Theo Taplitz Little Men
Cast: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia
Director: Ira Sachs
Genre: Drama, Family
Running Time: 85 minutes
Synopsis: When 13-year-old Jake's (Theo Taplitz) grandfather dies, his family moves from Manhattan back into his father's old Brooklyn home. There, Jake befriends the charismatic Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose single mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a dressmaker from Chile, runs the shop downstairs.
Soon, Jake's parents Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) - one, a struggling actor, the other, a psychotherapist - ask Leonor to sign a new, steeper lease on her store. For Leonor, the proposed new rent is untenable, and a feud ignites between the adults. Jake and Tony don't seem to notice; the two boys, and begin to develop a formative kinship as they discover the pleasures of being young in Brooklyn. But the children can't avoid the problems of their parents forever, and soon enough, the adult conflict intrudes upon the borders of their friendship.
Directed by Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Keep The Lights On) with his trademark humanism and insight. Little Men is a beautiful story of life-defining friendships in the midst of familial turmoil.
Release Date: December 8th, 2016
About The Production
Filmmaker Ira Sachs has often drawn on the broad circumstances of his own life to explore questions about human character and relationships. His critically acclaimed 2014 film, Love Is Strange, was spurred in part by his recent marriage and centered on two men whose loving relationship stretches back four decades. As he began thinking about his next film, he turned again to the questions that compel him in his daily life.
'I continue to be interested in questions of generations, and how we interact with our parents and our kids. I'm now a parent, a father of two four-year-olds. I think a lot about my relationship to who they are and what it is to be a father," he explains. 'So, I wanted to make a film about childhood but from the perspective of an adult person and as a mature filmmaker."
As a dramatist, Ira Sachs believes in the small moments that can change everything. The ordinary decisions and occasional challenges that life brings can have profound reverberations not only for us, but for the people we love. Parents find themselves in circumstances that don't accommodate the examples they want to set for their children.
'Sometimes, it's the small everyday kind of occurrences where you're really put to a test," Ira Sachs observes. 'You have your beliefs and your principles, and then they run into reality. How do you make decisions in those situations?"
Little Men continues Sachs's collaboration with Mauricio Zacharias, his co-writer on Love Is Strange and its predecessor, Keep The Lights On. As is their custom, they began their writing process by watching films. Two in particular helped spark the story they developed: Yasujirô Ozu's I Was Born But … (1932) and Good Morning (1959). 'They're both films about children who for various reasons go on strike against their parents. That gave us the kernel of an idea: two boys who get into conflict with their parents and decide not to speak with them anymore," says Ira Sachs.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Zacharias was in frequent contact with his family back in his native Brazil, where they were grappling with a difficult situation. Mauricio Zacharias's father owns a retail shop, which he has rented out without incident for decades. Suddenly, a problem had arisen with the shop's tenant, and the family reluctantly concluded that eviction was the only option. 'It was very interesting, because it was as painful for us as much as it was for the people who rented the store. Every time Ira and I met, I had been talking to my family. The drama of it all was very clear to us, the tenuousness of the line between who is guilty and who's not guilty. We realized there was a story to tell there," recalls Mauricio Zacharias.
Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias built their characters, relationships and situations around the basic framework of a lease and an eviction. On one side of the real estate equation is Brian Jardine, who along with his sister Audrey, has inherited a two-story building with a ground floor retail space. On the other side is the retail tenant, Leonor Calvelli, a Chilean immigrant and single mother with a ten-year-old dress shop that is losing money. In the middle – happily oblivious to money and real estate - are their 13-year-old sons, Jake and Tony, who become best friends after the Jardines move into the building.
Jake and Tony share certain biographical details with Sachs's husband, artist Boris Torres. Like Jake, Torres knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist and was accepted into the prestigious LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. Like Tony, he was raised by an immigrant mother, and they moved to New York from Ecuador when he was 10 years old. 'They lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a block that was 90% Italian. The idea that artistic talent can be the basis for change was very compelling to me," explains Ira Sachs. 'As was the idea of a single, immigrant mother raising a son in New York City, and the challenges she faces."
