Isabelle Huppert as Frankie: "“The great thing about Huppert is that when you work with her you feel as if she had never made a film before … and that she will never make another film.” Photo: UniFrance
For someone who has chronicled the lives, loves, tragedies and triumphs of New Yorkers in such films as Love Is Strange and Little Men, Ira Sachs decided to depart from the familiar and head to the Portuguese mountainside town of Sintra, just outside Lisbon, for a narrative about a film star dying from terminal cancer who gathers her family around her for a final farewell.
Sachs grew up with French cinema and lived in Paris in the mid-Eighties when he overdosed in the Left Bank’s warren of screening rooms. “I didn’t speak the language very well, and I didn’t now that many people. As a result I ended up going to the movies. In three months I saw 196 films and discovered a lot of American directors such as John Cassavetes and Vincente Minnelli as well as my heroes such as François Truffaut, Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas.
Ira Sachs: "I feel very lucky to be making cinema that is very directly about my experience in the world.” Photo: UniFrance
No wonder he was over the moon and could barely believe his fortune when Isabelle Huppert agreed to take the title role of Frankie. “She approached me about two years before we made the film,” recalls Sachs. “It is the way she works: she identifies somebody with whom she thinks she might be able to have a creative working relationship. We started talking after she had seen one of my films, Love Is Strange. I wrote Frankie completely with her in mind.
“The great thing about Huppert is that when you work with her you feel as if she had never made a film before … and that she will never make another film. She is so focused. She has very little nostalgia and does not gaze backwards. She likes whatever is the current experience which is very much alive. When she eventually replied I thought someone might be pulling my leg and it was a fake response. I did not know if I would find a project that would be right for me and her. Her agreement in principle was flattering and affirming but it was not until I had the idea of making a story around a family on vacation that I felt she and I would be able to be in a different place. I would never have contemplated making a film with her in France … I just would not have the depth.”
Sachs, as a confirmed cinephile, recalled seeing Kanchenjungha by Satyajit Ray which the legendary Indian director made in 1962 and which was his first colour film. It dealt with a family on vacation in the Himalayas. “I was very moved by the film, and I always remembered the structure - one day, mini stories stretching from morning through to the afternoon and in a place where everyone is a foreigner on some level and out of their normal home. It came back to me when I started working on Frankie. My work is generated by structure and then it becomes more personal and an exploration of experience. In the last five years or so I have been closer to illness, revolving around someone I knew, and in a way that I felt powerfully I wanted to express. I feel very lucky to be making cinema that is very directly about my experience in the world.”
Isabelle Huppert: "She can do very difficult things, is a force of nature, and her passion for life is very much part of her.” Photo: UniFrance
Working with co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, their fourth project together, he looked for a location that suited the ethos of the narrative. Zacharias, a Brazilian with family roots in Portugal, suggested they look at Zintra, a small town on a mountainside near Lisbon. “It has a lot of magic and beauty. I realised that I had been there with my family in 1979 on vacation but that was not enough to convince me. It was really when we went to Zintra and spent a week there and I started to go back on a regular basis that I felt very moved by the landscape and very connected to it. I don’t think I made a film about Portugal but I did make a film about Zintra. I felt very emotional about the things I was seeing and I felt confident that the story we were telling would blend well,” says Sachs.
He paired Brendan Gleeson with Huppert after having seen the former in John Boorman’s The General. He had an instinct that they would be the right fit for each other, both as actors and in character. “I was confident their styles would find an easy link. And he is an actor who has lots of things to add. He is also one of the best dramaturgs that I have ever encountered. He knows about story and literature. They are both people who have long marriages and I think that is part of the magic.”
Sachs sensed that Huppert was particularly moved by the role. “We had lots of conversations around how we could bring the character as close to her as possible. I often have conversations with actors about how to do little and do less. And to inhabit and to be. I think she liked that as a challenge because I think she had become known for a performance as Isabelle and I think people write for a performance for Isabelle. I wrote something completely different.
Isabelle Huppert with Jérémie Renier who plays her son in Frankie Photo: UniFrance
“She is a complete chameleon, listens very well and is attentive. She can do very difficult things, is a force of nature, and her passion for life is very much part of her. She claims that her work does not take it out of her. She is able to throw it off while she appreciates being stimulated. She is hard on herself: she wants to push and be good. There is a passion for the experience of letting go which is almost erotic. She knows how to use mystery … she knows how to reserve and how to give. She likes to work. I like to work too but not as much as Isabelle.
“I need breathing space. I have two young kids and I want to be present in different ways. I am also aware I have the privilege of making films like this so I want to take advantage of that and keep going. I started out as a theatre director in college and university but I was drawn more to naturalism and for me the stage wasn’t so interesting to direct naturalistic plays but I thought cinema would allow me to make naturalistic films in a semi-autobiographical way.”
He and Zacharias have begun work on a new film, a family drama, which will keep him on his own doorstep for the foreseeable future. His husband is a visual artist and conveniently they raise the twin boys in harmony with their mother (a documentary film-maker) who lives next door. As a family they make a point of going to the cinema once a week, a tradition that he enjoyed as a youngster growing up in Memphis in the Seventies.
After the dream connection with Huppert does he have a list of actors he would like to work with? He suggests guardedly that he doesn’t have a list of preferred talents. “I am so used to not getting actors I might want. I am not interested in rejection even thought it happens all the time. Yes it is part of the job, but it’s not the bit I go looking for!”
Frankie goes on UK release through Picturehouse Entertainment on 22 May. Richard Mowe talked to Ira Sachs at the 22nd Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris in January.
- Isabelle Huppert in conversation on Frankie at the Four Seasons