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Writer-director Ira Sachs on his new film 'Passages'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tomas and Martin are a married couple. They live in Paris, where Tomas is a film director - comes home one morning after a cast party with an unconvincing explanation that leads to a confession.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PASSAGES")

FRANZ ROGOWSKI: (As Tomas) You know what I was doing last night?

BEN WHISHAW: (As Martin) No, but whatever it was, you sound very excited.

ROGOWSKI: (As Tomas) I had sex with a woman.

SIMON: The couple's personal drama sets off a story of betrayals and complexities of love and desire in Ira Sachs' new film, "Passages," starring Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw. And Ira Sachs, whose previous films include "Little Men" and "Forty Shades of Blue," joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

IRA SACHS: Thank you, Scott. It's great to be here.

SIMON: Before we touch on what draws Tomas and Martin apart, as a filmmaker, do you need to know what brought them together?

SACHS: Yes. I think I need to understand the chemistry and the attraction between both the characters and also the actors; what would make them feel authentic in a couple and as part of a relationship and also two performers together on screen.

SIMON: Tomas, the film director, is hard to like. Is it a creative challenge to have a central character who is so unsympathetic and self-centered?

SACHS: You know, I think there's a difference between the character and the actor. So Franz Rogowski is the opposite of that - who plays Tomas. He's so compelling and alluring to me and I think to a lot of people that I think he - you see someone playing someone who is really involved with themselves. And there's a difference. One of the things we did when we made the film was we watched a number of movies with James Cagney, specifically "White Heat" and "Public Enemy." And in a way, that gave us the permission because in both those films, you see Cagney playing an absolute sociopath but so beautifully and with such charm that it's really magnetic cinematically.

SIMON: I really like Agathe, the woman who comes between them - beautifully played by Adele Exarchopoulos. Do you use her character to show there's another path in life?

SACHS: That's an interesting way to describe it. I think that there are - this is a film of a love triangle. Each point of the triangle, each character at that point has a certain amount of power as well as amount of need. So that's really where the suspense in the film comes because everybody wants something they can't have. That's not exclusive to Tomas. And also, each of the characters sometimes behaves badly, and I think that's important. Nobody's really a victim in this film, and no one doesn't have choice. And I think part of what you see in the film is when people come to the point of choosing, when they make choices in their lives, and that's the drama of the film. When will that happen, or will it happen?

SIMON: Yeah. And may I ask, did you pointedly make the third side of the triangle a woman? Or could it have just easily been a man or someone who identifies as nonbinary?

SACHS: Yes. I definitely made a choice that this was a couple that was used to being in a gay relationship, and then something shifted. I think what's interesting to me is the possibility of things shifting in our lives that happen unexpectedly. I also think watching the film now, it's a little bit different because of the age of the three actors in comparison to my own age. I'm in my late 50s. These people are in their late 20s and late 30s. And the identity of these characters is not as fixed as for my generation. You don't feel like it's a big deal that Tomas is sleeping with a woman. You feel it's a big deal that he's moving out of his house and moving into someone - with someone new. And that seems, to me, very contemporary. It's something I wouldn't have been able to make 30 years ago.

SIMON: The film is rated NC-17. There are a couple of scenes of what I'll call unambiguous scenes of mutually consenting adults having sex. I have read you don't like this NC-17 rating. Why?

SACHS: My question is not why did this film get an NC-17, but why do we still have a board of nameless individuals who make decisions about what they think we should see? I also think this kind of moment really is a warning to other filmmakers that if you create certain kinds of images, you will be punished. And that upsets me more than for my own film.

SIMON: Do you feel you're being punished with this rating?

SACHS: Of course. You're - you know, it's economic punishment. What other forms of - what is this kind of censorship for if not to limit? That's what it does. So it limits the number of theaters. It limits the people who can actually see the material. It's not so different from a school board in Texas deciding what books can go into the library.

SIMON: You'd be comfortable with a 13-year-old seeing the film?

SACHS: Of course. Yes. It's - you know, in Spain it was given a 12+ recommendation, which means they don't say any age that isn't appropriate for the film, and they encourage kids of an age under 12 - it's maybe too adult for them. But it's not that the imagery is in any way more shocking than what you see in a kind of - films of violence that are seen every day by kids.

SIMON: Do you think the fact that one of the encounters is between two men also provides for the rating?

SACHS: You know, it's really hard to say what the decisions are because we don't know who's making these decisions. They're like a - they're like Big Brother. What I can say is that I made a very gentle film called "Love Is Strange" with no sex, and it really could have been an after-school special, and that film was given an R rating. It's a film about two older men in a gay relationship. What would be the reason to reduce the audience for a film like "Love Is Strange"? You know, I got to make the film that I wanted to make, I - and that for me was something - after the pandemic, it was a great freedom to feel like I got to create images that were personal to me with liberty. And I think that's the kind of cinema that I hope to make.

SIMON: There is a stunning scene at the end where Tomas, contending with much emotion, rides his bike into the night through the streets of Paris. Can Tomas only make commitments to his films?

SACHS: You know, the film is called "Passages" because, for me, it's a film about people and characters who are in the middle. You don't necessarily know exactly the history that came before, and you can't really state where these characters will be in five years' time. But you do sense that there is change. Something shifts. And to me, that's the most exciting thing about what cinema can do. It can observe shifting - emotions and moments of drama that might go unnoticed if there wasn't the camera there.

SIMON: Ira Sachs, director of the film "Passages" out this week. Thank you so much for being with us.

SACHS: Thank you, Scott. This was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRA STRELISKI'S "PLUS TOT")

SIMON: And an update about that NC-17 rating for the film - the distributor of "Passages" has decided to release it to the theaters unrated. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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