Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Ira Sachs’ touching debut feature “The Delta,” about a Memphis teenager coming out and trying to make sense of relationships, was commercially released 20 years ago. It will receive a commemorative screening Friday, June 16, at the Quad Cinema in New York City. Ticket information is here. I interviewed Sachs about the impact of “The Delta” on his life and career, and the lessons he drew from its production. An edited transcript appears after the jump.
"The Delta” arrived after a wave of stylish, often spiky LGBTQ-themed independent films, grouped by scholars under the heading “New Queer Cinema" and characterized by such directors as Gregg Araki (“The Living End”), Tom Kalin (“Swoon”) and Todd Haynes (“Poison”). “The Delta” was comparatively gentler and more rooted in the everyday reality of an extremely specific time and place: late ‘90s Memphis, Tennessee. In retrospect it feels like the perfect announcement of Sachs’ distinctive temperament as a writer-director, which he would develop such follow-ups as “Forty Shades of Blue,” “Married Life,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Love is Strange” and “Little Men.”
One of the most remarkable things about it is the way that it switches gears midway through and becomes a subdued yet intense love story between the main character, Lincoln Bloom (Shane Gray), who is white and grew up rich, and his lover Minh Nguyen (Thang Chan), a half-Vietnamese, half-African American man who struggles to get by. Minh’s life experience is so different from Lincoln’s that even a river trip with faintly mythic overtones isn’t enough to cement their bond. I can’t think of many movies that do a better job of capturing what it feels trying to intensify a connection with someone you fancy when every conversation brings a new reminder that desire alone is never enough.
“The Delta” observes all this with compassion and curiosity. There is a bit of first-film awkwardness, some of it attributable to the use of nonprofessional actors, but more to the fact that Sachs had never formally studied the technical aspects of filmmaking but was audaciously trying to make a feature anyway and figuring things out as he went along. But as in a lot of memorable neo-realist movies from different eras and different nations, the movie’s roughness proves inconsequential compared to the honesty of the characters’ stories and the confidence of the director’s voice. It’s a movie that should be seen on a big screen, and since those opportunities don’t come along often for intimate ‘90s movies, anybody within reasonable travel distance from The Quad should try to be there for this one. Sachs will be there in person to talk about the movie. — Matt Zoller Seitz
Is “The Delta” autobiographical?
Very much so, certainly. I grew up in Memphis. I was a closeted gay kid, I discovered intimacy and sex and some amount of love in those years as a teenager, and there are other parts of teenage life that were mirrors of what I remembered of just being a kid. I wasn’t a raver, because that was a very specific, mid-90s culture that I brought into the film, and it was different than my own experience. My generation was more into New Wave and Punk, and I was certainly marginal. I wasn’t a punk kid.
I think the thing that, to me, [registers] when I watch the film, and it’s kind of why I teach filmmakers, is that there was something about it that was brave because I really didn’t know what I shouldn’t be doing, both in terms of the content, which I felt was risky but didn’t feel risky to me, but also the shape of the film. Just a few years earlier, I had not gotten into film school, and so was not taught “what a film should look like,” so there was a liberty to discovering [myself] as an artist that I embraced.
Was “The Delta” tightly scripted, or were there places where you got to play around a little bit with what happened in a scene?
I spent maybe six months in Memphis. I met kids and I became familiar with the Vietnamese community there. I staged a lot of improvisations, videotaped them, and created new drafts of the script based on the videotape. I think ultimately there was a script, and I would say maybe 90% of what you see in the movie, I feel to some extent, I probably over-rehearsed with not- professional actors through that process. I’d do it a little differently now.
But I have to say, the strategy of a script being 85-90% of the movie and then leaving room for 10-15% being improvised is one I’ve used in all my films since then.
If you look at "Little Men," 90% of it is scripted. But then there are a few scenes like an acting class scene and a funeral, and in those scenes I used the same strategy that I developed on “The Delta”: build a world of authentic people, create that world, put your characters in the middle, and then step back a bit.
But you have to use that in brief, because the rest of the film has structure and form, and is influenced by these intrusions of “real life.”
The character of Minh, played by Thang Chan, is particularly fascinating, apart from his relationship to the main character. He complicates the story. A lot of coming-of-age stories, straight and gay, are set in an exclusively white world, with maybe one or two people of color in the margins. But Minh moves to the center of the story along with Lincoln, and there’s a sense of an unbridgeable cultural divide between them. It’s not just that Minh is Vietnamese, it’s that he’s also half-black, and he doesn’t feel entirely accepted by either culture because of the discrimination he feels being biracial.
