I’m Only Interested in the Real: A Conversation Between Rachel Cusk and Ira Sachs

By Rachel CuskMay 3, 2024

I’m Only Interested in the Real: A Conversation Between Rachel Cusk and Ira Sachs
This article is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 41: Truth. Become a member to get this issue plus the next four issues of the LARB Quarterly.


ONE MIGHT CALL Ira Sachs a writer’s filmmaker. His subtle scenarios adhere to—and glory in—the confines of the same reality the writer apprehends through language, a reality whose moral composition and problems of subjectivity are as tangible as its spatial and visual parameters. Each of his seven films, dramas that could be called “domestic” were they not so finely connected to the outer politics of their time and place, takes the distinctive form that has become the stamp of his filmmaking: the presentation of a surface that the film breaks and penetrates with a patient, relentless momentum, until its truth is revealed.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Sachs takes upon himself the full difficulty of the lived moment, which his medium offers countless temptations to elude or falsify. Most importantly, his films acknowledge the presence of the self, its content, its experience, in the process of representation: this is how we know they are true. To describe them as autobiographical is, in this context, to offer them the highest artistic accolade. The very last thing, it seems to me, that film can do easily and comfortably is to preserve what might be called, not a style or a vision, but a voice.

In Passages (2023), Sachs’s most recent film, that voice is instantly recognizable: passionate and compassionate, alert to the hidden violence of human interaction, embroiled yet unable to interfere, like an observant child who has no power over what he sees unfolding in front of him. The film, with outstanding performances by its triangle of actors (Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos), is a magnificently delicate exploration of the politics of desire, power, and possession in intimate relationships. In its management of sexuality and the body—in this case, via a collision of gay and straight narratives—it is perhaps his boldest venture to date. Its “writerly” quality yields depths of character and moral complexity that indeed seem novelistic, yet the contemporary immediacy of its visual world achieves something much more lifelike. The film was shot in Paris, and though the majority of Sachs’s films are American tales, this more heterogeneous sense of place speaks to his European influences and gives his vision a new universality.

It was in Paris, while he was making Passages, that I got to know Sachs better, and this conversation about his work is, in a sense, a distillation of our conversations and correspondence over the past while.


RACHEL CUSK: I’ve found that, even though I have millions and millions of questions to ask you, the first thing I wrote is “How are you feeling about Passages?” For me, your work is such a continuum. It’s a world, it’s a territory that is very, very distinctively yours, and yet, it also feels so lifelike—such a living thing—that one enters it through various doors. The door is the film, the particular film that you happen to be watching, but once you’re in the film, you know that you’re in this reality again.

Passages has that feeling, and yet there’s a distinct kind of urgency about it. I wondered whether that urgency was personal to you, whether it had to do with the moment of life you’re in, to do with your oeuvre and its momentum, where it suddenly felt like, by sticking to your guns, by sticking to your aesthetic, you were, at the same time, sort of bursting out into the world in a different way. I feel that I can actually relate to that—this way of keeping to an aesthetic as a kind of movement in itself. Or even a triumph of will or force. People actually start to get what you’re doing. All that is to say that it seemed to me that Passages was getting recognition in a bigger way, and I was wondering how you were feeling about it?

IRA SACHS: Well, you’re saying a lot of things there that I—

I’m not a very good interviewer.

No, no, that describes a lot of things that I feel. You’re a good observer in the sense that I feel my films are so closely connected to who I am in the moment in which they are made. They seem to be me. I could see myself grow up in the course of the films, and I think that’s the advantage of always having created my own work. But you know, you could look at Hollywood studio directors, and I’m sure you could find similar narratives, the difference between late Wyler and early Wyler or something like that. Of course, he didn’t create all the work. But I think what is convenient is that I’m generally trying to work on something new. So, the positive thing about the experience of Passages is that nothing hurt, for the most part, since the film entered the public sphere. And so, that’s like ground underneath my feet, which I’m really appreciative of, and it gives me a place to stand. But I’m working on something new. So, there are no laurels to rest on because you’re ahead, right?

I think, at a certain point, when I began working on a new project, it was like, Oh, people liked that. Will I be able to repeat something that people liked? Which has disappeared. Now it’s just like, Can I make something good and meaningful to me? Can I realize the amorphous shape of something into reality? And that’s what I want to wake up thinking about. I think my career’s based on a Montessori education to some extent. You get approval for finishing certain things in order, but then, also, you have expectations of finishing the next thing. So, to me, it’s always, what is the next thing?

