Brit director Sally Potter hit the film world with a major splash at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival with “Orlando,” starring the incomparable Tilda Swinton. Since then, Potter’s films have been impeccably crafted gems with limited appeal, from “The Tango Lesson,” starring Potter herself, to “Yes,” which she wrote in iambic pentameter. With “Ginger and Rosa,” written after her mother’s death in 2010, Potter consciously tried to craft her most emotionally accessible film to date.
And yet this 1962 London Bohemian family drama focused on two teen girls (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert, daughter of Jane Campion) coming of age under the threat of nuclear disaster seems destined, with its Thelonious Monk score, to appeal to older art house audiences. Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks play one set of less-than-perfect London parents. Given my own history with narcissistic neglectful intellectual parents, I was a sucker for this material (as well as another similarly-themed Toronto fest entry, “What Maisie Knew”). (Our TOH! review of “Ginger & Rosa” is here.)
“It’s an homage to a lost generation who struggled to the best of their ability,” Potter said at the Telluride Film Festival Q &A. “I remember well what it felt like to fear that the world might come to an end. And we are now facing apocalyptic global events. As I was telling this story it became clear that we are not only in the world, it is in us. “
Anne Thompson: Is this the same period and setting in which you grew up? Are these girls slightly older versions of you?
Sally Potter: Not at the same age, no. I was born in 1949, so in 1962 I was just 13. In the story if they’re born in 1945, they’re kind of 17. They’re not even me, really.
AT: I wondered how personal this story is to you? How much does it come from your experience?
SP: Isak Dinesen used to say “exactly 17-and-a-half percent.” But no, that’s not actually my answer, that’s hers. If you want to make a story about intimacy and the very smallest things and the very biggest things that could happen in a person’s life, it has to have a quality that’s personal. It has to feel completely authentic and real. And in crafting that you’re working with the laws of fiction. Otherwise I’d be making a documentary and using home movie footage. I scavenged in my own life, in my friends’ lives, but above all I scavenged in my imagination and created a “what if” situation.
AT: What is your writing method?
SP: My writing method is to sit in a very small hut, in France actually, in this instance.
SP: Absolutely alone. I write in total solitude. And I write on paper, on hand, and then it gets typed. Normal for me.
AT: And how long does it take?
SP: Well the real work isn’t necessarily the work when you’re putting it on the page, it’s the mental activity. It can go for years. The actual physical writing of this to a first draft goes relatively fast for me, but that’s just a first draft. And as you well know, scripts are re-written, not written, and so and finally in the cutting room. So it’s taken me therefore two-and-a-half years.
AT: So have you been able to talk to people since they saw the film? Have you had much interaction with people who saw it?
SP: I had a lot of individuals come up to me last night, many of them crying, after the film.
AT: I was one.
SP: So it does seem to have struck a chord, and people came up to me and said it was their story. And I thought, “interesting.” Because, unlikely to be exactly their story, the storyline, but maybe the issues of power, family relationships, the disintegrated family relationship, politics maybe, friendship and betrayal, love at any cost, and the relationship between ideas and freedom, and kindness and unkindness, all those things could perhaps lead people to feel that it was their story. What do you think?
AT: What you call the lost generation is many parents who were unconscious of the impact of their actions on their kids. My father was a lot like your guy: charming, he did whatever he pleased. He was reacting to his own parents.
SP: Exactly. So it was a generational thing.
AT: To the extraordinary authority and discipline, everything that that generation went through.
SP: And they’d been through the war. It was life at any cost. It was people, men feeling that they could breathe and take whatever was on offer without consequences, and then the lost generation where it was the women who suffered. The mothers.
AT: Did your mother give up career options?
SP: Yes, she did. She did. And she took her work up again later, but I think it was extraordinarily difficult for women of my mother’s generation to balance work, ambitions, and being a mother, and to even have a feeling of entitlement. Even in radical idealistic households, the women took 100% of the domestic labor on. It was a very difficult generation, and many of the daughters of that generation wrongly blamed their mothers. And it’s much later that you realize what those mothers were doing. And what they suffered, actually.
AT: The movie comes to a moving conclusion, as we see the daughter as someone who might have a creative future, like yours, as a writer. Because that’s the final image, writing her way out of her situation.
SP: Yes. The power of transformation through work. And I wanted it to be. Ginger appears to have the hardest time, we witness her suffering the consequences of the actions of the people around her who she loves but who are so enmeshed in their own needs that they can’t really see what she’s going through. So she appears to be the one that suffers. But actually [her father] Roland, who is in love with freedom and dreads prison, creates a prison by his own actions. He is narratively totally trapped by the end of the story. He can’t win. If he doesn’t go back to Natalie, he’s abandoning Rosa, if he stays with Rosa, he’s abandoning Natalie. And so on. Rosa, of course, in choosing the path of love, is repeating her mother’s story and is likely to become a single mother in a very low income job, and so on. So Ginger actually, who appears to be the victim of all these things, is the one who has a tool for transforming what she’s experiencing immediately. And she’s doing that in a childlike way, but from the very beginning of the story.