You’ve described the movie as a coming-of-age film: I’ve never thought of it that way because to me it’s a film about consequence and class difference and how it plays out in racial ways. It’s about opportunity, privilege, and things that I guess I was working out for myself. To some extent, I think the protagonists in my films play out things I’m guilty about. I’m not meaning this as an apology, but rather [to indicate] the awareness of how opportunities play out differently.
To me, it’s ultimately Minh’s film. That specifically came out of a viewing of Claude Chabrol’s “Les Bonnes Femmes,” and the turn in that film which I found so incredibly striking and unexpected. I think that gave me the idea for the third act of “The Delta.”
Was Minh based on anyone that you personally knew?
The character of Minh is really the actor. But I wasn’t able to depict what an extraordinary sense of humor that Thang had. That’s a failure of the film, because he was so much more charming in life—although I think he’s pretty charming in the movie! I wrote [the part] for a Vietnamese gay man, but I didn’t know any, so I spent some time meeting them. That’s how I met Thang Chan, who was half-black and half-Vietnamese and gay, and then I rewrote the film with him in mind, using a lot of his own history. So the character couldn’t have existed without the actor.
That’s quite a testament to the actor.
He’s an amazing person. He was an immigrant. He grew up in Saigon with a G.I. for a father. People ask me if it’s hard to work with nonprofessional actors, or if it’s different as opposed to working with professional actors. From my experience, you either can act or you can’t. There’s nothing you can teach them, and if you do teach them, there isn’t really much of a difference. Thang could act.
But one thing I had to teach him, and you can feel this, is that as soon as he finished his lines, he’d be happy he remembered them and he’d relax! And I’d say, “No, no, no, don’t relax. Just keep looking straight into the camera! Keep looking ahead and focus on the person in front of you.”
Throughout the movie he has this incredible stare, but it’s because he’s just holding his head up! [Laughs] So I think it was a good trick for how to become a movie star, really. Your eyes are valuable.
It reminds me of something Michael Caine said. I can’t remember which film he was working on, but it was fairly early in his career, and he was studying other movie stars to get ready, and he said that the one thing that a lot of the stars he liked had in common was that they could go a really long time without blinking.
Yeah! My favorite quote like that is Robert Mitchum’s. Someone asked him about his method of film acting and he said, “Which way do I turn my suit?” [Laughs] That’s great, right?
I like that he was self-deprecating enough to describe himself as a suit that happened to have an actor in it.
Yeah! But he also understood that it’s about natural charisma. I once taught a film class and we studied John Travolta, I think it was in “A Civil Action,” and I realized that he makes picking up a coffee cup significant. He does that naturally! He doesn’t let it drop. That’s an interesting balance for an actor.
There’s a moment in “From Here to Eternity” when Burt Lancaster picks a piece of paper up from his desk, and it's so meaningful he might as well be Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.
Exactly! I felt that with Dina Korzun in “40 Shades of Blue.” That’s a movie I just recently saw again and I liked it. I was happy with some of it, less happy with other parts, but she’s amazing in it. I know she just happens to be in my film, but I can’t stop singing her praises. It’s like a Garbo performance, and I think part of it is her training in how to make meaning out of everyday things that people will relate to because you’ve heightened them in some unexpected way.
Have you been in contact with any of the actors from “The Delta” since it came out?
I am in contact with Shane Gray, who plays Lincoln, regularly. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas and has a couple of kids. He was at a 20th anniversary screening in Memphis and he doesn’t act anymore, but he still performs in a band.
I’ve lost touch with Thang, which is connected partially to the fact that there’s such a difference in our lives and backgrounds. He was also illiterate, so he couldn’t read or write in any language, which creates a huge boundary and makes it difficult to maintain a relationship. But he’s a wonderful person. He had to learn his lines on audiotape, so I had to record them and he’d memorize the lines by listening to the audio. He’s fluent in English, he just doesn’t read or write.
You not only have continued to make movies beyond “The Delta”, you've varied your subject matter so much that I've given up trying to guess what you might try next.
Well, I think that’s because the films reflect the changes in my life. As life moves, it changes the sorts of things that draw my curiosity.
