Seven Questions with Sally Potter of "The Tango Lesson"
by Augusta Palmer
In “The Tango Lesson“, another ambitious and bi-continental fiction feature
from the creator of “Orlando“, director Sally Potter and dancer Pablo Veron
play versions of themselves to tell a story which centers on the struggle
between leading and following — in dancing, filmmaking and life.
indieWIRE: It’s not uncommon to see people who are triple threats – actors,
singers, and dancers – but you’re a quintuple threat in this film because
you wrote and directed it as well as singing, dancing, and acting in it.
How did you manage wearing all those hats?
Potter: You simply don’t sleep. Directors never get to sleep anyway. You
simply dedicate every precious moment to shooting. Actors and dancers, on
the contrary, need sleep. They have a lot of down time, usually. The amount
of time the camera is actually turning is relatively tiny. The ultimate
problem for many actors is learning how to pace yourself, waiting five
hours for your close-up. The difference is I didn’t have any down time. In
between being in front of the camera I was running around doing all the
things I always do as a director. One minute you’re looking at a button on
someone’s coat, deciding whether it should be bigger or smaller, brighter
or darker; the next minute, somebody’s hair; the next minute at a change in
location, the budget, the shooting schedule; the next minute at the deep
psychology of a scene. Now that means that you’re already wearing quite a
lot of hats, so to put on another hat and be a performer, paradoxically, is
not such a huge leap.
iW: Do you think being a dancer actually helped you make decisions about
Potter: I think it would have been impossible to do it without being a
dancer. You have to know what dancers go through, what they can and cannot
do realistically and then transfer that understanding to the camera, to the
relationship between the dancers and the camera. I don’t know how one would
do it without a knowledge of choreography.
iW: Why did you make the choice to cast yourself in the film?
Potter: Well, I’m not sure who could have played me better. There was a
kind of inevitability about it, really. It had to be someone close to my
age, in order to have the life experience to be an experienced director. It
had to be someone who was English to create the maximum cultural contrast
with the fiery Latin American (Pablo Veron). And someone who had already
reached a professional level at the authentic Argentinean tango, which
takes at least 2-3 years of studying, so that in the story we can see
somebody graduate from the stumbling first steps to credibly performing on
stage. Now, to try and get all of those three ingredients in one person. . .
There are lots of wonderful actresses out there who might well have played
a better version of me, or a different version; but there weren’t any out
there who at this point in time could fulfill all those requirements. But,
you know, it wasn’t just that. I think its that I was truly indivisible
from the story that was being told. We’re watching a film director thinking
about, imagining, struggling with how to turn what’s in her head into a
film; how to move from looking, from the gaze, to being looked at.
iW: How close is the film’s version of Sally Potter to you?
Potter: Impossible to measure, really, because it’s not a documentary. We
all know documentaries can lie. But this wasn’t even planning to be a
documentary: it looks like a feature film, it has the lights the cameras,
the changes in location, the music, the sound effects, everything. But the
feeling is essentially real, even if things have been altered a bit to make
it follow the rules of fiction and storytelling.
iW: That’s interesting because I think most people might have a difficulty
with that lack of separation between your real life and the film; but you
seem to like that confusion.
Potter: Well, “like” isn’t quite the right word. When I first saw this film
with the public and started getting comments, and I realized that people
assumed every thing was true, I went into shock because I had always
assumed that on some level they would realize that it’s a play or a game.
But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to make something at arm’s length,
that’s ironic or satirical. This is very much of my heart and maybe the
only way the story could work was through the real fragility of the
characters and find their own struggles mirrored in them. From that point
of view, I’m happy about the reality people see because it means that the
story is working. From the point of view of the confusion between reality
and fiction and the amount of exposure this brings, I’ve realized that it’s
something I have to accept.
iW: How did the film’s multiple locations [London, Paris, Buenos Aires]
effect production planning and funding?
Potter: Well, after “Orlando” it was quite simple, because”Orlando” was shot
in Russia on the frozen sea of St. Petersburg, in the deserts of
Uzbekhistan, and in England. We shot on three continents in the space of 10
weeks, covered 400 years of history and a gender change. “the Tango Lesson”
was a piece of cake in comparison.
Christopher Sheppard (the film’s producer) invented this (multinational)
production structure out of necessity for “Orlando”. We discovered that if
you spread the risk over six production companies, each one is more relaxed
because they haven’t had to invest everything they have. They get the whole
film back for their territory in exchange for having only financed a little
bit of it. And that’s a very good deal for them, but its also a good deal
for the filmmaker. Because they’re all sharing responsibility, they don’t
ask for control. So as a director I’m very free. And artistic freedom is
what any director wants above all.
So, it [having multiple locations & multinational financing] works both
ways: it creates bureaucratic and administrative headaches for the
production team with laws and currencies; but that is creative producing —
finding a solution and a financial structure that allows your film to be
made the way it should be made.
iW: My favorite scene in the film is the dance sequence which takes place
on moving walkways at an airport. How did that scene evolve?
Potter: I wanted to make a scene about good-byes. The traditional film
location for a good-bye scene used to be train stations. There’s a feeling
with the train pulling out of the station, the bittersweet moment of
separation. But I wanted to make a romantic scene in what is, in fact, a
very unromantic location for good-byes, with hard shiny surfaces that have
been depersonalized. And I wanted to play on all those escalators and
travelators. I feel like a kid inside because I want to walk the wrong way
down the escalators and slide down the banisters. It’s like a giant
playground which none of us are allowed to play in. So I took Pablo to the
location and we played around there and worked out a scene. But the scene
that ends up in the film was done in one take at the very end of the
shooting day just as the light was about to fade. . .
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer who is also working toward a
doctorate in Cinema Studies at NYU. Her thesis will examine film
produced in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.]