Although the boys are different in temperament – Jake is an introvert who wants to be an artist and Tony is a likeable, energetic extrovert with acting ambitions – their friendship takes off with the kind of swiftness that seems to come easily in childhood. There are video game sessions and earnest talks in the privacy of their bedrooms; an afternoon of hanging out that turns into an extra place at the family dinner table. Their friendship flourishes in the outdoor and public spaces of the city, each day bringing something to do whether it's zooming around on rollerblades and scooter or taking the subway into Manhattan to check out a dance party for kids. 'From the outset, we wanted to capture the delights of being a kid in New York City," Ira Sachs says. 'There's a kind of freedom to a New York childhood, the adventures that come with riding the subway, meeting up with other kids, going to neighbourhood parks. Kids are able to grow up fast, yet they're still so child-like."
While Jake and Tony enjoy their days, their parents are grappling with the realities of living in a neighbourhood that is on the economic rise. Both families have struggled financially, albeit not to the same degree. Moving into his father's building has given Brian and his wife Kathy a bit more breathing room, but Kathy is still the family's main source of income since Brian earns very little as an actor. Because of her close friendship with her late landlord, Leonor has never faced a rent increase. Now, however, Brian's sister Audrey is depending on the rental income for the store, which is worth far more than what Leonor is paying.
Ira Sachs chose to set the story in a pocket of Brooklyn that is beginning to see the kind of gentrification that has spread across the borough for more than a decade. 'It's a neighbourhood in flux. Spatially, there's a lot of interaction across ethnic backgrounds," he comments. 'In a one block radius, you can have the Italian family that's living next to a Puerto Rican family that's living next to the Asian family. These mixed neighbourhoods are part of what's so wonderful about New York, and specifically about Brooklyn. It's also a conflict, because in New York, you're right up against each other. There's a way in which it's a melting pot, but it's not always benign."
Adds Mauricio Zacharias, 'Gentrification is inherent to New York City – it's amazing how it changes, and how quickly and how much it changes. And you see it all the time and you see it all around. I've been here for 20 years and gentrification is always happening somewhere."
Along with gentrification come issues of family, class, culture, money and opportunity, all of which contribute to the choices made by the adults in the film. At thirteen, Jake and Tony are largely unaware of these larger forces when they undertake their silent rebellion against their parents. Their parents, however, can't help but be aware.
Notes Ira Sachs, 'To some extent, we're all defined by our relationship to love and our relationship to money. As a storyteller, I'm interested in how people respond to those two things. In this situation, you have these kids who still have a certain innocence of the world, and their friendship comes into conflict with the hard realities of adulthood and living in the world."
Mauricio Zacharias. 'I think that everybody has this one friendship that becomes very important. And all of a sudden it's over. But you never forget it. It forms the person you become."
In casting the roles of Jake and Tony, Ira Sachs looked for actors who would register strongly as individuals, in addition to possessing talent and craft. Theo Taplitz, a Los Angeles native who plays Jake, came to the film through veteran casting director Avy Kaufman, who has shown a particular skill in discovering young talent, having cast the lead children in films like The Sixth Sense, The Ice Storm, Searching For Bobby Fischer and Life Of Pi. New Yorker Michael Barbieri responded to an open casting call at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, where he studies acting. Little Men is the feature film debut for both. Barbieri has recently been named a "Breakthrough Performance of the Summer Movie Season" by the New York Times, and has been cast in The Dark Tower, a Stephen King adaptation, starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, and directed by Nikolaj Arcel.
'To make a film that rests on the shoulders of young actors, it was important that they be interesting as people to watch, whatever story they were going to tell. There are certain movies about children that I love and remember, like The Fallen Idol by Carol Reed and George Roy Hill's The World Of Harry Orient, and that is because there was something distinct about their personalities that came across on the screen," says Ira Sachs. 'I felt that I had found that with Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri."
Theo Taplitz appreciated the story's representation of the two thirteen-year-olds. 'Thirteen is that kind of age where you're not exactly a kid, but you're not exactly a grown-up. It's that in-between age where you're still trying to figure out who you are, what your interests are," he comments. 'Jake is a very quiet, artistic kid who's not very sure of himself. Then he meets Tony, who's so full of life and optimism and says whatever he thinks. I think Jake is very drawn to that, and over the course of the friendship some of Tony rubs off on him. Jake starts to open up and becomes more confident in who he is."