AT: Some people cry at the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT) when her father turns to her and says “I’m sorry.” I don’t believe him. I wouldn’t believe that he would do it, but it’s what everyone wants him to do.
SP: I know. Did it make you cry? Wouldn’t we all have loved for somebody to say they were sorry?
AT: Sorry. It’s just, you know, it’s true.
SP: I’m very moved by you being moved. I am. I’m deeply moved.
AT: I was close to your movie. But I was more angry, and you skipped that phase, in a way. You didn’t have time for it.
SP: Exactly. In her last poem, Ginger’s talking about what she might be able to feel in the future, not what she could feel now. And she could not forgive right there and then, but she’s doing future gazing, which is a very useful thing to do when you’re in a very hard time anyway. How’s it going to look in ten years time, looking back? And Roland saying he’s sorry is in a way opening the door to all those decades that follow, of men beginning to figure out what it would mean to be more fully human.
AT: You said that you changed your aesthetic to make the film more accessible, and so you chose the point of view of the girl. During your career you haven’t reached as many audiences as you’d like?
SP: I’d love to reach out. I adored filmmaking from the moment I started as a teenager. My fantasy was, you know, this huge medium, to be able to communicate on that scale, and one-to-one with total intimacy. It’s incredible. Genius. The potential is extraordinary, and I never feel I’ve really quite realized that. Although it’s all relative: a bestselling book is like ten thousand books or something.
AT: So you’ve reached many people.
SP: I’ve reached millions! With “Orlando.” I did really make a different set of decisions with this film. Aesthetically, in the writing, the narrative — everything was about trying to create something that would open a door to people and say “come in” and not put too many obstacles in the way, and be able to enter into and find either themselves or something they were interested in.
AT: “Orlando” had a scale and scope that you were able to achieve at that time, and why was that?
SP: It was $4 million dollars! It was originally budgeted $70 million or something, and people said we could never do it. And it was just putting it together with a piece of string, going to Russia, improvising with this, with that, and years of preparation because it was rejected so many thousands of times for funding. When you’ve done that much preparation and traveling, like thirty trips to Russia to find the frozen river and all that kind of thing, it looks bigger than it was.
AT: But it would be so hard to try to do something like that again.
SP: It was hard then. No one thought it was possible then, and you have to invent and reinvent in different ways. “Ginger & Rosa” was shot in five weeks. Now, when I made “Orlando” I would have thought it was technically impossible to make a feature film in five weeks. OK, this was a much smaller zone, very intimate, but still — it takes time.
AT: Some gorgeous shots. You’ve been doing a lot of work in digital already?
SP: Of course, quite a lot. It was shot on the Alexa and I’ve discovered you need to know where to spend the time, to get beauty — although I use that word with caution — and you have to spend a lot of time in post-production if you work digital. You know, tons of grading, and timing, in a dark room, with a negative. And then you can really start to paint your picture, but you need to work with a wonderful DP like I did. And I storyboarded a lot.
AT: And you relied very much on the close-ups, on this young actress’s face. How much did you plan in advance on doing that?
SP: A lot.
AT: So you knew. What quality does Elle Fanning, who was 13 when you shot the film, have?
SP: She has a quality, Elle, of transparency in her face. It’s like there’s nothing in the way. If you can get to work with her on all the inside layers, and I really did do a lot of one-on-one work with her in preparation over quite some period of time… going through the scene, talking around the character, around the part, what she was going through, what possible parallels there might be, and not in her direct experience, but perhaps in her empathetic imaginary experience. But also what were the levels and layers in each scene.
You know, Ginger, let’s say, she’s going to Roland’s to ask to live with him. She’s full of hope and expectation and an imaginary, exciting life with him that she’s longed for. She’s scared and worried about the effect it’s going to have on her mother. She’s nervous about being in this other life. You know, all those layers and layers and layers. We would go through those, and she would be working on those layers on this inside and out. So the direction generally was “you don’t need to show, just think it, feel it, track it, track the thoughts in between their minds,” and so on.
But with Elle, she is somebody who is such a serious young artist. So eager and hungry for these kind of subtle nuances of her trade, acting. It was unbelievably wonderful working with her. And the quality in her face, why the camera could come so close is because there’s nothing in the way, there’s no impediment. So it’s like just looking in to somebody.
AT: You were telling a British story with the common wisdom that the best actors in the world are British, but you went with many Americans playing British. So tell me how you made your casting decisions.
SP: Very carefully, yeah. Well, some of the best actors are British, and some of the best actors are American, some are Russian, there’s a whole lot. For me, it’s about the right individuals. There was no strategy, by the way, “hey, let’s get a load of American actors” into the film, that was not in my mind. It really wasn’t in there at all, but it was about getting the right presences who would create a kind of chemical mix that worked to evoke that, the feeling of those individuals.
