Interview: Isabelle Huppert and Ira Sachs Talk “Frankie”

Left to Right: Isabelle Huppert (plays Frankie), Ira Sachs (Director) © Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

A dying person can see the future much clearer than the ones who are yet to get there. The sense of family, time, appreciation and love always brings a unique feeling to someone who will soon be alive only in the memories of his or her loved ones.

The concept of death or simply a dying person has been captured in so many films, it’s even hard to keep count. But what has been captured in Ira Sachs’ “Frankie” goes beyond what we normally see. Indeed, a person who is about to lose her life and knows about it sees life from a different perspective. In case of Frankie, she knows all the obstacles, what needs to be solved, and who no longer should be in place. This is what made “Frankie” interesting to watch.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the great pleasure to sit down with both, actor Isabelle Huppert and writer/director Ira Sachs, to go over “Frankie” and how it was born into a movie which I am extremely pleased to present it to you.

MOVIEMOVESME: The characters are complex. Is the plot real? This one feels more character driven according to my perception. So, my question is do you approach writing Frankie differently than how you normally write with your writing partner?

Ira Sachs: It’s interesting because I kind of I disagree only to the extent that one of the challenges of writing the script with Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, was creating narrative drama and arcs for each of the characters. So, in a way, every character goes through a crisis in the course of the day and comes to the other side changed, which is the nature of drama. So, there’s a lot of plot. In a way, what it was was how to contain the plot, because you’re trying to tell nine stories over the course of one day. So, that was probably what was very different for this film is that there is a central character, which is Frankie, who was kind of present in every scene, even when she’s not present in front of you, but she’s really… She’s evoked and felt. But I think the challenge was the balance and then trying to figure out how to give enough information to connect the audience to so many stories.

MOVIEMOVESME: I’m curious to know what you liked best about collaborating with one another on this project?

Isabelle Huppert: Oh, I liked every moment of it. Even from when it started, we started the conversation together with Ira sometime a year and a half before we started shooting the film. And for me it was just really quite extraordinary the way we were… The way the writing was so accurate, so precise, so full of complexities and ambiguities. And on the other hand, I felt completely free also because of the staging. These long shots, this long walking shots sometimes, it gives a lot of liberty, because you can really create your own space, your own rhythm, silences and you can express so many things.

And the camera is never… I don’t know. Because Ira does a lot of sequence shots and he does very little cut shots and so you feel that the camera is completely for the actors. It does not intervene. It wouldn’t come closer and then a closer shot and then longer shot. The camera is very, very gentle and so close to the actors. I really like the way he films. His camera is so smart, so smart and you feel it when you’re an actor. You feel that the camera is exactly where it should be, so that you deliver the best performance.

Ira Sachs: Thanks for that question. For me, I think it’s, I mean, so many things. It’s been a really great experience including into now, new experience sharing a new chapter with audiences. I think it’s the human relationship. I think we care about a lot of the same things, so there’s a human intimacy and curiosity that I really love getting to be a part of. And then I think it’s really an emotional ambition within that cinema, which is I think Isabelle has a great… She wants to make the film as true as possible and she wants to make it as good as possible and so she’s driven in the right ways about what I care about. So, there’s a partnership. It’s like raising a child, right? You want to give them everything. And I think that there’s something about that that was really thrilling and encouraging and trusting.

Isabelle Huppert: And I think I like to make people forget that it’s fiction. And but, of course, you cannot do this with everybody. That’s my idea of making movies, to make people forget it’s fiction, to make people believe it’s a reality. And it’s really something I have felt in me since last night and since it was acted, it was directed, it was a film, but you forget it’s a film. You think that you are… And it’s very, very troubling, [foreign language 00:04:58].

Ira Sachs: Troubling?

Isabelle Huppert: Troubling, yeah. When you feel that… Because there is no fiction and yet it is fiction and people tend to ask me, “Are you Frankie?” And I’ve nothing to do with Frankie, which is true. I have nothing to do with this woman. But it is the ability to create this sense of reality, it’s so extraordinary… And it’s also my idea of acting to be as real as possible.