Jake and Tony's support for one another's dreams are an important part of their friendship, Michael Barbieri notes. 'Tony wants to be an actor and Jake wants to be an artist, and that helps them become even closer," he says. 'Tony has a lot of friends, but he doesn't have a close friend when Jake moves in. They really hit off, and become great friends. I think their friendship makes Tony more sensitive. When some other kids make fun of Jake, Tony stands up for him and defends him."
Theo Taplitz and Barbieri are part of a remarkable ensemble cast that includes Greg Kinnear as Brian; Jennifer Ehle as Kathy; Chilean actress Paulina García as Leonor; Alfred Molina as Hernan, Leonor's friend and trusted advisor; and Talia Balsam as Audrey, Brian's sister. Sachs tends to trust his instincts when it comes to casting. 'I've found that it's been very similar, whether it's famous actors, non-actors, kids, adults. I look to people who have an intimate connection with the material from the very first moment that they pick it up. I assume that I will be able to teach them nothing about acting, but hopefully give them the possibility to reveal as much of themselves through the movie as possible."
Greg Kinnear was intrigued by the apparent simplicity of the story told by Little Men. 'It's a small, random story about life and a small group of people, and I was a little unsure of how a filmmaker could weave that into something compelling and cinematic. But when I realised that Ira had directed Love Is Strange – a film I absolutely loved – I got it," he recalls. 'That began an investigation of his earlier films: KEEp The Lights On, Shades Of Blue, Married Life. All of them are painted on small canvases, but they really resonate. I think Ira has a unique voice, a very sly, hugely intelligent way of crafting movies."
Greg Kinnear and Ira Sachs talked at some length about generational transition. With the death of his father, Max, Brian uneasily inherits the mantle of family elder. 'You go from a father who has passed away and left a bit of a quagmire to his son, who in turn is trying to be a good parent and set a strong example for his son," Greg Kinnear says. 'That kind of life change happens for all of us, inevitably, and it's tough. You're tasked with doing things correctly and you're burdened with setting up a legacy for the next generation."
Were he left to his own devices, Brian might well allow Leonor to stay in the store at her present rent. But because of the way his father left him and Audrey to divide their inheritance, he's obligated to do as Audrey wants. And that means displacing Leonor, if she will not agree to a rent increase. 'Brian really finds himself in a box, in terms of how to proceed," Greg Kinnear remarks. 'Maybe because of underlying cultural differences, or even language issues, Brian and Leonor keep missing each other at little intersections along the way. But the problem has to be brokered and there's no neat resolution. Which is the case all the time, every day, in people's lives. Brian's just doing the best that he can."
Ira Sachs agrees. 'Brian is in a situation where he's constantly questioning right and wrong. Greg Kinnear makes that very compelling to watch, because you can identify with his struggle.
Greg Kinnear's also a sublimely natural actor who can take what's on the page and make it very comfortably his own."
Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias wrote the role of Leonor specifically for Chilean actress Paulina García, who won international acclaim for her starring turn in the arthouse hit Gloria.
Though Ira Sachs mentioned that fact when they first conversed via Skype, Garcia somehow didn't take in the information. It was only later, after shooting was underway, that she realised the part was custom-written for her. As she tells the story, 'Ira Sachs mentioned it to someone who was standing beside me. I just smiled as if I was used to this situation, but I was close to fainting."
García responded strongly to the script's close portrait of its characters and their everyday lives. 'The screenplay captured the depth of these relationships with their daily sins and misunderstandings. It's a story about money and love – what moves the world," she says. Like the other cast members, she also sought out Ira Sachs's earlier films. 'I like the modern Chekhovian air that Ira's films have. They talk about how people live, love, get along, get stoned, struggle and fight, drink and eat a lot: all things that everyone does. And money is always haunting the characters. It's life."
As a single parent in an expensive city, Leonor carries a lot of weight on her shoulders; the slightest financial setback could be disaster. When Max was alive, she at least could rest assured that her rent wouldn't increase. 'Leonor felt that she had found a place where she could stay put and be secure. Then her dear friend dies, and that brings even more pains beyond the pain of his absence," García observes.
Ira Sachs and García resisted any impulse to soften Leonor as she fights to keep her store and her livelihood. 'Leonor is already stretched just in terms of getting through daily life and taking care of her son. Her temper is short. She's not as patient," Ira Sachs comments. 'Paulina didn't try to sugar-coat the character; she believed in Leonor's struggles and found all the layers of anger, fear and love inside her. Leonor is like a lioness who is backed into a corner and doesn't know her way out. And she keeps making the wrong choices as she's trying to get out of that corner. I love that about her, I think it makes her extremely human."
