TIFF: Interview with Sally Potter – Writer and Director of Ginger and Rosa

TIFF: Interview with Sally Potter - Writer and Director of Ginger and Rosa

After the dust settles, Ginger and Rosa is going to turn out to be one of my the highlights of the festival.  Sally Potter, the brilliant director of Orlando has written and directed a truly accessible coming of age story set during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  It's the story of two sixteen year old girls Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert – Jane Campion's daughter) who are no longer girls but, of course, not yet women.  Ginger's parents, the academic philandering narcissist Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and frustrated painter Natalie (Christina Hendricks) are progressive parents giving Ginger a lot of freedom, and while her friend Rosa spends her time exploring her budding sexuality, Ginger on the other hand, is very focused on the fact that the world is on the brink of nuclear disaster.  She attends meetings and marches which is not typical for a 16 year old and she relays the fears that everyone was feeling at that moment. 

While this is something very serious to everyone, being a kid her emotions are heightened and all over the place, so she literally feels like the world feels is ending.  To top it off her family is falling apart around her and her best friend, the girl she loves more than anyone in the world, is at the center of the trauma.  Rosa commits a betrayal so deep that Ginger nearly has a total breakdown.  Another young actress might have allowed the intensity of the emotions to overwhelm her performance, but Elle Fanning (who just gets better and better) gives a very nuanced performance allowing us to feel the pain and emotion of Ginger.  Alice Englert is also terrific as Rosa. 

I have no doubt this will be Sally Potter's biggest hit since Orlando.

I was able to meet Sally Potter for a chat about the film.

Women and Hollywood: So, what does it feel like the morning after a world premiere of a movie that does so well at the Toronto Film Festival?

Sally Potter: Surreal.

WaH: I imagine.

Potter: Surreal, but it’s a relief.   Last night wasn’t just the world premiere, it was also for the other actors. They hadn’t seen it before, so that was an important moment for all of us.

WaH: I’m sure the feedback was great.

Potter: Yeah.

WaH: So the early sixties— talk about why you picked that time period.

Potter: It was a transition, real transition period. Between the postwar fifties— domesticity, people happy to be alive after the Second World War, wanting to build a home, make a family, make a nest.  Women were pushed back into the home after having been active in the Second World War.  It was a big Doris Day moment for women, which didn’t suit all women. And for men, I think many were deeply traumatized by war in one way or another, men were like life at any cost.  So I think quite a confusing transition in that regard. But 1962 is very much before the sixties as we think of it. Before the explosions and before the liberation movements before the music and and the political revolution.

And it was at the height of the Cold War.  Fear of the violation by these governments, these giant parents in the sky, you know, East and West.  And the dissolution of the nuclear family. It was so many things happening at once without a sort of language or kind of moral or ethical code, or even ways of thinking about what was happening.  A lot of confusion. A tough time for girls to grow up. Tough.

WaH: How did you take this tough time for girls and craft Ginger’s story?

Potter: I think, well, first of all, very interested in this period of girls’ life, where you’re still a child in some ways and a young adult in other ways.

WaH: So she’s fourteen in the movie?

Potter: No, they’re technically they’re— both the girls are sixteen, seventeen.  But Elle was actually thirteen when she was playing it.  And I think if we think of sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds at that time, they’re probably more like thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds now.

WaH: Right.

Potter: But to work with that stage of young women’s life when they both have the needs of a child and the aspirations of an adult and in a social setting, where there aren’t too many rules or boundaries where there’s a lot of freedom,  Yet there’s also a real cost to that freedom.  It was just a fantastically fertile ground to set a story.

WaH: Love and hate are this close when you’re sixteen.

Potter: Absolutely. Yeah. And it was a story in which the grownups— some of the grownups don’t really want to be grown up, either. They’re all in their own kind of adolescence.

WaH: That makes sense. Have you ever written about teenage girls before?

Potter: No. There have been teenage moments in the story, but I’ve never made it the central subject of the story.

WaH: And you knew when you were coming up with this time period that you were going to tell it from a girl’s point of view.

Potter: Absolutely.  I think we’re in a good moment for girls coming up. But in the past, anyway, friendships between girls have been sort of trivialized.  These are serious, big relationship in which girls discover their beliefs about God and politics and how to shrink your jeans and all the important things. And they’re passionate relationships. 

WaH: Did you cast Elle first and then cast around her?

Potter: It was kind of a parallel process, but I knew that the key was getting Ginger and Rosa right. I certainly knew I had to build around them. I had to get that core right or it wouldn’t work.

WaH: It’s funny, when we spoke last you said that when you used to go to film festivals you and Jane Campion were always confused you all the time. I find it so funny that you cast her daughter in her first big film role.  How did that happen?

