There is a certain nighttime culture among gay men, especially those who live in urban areas like New York City, in which courtship has been replaced almost entirely with methods by which people can find and sleep with each other with the least effort possible. In an age when Grindr is a popular app found on many gay men’s iPhones, it’s hard to remember that hook-up culture, which is in no way exclusive to gay men, has existed in the days before we were connected via wires and computers. Keep the Lights On begins in 1998, a no man’s land in which homosexuality was becoming more and more accepted by the mainstream (Ellen DeGeneres, who famously came out of the closet the year before, became one of the first post-Stonewall and post-AIDS role models for gay people in America), and its main characters meet for the first time after interacting through a phone sex hotline. What was intended to be a one-night stand (“I have a girlfriend,” Paul tells Erik, “so don’t get your hopes up.”) evolves into a tumultuous ten-year relationship as the pair deals with Paul’s crack and sex addiction.
It’s not a cheery Hollywood story, but it does unapologetically depict gay culture on the precipice of the new millennium (and later, after times—if not particularly attitudes—had changed). It was also based on elements taken from Sachs’s actual life. “I was coming out of a relationship,” Sachs told me, which is not a startling revelation. Sachs’s former partner, the literary agent Bill Clegg, famously battled a drug addiction which he chronicled in his 2010 memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. Rather than using his own film as a cathartic revenge tale, however, Sachs found that his story was a relatable one, sorely missing not only from the collective narrative of the gay experience but also as one that transcends sexual preference. “I think the distinctions between gay and straight communality have blended in the last twenty years. I think a lot of films don’t tend to reflect that, either.”
Keep the Lights On is in my top five favorite movies of the year. I talked to co-writer and director Ira Sachs and one of the film’s stars, Zachary Booth, about making the movie.