I don’t know whether a Montessori education creates a person who is not tormented by shame. I don’t think you are tormented by shame.

Oh, god, no, I have been. My life’s shame would be the theme that I would say is consistent.

I’ve thought many, many times that what is so strange and distinctive in your work and your voice is that it is novelistic, that watching one of your films is so close to reading. For me, when the image comes so close to the word, it raises questions about the moral status of literature. I wonder about the idea of words and being satisfied to suggest the image that the reader then sort of screens in their head. Something in your films seems to come very close to that territory. Part of what makes your films so literary, so novelistic, is their subtlety, and the peril of subtlety is that it needs corresponding subtlety in the watcher or reader. I suppose the danger is of not being intricately, properly understood.

I think what hurts is often the encounter with capitalism and all its tangents, in the sense that you’re making something that’s deeply personal, and then it arrives and it becomes a commodity, and that’s by nature painful. Specifically, it’s like encountering two bodies—you have the critical body and you have the industry body, and both of them can hurt you and also make your future less certain as an artist. That’s what you encounter as you release something into the audience and into the world.

I have such reverence for the novel, and I appreciate you seeing in the work an aesthetic that is maybe grounded in the novel, because I would say my education as an artist began with the novel. The novel has been more important to me than any other art form—particularly when I was really young. But I’m always interested in how I fail to achieve certain things that a novel can do and that writers do.

I could talk about failure, but I do think there are ways that moviemaking is like writing, especially the ways in which silence and space and cinematic movement can create paragraphs, or what I consider paragraphs. So, there isn’t just text and there isn’t just subtext. There’s also language in the image and in ambiguity. I try to preserve the ambiguous in particular.

To me, the killer blow of that defense, of that distinction between the two forms, is that the hardest thing to achieve in writing is any kind of semblance of objectivity, and to create something that doesn’t feel like the sordid little thing that you just sort of came up with all on your own, and you’re pretending that these people exist, and you’re pretending they’re saying this, that, and the other, and they’re doing things to each other. The glory of what you’re doing is that your fingerprints aren’t all over it, and one can actually suspend disbelief, be in that created world without feeling manipulated and without feeling that, actually, they’ve somehow been conscripted into an author’s subjectivity.

An author’s plot, not just the plot of the story, but the plot of living. I reduce that in practice to: never point.

Your actors are not allowed to point, or you don’t point?

My actors would have a hard time pointing because we don’t talk about meaning. I try to avoid talking about meaning. And I think that’s something that I have been encouraged by Passages to refine even more, which is to avoid meaning. I think what you’re saying about subtlety is also about associative understandings of people and story. I’m naturally associative, so I think my conversations are associative. I think my eye is associative. And for me, it’s like the quality of the film is based on how precise but open those associations are for myself and the audience.

Let’s talk about Love Is Strange (2014). Watching it made me realize how thin of meaning most contemporary cinema is. You show the ways in which people love or are warm to or are considered to be having meaningful relationships with others, as a form of, not selfishness exactly, but a kind of self-adornment or self-love. So, you give us the situation where apparently there’s this wonderful group of supportive friends who are celebrating this couple, but actually, when they have to help them, their moral dysfunction is pitilessly exposed. And that film is a film that has a plan. It really does. And it very much takes you by surprise. It’s a level of satire that one is not used to experiencing in cinema.

I think that, in some ways, these things are connected: the moral flaw and the artistic flaw. If you were using pop terminology, you’d say it’s a form of impostor syndrome, but to me, it’s also really trying to be human and understand that humans have limits because of need and fear. In all my films generally, people do something that they really would say to themselves they shouldn’t do, right? I think the difference when I think about your work and my work, and possibly why we met—because I was interested in adapting your book Outline (2014) and felt I had nothing to add, it was a complete experience that I would only make less of in cinema—is that I do think the feature film is more like an O. Henry kind of work, a different space from that of the novel.

I’m not sure I quite know what an O. Henry space is, because I’m English.

Oh, it’s like a little fable in which something turns in a moment that changes everything unexpectedly. A short story.

So, it’s actually what novelists are trying not to do but cinema-makers should do a lot more of.

What I’m saying is I’m my own character. I know both what is good about me and also what is bad about me, or I’m trying to figure that out. And I’ve been in therapy with my psychoanalyst—

Which we’re allowed to talk about.

