Letter to a Young Filmmaker

The director of "Passages" offers filmmaking guidance alongside behind-the-scenes imagery and notes from his latest film.
Ira Sachs

Ira Sachs's Passages is now showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries—including the United Sates, Canada, India, Mexico, and Turkey—from October 6, 2023.

Detail of the shooting schedule for Passages (Ira Sachs, 2023).

When the great Stephen Sondheim died, in November of 2021, there was a lot written about how he took the time throughout his life to communicate with younger artists. He didn’t hesitate to praise, or occasionally cajole, but always did so with a noticeable warmth and generosity.  It seemed to me a very good way of being in the world—to make yourself available, to share openly the challenges, as well as the discoveries, you’ve made over the course of a career, and a lifetime.  To demystify the work of creating art.  This is the kind of mentorship I never had in my own life—I blame the AIDS epidemic, that took from us so many artists and filmmakers I might have learned from, followed, modeled myself after.  Last year, I had an exchange with a young Italian filmmaker, Lorenzo Tardella, in which he asked me a few questions about my directing strategy.  He wrote to me:

If there had been a chance last night, I would have asked you a question. And I would have asked how you work on set with the actors and the camera: watching your film, I've always been struck by the positions of the bodies in the space and in the frame, and I wondered how this dance happened. You said that you don't rehearse with actors before the set. When do you choose the shots? How did you build this menage-a-trois between actor-space-camera?

Below was my response.   

Dear Lorenzo,

Still on the road, but catching up and enjoyed re-reading your email on this plane between Barcelona and New York.  I appreciate your careful attention to the film and glad to hear you enjoyed the Visconti—and understood its close relation to Passages

Regarding the visual language of the film, I never block to obscure. What happens instead is that I find camera positions that I stick with for extended moments, and If they are not always what's traditionally considered the optimal privileged position (face to camera) that's ok by me. In fact, sometimes the audience being excluded from that position brings them closer to the characters and the intimacy.  The camera is in the room but not intruding on the actors, preserving the intimacy they have between them. This is particularly true in the sex scenes in the film.

Also, though I don't rehearse, I spend a very extensive amount of time in advance with my DoP, working out a visual plan for each scene, and then ultimately storyboarding the entire film. I usually have about 50% done before the shooting begins and then spend a few hours every weekend, again with the DoP and a storyboard artist, prepping for the week ahead. I don't necessarily follow the storyboard, but I can't imagine arriving at the set without having done that extensive work in advance. 

On set, I then start the day with blocking with the actors, using the storyboard as a guide, but also adapting to what we discover, with the camera (in the monitor), and the actors.  There's then an important step when you look closely at what's happening—and listen too—and make adaptations to dialogue, blocking, camera lens and placement. You keep making adjustments until, hopefully, something comes alive. I don't know if this will happen until we start actually shooting, and the actors begin to live their lines. This first moment when the camera is rolling is filled with anxiety and anticipation because if it doesn't look dynamic—and feel authentic and unscripted—then you have to figure out on the spot how to change things up.  One thing I ask myself is—does this look like TV?  Is there depth in the frame? (If not, maybe change the lens or the camera position.) Is the light conveying emotion? (If not, let the DoP know and see what she and the gaffer can do to create a more expressive image.) Is the script disappearing or are we hearing and watching dialogue (remove words, delay entrances and exits, notice if the actors don't quite know their lines).

A storyboard by Gabriel  Germain for Passages (Ira Sachs, 2023).

On set, I also avoid talking too much to the actors, and if I do speak to one of them, I always do it in private, one on one. I don't want there to be a communal dialogue among several actors and myself, or the actors and the crew. The set is a circus, and one of your biggest jobs is to protect the actors from the chaos. What actors are doing is like anyone else on set, and it's important to keep that in mind.

Also, I never talk with actors about subtext or motivation, and as little backstory as necessary. Once you've made explicit those things between you and an actor, then the actor then tries to achieve what's been described, "playing" subtext, instead of revealing it. Actors want to please you, so when you've given them a goal (a particular intention, for example, in a scene), they want to fulfill that for you. That aim limits and reduces greater complexity, and contradiction. I think of Cassavetes as the great director of contradiction—an atmosphere of ambivalence and ambiguity.

I think of my position with the actors as somewhat like a therapist: they know I'm there and paying close attention, but I try not to interfere. I let them discover meaning directly, by actively listening and responding to the other actors, as well as to their own interior thoughts and feelings, instead of playing out text and subtext for me.

The less words shared about the text and its meaning the better.

Acting is action, so nothing is more important than the blocking and how the bodies interact with the camera.

