Heroines of Cinema: A Conversation With Sally Potter

By Matthew Hammett Knott | The Lost Boys October 25, 2012 at 12:35PM

Sally Potter is nothing if not original. She made her name writing and directing “Orlando” - an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, previously considered unfilmable due to its 400-year timespan and protagonist who changes gender at will.
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Sally Potter.
Film Society of Lincoln Center Sally Potter.

Sally Potter is nothing if not original. She made her name writing and directing “Orlando” - an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, previously considered unfilmable due to its 400-year timespan and protagonist who changes gender at will. She chose to follow this international hit with a film (“The Tango Lesson”) starring herself, in a role for which she learned to dance and sang on camera. Her next film (“The Man Who Cried”) starred Johnny Depp. Her next film (“Yes”) was written entirely in verse. Her next film (“Rage”) premiered exclusively on mobile phones.

Clearly, then, Potter is a unique artist. But being a woman too has made her something of a poster girl for female auteurs. In Britain at least, it is hard to think of any woman of her generation with a comparable stature or filmography. But despite her trail-blazing status, it is not always helpful to dwell on Potter’s gender. Part of the battle is allowing a space for women to be artists on their own terms, without requiring the prefix “female”. If ever a woman was deserving of that, it is Sally Potter - and so I didn’t raise the topic when meeting Potter in London last week following the screening of her latest film “Ginger and Rosa” at the London Film Festival.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter's Orlando

This is not to say that questions of gender remained untouched. Like Kenneth Logeran’s recent “Margaret” - which he styled as a “teen epic” - “Ginger and Rosa” is consciously grandiose in its portrayal of the daily dramas of its teenage heroine. As Potter explained, this was a highly deliberate decision in response to what she sees as cinema’s failure to adequately translate the experiences of that demographic to the screen.

Young women are poorly represented in cinema.
In film there is this terrible tendency to trivialise not only what young girls are as individuals but what their relationships are. When you are best friends, it’s seriously strong stuff. Girls’ friendships are epic. The scale of the things that go on, and the feelings… is there a god? How do we save the world? How do we shrink our jeans? It pained me to see how little drawn in the world the reality of being a girl was. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me how to write it. It was only when I came up with the structuring idea of “Ginger and Rosa”, setting this very personal and intimate conflict against a wider global conflict that I began to feel how one could get a sense of movement between the inner life and the outer world.

Cinema has an honourable history of great female roles.
I think we’re not in a particularly good couple of decades by and large. One has to take the long view and the wide view. Only yesterday I was writing a piece about “The Commissar”. It was made in 1967, then banned for 20 years. It features Nonna Mordyukova as a commissar in the red army - big and strong and an absolutely non-stereotypical heroine in every possible regard. And there are a lot of such extraordinary heroines in Russian cinema. Or we think of Bergman’s women - they’re always “Bergman’s” women, but they’re women. Then you think of the golden age of Hollywood, with Judy Garland and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. There have always been extraordinary women on screen.

"Ginger and Rosa"
"Ginger and Rosa"
She does not consciously write parts for women.
I don’t think “Right, now I’m going to write a part for a woman”. I’m writing a human experience, and I pay equal attention to the male parts that I’m writing. I don’t write female parts because I feel I should, but because I love these extraordinary characters and want to see them on the screen - characters that I want to write because they’re incredibly interesting. It’s only afterwards I discover how unusual it is.

She gets tired by the way films about women are received.
 Let’s say you’ve got an ensemble with half male parts, half female - the fact that there are that many female parts at all feels unusual. Or overshadows the fact that there are also male parts. I love watching films with all-male casts, like ”Twelve Angry Men”. And I would never say “Oh, but it’s an all-male cast”. But if you make films with an all-female cast, a lot of men assume it’s not for them, and it’s some kind of great big statement. Which is somewhat enervating.

READ MORE: 'Ginger and Rosa' Star Elle Fanning on Sally Potter, Nailing a British Accent, and Her Hopes of Working With Dakota Someday

She makes films for an international audience.
To survive in the film industry you have to think internationally - you can’t be parochial. I think it’s good for everyone working on a film when there’s an international crew or cast. It keeps you on your toes and stops you being obsessed with things like national identity. I’m not very fond of nationalism. I’ve never particularly thought of myself as British, although I am. I’ve had rather a chequered relationship with the British film industry. There are parts of the industry if one goes back historically that I adore. But look at Powell and Pressberger, these icons of “British” film. One of them was a Hungarian Jew! It’s always been a melting pot.

She finds it weird when her films are studied academically.
But I’ve got used to it, because it’s happened since the very beginning. I left school at 16, so I have no academic background at all. A film is made instinctively and unravelled analytically. There are many analytical questions along the way, but it is a different process. Then again, some of the best writing and most extraordinary insights have come from academia. I’ve come to love it. It wouldn’t be great if that was the only audience for the films, but as one particular angle, it’s fascinating.

The secret to her success is stamina.
I’ve definitely encountered resistance. On what feels like a massive scale, but I suspect many filmmakers feel that way. Every film that I’ve really, really, really wanted to make, I’ve made, by hook or by crook and against the odds, or with just an excruciatingly long development period. The most crucial motto as a filmmaker is stamina and persistence. The only difference between a film getting made and not getting made is some people give up along the way. But if you keep going, you get there in the end. Stay flexible, duck and weave, revisit, cut the budget in half, half again, decide to make it in Russia… if you’re fleet of foot and can bend with the wind and go with the storm and have the stamina for it, and desire for it, you can get there… or get very close.

NOTE: This article was originally posted on Indiewire proper this morning.

This article is related to: Matthew Hammett Knott