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Sally Potter On Her New Film ‘Ginger & Rosa’ and Her Adoration for Actors

Sally Potter On Her New Film 'Ginger & Rosa' and Her Adoration for Actors

British director Sally Potter (“Orlando”) was back to both Telluride and Toronto with her new film “Ginger & Rosa,” which stars Elle Fanning as Ginger, a girl who is coming of age in 1962, steeped in the era of nuclear proliferation. Things are ready to combust in the world around her but also amongst her family and friends, including her pal Rosa (Alice Englert).

Ginger must not only fight to stop the world from dropping any more bombs, but she must also work against the metaphorical bombs that are dropped on her in her own home. Underneath a cozy middle-class British veneer, surprises lurk amongst Ginger’s loved ones.  A stellar cast of actors including Christina Hendricks, Annette Benning, Oliver Platt and Alessandro Nivola, play Ginger’s family and family friends.

You’ve taken “Ginger & Rosa” to Telluride and now to Toronto.  What’s been the experience of showing the film to audiences?

It’s been great. You’ve never know what you’ve done until you see with a big audience, and I’ve been fascinated by people’s reactions. People were so emotional about the film and often shocked by some of it. Everything is implied; nothing is sure. No one is decapitated or raped.

Even some of the major relationships are simply implied, but still it’s all so effective.

People were going “Whoa!,” weeping. Really, my shoulder was wet after some of the screenings. It’s been kind of amazing. Last night was the first night that all the actors got to see it.

Many of the things that happen between the characters are implied, but then there are scenes when everything unravels. How did you decide on the structure of the film?

I longed to tell a simple story in a very direct and emotional way. That took every bit of craft of my disposal. In a way, it was the most technically crafted film I’ve done. Tracking all the different threads all the way through and bringing them together into a one great climatic scene at the end was difficult, for all of us:  difficult to shoot, difficult to light…  But it was a really exciting thing to do. There’s no hiding in the film, in the story, it’s direct, nothing to hide behind the effects, explosions. It’s naked in a way, and that’s the quality I wanted. It’s really authentic.  It deals with the most difficult and intimate parts of people’s lives, and at the same time, it’s linked to the widest biggest things and says that individuals can control [those things].

Why was it important for you to make this film now? Were the larger issues in the film that were so important to people in the ’60s a motivating factor for making the film?

I see the real parallels between people’s fear now and then. Some from the much younger generation now fear climate change.  These things [the nuclear bomb and climate change] send us to the feeling of desperation.  More people are waking up to it.  I think there’s a universalism to the story too.  What it is like to grow up, discover freedom, discover responsibility, to be challenged, to believe in God, to not believe in God. Those things are totally current — things like love, betrayal, friendship, family, love at any cost, self-delusion, the relationship between the idea of what you say and what you do. All of these things are part of this film.

The last time I saw you, you were at MoMA for a retrospective of your work. When you have major retrospectives of your work and people study it,  do you think they’re expecting something particular out of your next film?  Do people treat you as Sally Potter, the auteur?  Do you care about all that?

I do care. I think this is a way of working. When you’re making a film, you’re actually creating a world, the world of the film, the family on screen, the people you work with, the colleagues.  For a while the outside world doesn’t come in, but it is for the outside world.

But I don’t really know what expectations people have. I get some feedback of what I’ve done. But mostly I keep feeling that I’m beginning again, that each film is like a fresh beginning and new. I’ve never felt like there’s any place that I can arrive and stay.

It’s true that it does feel like you are often starting anew.  Your last film,”Rage,” for instance, told its story completely differently from this film. 

I try to do something what I find exciting, something what’s pushing to a new ground.  I want to be really indie and embrace all of what’s possible technologically. People get really sniffly about it, but it’s best not to think of it as the end of cinema but the beginning of something else. I want to go with that and feel like an explorer in that way. I’m excited by that.  One thing for example with “Rage” is my love for working with actors that develops with each film. But forms can be various.  It is much more what the film needs to be in order to say what it needs to say, do what it needs to do.

You said you like working with actors.

I love working with actors.

At what point in the process of making this film, for instance, does casting play a role?

I try to finish the script. You don’t finish the script until the final cut. I took it as far as I could take it on the page, and I say a page because I write on paper, then start the casting process. What I’ve learnt to do is to take my time with that and refuse to rush into a bad decision, because it’s so crucial getting it right. It’s so important because once I do commit to an actor, I’m totally committed and I will do anything to help that actor to get to the right place.

It’s interesting you chose American actors for these British roles.  They were great, but someone like Christina Hendricks [who plays Ginger’s mother in a powerful dramatic role] was almost unrecognizable.

You know people didn’t realize it was her, and that Elle is Elle, it was a huge transformation for the film, to embody what they needed to.

Do the actors notice that they’re making such a complete transformation?

Pushing themselves to new areas is what they love to do, that’s their trade. Moving to new areas is dangerous, exciting, everybody wants to cross their personal limits and find out what else they can do, explore their range, and do something that’s true.

I imagine by reading the script it’s not immediately apparent that they are going to be that transformed so completely.

Actors are the best people to read a script. They can see from a page what the potential is, where they may go with it.

How long do you work with your actors?

It depends on the individual. Sometimes you meet someone for day, half a day or a few hours, but you have to see that their work carries on. Annette Benning and I exchanged emails. I insist on preparation, real preparation, whatever it takes for each individual. It’s quite rare to get that. It’s not really about quantity of time, but quality of time.

And do you think the quality was able to come through on your emails with Annette?

We sent each other some poems, references — we also met, of course. You build a conversation to find a common ground and to know where you’re going.

And so what was your experience of working with all these excellent actors?

They’re brilliant! They’re fascinating and intelligent. And another thing all of these actors have in common is that they are not only interested in their own part, they’re interested in the whole movie, of which they are a part. They bring the feeling of responsibility which goes beyond the individual bit. You feel that. These people enter into a world, and helping to create the world and atmosphere of the world and presence.

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