Ira Sachs: Well, I just think that’s what I have always loved about Isabelle’s work, which is that she can disappear, and she can say so much in such simple ways. And so I think there’s a… I mean, we haven’t really mentioned… And I don’t know if you feel this. I feel there’s a… That Pialat is something that’s between us, Maurice Pialat and his work and there’s-

Isabelle Huppert: Yeah and you certainly had this sense of a-

Ira Sachs: And to me that’s in a way I arrived at Isabelle’s work through a film called Loulou and I feel like I’m trying to continue in that vein and in that way.

Isabelle Huppert: And I like that because it has nothing to do with naturalism, because I don’t think anything is naturalistic in Ira’s movie because it’s very constructed. There is something theatrical. I love the way he shots nature, for example, with this stillness. Because most of the time we walk in this nature, we are in movement, but all of a sudden this nature is very, very still. So, I like the contradiction between the movement and the stillness of nature in this film. And it’s very, I don’t know how to say it, but it’s very… Maybe it’s a kind of mystery to this nature. And even sometimes it’s also threatening. Nature is beautiful, but it’s also… Yeah, it’s not always welcoming. There is something… Well, and that’s what the movie is about.

MOVIEMOVESME: The film revolves around life, death, and Frankie. Her family is broken and it seems that the only person who knows how to bring everyone together and fix it is Frankie herself, who’s dying. My question to Ms. Huppert is that from your perspective of Frankie, how was it for you to work on that script and portray her dilemma?

Ira Sachs: That’s interesting because I hadn’t thought about how much she is the thing that holds… She’s the glue. It’s interesting to think when she’s not with the family, how will the family survive? They will. They will have different ways of being with each other. I think that it was… As writers, it was very clear that everyone had a relationship to Frankie and also to Frankie’s future and she had a relationship to everyone, the reverse. She’s always trying to construct the futures of those around her. So, and maybe that’s what we’re all trying to do is figure out the future and the present, the future and the present, the future and the present. There’s this kind of play between the two. It was very easy to imagine that Isabelle could hold the center of the film. And that her presence and her strength would be what pushed the film forward.

Isabelle Huppert:            She’s the glue. But she’s also… I mean, she’s a special kind of glue because she also… She makes people being confronted with their truth. She wants the truth to be said. I’m thinking for example, how was she relates to her friend. She’s a kind of… She has nothing to lose and she’s the one who wants to reveal things into everybody, I think.

Ira Sachs: For Greg Kinnear.

Isabelle Huppert:  Her son, her friend, Marisa, I think her hairdresser, the character of Greg Kinnear. She wants them to be confronted with their own truth and sometimes for the best, but sometimes for the worst. The way she… What she says to her son, what she says to Greg Kinnear. It’s not easy to hear, but she wants to… She wants them to… She has to face the worst thing that you can imagine a human being can face in his life and she wants them to face what they are.

Ira Sachs: In a way, she came up with… She made this discovery today, which is that the character is a film director. In a way she’s directing, or theater director. And I think now you continue to talk to that, what you’re describing is my job as the director.

Isabelle Huppert: Be what you… They are being what you are. And she said to Greg Kinnear, there to be what you are, which is he’s not a bad guy, but he’s a bit pushy. They have to face that past and but also she says it in a very funny way. That’s also Ira’s pallet in his writing, to say the worst things and yet being very funny. Because when she said what she likes, what’s her name in the film, Marisa’s character? Ilene? No bullshitter, no bullshit and no bullshitter. It’s a right thing you are a real bullshitter.

Ira Sachs: When you’re in New York, I have to introduce you to my friend, who’s a woman, who’s an extraordinary Israeli woman. She’s a professor, Israeli Hebrew literature. But she… And you can imagine she has a lot… And I wrote with her. I wrote with many, but one of the voices was her voice. Okay, she will say what she… She’s not going to avoid them.

Isabelle Huppert: And I love that. And that’s what Frankie is and even though… Some little details, the way she plays with the bracelet, with her stepdaughter at the beginning. And then it struck me last night when I finally say, “Frank, give me back the bracelet.” I mean, she dares… Not being that generous. She doesn’t want to give her the bracelet. Of course, you know, that maybe eventually she would give the bracelet to her son and… But don’t go away with the bracelet, it’s mine. Give back to me.

