Little Men: Director Ira Sachs and Actor Theo Taplitz on Art and Film

"Little Men" movie
Michael Barbieri in "Little Men." | Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The KCET Cinema Series continued its summer season on Tuesday, July 26, with a screening of "Little Men" at Santa Monica's Aero Theatre. Directed by Ira Sachs and written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, "Little Men" is a story of friendship and gentrification. When his family moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn, teenage Jake forms a strong friendship with the son of a local business owner. But, can the boys' friendship survive a changing neighborhood and their parents' feud? 

Following the film, Pete Hammond, host of the KCET Cinema Series, led a Q&A session with Sachs and the film's young star Theo Taplitz. A portion of that conversation appears below. 

The KCET Cinema Series is proudly sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation and E. Hofert Dailey Trust. It brings audiences advance screenings of anticipated movies and conversations with the talent behind the films. The summer season ends on August 2 and the fall KCET Cinema Series will kick off at the Aero on August 16. 

Ira Sachs on the genesis of "Little Men" 

Ira Sachs: Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, and I, we had made two films in the last five years. One was called "Keep the Lights On," which was about two men in their 20s. Another, "Love is Strange," was about two men in their 60s and 70s and it really just felt like we were called to make a third film in a kind of trilogy of stories about New York life and that we would focus on kids this time. 

I think being a father -- I have two four-year-old twins -- certainly influenced making the film, but I also feel like being a son influenced making the film. I'm 50 years old. My parents are in their 70s. The slow process of recognizing that our parents are people too is something that I still feel involved in. 

I think, for me, I'm very interested in generations and how they interact in terms of time passing and the next generation coming up. Specifically with this film, there were two things that I wanted to do. One, I wanted to talk about a certain innocence that I remember from being a child, specifically the ability for kids to cross difference. Kids do not seem to notice that someone is of a different race or of a different class or from a different country. They seem to be able to find the things that are similar between them in a way that adults are not as good at and I remember that so well from being involved specifically in the theater. 

The other thing that I really wanted to do was make a film that was both for adults and kids... I believe that there's a common kind of hierarchy, [a perception] that animated movies and superhero movies are the only things that kids are able to watch and I don't think that's true. I think for me, and a lot of people, we grew up loving a kind of cinema like "400 Blows" or "Red Balloon" or, for me, "The World of Henry Orient" -- if anyone remembers that movie. 

Films about childhood that are with real kids is something that I wanted to make. 

Theo Taplitz on the films he loves 

Theo Taplitz: I have a wide range of movies that I like to watch. I really like Wes Anderson's movies. I love "400 Blows" as well. Truffaut's stuff is...

Pete Hammond: Which is 1959.

TT: Yeah, and I love it. 

PH: How old are you now?

TT: I'm 13. 

PH: That's very encouraging. 

IS: This kid has three short films that he's made since we finished shooting "Little Men" that have appeared in festivals. This is a young filmmaker, actually. 

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Theo Taplitz on making his own short films 

TT: I think it came out of school. It came out of acting as well. I had this project in fourth grade that was about the gold rush and you had to, we had to write something or make a poster and there was one little category that says make a film and I had seen films. I liked them. So, I was like, 'Okay, why don't I do this,' and I realized how hard it was to make a movie. It was kind of this realization point, but it was so fun doing it at the same time and it wasn't a walk in the park. It was a challenge, but it was the sort of challenge where, afterwards, you felt really, really good about it and Ioved that feeling writing this script and taking something from your imagination and letting it kind of blossom into this real life -- so you're taking something and then it's actually out there, you actually get to see it. And it just blew my mind and I just really liked it ever since, so I continued to make films...

IS: That's how I feel. Just what he said is what I still feel like. 

On the cast not rehearsing

IS: Sydney Pollack was an executive producer of a film that I made called "40 Shades of Blue" and he was a wonderful mentor in many ways. 

One of the things that he kind of gave me permission to do was to not rehearse. I was from a theater background when I was younger and I was following that training in a certain way. Sydney was like, you don't have to rehearse with actors in film because there is something about catching them for the first time with a camera that you can't repeat. 

So, what I do is I spend time with each actor individually and talk through the film, but I've never heard the dialogue read. They've never heard another actor do it until we start shooting. The day of shooting, we shoot for four or five hours or a full day for each scene, so you begin to refine it and block it and to do a sort of kind of rehearsal, but it's all in front of the camera and I think that's part of what allows for this simple relationship to the text that Theo's talking about. 

TT: Though we didn't have rehearsals, what Ira did is that he sent us all, all the cast members, on these little dates. We would get together. I got together with Greg Kinnear and then I got together with Michael Barbieri. I'll use Michael Barbieri and me, that example. 

What we did was that we just sort of hung out. Ira told us specifically not to talk about the film, just learn things about each other, what movies we like, what music we like to listen to, all sorts of stuff like that. What was happening was that we were really building a connection and so when we were filming, it wasn't like, here you are, here I am, let's do this. We really got to know each other and get underneath both of our skins and the connection was real, I think. 

