Memphis Blues Again
A conversation with
ďForty Shades of BlueĒ
director Ira Sachs
by Danielle McCarthy
Photo by David LaSpina
After his remarkable and critically acclaimed
debut, The Delta in 1997, director
Ira Sachs spent 10 long years getting his
second feature made. The resulting film,
Forty Shades of Blue, won the 2005
Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize,
further cementing his rising star status
in the world of independent film. For a
second time, Sachs centers on the lives
of Memphians living on the edge of their
Dina Korzun (Last Resort) is Laura, the
Russian trophy girlfriend of a legendary Memphis
music producer, Alan James (the mercurial Rip
Torn) and Jamesís estranged son, Michael (Darren
Burrows), whose attempts to dethrone his father
cracks open the neatly ordered world Laura has
struggled to maintain. Following Lauraís unraveling
and eventual awakening, Forty Shades of Blueís
heartbreaking examination of Lauraís interior
world is a stunning tour de force. Director Ira
Sachs sat down with Danielle McCarthy from Reverse
Shot to discuss the genesis of his film, Memphis,
Tennessee, and the amazing Dina Korzun on the
eve of the release of his long-awaited second
REVERSE SHOT: Dina Korzunís performance as
Laura is amazing. Iím really curious about how
you came to cast her.
IRA SACHS: She is incredible. I discovered her
through the film Last Resort. Previously
we had other actresses cast during the 10-year
process to get the film made and as time passed,
we needed to cast that role, and then suddenly
I remembered this actress, Dina Korzun. Sheís
very trained and has acted in many films and in
the theater in Moscow. Her craft truly guided
me in the making of this film.
RS: Did the initial script have a Russian woman
in the lead?
IS: No. I adapted the screenplay for her, but
in a way we didnít need to make that many changes
because the character is a cipher, a vessel for
attention, so it worked having a person who is
an outsider. Because the film is about the characterís
understanding of her interior through movement,
through action, it worked. The film was loosely
based on, or inspired by, my relationship with
my father and his girlfriends, of which there
have been many. Thereís a certain kind of woman
who might attach herself to an older, more affluent,
and charismatic man. It was very obvious from
the moment Dina came to the audition with Rip
Torn that they made sense together. This was a
character that I wanted to exploreóa woman on
the arm of a powerful man who you might at first
dismiss. Thereís this powerful man and then thereís
this woman off to the side who gets passed over
because sheís not a powerful figure. The point
was to turn the camera to a person who you might
at first dismiss.
people might say itís a womanís picture.
IS: I have a picture of Contempt on my wall.
All those iconographic female characters
from Belle du Jour and The Marriage of Maria
Braun, for example, were of course inspirations.
RS: But itís more than just the story
of Laura. The title itself evokes the depth
of the characters. Forty Shades of Blue
could easily be a reference to all three
IS: Well, itís a triangle, and every point
of the triangle is important.
RS: Even the people on the periphery
of the story seem memorable. The camera
lingers on these people, creating a richer
IS: Well, what I want to do, and what I
think I do, more specifically in this film,
is to create a sense of the frame. Itís
not a rectangle, itís a box, and I wanted
to shoot it with that in mind.
RS: Your previous film, The Delta,
was also shot in Memphis. Legendary Memphis
producer Jim Dickinson has a cameo, and
Red West who plays Duigan, is a musician
and was a friend of Elvis. There are also
references to the great Memphis studios,
like Stax and Ardent. Are you specifically
interested in the musical history of Memphis?
How important was that history when you
were writing the screenplay for Forty
Shades of Blue?
IS: A lot of that history is about the history
of the character Alan James, played by Rip
Torn. Itís about loss and remembrance of
the past and nostalgia. Itís about Memphis,
but itís also, specifically, about the character.
To make James this great producer, and to
give him that background, creates more of
an impact. Because only with grandeur is
there the potential for downfall. I grew
up in Memphis so I know the stories. But
I also worked with a co-screenwriter on
the film who is also a musician (Michael
Rohatyn), so, in a way he helped guide that
in the film.
But I specifically chose a lot of music
that was not Memphis, just to give it some
distance from the real-life people. Specifically,
we chose the music of legendary producer
Bert Russell Berns, who wrote ďTwist and
ShoutĒ because Memphis is so well known
for a certain type of music. People are
very protective of those reputations.
RS: You really feel in Tornís performance
that he is this legend, Alan James.
IS: What we hoped to create in the film
is the sense that, even though he is flawed
and that he can be a bastard, he was still
mortal. We wanted to capture that mortality.
RS: What about Darren Burrows, who plays
Michael, Alanís son and one third of the
triangle in the film?
IS: He communicates a lot with his eyes.
He projects a lot of pain with his eyes.
We talked a lot about Fifties-style acting,
especially Montgomery Clift.
knew their relationship was impossible,
but at the end I felt he was so cruel to
IS: But donít you think that all really
good love stories should feel like horror
RS: That last scene is so crushing. Laura
and Alan are making plans for the future
and she just breaks down. She is drowning.
IS: Can you relate?
RS: (laughing) Yes, I can, unfortunately.
Your films often focus on outsiders. What
specifically draws you to those kinds of
IS: As an artist I think by nature you already
feel alienated. So going back to a city
like Memphis, which Iím both part of and
not part of, is interesting to me. Whenever
I talk about my movie, or really any movie,
I feel much more pretentious. But when Iím
working, it all feels much more instinctual
for me and I want to be honest as much as
I can. At the end of the film Iím not thinking,
ďThis is Laura walking down the street,Ē
Iím thinking, ďThatís me walking down the
street.Ē And with the character of the gay,
half-black, half-Vietnamese man in The
DeltaóI met him in a pool hall and rewrote
the script for him. I think a lot of what
I do is to try to stay curious as filmmaker.
RS: Your shooting style in both The
Delta and in Forty Shades of Blue
is very observational. It feels very
intimate, yet there is this distance. How
did you arrive at this style?
IS: Itís a very specific shooting style
that we had to kind of argue our way through
before shooting. Because the camera is often
placed far away (from the actors), we used
mostly long lenses and didnít use a lot
of close-ups at first, which I knew that
we were building towards. The cinematographer,
Julian Whatley, got really nervous when
we started shooting because we would go
into a location like the Lamplighter Bar
in Memphis, and I wanted to put the camera
back in the kitchen at a distance from the
actors. That was inspired a lot by the films
of Ken Loach, specifically Kes and
Looks and Smiles. Iím not a technician
so I could only describe what I wanted and
ask Whatley how we could achieve that. He
felt concerned that the film was going to
be a very cold film. Ultimately it is a
very unconventional shooting style, yet
it doesnít look unconventional because it
still feels very intimate. What it does
is create a sense of architecture within
the frame, because the actors move through
the frame instead of the camera following
the actors. Thereís a use of foreground
and background in every shot.
RS: Tell me about your new film,
IS: Iím in the preproduction stage right
now. The story takes place in an unnamed
Pacific Coast city in 1949. Itís about a
married man who falls in love with another
woman. He contemplates divorcing his wife
but realizes that it will hurt her too much.
Since heís unable to tell her he wants a
divorce, he decides to murder her. So itís
a film about whether or not heíll kill his