Sally Potter made her stamp on film consciousness with the seminal Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel spanning 400 years in which a woman changes sex, country, and circumstances.
It was stunning to look at and stylistically radical. Potter brings a stark and radical intimacy to Ginger and Rosa, her latest film about two girlfriends living in London at a politically sensitive time, as they navigate adolescence.
We spoke with Potter in Toronto.
M&C: How much of the film is taken from your own life?
Potter: All writers ruthlessly scavenge in their own lives, from material not just their own direct experience but the observation of other peoples experience and then in the act of writing that gets transformed and suddenly these characters come alive and start guiding me in other directions and I am following them around and after a while you believe in them. Now I can’t even remember which parts were to do with my own life and the lives of others which were completely and utterly made up.
It’s a kind of magical process that moment at which the characters take over. I lived through some of this period 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 on those marches.
So that was absolutely direct. And I remember being a teenager and the hormones and passions and fears and anxieties and longings.
M&C: Why do teenage girls often have one friend they cling to, and what interests you about it?
Potter: Best friends are sometimes trivialized and they are actually Greek tragedies, they are huge those friendships and those work out everything ranging from how to shrink your jeans or straighten your hair or is there a God? And politics, the biggest things and the smallest things - they are very agile going from one thing to the next.
Best friends maybe for boys too but girls do it in a particular way, is the first big passionate relationship outside the family so its where subsequently relationships are being figured out, how you relate, who you love what your loyalty is, what betrayal is, how close can you get, very intense relationships. You have to respect those strong emotions, not trivialize them. It’s a portrait of friendship that is kind of epic and felt epic at the time and is epic.
Young people are often underestimated about what they’re thinking about, what their real concerns are, it’s no different in any later age either. Except sometimes younger people believe there is something you can do and it’s drummed out of you.
M&C: Your young stars Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are responsible for so much, and they’re so young. Did you feel you were taking a risk?
Potter: I did a huge casting search, 2000 girls auditioned on Facebook and I did conventional calls as well. I met Elle Fanning and that was it. She was much younger than I imagined I would be casting that part, [playing sixteen turning 17 and she is 13 but she was so astonishing, open, brilliant, transparent, emotionally accessible and so adorable that I cast her immediately.
Alice once I met her she had this quality of being on the cusp of dangerous womanhood and yet being just a child, sleepy adolescent feeling. The combination as good and yes we had real rehearsal. Real preparation individually over a year via Skype and phone and flying and together we had a three week rehearsal period and we went in depth into the film not rehearsing how to shoot but why and what they’re thinking and not saying, building their relationship together so they were very primed by the time we shot.
What I did interestingly was that I filmed their auditions in separate countries and then went home and edited them together like two sides of the same screen, to see their onscreen chemistry even before they had met and they looked like they were in the same room.
They so got the characters and tone the emotional tone but when we worked together they were cooperative not competitive at all they helped each other and had time and bonded very well.
M&C: How did you achieve the look of 60’s London and keep it authentic when little of it remains?
Potter: I worked with great collaborators; film is made by a team and I direct that team and we wanted it to be a location shoot and have a really real vibrant feeling. We searched every nook and cranny in East London and the coast to find the locations.
We decided to work digitally and do work in post as well to bring out the light and shadow and give a feeling of a black and white the intensity even though its color. Also it’s a world that is bleaker, rundown London of my childhood and still had bombsites in it.
It was less developed; there were fewer cars on the road. Things have changed in those decades visually. A lot of work goes into the visuals. And gets overlooked to create an atmosphere that is authentic and yet stark and work of a lot of people.
M&C: What films inspired you?
Potter: I looked at a lot of films form that period, there was a blossoming of writing in what was called the “kitchen sink” dramas which had very serious writers working around 1962, working on films like Georgy Girl, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the L-Shaped Room and of course in France you ahd the New Wave happening and Godard and the subjects, handheld lights and shadows, Cassavettes I looked at that stuff again to refresh my memories and most of those films were in black and white.
I tried to create with color the feeling of life and breath that there was in that film alongside writing that wasn’t afraid to tackle the big subjects which films of that period were not. They were unafraid in that way.
M&C: How does the earlier time you’ve shown here matter today?
Potter: I am very aware of the effect of climate change on younger people and direct contact with young people trying to do something about it and have the feeling of absolute terror that the world is just going to melt and split apart. So there is a fantastic parallel. But there is also a fear of apocalypse with every generation; it just takes a different shape.
My parents lived through the Second World War and they didn’t know if they would survive it. Their parents went through the First World Wart and then there were the diseases that were killing people at a much earlier age. Fear of mortality and fear of the consequences of governments beyond your direct area of power is omnipresent.
But the kind of local catastrophic events people are facing now are on a different scale. Idealism remains important as you get older; it’s just buried under layers of disappointment. But you don’t have to scratch very deep before you find the idealistic in everybody.
I think it’s the more natural state of being, feeling of responsibility for the world and the sense that everyone can help make it a better world lies in most people’s hearts.
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