On January 29th, at the Park City Racquet Club in Park City, Utah, director Ira Sachs Jr. found himself at the very center of American movies. Sachs' second film, the made-in-Memphis Forty Shades of Blue, became the 24th film to win the Grand Jury Prize as best dramatic feature at the Sundance Film Festival, the country's most prestigious showcase of American independent filmmaking. Sachs' film, shot in Memphis in February and March 2004, was among 16 competing for the prize, chosen from 1,385 submissions. And at the end it stood alone. Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, the other Memphis movie in competition, had sold for a festival-record sum earlier in the festival's two-week run and took home the audience award that night, making the Sundance finale a previously unimaginable artistic high for the city of Memphis. But posterity will note that the winner of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival was Forty Shades of Blue.
It was a moment that was a long time coming for the 39-year-old Sachs, a Memphis native and Central High School graduate who had left the city for Yale and then New York City. He had returned to his hometown to shoot his first feature, The Delta, in 1996. A raw but affecting tale of an affair between two teenage boys that touches on issues of race, sexuality, and class, The Delta screened in competition at Sundance in 1997, went on to play at 30 film festivals worldwide, and got a limited theatrical release.
That's a considerable success for an independently financed debut film, but it still took Sachs seven years to secure the $1.5 million budget to shoot Forty Shades of Blue, an emotional but muted Oedipal triangle set amid the Memphis music scene, with veteran actor Rip Torn as a Sam Phillips-esque record producer.
In preparation for the film's release, Sachs penned an evocative list of "what Forty Shades of Blue is made of" for art-film exhibitor Landmark Theatres. The list includes items such as "The night I saw Rip Torn introduce Coming Apart at the Cinema Village in New York" and "The many nights I spent as a teenager at George's, the gay disco in Memphis." Tucked near the end of the list is this: "The fear that I might never make another film."
"It's a really hard career, and it's a career that doesn't necessarily get easier," Sachs says. "Even if you have some success, it's still difficult. In times that I'm not able to get money to make movies, which in this case was a seven-year period, I'm inspired by someone like Robert Altman who, after making M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, couldn't get money to make a movie. You can't take it personally, because it's just tough."
Forty Shades of Blue is rooted in a 1998 Sundance writer's lab in which Sachs and co-writer Michael Rohatyn participated. There, they got advice from veteran screenwriter Stewart Stein, who scripted the 1950s classic Rebel Without a Cause. But despite a track record, a good script, and the support of Hollywood producer Sydney Pollack, who'd shot The Firm in Memphis and who had a colleague who'd been impressed by The Delta, Sachs struggled to secure financing.
Over the next seven years, Sachs worked on short films, wrote a couple of scripts, and received a Rockefeller grant to help maintain his work, but his daily duty was pounding the proverbial pavement to try and get Forty Shades made.
"You're asking people to spend large amounts of money on an artistic endeavor, and that's always difficult," Sachs says. "No one wants to spend money. The challenge is to remain optimistic and have some self-confidence, but there are hours in the middle of the night when you wonder if you made the right choice about what to do with your life."
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Sachs says there was never a question about whether Forty Shades of Blue would be shot in Memphis.
"It was just a Memphis film," he says. "Everything about it was so deeply entrenched in my experience of having grown up there and what I know about the city now. It's a film in which Memphis is a character, not just a location."
The film's exploration of Memphis' sometimes ossified music culture, in the form of aging record producer Alan James (Torn), may have necessitated location shooting, but for Sachs the story is much more personal.
Forty Shades of Blue is about what happens to the relationship between Alan and Laura (Dina Korzun), his live-in Russian girlfriend and mother of a 3-year-old son, when his estranged son Michael (Darren Burrows) returns home. Michael and Laura both exist, somewhat unhappily, in the orbit that surrounds the towering Alan. It's a connection that encourages an intimacy that drives the film's drama.
"I knew I was making a movie about this particular love triangle," Sachs says, "which is rooted for me in very personal experiences of my relationship with my father's girlfriends."
Sachs' father, Ira Sachs Sr., was a Memphis real-estate developer and, according to Sachs, quite the character. In an extremely odd coincidence, he left Memphis for Park City, Utah, 20 years ago, where he still lives.
"I grew up in Memphis with this larger-than-life character and he always had these women around him with whom he had very complicated, somewhat antagonistic, and ultimately, with some of them, very loving relationships. But it was a process to get to the point where I could accept them," Sachs says.
"Younger women, usually?" I ask Sachs.
"Younger women always," he responds. "He's got a 20-year-old girlfriend right now, and he's been with her for a while," Sachs says with a laugh.
"In truth, I think of the relationship that Michael has with Alan as a version of the relationship I had with my father before I went through years of therapy," Sachs says. "I think I have a great relationship with my dad now, and have for the last 10 years. Like anyone, the process of going from being an adolescent to an adult and the challenge of how you're going to deal with your parents is a risky one. And sometimes you never make it through to a healthy place. I have."