Some thoughts. Hope they might be interesting and provocative. Every director finds their own strategy. I always use Sidney Lumet as an example of someone who did exactly the opposite of what I do—he would rehearse everything in advance with his cast and block it precisely, often taping out a stage version of the sets on the floor of a gymnasium—and he managed to get some of the most vivid realism in cinema. So, there's no right way.

The most important thing I find is to pay very active attention to what's happening in the moment. Just because you've set it all up—the actors, the script, the camera, the props—doesn't mean it's going to work. Pay attention to what's not working (often the dialogue, by the way, don't hesitate to cut on the go), and keep making changes until your work seems to disappear and the actors listening and responding to each other make the images happen.

Hope that's helpful, or at least thought-provoking.




Below, a few of the many photographs I took before and during production of Passages. I find that carrying a camera throughout the process and shooting allows you to consider not only what you see but also how you see you see the film as well. 

Orson Welles once said, “James Cagney may be the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera,” and I agree. I share Cagney movies with Franz Rogowski to convince him that sometimes men behaving very badly can be attractive in the movies. A summer spent watching noir with my kids encourages me to embrace the antihero. Cagney gives us permission not to soften the character, but to relish his violence, as well as his vulnerability. 

As we visit locations, I find myself often pointing my camera at corners of rooms, because in a corner, you see the image of a box, with depth and perspective. You imagine the space outside the box as much as what’s in the box itself.  I think of the cinema frame as a box, not a rectangle. I use these photos as reference images to share with my collaborators on the film. How can the image draw attention to everything that is beyond the frame, outside of the box? I tell myself to shoot the room, not the actor. 

The color of lights behind a frosted pane of glass in a discotheque creates a mood that is beyond language. I work with my DP Josée Deshaies and our gaffer Marriane Lamour to consider each location, each set-up, as a possibility to use light to tell our story. Light is emotion, as much as language.

The first time I meet Adèle is in a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I arrive 15 minutes early and I sit down outside, then I move inside, then I move outside again. I’m nervous. She’s on time (she always is) and we talk about our kids more than we talk about the movie. She has no pretense, no affect. At the same time, she reveals only a part. 

The owner of Le Trumilou, on the Quai de l’Hôtel de ville, where we would later shoot an important scene in the movie, with Adèle and Ben. When I was younger, I didn’t feel comfortable placing the camera close to the actors. It was a time when I was looking at a lot of Ken Loach films, particularly the ones he made with the cinematographer Chris Menges (Kes, Looks and Smiles), and I positioned the camera in an observational point in the room, not as part of the action.  This image reminds me that sometimes you can be with the actor, the character, uncomfortably close—from Loach to Pialat. 

I meet Franz Rogowski four or five times, in Paris, before we start shooting. He’s one of the most interesting actors I’ve ever worked with, in terms of the way his mind works, how he thinks, and his analytic mind. We talk about Cagney, but also Gena Rowlands, and Depardieu. Rowlands, he says, is always acting alone in a scene—she’s wonderfully in her own world and performance. I learn from him, and I like to talk with him, and also to argue. There is a freedom in conflict between us, and a trust, that will only grow in the shooting.

Lunch break on a location scout in Ivre, with Alice, Marianne, and Josée. I am making a movie with a group of wonderful women. Working in Paris, in France, is different than New York in that I share with the crew a still-active love of movies. On a Monday, everyone talks about what they saw—in the cinema—over the weekend. This love becomes part of the DNA of the movie we make.

Scouting for locations is the chance to collect images of what the world looks like and to bring those details to the movie you’re making. Jean Renoir said, “When you make a movie, open the windows, and let the world in.” 

The camera loves Ben Whishaw. He has one of those faces which becomes grand and monumental—like Mt. Rushmore—under the light of the camera. His angles, the shadows under his eyes, the sharpness of his nose—and how the clothes outline his body.

Seeing this image of Adèle during a camera test, I am reminded of Godard’s Passion and Le Mépris. No one knew how to shoot women with more love, and more adoration, than Godard. We think of these movies in constructing Adèle’s character in Passages: the use of color (red), the hairstyles, the makeup. Adèle is of the earth and otherworldly, a cinematic Goddess—the Jeanne Moreau of our times.

I grew up in Memphis, and William Eggleston hangs over me as much as Pialat or Eustache. Sometimes I look at the world as if it were a photo by Eggleston, which means I pay attention to what’s neglected, and I pay attention to the light.

I have many photos of Franz on location. I see beauty in him, interior and exterior, and I pay attention to that beauty on set. The film is filled with my love for him, as a figure, as a person, as a body, as an actor. It’s a love that permeates the film we made together.  

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