by Ira Sachs
It took me nearly 25 years to finally feel ready to write a film about New York. My first job in the city was the summer of 1984, when I was the assistant to Eric Bogosian at his office down on Mott Street, and I moved to the city full-time in 1988. When I started writing feature films, my mind and imagination were still rooted in Memphis, where I had grown up, and where I’d made my first two features, The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue. I lived in NYC, but it was my hometown that I knew from the inside. For me to feel ready to make a film about a place, I need both intimacy and distance. The intimacy with this city came over time, with the creation of memories; the distance came much more slowly.
In many ways, New York grabbed me too hard for me to be able to step outside and look at my life with any clarity. Yes, I was in therapy – many days a week, in fact; it was still the age of psychoanalysis – but my life was narrow and obsessive. The things I cared about, and searched out, were love and sex and making movies. The New York I discovered was a nocturnal one, of late nights in cabs, or on subway platforms; in restaurants with a lover starting a fight, before ordering the next drink; of mornings when I hoped the first coffee at the café on Smith Street would help me through the day. I recognized my own New York in the images I saw in films like Goodfellas or Chantal Akerman’s News from Home. A city driven and in motion. Lonely at times, always on the verge of sadness and ecstasy.
But in my late 30s, I had the good/bad fortune of having life as I knew it explode. I was in a relationship that had been ticking dynamite from the start, but that I tried to control and keep going for nearly a decade. The New York of those years was all contrast: daytime shiny surface, nighttime full of secrets and despair (the kind of double life that has become nearly epidemic in dramatic television these days, so, clearly, my story is not unique). But when the cards came tumbling down – symbolized perhaps most dramatically in a 34-day crack binge that left my partner in the Lenox Hill Hospital mental ward and me a trembling wreck alone in our apartment – I knew on some profound level that it was time for a change.
And so I did. It took a few years (and a few 12-step programs), but by 40, I was doing things differently. As a gay man who had come of age in the minutes after Stonewall, to live a transparent life did not come naturally to me. But like a baby who touches the burning stove one last time before knowing not to, when the New York of my 20s and 30s blew up around me – when the burden of hiding my behavior in this city became impossible to maintain – I finally was ready for real change. To put it most simply, I chose to live an honest life.
And it was only then that I felt truly ready, or able, to write a film about this city. With co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, I wrote my fourth feature, and my first set in New York, Keep the Lights On. What I found, happily, is that the stories were there. The experience and the feelings were all there. I now have them all in my hand, and in my mind, and my New York feels for the first time full of movies I must share.
Want to read more essays by Guild members about writing in New York? Click here to check out WGAE’s new “Written in New York” blog!