Kathy sympathises with Leonor, but as a successful psychotherapist and the family breadwinner, she also has a practical understanding of how the world works. Speaking about Ehle's performance as Kathy, Ira Sachs comments, 'Jennifer gives you the sense that there's a whole other life that Kathy is living outside the home, that she is trying not to bring into the home. Kathy's not precious and she understands and believes in the power of money. There's a power to her stability."
Cheerful and warm, Kathy is like many working wives and mothers. Says Ehle, 'Kathy is overstretched and a little tired around the edges, but fundamentally she's happy. She has to keep moving in order to keep her family afloat financially. But I think she has a good marriage and she adores her child and being a mother. In a lot of ways, she's very privileged." Alfred Molina and Talia Balsam create full-bodied portraits of their characters, Hernan and Audrey, during their relatively small amount of time onscreen. 'When you're talking about smaller parts, you need people who can immediately, indelibly connect to the character," Sachs observes. 'Alfred is an artist and a storyteller, and we had a wonderful collaboration on Love Is Strange. Alfred is of Spanish background, so we wrote this part of Hernan for him, knowing that he and Paulina would team beautifully together. And Talia has a very natural flow as an actress and an instinctual strength that was perfect for Audrey."
Little Men was shot during the summer of 2015, primarily in the Brooklyn neighbourhoods of Sunset Park, Bay Ridge and Williamsburg. Behind the camera, Sachs and his collaborators were guided by the idea of childhood as experienced by its central characters, Jake and Theo: a time of joy, innocence, discovery and vitality. 'We wanted to expand on the romantic aspect of childhood that the film portrays," explains Ira Sachs.
'We wanted it to have the beauty of cinema and what it can capture in terms of image and music and nuance. That kind of approach seemed well matched to the romantic possibilities of childhood."
Ira Sachs sought out Spanish director of photography Óscar Durán to shoot Little Men, having been impressed by his work with director Jaime Rosales including LAS Horas Del Dia and La Soledad, as well as on the Colombian film, Gente De Bien, directed by Franco Lolli. 'Óscar has a wonderful eye. To put it simply, he believes in the medium shot. In his work, the space around the character becomes very much a part of the image. He has a very European style of filmmaking that I've always connected to, which finds the beauty and drama in the smaller moments of the narrative."
Brightness and colour were touchstones in the film's visual scheme. Costume designer Eden Miller made liberal use of primary colours in assembling the wardrobes for Jake and Theo, while also paying close attention to everything from sneakers to the backpacks to school uniforms worn by kids today. During location scouts, Ira Sachs and production designer Alexandra Schaller would take every opportunity to look at teenagers' bedrooms, taking pictures and drawing inspiration from the colours and decorative touches that expressed individuality. While speaking to whom Jake and Tony are now, the bedrooms also incorporate pieces from their earlier childhood; this is particularly true for Tony, who has had the same bedroom since he was small. Vivid colour also came into play in Leonor's shop, with its unfussy, cheerful dresses that are the antithesis of the basic black often associated with New York fashion. Sachs and Schaller worked hard to get the details of the store right, down to the placement of the dress racks and the sewing machine Leonor uses.
Over the course of filming, Ira Sachs sometimes took advantage of situations that weren't necessarily in the script, but lent themselves to the story. One afternoon, he filmed Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri while they were deep in conversation on the subway, a scene he later incorporated into the film. Ira Sachs also encouraged the pair to bring their own perspectives to the story. Michael Barbieri remembers filming a scene where Tony and Michael barrel into Tony's apartment to find Leonor and Hernan talking in the kitchen. He and Taplitz weren't sure what do. 'Ira said, -Do what is comfortable for you. What would you do in this situation?' It was amazing!"
Greg Kinnear was impressed by his young co-stars and the portrait of friendship they brought to the screen. 'It brought me back to my own childhood in certain ways; the rollerblading and benign, casual conversation," he comments. 'There's an honesty to the movie, in what people are saying and how they're behaving. It's something you don't often see, and it's lovely."
Release Date: December 8th, 2016