Since leaving school at the age of 16, British filmmaker and writer Sally Potter almost immediately began making some of the most artistic works to come out of the country, and she’s been doing it consistently since the early 70s. Working primarily in experimental short filmmaking and dabbling in performance art, she managed her first breakthrough in 1983 with the Julie Christie film The Gold Diggers, which was made entirely with an all female cast and crew involved in every aspect of the production.
Also responsible for the culturally significant Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando in 1992 (starring a then relatively unknown Tilda Swinton in one of the best gender-bending films ever constructed), Potter has rightfully seen her work talked about and lauded among some of the greatest of all time. Her work has been showcased and given retrospectives around the world, and yet in the face of such overwhelming complements and serious attention to detail and artistry, Potter remains one of the kindest and most self-effacing people in real life.
Seated in the greenroom at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, she’s in town to talk about her latest film, Ginger & Rosa (which played at TIFF last year and sees proper release this Friday in local cinemas). It’s a film many have called her most conventional and accessible film to date, focusing on the best friendship of two young women (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert, herself the daughter of filmmaking luminary Jane Campion) in 1962 that see a wedge driven between them both historically and personally. She’s perfectly relaxed and not afraid to laugh or tell things like they are, and Ginger & Rosa might be the film that best conveys the tone of what it’s actually like to sit down with her in person.
We sat down with Potter and talked about her casting process, recreating the 1960s down the street from her own home, her thoughts on deep friendships, why young people are underestimated, and the question of what accessibility and placing a bit of oneself into a story actually entails.
This is a film that takes place in a time period that you lived through and when you were close to the same age as these characters. You talked a bit already in other interviews about that, but at the same time you’re fictionalizing a period that you might not necessarily remember a lot about. How do these two main characters come together in the writing?
Sally Potter: I think that most writers sort of ruthlessly scavenge in their own lives for material. Not just from their own experience, but from the observational detailing of other people’s experiences. Then in the act of writing that gets contorted and pulled taut, and that’s where these kinds of characters sort of come alive and start guiding you in other directions. You have to follow them around and you believe in them. Now I can’tt even really remember which parts were to do with my own life and which were completely and utterly made up, but it’s a kind of magic kind of process to get to the point where the characters just take over.
But you’re right. I did live through this period, albeit at a younger age, and I do remember the feeling of living in the shadow of the cold war; the fear that the world might come to an end during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I was in those marches. That was something direct. And I definitely remember being a teenager. (laughs) It’s more about emotion and passion and fears and anxieties and longings.
That seems like it would be the easiest thing to come back to you, would be all of those strong emotions.
SP: Yeah, I think so, and respecting and not trivializing them. It’s important when dealing with that kind of friendship that these two characters have. It feels epic, and it should because that’s how it feels at the time. Young people are often underestimated about what they are feeling and what they are thinking about and the real concerns at their heart than someone of an older age, except that some people might believe there’s something you can do when you’re younger, but sometimes that just gets drummed out of you.
How did the parallels between this story’s environmental crises and those of modern times sort of inform your take on this material?
SP: I’m very aware of the effect of climate change on younger people, and I’ve been in direct contact with younger people trying to do something about it and have a fear and feeling of absolute terror that the world is just going to melt or get ripped apart and what they can do about it. So I think there’s a fantastic parallel there.
But I also think there’s a fear of apocalypse with every generation. It just takes a different shape. My parent’s’ generation lived through the Second World War. They didn’t know if they were going to survive it. Their parents live through the First World War. Then you go back even further and there were diseases that were killing people at a younger age. I think that fear of mortality and the consequences of governments beyond your direct area of power is omnipresent, but the kind of global, catastrophic events that people are facing now are on a different scale. Of course, the nuclear threat hasn’t gone away yet, either. That’s something that we tend to forget.
You have a lot of interesting use of light and shadows in the film to make it look a bit more period appropriate. What was it like trying to recreate that feeling and make it seem natural?
SP: First of all, I had worked with some great collaborators. As we all know, a film is made by a team and I really only have the job of directing that team. I worked with a lot of the same designers that I have worked with on many other films, and I knew I wanted this to be a location shoot and to have this real vibrant feeling. We researched pretty much every available nook and cranny of East London to find these locations.
And I worked with a DP that I had never worked with before, Robbie Ryan, whose handheld work in particular was just so amazing. We had made the decision to work digitally and work a bit in post to bring out exactly that light and shadow that you had mentioned and to give it the dimension of a black and white film that was filmed in colour, but that intensity of the images. But also to show London as being a little bleaker and a bit more run down. The London of my childhood still had bombing sites in it. It wasn’t so highly developed. There were less cars on the roads. Things have definitely changed for the place visually. And a lot of what goes into creating those visuals often tends to get overlooked. It’s hard to create a world that’s that stark, and it takes the help of a lot of people.
Reconnecting with a best friend can be really nerve-wracking because sometimes, much like in the film, there are always these melodramatic highs, and sometimes for us they don’t always end up well. Why do you think teenagers have that one friend that they latch onto and what fascinates you about that relationship?