I think that’s the advantage of being a personal filmmaker: I know that all I have to offer is the depth of my own experience, so I don’t try to offer anything else. I can’t imagine what it should be for somebody else. The films I make directly reflect the mood of my experience in life. I would say that’s why, until I was 39, I made really depressing movies.
You think “The Delta” is a depressing movie?
I can say many things about “The Delta” but…I always felt it was too German! I had watched just a hair too much [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder. I wasn’t quite as bleak in life as I was in that story.
Although, as I’m saying that, I realize that I don’t agree with it anymore.
I should say that there was a lot of darkness in my understanding of the world, and the film reflected that, very authentically.
I was re-watching “The Delta” today before this conversation, and two things jumped out at me. One was, it’s very much a classic coming-of-age story in the issues it’s dealing with: an 18-year-old man figuring out who he is sexually and stumbling into the answers. And the other thing is that there are a lot of moments where it reminded me a little bit of “Moonlight.” I wonder if you felt any sort of affinity for that movie? Did it speak to you the way it did other people?
It did, particularly in terms of its understanding and its interest in place and the specificity of a culture, and being located “somewhere,” not nowhere, and not in a place of the imagination. That was central to “The Delta."
The opening shot of Lincoln walking down the road at night: there’s something about the quality of the light and the sounds of the insects at night that took me to the American South. The humidity, the bugs. I grew up in Texas but I had relatives in Arkansas, Alabama and places like that, and all of a sudden, watching that opening, I was back there.
Yeah man! I grew up in Memphis. I don’t think I could make a movie there anymore because it’s been 30+ years since I lived there, and now I lack an intimacy. I’d be an outsider. But at that point, it filled my imagination…Memphis, and the kind of feeling of that place.
I went back to Memphis after writing an initial, kind of rough outline of the script. I moved there for six months with my producer Margot Bridger, and she and I turned the film into something contemporary, of the moment, because I still had a little bit of distance as someone trying to imagine being a teenager who was then in his late 20s. I was reprogramming that through the people I met, and that world.
That’s what I love in other filmmakers from the time [from the ‘90s], specifically Claire Denis and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Somehow both those filmmakers, who I was obsessively interested in in the moments before making “The Delta”—you just felt like they understood the heat and the feeling of the place where they were shooting the movie, in a really intimate way. I felt that in "Moonlight" also.
It feels like a documentary a lot of the time, and I don’t mean in the clichéd “camera is swinging all over the place” way. I feel like you’re photographing situations that are happening in front of the camera. A lot of it doesn’t feel staged to me. Bits of it reminded me of my favorite period of American documentaries, the 1960s and ‘70s and early ‘80s, when D.A. Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple and the Maysles brothers were at their peak. The films they made then are different from a lot of the docs being made now, because they didn't have Hollywood narratives superimposed on top of them. They never sold the movies as, “This is a courtroom thriller” or “This is a heist movie” or “This is a mystery.” They were just finding people that they thought were interesting and showing us their lives.
I’ve noticed that in the 30 years I’ve been making movies. You talk about the ‘60s and ‘70s in documentaries, and for me, [working] in fictional films, I seem to be stuck between 1978 and 1983, which I think was a very particular window where people were taking the discoveries of cinema verite and moving into the next narrative stage. You have the Ken Loach of that period: “Kes,” “Family Life,” “Looks and Smiles,” and you have Agnès Varda doing “Vagabond.” The relationship between authentic place and narrative structure and the tension that the narrative filmmakers were [creating] in that period is something that I’ve never gotten over.
I still feel that way. I still…I don’t know! Maybe I don’t know the craft, but I’ve grown my own craft and learned how to tell my stories in a way that feels true to me, with some level of skill. I think maybe I’m free from something that’s too conventional because I never learned the conventions.
It’s often said that every movie is a documentary of its own making. When you look at this movie, what is it a documentary of? For you?
It’s about Memphis in the mid-90s. And it’s a reminder of the risks I was comfortable taking when I was young. It contains those risks. When I made “Keep the Lights On” fifteen years later, I needed to remember the risks I was comfortable taking.
Also, as filmmaker trying to sustain a career, you’re always trying to balance your need to be both part of and outside of a system. [“The Delta”] is a testament to the importance of holding on to your own voice, and for me to be public with things that, just a few years earlier, I had to be private about, in terms of my own sexual experience and shame. The film is a testament to fighting against shame in a way that I’m almost still not able to do verbally.
I think you’re able to reveal things through your work that sometimes it’s harder to talk about.