need this other person for your life to have meaning and to have value. And that’s where addiction has a good entryway, because something has got to fill up that emptiness.”
For Booth, it was important not to simply make Paul the villain, even if the audience may strain to sympathize with him.
“I often get feedback from people at Q&As that Paul is this dark, unlovable character who just ruins Erik’s life. You know, he doesn’t care about his partner, he only cares about the next high. So it would be very easy to make him a one-dimensional figure,” Booth explains via phone. “But because I had to get inside his head and rationalize his choices, I don’t see it that way. He’s a good human being but is dealing with a crippling addiction. And Paul is the person in this story who acknowledges his faults and actually changes. So I felt that the challenge was to bring some lightness to what could be seen as a very dark character.”
“Keep the Lights On” incorporates various references to underground gay culture. Erik is working on a documentary about photographer Avery Willard, an unsung trailblazer who steadfastly recorded the oft-hidden history of gay life in the city for 50 years. And the film’s score is made up of the strange, ethereal cello strains of the late seminal downtown figure Arthur Russell.
“At my age, I’ve started to be very aware that there were people before, and there will be people after. So I’m interested in aligning myself with that history,” Sachs explains. “When I was watching my film the other day, I thought that for some young gay filmmaker, it could be for them what ‘Parting Glances’ was to me in the ’80s. That film gave me a sense of what might be possible, both in terms of the world that I might enter but also the films I might make.”
Sachs’s follow-up film, which he plans to shoot next spring, will be a departure for him in at least one significant way. Titled “Love Is Strange,” the film centers on two older gay men who are torn apart after 28 years of romance when one of them gets fired from his job and the couple loses their home. The film chronicles their efforts to stay together after they are forced to live apart because of financial circumstances.
“Really, it’s about the possibility of love blossoming in the course of a long life together,” says Sachs. “It’s also about a relationship that has grown in depth instead of destroyed itself over time. And it’s the first film I’ve made since I’ve sensed that is possible. I’m not interested in a film about deceit anymore. I think I was always invested in deceit on some level. But it no longer compels me the way it did for so many years.”