Sachs' patient direction gives his actors a lot of space to create their characters, which made the casting of leads Alan and Laura crucial.
The character that would become Alan had been envisioned before Sachs saw Torn introduce his obscure but compelling '60s indie film Coming Apart in New York, but the script hadn't been fully written. After that night, Sachs and Rohatyn wrote the part expressly for Torn, who agreed to do the film soon after his agent gave him the script.
A veteran of nearly 140 feature films, Torn is perhaps best known now for recent comic supporting roles in Hollywood films (Men in Black, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) or for his recurring role on cable's The Gary Shandling Show. But, for Sachs, Torn was most notable for his performances in artier '60s and '70s fare such as Coming Apart, Payday, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The cantankerous native Texan also had the personal charisma and stature Sachs was looking for to play Alan James.
"Rip has that quality that is very similar to people like [Memphis music icons] Jim Dickinson or Willie Mitchell or Sam Phillips. They're totally their own selves, and there's a level of genius or originality that's unique. This character needed that essence, and Rip is one of those people," Sachs says.
To prep for the role, Torn spent a few afternoons in north Mississippi with Dickinson, a local musician and producer who has worked with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and who produced touchstone albums by Big Star and the Replacements. Torn also studied tapes Sachs sent him of interviews with the late Phillips, the man who founded Sun Records and "discovered" Elvis Presley.
"I think Rip's character cuts right between the two on some level, in terms of the musical history," Sachs says. Sam [Phillips] was the '50s and Jim [Dickinson] was doing some of his great work in the '70s and this character is making music in the '60s."
With Torn in place, Sachs needed to cast Laura, a woman whose fragile but comfortable existence on the arm of Alan is disrupted by the arrival of Michael.
Torn may be the marquee name and his portrayal of Alan the energy that drives the movie, but Laura is the film's protagonist. "It's a portrait of a lady," Sachs says of his film, "the classic, novelistic attempt to find the beauty and density and depth of a woman's interior."
Korzun is a star-quality stage and screen actress in her native Russia but is unknown in the United States. Forty Shades of Blue is her first American role and only her second outside of Russia, following an appearance in British director Pawel Pawlikowski's 2001 film Last Resort. That performance was enough for Sachs, who pursued Korzun to play Laura.
"I was really struck by a certain kind of acting style that she displayed in that film, very naturalistic and very textured," Sachs says. "American acting tends to be broader, the Hollywood style, which can be wonderful, but that isn't the texture I was looking for in this performance, so I kept finding myself interested in foreign actors."
Laura's nationality isn't very important, Korzun says. "She's Russian, but she's a type of girl who doesn't know who she is. She's very closed. She could be Japanese. She could be African. She's a person from a different culture and she doesn't really fit the environment she's in."
"When I started looking at foreign actors, there were certain stipulations that would only work for this story," Sachs says. "It needed to make sense that it was a woman who would make a choice to live with this man, in Memphis, in this situation. That was not going to be a woman from France or England. It was going to be a woman from a country that's in some kind of transition economically. There's a reason why a woman like Laura would want to get out of Russia."
Korzun carries the film with a pale beauty that suggests international star Catherine Deneuve and an air of emotional mystery that perfectly fits the film's atmosphere. It's a performance that inspired The New York Times to dub Korzun one of five "scene stealers" in the movies this fall.
"There was a level of control and conscious creation of the character that Dina brought that transformed it completely," Sachs says. "She's very good at withholding certain things from the audience that create a sense of mystery."
Coming out of Sundance, Forty Shades of Blue was sometimes discussed in connection not only with Brewer's Hustle & Flow but with other "Southern" films in the competition, such as Junebug and Loggerheads, both filmed and set in North Carolina. But Sachs declines the label "Southern filmmaker."
"In general, I identify less as a Southern filmmaker than a filmmaker from Memphis," Sachs says. "My knowledge about the South is really just my knowledge about Memphis, because that's where I grew up. There's an intimacy connected to those experiences of childhood. You can't recreate the 7,000 nights I spent in Memphis."
Though Forty Shades of Blue is probably less a celebration of the city and its culture than civic boosters might want, it arguably depicts the city with more truthfulness, albeit of the offhand variety, than even Mystery Train or Hustle & Flow.
"I think that what I offer as a filmmaker from Memphis is that I'm both an insider and an outsider," Sachs says. "As an outsider I have some amount of artistic distance, which allows me to perceive things, but as an insider nothing about Memphis seems particularly cool to me. It just seems like where these people live their lives, and there's beauty within that."
Sachs, whose mother still lives in the East Memphis house where he grew up, drew on his familiarity with the city to find locations that both perfectly fit the milieu his characters inhabit and that provide the kind of emotional atmosphere he required.