All these little kinds of details, are so… And nothing and… Which I love, of course, when I was directing and writing, but mainly directing. It’s sort of… It’s very simple. It doesn’t make a big close up, give me the bracelet. It’s just… And it’s even more striking. It’s a bit more. Because I think he’s such a great director. No, I mean it, really. Because maybe someone else would have done it… You made the right… You know what I mean? Close up on her, close up on me and being a bit heavy on that. No, it’s not, it’s very light. And being light, it’s a bit stronger, I think. You know what I mean?

Ira Sachs: Well, I think that’s the challenge of the film is these different colors and the weight of tragedy against the lightness and the comedy, right? Sorry you were going to ask?

MOVIEMOVESME: Do you have a particular scene or moment that you’re very proud of in the film?

Isabelle Huppert: I am proud of that scene with the old lady at the birthday party. I love that scene.

Ira Sachs: And I have to say, I gave over my sense of… I mean, I sometimes almost in all of my movies, I create a moment where there is a world in which I am… I have created the world and I have to let go. So, there’s always a party and because I like what it brings about the community and the feeling of intimacy there. In that scene, not only did I have that party, which was a real family and they all knew each other and they were all… They had history and we’d gotten them together to do this. But also Isabelle was in there in a way that I didn’t know how she would respond. And I was fascinated by what I was observing, but I was also, “I’m out of this one.” This is happening between her and this group of people. And so that’s something quite extraordinary.

Isabelle Huppert: And it’s interesting that you came up with Pialat because it’s like… Because with Ira it’s a mixture of most of the scenes are very precisely written, there was no improvisation. I mean, you think that there is improvisation, but in fact nothing is really improvised. So, that scene, yes, there was a kind of improvisation in this conversation with this… I mean, there’s this woman, she would come up with this… What she said, but that was not really written. And it’s exactly the same kind of mixture then in Loulou, for example, it remind me. The scene at that moment at exactly the same statues.

MOVIEMOVESME: There’s one particular scene that I was also fascinated by. You just guys talked about being naturalistic or realistic in the scenes. And one scene alone revealed what Frankie is, in my opinion, and that’s how I saw her and what is her decision – She’s in Portugal, there to bring the family together, and then they say that there’s a miraculous water that may cure her. And then she’s like, “No.” Seems like she already made up her mind. What’s your take on that?

Ira Sachs: She’s not skeptical. She’s honest. I mean, I think to believe in water as changing your cancer is beyond skeptic. It’s actually just superstitious and ridiculous. And so there’s a way in which she’s not going to… She doesn’t have any time for something that’s false, right? That’s what she says later. And I think that’s the same situation from my perspective.

MOVIEMOVESME: Did you always have an ear for French dialogues or did you ask for help? So that it actually sounds realistic?

Ira Sachs: She did. My co-writer Mauricio speaks fluent French, so has… I had someone who worked a little bit on the translation but I think Isabelle was like… Gave me certain terms that would be the way that this character would speak, so. I think, I’ve directed in Vietnamese, Russian, Danish and French. I think that’s all. So, I’ve directed in a lot of different languages and it’s really… It’s an interesting moment, because I could say I can really… I do have the script and I’m following, but I’m also suddenly letting go. And I’m like… And in a way it makes you realize you could let go more often, because I can’t tell her you missed something on that line. I can’t really, right?

MOVIEMOVESME: Do you allow your actors to make the dialogue their own?

Ira Sachs: No. I mean, I make it their own emotionally. I mean, John Lithgow said this I think very… When we worked on Love Is Strange, he said, the challenge is that he wants you… That I want him to act as if it’s the very first time, but get all the dialogue exactly right. And I don’t mean that because I think the dialogue is so great. It’s not that. It’s more that I don’t want the actor to have to work. I think that usually less is more and the dialogue does enough. And if they trust the dialogue, I mean, then they will find the truths.

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