By Nadia Zafar
For over 20 years Lynne Sachs has continued to create both experimental and documentary films that focus on historical events and individuals’ personal anecdotes. Sachs uses collage and performative techniques to expose the untold stories. In her film, Your Day is My Night (2013) she highlighted to the congested shift bed houses that are common in New York City. Sachs not only directs films but got her feet wet with directing a live performance show that took place in laundromats in Every Fold Matters (2016). Such an impactful show incorporated true stories that revealed the harsh reality that is working in a laundromat. Over Skype call, I had the honor to ask Lynne Sachs about her experience with working on those two projects and how she became the successful filmmaker that she is today.
NZ: I really enjoyed your feature length film, Your Day is My Night. So I just wanted to ask like what inspired you to make that film?
LS: So I'm going to be very straightforward with you about it. I had a very kind of distant… you know when you call someone an uncle but they’re not really your uncle but everyone calls them uncle… just a person in your life like that. He was 90 years old and lived his whole life in Brooklyn New York (he was actually more like 95) and he happened to one day tell me that when he was growing up there were all these apartments in New York, but there are apartments like this all over the country where adults who are working people and only maybe living in a city temporarily (but I mean it could be a year or two or two weeks), and they can't afford to pay rent, and they can't afford to even stay in a hotel. So they share apartments and their called shift bed apartments (he called them hot houses). So he knew of them because a lot of longshoremen - people who worked on ships - would come into the city and a bunch of guys would share a room
But then I started to think about it. And with all the issues around immigration now where people A) can't afford the rent but B) they don't even have the credit, they don't have the you know the ability to sort of call up older family members to borrow money. All of those kinds of things. So people have to scrape by. But they create these other micro communities. So I started to look around and try to figure out where those might be. And then when I tried to “get my foot in the door” like a good documentary filmmaker, I didn't know anybody who lived in those apartments. And even if I went to housing agencies they were saying to me, “Well, you and all the people at the New York Times want to tell that story, but we're not going to let you in.” Plus most of those apartments are illegal because there are too many people in one apartment. So it wouldn't really be fair to open those doors. then I decided I would create kind of a more fiction film. I had an audition in Chinatown because I knew that a lot of those apartments were in Chinatown. When I had the audition, a lot of the people who actually auditioned (and I did the audition at the senior citizens center so they had time), many of them we're living in shift bed apartments like that singing man who does all the weddings. We actually shot the whole film in his apartment. And then the other people in the film had lived in shift bed houses at different points in their lives. And so that's how it happened. But I just was really interested in this kind of in-between zone which, you might think oh well a lot of people live in one apartment maybe you know during college or when you're young, that people actually find ways of connecting and cooking together and telling stories and surviving well into their adult lives and often they're away from their base and their roots. So I thought that was interesting, I would call it a sort of transitional zone.
NZ: Yeah it even seemed like that these people enjoyed their home country more than living that kind of lifestyle.
LS: Well it was interesting. I took the film to China, I was invited by the China women's film festival. And so I took it to Beijing and Shanghai and they were all saying we thought things were supposed to be so much better in the United States and it looks really tough.
NZ: Yeah, and it almost seems like they're kind of enclosed in this bubble, and like they didn't really branch out to other parts of New York that what you were trying to depict there?
LS: Actually there's a scene that didn't make it in the film when I went to all the oldest woman, the woman with a very short grey hair and the women with the black hair. Sheut Hing Lee and Ellen are their names. I actually shot a whole scene at the Metropolitan Museum which is pretty much the biggest museum in New York kind of like the Louvre of New York. And when we went there they had definitely never been there. The reason that we went there was they had an exhibit about a Chinese emperor and the emperor had this very large palace and it was images from that palace. In each wing of the palace represented a different season. So what he would do is he would say “oh I feel like living in the springtime” and he'd go to the spring wing. So he had total control of everything. So even though it wasn't really that he was controlling the weather but he could control the atmosphere. And to me it was the antithesis of a shift-bed apartment where you just had to make do. That scene didn’t to make in the film, but we ended up having a good time going there.
But also [there is] the scene in the film where Lee goes with Lourdes to that outdoor fountain, that was [by] you know the artist Ai Weiwei?. He's probably one of the best known artist in the world and he's very very very political. He's very very very disparaged by the Chinese government but he’s very celebrated by young people and people who want more political freedom. And he’s very much an advocate for human rights and climate environmental sensitivity and a lot of different things. And in a way he's probably the most political and best known international artist in the world. Anyway he had an exhibit in New York and I wanted to take some of the people from the cast, but Mr. Ball, the singer, was actually nervous because he's still trying to get his immigration papers so some people wouldn't want to be seen near an exhibition by Ai Weiwei because it has a kind of anti-Chinese government, atmosphere. So anyway, everything becomes political. But when we went to that fountain which is right in midtown New York they had never been there. So you're exactly right.