Of course. It’s not a 12-step program. We can talk about it. I find that I keep—now this is going down a rabbit hole—but I keep struggling with my desire to control myself as a character in other people’s eyes. I want to be able to see everything you see about me and spot it before you do or before you pretend you don’t. So, if you see a flaw, I want to see it first.

But the flaw is identity—or, rather, the limitation is identity. And you, like me, are very careful about that: you know what is legitimate for you to observe and talk about, and you’re not going to start raiding other fields of experience. I find that a very unusual position in contemporary Anglophone cinema. It’s unusual enough in literature as well. For me, this is the sort of red-hot problem: what one does, or I do, as a moral position, I guess, which is to keep very strictly within the bounds of—not autobiography but the self-terrain, what one is entitled to know and observe. I think that is the sort of tormenting point of shame or self-doubt, when in fact it is actually an artistic necessity for me and for you.

The difference is, I think by nature, that when you make cinema, you work with people other than yourself. I made an autobiographical film, where the character based on me was played by a Danish actor, who was not me. And if you’re Danish, you have a different experience, you have different siblings, you have different apartments, you have different rooms. And also, I’m building those rooms.

The challenge—and you hit the nail on the head because it’s exactly what I wake up worrying about when I think about new work—is how to create worlds with which you believe that I am the most intimate.

I’m currently working on a film called Arthur Russell, set in New York in the late ’80s, which was a place I lived, in New York in the late ’80s. I’m close, but I have to create new versions of that. It’s why I sometimes wish I could be a documentary filmmaker, because then the real is there. In a way, I’m only interested in the real. And real meaning to me is the intimate—I have to change real to intimate. So, capturing intimacy in a space and among a group of people is really important to me, capturing how we are in relation to other people, whether it be in a bedroom, or a nightclub, or a car, or a restaurant, each of those.

But the question is, How do you create intimacy? How do you access the real? You work so much from self and self-experience that the real challenge is language. And for me, it’s actually enactment.

There’s another challenge: a person reading my books or watching your films can say, “They don’t include all these other identities and experiences.” The very thing, the very restraint one exercises, in some people’s eyes looks like exclusion or narrowness. For me, that’s the wake-up-every-day problem, because I think I’ve created my work by continuously finding what is radical in my identity, but that is a thread that has to be picked out very painstakingly every time, because it’s extremely easy to miss it and to get it wrong.

It also changes because, sometimes, there is no good answer, and other times, the answer is, “Okay, my experiences are running across a broad swath of universality here.” So, sometimes there is a radicalness to my voice, and at other times, that isn’t true, or I lose it.

For you, what is the distinction between autobiography and observation? To take it one step further, what does your identity entitle you to observe? Is it sex between men? Do you have that same experience of a radical thing in your identity that needs to be tended to? A flame that needs to be protected?

What comes to my mind are certain moments in my work where I’ve succeeded, and certain moments where I’ve failed, at understanding others who are not me. I made a film called The Delta (1996), my first feature. I spent so much time with this young half–African American, half-Vietnamese immigrant, who stars in the film. I spent so many months in his world, and I think that helped me get some things right in my depiction. There’s a sense of authenticity of place and community.

Then I look at a scene in Love Is Strange where I imagine an apartment where a Latin man lives with his boyfriend, and I realize that I didn’t get it right that time—I kind of made it up. I can feel the difference. So, to me, what you’re asking has so much to do with practice.

For this East Village film set in 1980s New York, I just need to spend the next year going out a lot. I need to be in clubs. I need to see people perform, because that’s in my movie. I need to do the work of the documentarian in order to create the work of a fiction filmmaker.

That sounds a lot more fun than writing a novel.

Well, it’s a lot more fun, but you still have to do the work. So, in Passages, for example, there are two scenes in the workplace of the Ben Whishaw character. I think I actually got it right in the film. I think you believe that’s his job and his workplace and you believe what you’re seeing. And I did that just by spending an afternoon there with my iPhone recording a person actually doing this job, and using the exact dialogue from those moments. We also cast the people who came through the office space. These people are playing themselves.

Doesn’t that make it more fake rather than more real? But also, does it matter if things are a bit fake?

If they’re a bit fake, they can also be shallow, and I’m trying to avoid that. In a novel or a film, you’re only giving a certain amount of information. You’re rendering certain things that either make it more real or more fake. But real doesn’t mean realistic. It means something else, right?