Potter: Pure coincidence. My casting director in the UK Irene Lamb said that she saw something that Alice had done online— I think it was on YouTube or something, and saw a quality that was amazing. It didn’t come through Jane, it really came through Alice’s own qualities. And then I did a couple Skype auditions with her. That was the only way to meet her as she was in Australia. And then eventually she came over to London and I did a proper session with her and filmed it, and meanwhile I had been to Los Angeles and did a session with Elle, and filmed her, and cut the two auditions together and while they’d never met it was like they were in the same room, they were so balanced, so good. An Elle’s been acting since she was two, so she’s incredibly skilled and professional, amongst other things, and Alice hasn’t, but she’s grown up in the aura of cinema, watching and listening—

WaH: This is your seventh feature. Is it your most personal?

Potter: I think every feature’s personal. And I think that goes for everybody— if they say it isn’t, it’s not true. It has to be personal. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily autobiographical. As a writer, you have to draw from your life, not only what you’ve directly experienced but what you’ve seen other people experience. And then above all you have to draw from your imagination, the sort of “what if” scenario and work with it.  I’m younger than these girls were in 1962. As a child I was on some of those ban the bomb marches. That, I remember very very well — thinking the world might end. I remember very well being a teenager, and I remember very well having best friends.  It’s not that dissimilar from the world I grew up in. Above all what I do is try and work with the actors to bring their beings into the roles in such a way that everything that appears feels absolutely truthful.

WaH: It just sounds, from what the actors are saying, that your directing process is quite intense. Talk a little about that and what makes that unique.

Potter: First of all, I love actors. I love working with actors, and my intention is to build very, very close relationships with each individual actor as fast as I can. To build an atmosphere of trust and openness and respect. I deeply respect and understand the process they need to go through, and I think it’s probably that. And I insist on preparation time, even if it’s only a matter of days. You can get a lot done in a short space, and some people need more, some people need less. But I think it’s that. I mean, I don’t have one particular method. I try and tailor my working method to the individual needs of each actor. I spend a lot of time one on one.

WaH: Did you spend a lot more time with the girls?

Potter: Yeah, I did probably. But I got to spend a fair amount of time with each individual whenever it was possible.  But yeah, more time with the girls.

WaH:  A lot of directors films are quite linear. I feel like yours are all so different—that’s great. Do you feel this is your most accessible movie?

Potter: I intended it to be. I wanted it to be very much.  Sometimes I want to push the boat out in another way through the gate or the digital revolution or whatever it may be, but in this instance I wanted to tell a story that was raw and intimate and direct and universal in some sense, but that would feel very personal and at the same time go above all those things. But most importantly accessible. No obstacles in the way.

WaH: You accomplished that completely.

Potter: Oh, good.

WaH:  When we spoke last time you said that you were experimenting with Rage, and that you hadn’t known if the experiment would work. Did it?

Potter: I think it worked on its own terms, absolutely. It created a kind of template. You know, people doubted that this way of working could work and now of course it’s—everywhere. Everywhere and everyone. It’s like when I first started doing a blog at that time we did the research there was no other director doing a blog— now there are so many bloody blogs, I don’t do that anymore.

I kind of feel like almost like there’s too much out there. At the moment, I really want to concentrate my energies absolutely, and, you know, one can dissipate too much. There will come another moment. But right now I’m, in a way, returning to a quite simple love of the movie form, of the film form, of the narrative of character, of all those things.  I am allowing myself to just love it and work with it and not complicating it in any way. It’s difficult enough to do that.

WaH: Let’s just talk for a moment about the status of women directors.  In Cannes this year no women directors in competition this year. Venice had several and this festival’s just full of women. As a person who’s been on the vanguard of this, talk a little about how you’ve seen things change. Just talk a little bit about your feelings on the issue that still we can’t overcome.

Potter: Well, it’s a bit tiring isn’t it?  Tiring and tiresome. I wish that it wasn’t an issue, really do, and it’s great to be in a situation like here in Toronto where it doesn’t really make much of an issue, honestly.

WaH: I agree.

Potter: It’s such nonsense.  Things have changed since I started. Look, I used to always be the minority of one, maybe two, the token and that was tiresome and difficult. And that really has changed. There’s a lot of excellent female directors out there now, and a whole younger generation. Fantastic, and exactly as it should be.

WaH: There still is a sense that men are masters and, that the kind of vision that women put out is seen as less than…

Potter: Well, you can’t really divorce women’s struggles in the world from women’s in the cinema. As long as there’s hierarchy it means that women are somehow secondary or second class or less than.  That’s going to be reflected in movies because films are the most powerful medium to reflect back  society’s view of itself.  It used to be said, even out loud, that if there was a woman at the center of the story, not even a director but just at the center of the story, the film wouldn’t sell because nobody would be interested. That’s why I said at the beginning girls’ lives are big. These are not small trivial things that happen with teenagers. This is the big stuff of drama that can happen and will happen.  And at the same time, I think it’s very important for female directors to also deal with the big global thing and do thrillers

WaH: In England, do you feel like there’s a whole next generation thing happening?

Potter: Well, Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay are a start.  

WaH: And they’re the best. Both of them.

Potter: They’re wonderful. And that will spread out, I think, for younger women coming up. It’s very good to know that these women exist and the fact that they’re female is kind of secondary to the command of their form, which is a place that I always wanted to be perceived. I didn’t ever want attention drawn to the fact that I was female, but when you’re in a minority it inevitably happens.

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