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Sally Potter Talks 'Ginger and Rosa,' Elle Fanning's Face, Narcissistic Parents, Women Directors UPDATED

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 19, 2012 at 4:29PM

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.
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"Ginger and Rosa."
"Ginger and Rosa."

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. "

I sat down with Potter at Telluride, where she was starting the search for a distributor. (A24 picked up the film and will open it in NY and LA on March 15, followed by 25 top markets on March 22.)

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?

Sally Potter in 'Tango Lesson'
Sally Potter in 'Tango Lesson'


SP: My writing method is to sit in a very small hut, in France actually, in this instance.

AT: Alone?

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.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Festivals, Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.