And I met a lot of people and auditioned a lot of people for the parts in the film, and I’ve learned to take my time with casting and never, ever settle for somebody who isn’t quite right, however good they are. They could be wonderful, but who aren’t going to be right for the part, and I really felt these individuals could fill the presence of the part and create something bigger than the lines, than what was written even. Fill it and relate to it and also resonate with each other, and certain kind of ways.
AT: How did you get Annette Bening for such a small role?
SP: She loved the script. And she has the humility to take a supporting role like that. And I said, you know, “Do you want to do a role [with] the size issues,” and she says, “I know exactly what it is. I want to do it because I like this, I love this script.”
AT: Christina Hendricks was an interesting choice. Had she ever done a British accent before?
SP: No. She had to journey to get to it, it’s a big technical challenge for anyone to take that on, and she took it on, and worked incredibly hard with it. I think what she achieved, that I loved, is she took a part that could be interpreted as a kind of victim and gave it incredible sort of strength, so you feel the vulnerability of this person who’s struggling with the forces of the time, and struggling in this marriage, and struggling with motherhood, and struggling with her ambitions as a painter, and kind of fleshed that out in a way that is quite mysterious and quite chameleon-like. Somebody who’s trying this, and trying that, and falling down. And I love that.
AT: On the Sight & Sound Top 50, there was only one woman filmmaker, Chantal Akerman. You could work your way down the longer list to see there were others who just didn’t reach a certain consensus. I culled lists of women directors and their films, and was horrified by how few even had real bodies of work. You’re one of them, but it’s scary how many women don’t.
SP: Who make one or two and then drop away?
AT: Yeah. What happens?
SP: It is so tough being a director, at all, regardless of gender. And then it’s doubly tough if you’re female. Probably if you’re black as well. In anything. Women can be really unprepared for the slings and arrows, the sheer brutality of the experience of when the film comes out into the world, but also the sheer volume of work. It’s a vocation. It’s vocational work. And if you’re not able to give that amount of time and dedication, you’re going to fall away. And I think a lot of people do it once or twice, and go, “I just can’t go through this again. Just cannot do it again.”
AT: Especially without the support that isn’t there. Have you felt supported by the British film industry?
SP: In a patchy kind of a way. It comes and it goes. I’ve had as many rejections as anybody else, and I’ve gone through good patches and bad patches. This particular film was met with enthusiasm at a script stage by some very good people in the then-Film Council, that was then transferred to the British Film Institute, and by the BBC, who I’d never worked with before. I’d never been funded by either the BBC or Film 4 before, although I’d submitted stuff to them all over again.
That’s another thing: females are unprepared for the sheer quantity of rejection, and what do you do with that. Do you interpret that as meaning that you’re no good and therefore should give up? Or that you just haven’t reached the right funding? Or that, yes, the odds are stacked against you, people may not understand, but that’s even a better reason to keep fighting. And there’s lots of ways of interpreting rejection, and I think you need the armory, you need to know, you need to have a way of dealing with that in order to go on past one or two films.
AT: You were at Telluride a few years ago with “Yes,” which received a scathing review from Variety. There’s the issue of women critics not being in the majority, and male critics not necessarily responding to work that is intimate and sexual and political, and perhaps not understandable to that particular person.
SP: That review killed the film. It killed it. That one review killed it.
AT: How did that affect you?
SP: It affected me very badly. One works equally hard on every film, and you hold out the greatest hopes for it. And it seems absolutely wrong that somebody writing for maybe thirty minutes or something, or maybe more to give them the benefit of the doubt, could destroy several years’ work and hundreds of people, of absolute heartfelt dedication, including total financial – you know, no money, basically. It was a personal attack as well. First of all, it’s a systemic thing. There shouldn’t be that much power invested in one reviewer.
AT: There isn’t any more.
SP: The internet’s changed that, right? Which is good. So it can be a more balanced thing. But I think the relationship with criticism and critics is a rocky road, too, for which people can be unprepared.
AT: So when it came time to come to Telluride, were you reluctant about coming back to the scene of the crime?
SP: The scene of what happened with “Yes”? Yes, I was tentative.
AT: What convinced you?
SP: Tom Luddy. We had a wonderful conversation and I talked with other people too, and it was a feeling that Telluride is a precursor to Toronto, where the film will probably be sold, and so it’s good to have a — less formal, let’s say — opening in smaller, more intimate conditions.
AT: So, do you have anything else that you’re working on?
SP: I’m totally monogamous when I’m working on a film, because I always write my own films, or at least I have done up ’til this moment, historically, and I start again. And I finished the final nicks of this a week ago, it was really very hot off the press. So once this phase is over, I’ll get back in that hut and start writing again. I always have themes and things that I want to explore.