NZ: So I was reading some articles on your website and they said that this particular film was kind of like a shift for you in terms of how you take on documentary filmmaking. You had stated before, that just by putting a camera in front of your subject it could still influence their answers, like an aspect of their answers are a bit artificial. So how did you change that?
LS: that's happened more and more and more, because we're so accustomed to having our pictures taken even more. You've probably seen that change in your own lifetime. You know the way even people use cameras like mirrors, they use cameras to put on their lipstick. You know we're constantly posing it's impossible for a child to be in front of a camera and not do that because they're forced, they're forced from age two months to smile. So that kind of thing is so controlled.
So instead of trying your hardest to find something authentic. I started to think about why couldn't the practice of working with reality be more of an exchange, where you ask people to speak back and to be creative, not just to give of themselves for my purposes. I just finished a new film which is called [The Washing Society] did you read all the things about the laundry that I've been doing?
NZ: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I love that you would also direct live theatrical performances. Yeah, Every Fold Matters right?
[Lynne Sachs has done a lot of work with laundromats. Recently she released a feature film called The Washing Society that’s based on her live show Every Fold Matters.]
LS: Yeah, we have a new version of it which is a film. And it's called The Washing Society. So I co-directed that with a woman who is a playwright and we both wrote it, it's like the first time I've sort of written a play, which you heard in Every Fold Matters, first time she had made a film. And so we're really curious, we have no idea how people are going to respond.
NZ: You’ve directed both live performances and films, what would you say is the big difference in terms of your experience between like working with live performances and directing films?
LS: I really really really loved it. And it's interesting because I'm working with this playwright. We’ve become very very good friends. We didn't know each other very well before, we both have kids who are either in college or right out. And we're neighbors. And now I am more familiar with avant garde theater, and she's more familiar with the experimental film, and like we've learned a lot from each other. But I also love the excitement. If you do four shows in a week and number two, you know how actors say “oh we just didn't have the right energy” and then the next day they say “Oh you were on.” And if you hadn't been in the theater you'd think how could you watch the same play four times. I've done this with Every Fold Matters and with Your Day Is my Night. I'm there for every show, even if we did three or four shows. I'm always interested because I see little changes, and I love the time afterwards when you're hanging out backstage.
But on the other hand a performance, especially in a laundromat, is very hard to produce because you have to convince the owners, you have to figure out the audience. But we actually just decided today that within the film version we could easily take it around a laundromat again, different laundromats, and all you have to do is put up a sheet which would be very appropriate and we could do film shows because I don't want to make films that are only for people who were sort of in the elite and go to film festivals. And so I liked the idea of making it in the laundromat; it seems more organic to take it back to the laundromat.
NZ: Yeah I really like that. So I'm assuming that those stories told in the film are based off of true events. So how did you translate them into a film.
LS: Oh yeah. [That is] art of the reason it became a hybrid. There are always reasons. And one of the reasons is that lots of the people we talked to are immigrants or they don't own their own laundromat. They feel intimidated by their bosses or their husbands. They're men also. I mean [there are] men working on these issues (more women), and you'll see there's a really great Chinese man in the film. But I would say [that in] a lot of my films I like to deal with languages other than my own, because I think film as a medium whose idea is to translate life to an art form. So sometimes I don't want to translate things literally. So you'll see for example in The Washing Society there's a whole section where we don't translate. So we're listening to Spanish and Chinese. And you might speak Spanish or you might speak Chinese or you might speak neither. But as soon as you see subtitles you stop listening. And I wanted the audience to listen to the quality of the voices not just for content but for devotion and texture. And those kind of things.
NZ: Did you do that to also kind of portray the diversity in a laundromat?
LS: Yeah, and to make a typical audience member - who always has been hand-delivered on a silver platter everything in english - to ake that audience feel a little bit alienated, in the way that a new immigrant feels a little alienated. You're in a society but you're not of it.
NZ: So let's see, I was a little confused on what the words on the clothes meant. Can you talk more about that. Because I thought it was a really cool concept, but I didn't know how it connected with the stories that were being told.
LS: Well I think one of the reasons why we put the words on the clothes was to kind of make the words become part of a language and like the way that you know you're holding a shirt and it says “nothing” you’re holding a shirt and it says “pocket” it says “fool” or it says other things and it's a little bit like when you make poetry on the refrigerator - you know people have those words - so that there is that kind of creativity, in folding. It creates different words that have different connotations. So this is just my association with the words, but it's sort of like as if a story could come out of the clothes.
NZ: Oh, I like that. That’s really interesting.
LS: There might be another explanation.
NZ: So about the actors that participated in the live performance: I know the black woman was connected, like her grandmother used to work in a laundromat.
