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An English author in 1952 (John Bingham) wrote a novel that set in train the story that became Ira Sachs’s latest movie, Married Life. Sachs wanted to tell a strong story in a domestic setting – very much like Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s did, he explains to Andrew L. Urban during a short visit to Sydney on the eve of the film’s Australian release.

An idle summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found Ira Sachs browsing the local bookshop, where he found an unusual book: a compendium called 100 Best British Mystery Novels. “It was very well written,” he says, “quickly giving you a sense of each book.” Sachs ordered a stack of the books via Amazon’s used books department, but as he waded through them, he found himself losing interest “by about page 20”.

"perfect metaphors for the elements of close, intimate relationships"

Except for one, called Five Roundabouts to Heaven, written by English author John Bingham in 1952. “I was struck by this book; it was a page turner and the dialogue was really contemporary. The story and the characters were perfect metaphors for the elements of close, intimate relationships.” The book was out of print, and perhaps unwisely, he says, Sachs’ excitement prompted him to start writing a screenplay even before he’d found the owner of the copyright. Luckily, Bingham’s estate were happy to co-operate with someone taking such a deep interest in their father and grandfather’s work. Sachs renamed the work, Married Life and moved the setting from 1952 England to 1949 North West America. He also changed the ending, moving it from being strictly a genre film to something like a humanist drama. “It’s exploring how these characters move past their crisis.”

Harry (Chris Cooper), a successful businessman, confides to his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) he is in love with the much younger Kay (Rachel McAdams). Richard is used to playing the field, but when he meets Kay, he decides he wants to win her for himself. Meanwhile Harry has decided to kill his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) because he loves her too much to let her suffer when he leaves her. But as Harry plots and implements his plan, the other characters are occupied with their own deceptions. Like Harry, they are overwhelmed by their passions, but still struggle to avoid hurting others.

Sachs cast Chris Cooper as Harry because he seemed perfect “to play the Everyman – who has an overpronounced view of himself.” For his longtime friend Richard, Sachs turned to Irish born Pierce Brosnan. “He has what you might call a Cary Grant sort of accent … I didn’t want him to do an accent, and I think Pierce gives the film its tone. He’s an entertainer…” As for the centrepiece, the beautiful, alluring Kay, Sachs chose Rachel McAdams. Think of Kim Novak as the shopgirl in Vertigo, Sachs admits. The fourth lead role required a mature woman (like Claudette Colbert or perhaps Ingrid Bergman in an earlier age) who was warm and sexual. And then there was a part for another man, someone like a beat poet like Jack Kerouac perhaps …. and Sachs remembered Australian actor David Wenham. “I’d seen him in The Boys, when a casting director showed me the film on DVD about six years ago. I was trying to cast him in my previous film, Forty Shades of Blue (Ed: which won the 2005 Sundnace Grand Jury prize).”

With a particular love for 1940s and 1950s movies, particularly ones starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Sachs was looking for a strong story in a domestic context – like the ones from that era. “I like good storytelling and I’ve learnt a lot from the better movies of the period. But you don’t need to know about those movies …”

"a playful tone"

When Sachs began working with his co-writer, Oren Moverman, they agreed that the film should have a playful tone. “I tried to signal that right away, in the credit sequence,” says Sachs. “The credits give a sense that there is whimsy in the very serious things to follow. I wanted the audience to understand that they don’t need to take every action too literally. Now that doesn’t deny the serious nature of what happens between these characters, and I certainly don’t want to undercut the effect of going through these experiences with them, I just don’t want the audience
to over-think the story.”

Dealing with stories of love and betrayal, says Sachs, touches on the subjects that interest you as a filmmaker. But does it make you a better husband in real life? “You’ll have to ask my boyfriend,” he says laughing.

Published July 24, 2008

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Ira Sachs - on set


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