It’s funny how narrative artworks behave in time. Now, when you watch an old black-and-white movie where two people are sitting in a car, and you know the background was shot in a studio, the trick is very obvious. And also, the content is distilled by that consciousness of fakery, so that it almost becomes more—the dramatic art is enlarged by the feeling of the scenery and the cardboard scenery, if you see what I mean.

Yeah, but these are very different kinds of works. I’m working in a realistic style. There is a history of realism that I am engaged with, which has to do with something very different than rear projection. So, you’re talking about the fact that the entirety of the language for certain artists is different based on period, based on taste. I mean, Fassbinder isn’t real, but it’s real.

Do you feel of your time? Just to consider the question of influence—

I do, but I feel like, as I imagine for any artist, my time contains the history of my medium. So, I mean, my influences tend to be between 1978 and 1982, weirdly. If I look at a film and I’m like, well, that film, I just need to study and be with it and think about it, it almost always is ’77 to ’84, let’s say. In that way, I’m a little bit out of my time. But that time seems pretty recent to me because the movies that I love don’t age.

I wanted to talk about actors and character. Your movie Forty Shades of Blue (2005) continues to have the most haunting effect on me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I probably think about that film every couple of days, because of its portrayal of womanhood and femininity. Part of that is the actor, but the director is the unseen hand in this. You conceive of your films and you conceive of these characters so your actors enact, to an extraordinary level of sophistication, something that seems to be partly theirs and partly yours. How do you get this out of the people you’re working with?

I think about film being nonnarrative and having the impact of a painting, like you could actually remember it as a whole, as if it exists at once. That’s a good direction for how to make a movie: what is the emotional and visual impact that will linger, or that might linger? That gives me a sense that maybe I can make a few mistakes when it comes to authenticity, but if I make something that has power, it doesn’t matter. The viewer might not remember the moments of falseness.

That was my point about things being fake not mattering, because at its best, visual media presents something that’s eternally recurring. There’s a lot of that in Passages as well: these scenes are always happening, like a visual artwork, a painting that is happening in the now and has an eternal character. That seems to be something that you and a few other, a very few other, great filmmakers can do.

I think the advantage the filmmaker has over the novelist is that the actor writes so many paragraphs that I could never write. They do that because I’ve set up the factory or the possibility or the opportunity. And I’ve set that up not just by casting but by the image, by everything that goes into the moment that the actor acts. But then, I’m also suddenly an observer of another artist.

There’s this beautiful moment in Forty Shades of Blue when Dina Korzun walks across the living room with a glass of white wine. I remember being in the room when we shot that, and she was moving like a robot. There was nothing real about what she was doing in that moment. And I was just experiencing a form of joy because the real and the unreal were coming together through her.

For filmmakers, collaboration is part of the art form, and it’s very different for novelists. In a way, that’s what’s happening right here in this interview: the pleasure of what you give me and I give you and you give me and I give you. And ultimately, that makes something that we hope is compelling and interesting and has moments of beauty. In a way, that’s my talent, or at least, the talent I’m the most comfortable with and the most confident about—my ability to see originality and beauty and detail in what other people create. I’m a creator, but also, other people are part of my creation. With actors specifically, I try to give them a sense that they’re being watched and that they can trust to be free, but I try not to talk very much.

It’s notable for me, especially in Forty Shades of Blue, that you provide a situation in which the actor reconnects with the experience of living. They recognize something so true that they actually ignite and are living. They’re not acting, they’re living. And I think the best you can hope for as a writer is that there are certain passages in your work where the reader stops reading and is living, is actively becoming something, participating in whatever sort of magic it is that descends at these moments, when there’s a different kind of contact with life and with truth.

I think that what you’re describing is beautiful and an interesting way to think about reading. I’m imagining it’s not your strategy as a writer. That is something you can think about not in the process but in the consideration.

It almost just happens—when you’re writing, moments take flight in some way you can feel, where it feels like something coming to you from outside yourself. One assumes that those are exactly the same places where the reader can also have that experience.

I think that what happens in film is a moment of joy when everything seems to happen and it seems like, in fact, nothing is happening but what’s in front of you. And I remember there were moments of actual joy in the creation of Passages, which also, by the way, can be really rare in directing, which is usually one minute of anxiety after the next. It’s almost traumatic because you are actually trying to corral the uncorrallable and turn it into something very specific. It’s very hard, I have to say.