"We had a great locations department, but I know the city really well. So when we're trying to find the right street to end the movie on, a kind of desolate place that still has beauty, I could be the one that suggests Broad Street," Sachs says, citing the stretch of road isolated by the recent Sam Cooper Boulevard expansion, where Laura takes a lonely walk.
"The fact that we were local gave us great access," Sachs says. "The Belzes gave us The Peabody for five days to shoot and that could have been a quarter of our budget." Sachs also makes use of such Memphis locations as Ardent Studios, the Lamplighter bar in Midtown, and Ronnie Grisanti's restaurant.
The Memphis in Forty Shades of Blue is familiar in a way you'd expect from the life of a character with deep city ties, but the Memphis-ness is never clichéd.
"I got pressured by certain financers and some of the people I was working with, who wanted to see more of Memphis," Sachs acknowledges. "But that's not the film I was making. This is an intimate psychological drama. And to pull the film out to show the city of Memphis in a broader way would only cut from the emotional impact of the film."
Sachs hopes to film in Memphis again, but not for his next project, which is an adaptation of a 1950s British pulp mystery novel. The film, called Marriage, is being set in San Franciso in the late 1940s, a world that couldn't be recreated in Memphis.
Sachs describes Marriage as the story of "a very gentle middle-aged man who is married, but when he falls in love with another woman, decides that to divorce his wife will be to humiliate her too much. So instead he decides to kill her." The plot is reminiscent of such 1930s Edward G. Robinson/Fritz Lang collaborations as Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, a comparison that Sachs doesn't discourage. He hopes to begin shooting in March.
But for now, Sachs' focus is on Forty Shades of Blue, finally getting a distribution run eight months after winning the big prize at Sundance. Forty Shades of Blue opened in New York on September 28th. After its Memphis premiere on September 29th at Malco's Studio on the Square, it begins a full Memphis run at Studio and at Malco's Cordova theater. The film opens in Los Angeles on October 7th and then expands to about 20 other cities throughout October.
"Like any film of our size and with our kind of budget, you have some dependence on how the reviews go and what the response is to the film when it opens," Sachs says. "So it should be interesting."
Sachs knows full well that his film's Sundance success comes without box-office guarantees. The festival has been a launching pad for many of the best and most successful American indie directors, helping introduce such filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Todd Haynes (Poison), and Kevin Smith (Clerks). But the festival's grand-jury-prize winners have had a decidedly mixed commercial track record, with the Coen brothers' debut Blood Simple and Oscar-nominated art-house hit American Splendor among the most prominent. Recent winners such as Primer, The Believer, and Personal Velocity never even screened in Memphis, while non-winners such as Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, and Maria Full of Grace have been bigger successes.
Sachs has seen the festival change since The Delta screened in 1997. Even though Forty Shades of Blue owes a great debt to the '70s films of John Cassavetes, sometimes thought of as the father of American independent cinema, that quality places it outside an "indie" aesthetic now increasingly dependent on Hollywood-style economics and star systems.
"It's a quiet film for Sundance, in that it's a film about the details of emotions and passion and love and disappointment. Which are things that people don't tend to go to the cinema for today," Sachs says.
It may be that Forty Shades of Blue, at least theoretically a standard-bearer for American indie cinema, finds a more accepting audience overseas. The film has already shown in several international festivals, including the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. And its overseas distribution is shaping up nicely.
"We open on one screen in New York, but we open on seven screens in Paris," Sachs says. "We open December 7th in France, in the U.K. in March. We opened in Russia two weeks ago. Mexico and Austria. We're getting out there."
The international reach fits a film perhaps more influenced by European art film than the American indie tradition.
"I think our film's aesthetic is very European in some ways," Sachs acknowledges. "I've always loved the European art-house cinema, and I think this film is very much in line with that, even though it's made in Memphis. [Federico] Fellini, [Francois] Truffaut, Ken Loach -- I think those are the guys I'm really wrestling with in my own work. I never went to film school, so the way I learned how to make films was by watching a lot of them. Eventually, I think I internalized certain types of aesthetics, because I found myself personally and emotionally responding to a lot of films that were not made in America."
In an American film landscape where such acknowledged masters as Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch are sometimes dependent on foreign financing to get their films made, the international market is particularly important for a filmmaker like Sachs.
"Forty Shades of Blue has had a good life on the international front, which means a lot to me personally, because these are countries in which I really care about the films that are being made," Sachs says. "And financially, it's good because it's a way for the film to make its money back. Professionally, it's very important for me because I think in my film career I'm going to be somewhat dependent on international financing."
How much Forty Shades of Blue can capitalize on its Sundance win is a question that will be answered in the coming weeks. But for Sachs, who won't have to wait seven years to make his next film, it's already been a success story.
"I was trying to tell a very particular kind of story and I think my expectations are that if you tell a story and you tell it well, people will be there to see it," he says. "The film is full of music and it's full of life and it's full of a certain kind of emotion that I think makes it accessible. I think my expectations are actually being realized. You make a film and you do the best you can and you hope everything else follows."