SP: You know, I think best friends – and I think this is often kind of trivialized as we were saying before – are actually like Greek tragedies. They are HUGE, those friendships, and those work out into every aspect of your life, from how to straighten your jeans and hair to even bigger questions of “is there a God” and politics. It’s the whole range of emotions from the biggest to the smallest, and it’s something that’s very agile in terms of moving on from one thing to the next. I think best friends, and quite possibly for boys, too, is the first big passionate relationship outside the family. It’s where a lot of subsequent relationships will be figured out and how you will relate and love and what you love and what betrayal is and how close you can get to someone. It’s very, very intense.
What was it like selecting Alice and Elle? Did you have a lot of time with them or did they spend a lot of time together working on that dynamic themselves?
SP: I did a huge casting search of about 2,000 girls on Facebook, and from that I met about 200 of them. I did a conventional casting call, as well, on top of that. Then I met Elle Fanning and that was it, although she was much younger than I ever would have imagined at the time casting for that part. She was playing 16, going on 17, and she was 13 when we shot, but she was so astonishing and open, transparent, inspiring, and emotionally accessible. I cast her immediately.
With Alice, once I had met her, too, she was on the cusp of entering this dangerous time of womanhood, but just was still this adolescent deep down.
We had real rehearsal and preparation. I prepared individually with them over the course of a year, via Skype and conferences. Then we had a three week in-person rehearsal period where we went in-depth into the whole thing. Not rehearsing how to shoot it, but what they are thinking and why they are thinking it and what they aren’t saying. We were building a relationship together, so they were really primed when it came time to shoot.
That connection was absolutely there, but what was funny was that I had shot their auditions in separate countries, and then I went home and edited them together to see what their on screen chemistry would be like even before they had met, and they looked like they were in the same room. They got the characters and the timing just right. Not the accent just yet (laughs), but the timing and the emotions flowed.
When we worked together they were very cooperative and never competitive. They helped each other out and they bonded very, very well. It was a great working atmosphere.
With this film it feels different narratively and visually from your past films. What led to this sort of change in philosophy or did you really not change very much at all?
SP: I never thought of myself as someone who ever had one kind of style or one kind of signature. I always thought of my process as something that was in perpetual revolution until I came around to what felt appropriate for each kind of story and to find a form that was necessary. I think here that maybe there was that conscious attempt to sort of be more accessible, and to be easier to come into this story from outside of it. I didn’t want it to be too much in your face formalism or innovation, exactly. To be, in a way, a bit more simple in the story telling because I have to deal with these issues that were equally subtle and complicated in the lives of these characters. I didn’t want to put any obstacles in the way.
Your films have always had these lives beyond their original lives, especially something like Orlando that has been talked about a lot more recently than I remembered happening on its original release. When you make a film and you have an idea of what you want it to be, what comes first for you? The artistic fulfilment or telling a great story?
SP: Yeah, Orlando has kind of taken on a life of its own over the years. But I honestly can’t divide those things. I can’t separate one from the other. One of the things that I love about filmmaking is that you have to work on so many different aspects at once. It’s such a complicated whole where you do have to work on the image and detail and every nuance and then you have to apply that same love and detail to the music and the casting and the language. It’s such a complex, mongrel like construction. It’s not a pure medium at all. It’s very impure and you can’t concentrate on one thing over the others. It has to be in integrated simpatico world. You are creating a world in a film that has to hold together.
That also has to play into how animatedly and lovingly talk about the collaborative aspects of filmmaking.
SP: Oh, absolutely. I love collaboration. It’s so very fulfilling creating these relationships. Sometimes it’s very fractious and you fight, but you can always cut to the core of what’s important to everyone when you work together like that. There’s no time for small talk, so you’re reaching together to a vision that’s bigger than all of you combined. As a director you’re steering that vision, you know? You’re the only one who has the whole picture in mind and each member of the collaboration has their own part of it. It’s a feeling of great responsibility, but it’s such a joyful one trying to bring out the best in everybody in the service of a film.
Your process is very distinct and meticulous, so how does that translate to working with actors?
SP: First of all, I love working with actors, and I hope that’s kind of infectious. That they know I love working with them and that I have great respect for their process and the difficulty of that vulnerability. I’ve acted myself, so I know how you feel. It’s like you’re raw and your skin is on fire. I think they get that. I don’t try to make real group preparation time and I love to work one on one, and that includes the people behind the camera. First you build the one on one relationship and then you bring everyone together, and I think actors like that process, and they feel that they are being given a mixture of freedom and boundaries in which they can expand. I think they like to feel that they are going to be pushed to go beyond their habits, but within a safe environment where they won’t be judged or criticized if they fall.
Is it special to be working with younger actresses and people still trying to find their way in life, in that respect?
SP: It’s exactly the same, really. I take an attitude of respect first and foremost towards them because I think that what these younger people suffer from is a lack of respect. It’s like some people think that because they haven’t lived as many years that they don’t have valid feelings and points. That’s certainly not the case. I think even an 8 year old could be a serious actor that could seriously love their work.
At the same time, if I’m being honest, with Alice and Elle I felt really protective. I was pushing them hard, but I was also loving and protecting them as someone with more years under their belt. We worked really hard on emotionally demanding scenes and I would really be pushing them hard, but afterwards they would be in my arms or sitting on my lap. (laughs) That kind of dance back and forth between professional rigour and protectiveness was kind of an exciting thing to come together.