IS: It's not really a time thing. It's certainly more of a strategy. If I needed the time, I would make the time. There's a very particular texture that I'm looking for that I think I'm able to get through this particular process. I have to say that a lot of actors are very excited to learn that they're making a film where they're not rehearsing. They've done it before. It's not unique. John Lithgow would say one thing after "Love is Strange." He would say that I wanted everything to be totally free, totally the first time, but also to get all of the lines exactly right. That was the challenge because films to me are a lot about economy. There's a certain level of, you don't want to give too much. You don't want to give too little. You want to be very precise, and this film, particularly, to a certain kind of precision of storytelling. So, you don't need excess. You don't need more words. On the other hand, there are certain scenes in the film, I would say 10 percent, that are fully improvised, like the scene in the acting class for example. That is Michael's acting teacher, since he was 8, at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. Those kids are all kids from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who go to an acting school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. So all of that was there for us to take advantage... Theo, I always thought of as, if anyone has seen the films of Robert Bresson, I thought of him as someone I wanted to keep be very still [in "Little Men"]. Michael I wanted to let loose. He was kind of out of Scorsese. Certain Joe Pesci scenes need to happen, if that makes sense. 

"Little Men" screening at KCET Cinema Series
KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond with Theo Taplitz and Ira Sachs. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

On the inspiration for "Little Men" and how it reflects modern times 

IS: I often feel that if you look at one block in a city, whatever the city might be, and you study it long enough -- my mother is a sociologist so maybe it comes somewhere from that perspective -- you can see everything that's happening in the world within that block. This film was loosely inspired by another movie by Ozu called "Good Morning," which is about two kids who go on strike, but it was also inspired by stories I heard from my co-writer when we were working together. He's from Rio. His family owns a shop in Rio. They were trying to evict the woman who owned the shop. Every day, he would come in when we were working on the film and he would tell me little stories about what was happening and what was a two-year event of them trying to get this woman out. One day, he came in and said, she just put a "Help Wanted" sign and this was while his family was in court trying to get her out. I said, just immediately, that's our story. I also knew that she had a story. It was very obvious that there were two sides. 

This is a film about New York. It's about Brooklyn. It's about gentrification, but it's also really about home and trying to hold on to the things that you need and you care about and the challenges of that. I agree, that's what this election is about, is that people are trying to figure out what will allow them to hold on to what they care about. 

"Little Men" movi
Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle in "Little Men." | Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Ira Sachs on art and film 

IS: To me, a film is an art form. I moved to New York in '88 and I actually applied to film school in L.A. and didn't get in, so I just said, 'Well, I'm just going to be an artist and I'm going to make my own films.' There was a kind of freedom that came from not ever actually being taught and not having teachers telling me what was right or wrong. I'm a cinephile. In 1986, I spent three months in Paris and I didn't speak French, so I went to the movies two or three times a day and I saw 197 movies in three months and it changed my life. It changed my life. It was a transformation. I think, for me, I'm always very conscious of the visual, the look of the film.

In this case, you can really see this film as a series of medium shots, if you know that kind of language. I'm really looking at the individual as a form of portraiture in the image. There's a kind of stillness to the camera, except the scenes, the skating scenes which are really this jubilant contrast to the stillness of the adult world. 

Also, my husband is a painter. We work together. He did all of the paintings for John Lithgow in "Love is Strange." I live in a city that's full of creative people, luckily.

TT: Also Boris, Ira's husband, he taught me about art, gave me some art lessons. The picture with the green sky and all the stars, that was a collaborative process between me and Boris and he drew from so many different art backgrounds and paintings that had been painted. We looked at Van Gogh. We figured out the layering, the different shades and it was a really, really interesting experience. 

IS: I will add that Boris, my husband, Boris Torres, came to New York at 10 years old with his Ecuadorian single mother. They moved to Williamsburg and he was creative and he wanted and did go to LaGuardia High School for the Arts. For me, there's always kind of a story idea and then there's life. My films are, for the most part, not strictly autobiographical, but they're all very, very personal in the sense of what I can actually bring as what I actually know. That's what I have to offer. 

Ira Sachs on the Montgomery Clift bio pic that he's making 

IS: I'm actually working on a film about Montgomery Clift for HBO. 

PH: That's great. Who's going to play Montgomery Clift?

IS: Matt Bomer. 

PH: He's perfect. He looks sort of like him at that age, I guess. 

IS: It will be a different kind of New York story because Montgomery Clift never lived here, by the way, he stayed in New York until his death. 

PH: He had a major accident during the making of "Raintree County" with Elizabeth Taylor, was that not around here?

IS: That was here. They were shooting part of it here and he was visiting Elizabeth Taylor. There was a party. It was Rock Hudson and a bunch of other people at her house and he was driving down one of the canyons. 

IS: We're actually finishing the script and then we have to get it greenlit for production. As L.A. people know, that's the next step. 

I sort of say, we'll see because I've never worked in television. I've always been a very independent filmmaker. I've generally been in control of raising the funds for my films and it's kind of within a world that I'm very knowledgeable and comfortable in, which allows for me to make films out of instinct. To work in television is going to be totally different, where there's a different set of checks and balances. I'm interested in having to do that and keep the things about my work that I believe are the strongest. 

"Little Men" screening at KCET Cinema Series
Theo Taplitz and Ira Sachs at the Aero Theatre. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

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