LS: And we didn’t find that out till we were well into rehearsing everything. It was very cool. And it was sort of like with Your Day is my Night as well, where all the people came to audition as if they were acting and then it ended up being about them, because I didn't really do auditions. I did more like interviews. And actually I'll tell you why, since you asked about the black woman. Her name is Jasmine. So I'm going to show the film at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in December. And Lizzie, my co-director, and Jasmine and I are all going to go. Because they're doing an event around the original washing society, which was this large group of laundresses who protested for higher wages. And so we're showing that film in conjunction with a kind of celebration of that whole history and story. So that's one of the nice things about working with people for so long you get to go on a trip together and hang out in a hotel and it’s a little perk.
NZ: So what was your strategy, like how did you transfer what you had learned about working in a laundromats into writing the actual script?
LS: Yeah. So actually Lizzie and I would meet about once a week for over a year but not every week. We would go to this place called the poetry house which is on the Hudson River right in New York City. And we would just sit there and sometimes we would even take lint. And just as a kind of a prompt, because I had started this conversation and she liked it about the way that lint is a little bit like our history and it's a little bit of an extension of our bodies.
So we started writing. We would have conversations with laundry workers but not recorded. So we would start writing those stories, like creating stories around [these conversations.]. But then actually you'll see in the film there is a Puerto Rican woman. She was born in New York. She's very important.
NZ: Yeah I noticed that she was also in Your Day is my Night because I watched the trailer for Every Fold Matters before I watched Your Day is my Night. And I was confused for a bit. In my mind I knew she was hired to be in Every Fold, but it just seemed so natural that she was in Your Day is My Night..
[Lynne Sachs has worked with multiple Puerto Rican women who are actors or people she interviewed. The woman that she mentions as being “very important” to the story about the laundromats is a different Puerto Rican woman then the actress in the film. Confused, Nadia assumed she was referencing the actress who was in film, Every Fold Matters which then initiates the conversation about the Puerto Rican actress that’s also in Your Day is My Night.]
LS: Yeah she’s a good dancer too. When you see her she is the bravest dancer. She dances on top of these washing machines. One time we were doing a live performance and there was some of those little cloths people put into the washing machine -the fabric softener. And so there were a few of those on top of the dryers that we didn't see. And we were doing a live show and she was dancing on top of the machines and it was only at the end she stopped and she said “I could’ve fallen but I didn’t want to ruin the show.”
NZ: Yeah I love that part in Your Day is my Night when she walks into the apartment for the first time and they're all talking about her in Chinese. And was that their real reaction to her?
LS: That was totally improvised. It was made up but it was improvised. I said “what would you do if a young Puerto Rican woman walked in and knocked on the door and said I'm moving in? What would you do?” So I don't speak Chinese. So we did the whole scene and I said that looks good. And I don't know what they said, so I got a translator. It took me three months before I really knew how hilarious they were.
NZ: A lot of those stories are true obviously in that film, Your Day is my Night, How did you prompt them to start talking about that, to get that raw story.
LS: So the same with Tip of My Tongue: you'll see I ask particular questions. In Your Day is my Night my questions had to do with what was your immigration experience? Have you ever lived in a very very small apartment? And they were the ones who sort of politicized it. They didn't intend to. None of them are political in any way. I would say I'm more political than they are but they. For example the man told the story about the stone bed in northern China - he was the one who talked about the people who came in. If you read about the cultural revolution, it was very violent in China in the 50s and 60s, so that was just the way their lives turned out.
NZ: Yeah I noticed that, and there was also the other story about the woman with her grandmother and the farmers that came in and robbed them. Let's see, going back, I noticed in both films you add a lot of like theatrical elements. Like the folding the bed, and making the bed and the folding the clothes. Is there a reason why you do that.
LS: So you see I never would have said that. It just shows that you are the scholar in this case. But I’ll leave that part to you.
NZ: I watched others of your shorter films, but I wanted to get into the more general questions about you being a successful filmmaker. I saw that in one of your interviews you mentioned that you’ve collaborated with one of your favorite filmmakers Chris Marker. How was that experience, how did you even reach out to him?
LS: Oh I wrote him a fan letter and he wrote back. That was in the 1980s, so I sort of did what you're doing. You know, I wrote him a- he was living in Paris - and I said “I watched your film and I really liked it, do you need an assistant?” And he didn’t. But then he came to San Francisco anyway for work. I had written a paper about his film. And then we just kept up over a number of years and I went to Paris once and I saw him and he would come and speak in San Francisco. Do you know some of his films?
NZ: No but I know you mentioned some in that interview.
LS: Yeah, you'll you'll find out a lot about them online. He's been very influential to me and many many many many filmmakers not just me. And then in about 2007 one of his distributors happened to be a distributor of my films asked me if I would help create an English language version for a film. It's called Three Cheers for the Whale and it's about the plight of the whales in the ocean it's a short very collage like film. And so we did work together for about a year. So to me working with people is the best way to bond your friendship and your awareness of each other and to grow as creative people.