We haven’t spoken about the script, which is, of course, really, really significant. I’ve worked with Mauricio Zacharias as my co-writer on five films, and I have to say that the script gives you a kind of … I think of it as the coatrack. Let’s just use that word. The script is the coatrack.


The moment I’m describing in Forty Shades of Blue, the script is what makes it so meaningful: the story, consequence, suspense. I have traditional narrative goals in my work.

It makes me think of the discipline and classicism of that kind of storytelling and the risk of people not giving it enough time, not giving it enough of their attention in order to understand what you’re actually doing.

I have what I call my “monsters”: Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, Yasujirō Ozu, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Henry James makes you believe that everything has to have value. Every detail has to have narrative value. There isn’t a stray line in Henry James that doesn’t move forward some part of the narrative. Maybe not the plot, but the narrative. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such a hard time with his last few books. I’ve never read The Ambassadors (1903), for example, because there’s less of an interest in narrative tension. And I tend to like a book that has story.

This isn’t what most people go to Henry James for, but in fact, when I say your films are novelistic, I mean they’re Jamesian.

There’s a wonderful essay by—is it Elizabeth Hardwick?—where she really finds fault with James for establishing almost a system of capitalism, portraying people by ascribing an almost monetary value to self and others, to living, to social transactions. It’s almost like capitalism in its totality and in its control of the most intimate parts of experience. Hardwick tracks that down to what she sees as an immoral use of language, particularly around the class differences between characters. She catches him out, in his endless weighing of humans as part of a capitalistic system.

I would be interested in what she would make of Trollope, who is even more extensive in that way. I love when people poke holes in your monsters because then you see them as human. And even if you disagree, it’s liberating.

I had that with Cassavetes when someone once said to me, “There’s so much acting in his movies. It’s all acting.” At first, I was like, “Ah,” but I now consider it kind of perfect. It’s all acting. That’s great. But it’s nice to see even the duality of your greats, and the fallibility of your greats, though I don’t really see it with Henry James. It would be hard to find. In a way, Hardwick’s problem with James is exactly what I think is fundamental to the drama of my films: capitalism and economics. The character cannot be separated from money.

Let’s turn to sex in your films, which seems to be outside the economic system. There’s something about the indelibility of the act, and the fact that I suppose its indelibility arises from the surrender of individuality. It’s a situation in which people are no longer in control in this morally capitalistic way that we’ve been talking about.

I’ve really wondered about filming sex scenes: the camera, the voyeurism of the camera, the fake make-believe. You come perilously close to a Wizard of Oz presence. You’re projecting this and designing it. Those scenes in particular make me realize that you have a very unusual presence in your films.

I think what comes to mind is that we are bodies. And there are moments in which the physicality of life becomes dominant. As you said, two men having sex with each other is an experience that I can access because of my identity, but in all my movies I’m really trying to understand the animal nature of human beings, both in terms of their desires and in terms of their bodies.

Also, I really do identify as a man. And I think, in some ways, your novels seem to me grounded in that they are written by you as a woman. And so, before I become a gay man, I’m a man. And part of what that voyeurism is about is power. There’s a lot of power in it, right?


Part of what those scenes do is create the visual and emotional impact we discussed earlier. Impact is like resonance. It’s the residue of the film, which is calculated. This scene will be longer than other scenes. This shot will be longer than other shots. And so, then it becomes like the poetry of the film.

I’ve just been reading in French and translating, myself, Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus (1942), and he talks a lot about corporeality. In the end, he says, “My body is the proof.” It’s the proof that I’m going to die, and that God doesn’t exist. Your sex scenes, if I had to describe them in a phrase or an utterance—if they were an utterance—it would be something like, “This is all there is.” There’s just watching, and watching these bodies do this. They anchor the films in mortality, which then makes caring about living so complex.

For me, one of the things that death allows is the encouragement to take risks because it allows me to be certain what is there to lose. I think, in order to continue, I have to ask myself, What is there to lose?

What is there?

I think that’s the end.

I think that’s the end. That’s a good ending. Oh, lord.

Well, we’re both writers.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Cusk is the author of Second Place (2021), the Outline trilogy (2014–18), the memoirs A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), and several other works of fiction and nonfiction. She is a Guggenheim Fellow. She lives in Paris.


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