NZ: So a lot of people in your life that are also filmmakers like your brother and your husband. Have you ever really collaborated with them? And how did it work? Was it difficult?
LS: Yeah. More with husband than my brother. So my husband and I do some short projects together - some more performative things. We're going to do a show together of some collages that we both made in May. We did a show at microscope Gallery here in Cincinnati. It has to do with being married to each other. We did that this summer. We did a one night show at a really cool gallery and like here in New York in the kind of Bohemian part of Brooklyn. And my brother is a filmmaker too. And he and I have also worked together, like years and years ago we did a piece called Last Address, a public art piece. He had made a film about the last addresses of a lot of artists who had died of AIDS and just the facade of their homes and we made stills from that, made a big public art show. But for the most part his films are narratives, traditional narratives and that's just not the kind of films I make. So we more like support each other or look at each other's work and get feedback. I'd say my work is closer to my husband's work. You know if we made the long films together we would tear each other's hair out.
NZ: Yeah. So I know you studied at SFSU and I was wondering like how did that help you become like the filmmaker that you are today because you didn't go to like UCLA or NYU. For me for me personally, when I got rejected from NYU which was my dream school, I was like there's no way I'm going to be able to make it, it hurt so bad.
LS: Oh no you’re so lucky, I taught at NYU for 13 years not part time. And I my best students were the most unhappy ones. You're so lucky you didn't go there. I’m serious, plus almost none of the faculty make films because the teaching load is so heavy. You really are in a better place. Because I should tell you I applied to graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute and I was rejected and I was very upset. And so I went to San Francisco State and it worked out great and I ended up going also to the Art Institute because I wanted to teach and I needed the degree that they had. But in San Francisco State I was there when like the most brilliant faculty ever. Do you know Trinh T. Minh-ha? She's like a really famous feminist, she’s Vietnamese American, thinker, philosopher, and filmmaker and she teaches at Berkeley now. When she was teaching at San Francisco State at the time and she was very very influential. There's another woman that is a very very famous cinematographer and she taught for a year or maybe a semester at San Francisco State. And I got to learn cinematography from her and she might be the best known woman cinematographer ever, so really great people taught there. Plus it was reasonably priced. But are you thinking of going to graduate school?
NZ: So my plan right now is like I'm going to Davis right now. But I wanted to transfer to UCLA, but to be honest I never really been attracted to L.A. Like Hollywood studio kind of filmmaking. I’m personally more interested in kind of working outside the system and like do more experimental stuff so that’s why I was more drawn to New York
LS: I would say you can stay in touch with me. But Hunter College has a fantastic graduate program and it's really not that it's not very expensive.
NZ: Yeah it’s just so hard to get in. Like for NYU’s Tisch school. It's like what like 4 percent acceptance.
LS: Well I wouldn’t go there anyway. I don't think it's very good. It depends if you want to do sort of alternative things. Tisch is not the best, they just have a good reputation.
NZ: How did you like become so successful and become the filmmaker that you are today?.
LS: I was just persistent. The other thing is that I get a lot of joy from making the work. And someone told me that I first started -- it might be a cliche to say this but I really mean it -- The number of rejections for everything is 20 times bigger than acceptances. You have to have tough skin. You have to say okay. And everyone gets upset. Who keeps emails of their rejections? Hardly anyone, right? But the rejections are just so numerous. Many people who went to graduate school with me don’t make films, sadly. But I think the big part is that it's deflating to be rejected so much and I know how it feels.
NZ: I know like getting that rejection from NYU literally took me a year to recover.
LS: There's nobody nobody on the faculty there who makes films that you're interested in. You are so lucky that you didn't - you went a different direction
NZ: I feel like like UC Davis exposed me to this alternative you know side of filmmaking that I probably wouldn't have been exposed to if I went to one of those major film schools. I’m still hurt about it but I'm kind of glad that I got rejected in a way because it kind of motivated me more to like do stuff on my own
LS: When applying for undergraduate schools, I applied to a bunch of schools and I ended up going to Brown. And it was such a good fit for me but I had thought oh I want to go to Yale and I didn’t get in. Then I was feeling rejected. But Brown is a super creative place and it worked out fine. So sometimes things are meant to be.
NZ: Yeah. So what would you say would be like the worst rejection that you've ever gotten?
LS: Oh gosh. For example I have applied to the Guggenheim foundation and there’s these fellowships called the Guggenheim fellowships. Yeah well there's a museum called the Guggenheim museum. It's a really hard, involved application process. But anyway they give them for everything from literature, science, mathematics, political science and the arts. So I applied five different times to that not every year in a row. And the fifth time worked out. But you know four other rejections before that were tough. So the hardest ...you know like they're all hard. Yeah I've had a lot of rejections. Plenty.