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The Films of Sally Potter: Performance and Directing Style 

 

Sally Potter picked up her first 8 mm camera at age fourteen. The breadth of her work spans from feminist avant-garde shorts, to a coming of age story set in the 60's protest era, to political satires, to a gender bending adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s "Orlando," and most recently a powerful short with Javier Bardem and Chris Rock battling it out as manager and artist on a Brooklyn rooftop. 

 

 

GCC: Your first film was Thriller, a short film. It was a twist on the traditional thriller as we know it. How did that idea come about? 

 

SP: I actually made quite a lot of the short films before that, but Thriller was the first one that became more accessible to more people and more relevant to more people at the time when it came out. And I think the idea behind it was to first of all, look at why it seemed in so many stories in opera, but in other stories too the female heroine got to die in the last act. So it was wanting to kind of dismantle the heroine, the glamorization of female suffering, really, by having the woman become the interrogator of the reasons behind her own death. In fact, the reasons for all the ways that story, the story of La bohème the opera in this case and many similar stories are told. But it was also very much a visual exploration of the relationship between stills and the moving image in a kind of post-modern cut up in a way, because it used Bernard Thomas music from Psycho, the shower sequence

[stabbing gesture] “eh eh eh eh” combined with opera. So it was about popular culture and so-called high culture kind of having a dialogue with each other. But putting the woman, in this instance a black woman, right at the center of it being the one who's interrogating the whole culture that surrounds her.

 

GCC: And there's a part where she's reading from a text that was from Mallarmé. How is that kind of device used in the film? Why did you decide to incorporate that text? 

 

SP: I wanted to take one of the key texts that were at the time floating around a lot in feminist academic circles, which I wasn't really a part of because I was more of a practitioner, a filmmaker, or a dancer, or a performance artist. But I was very intrigued by the atmosphere at the time of incredible amounts of interest in theory in the text. So I wanted to explore how did these ideas by great Western writers, what sort of hold did they have over people and how were they using and working with those texts? So it was a play on that. 

 

GCC: Your early films were so fascinating. They were avant garde and experimental. In both Thriller and The Gold Diggers you are capturing the inner world of the characters, the female interiority and voice. You do that partly through voiceover in The Gold Diggers. And there's some use of symbolism, too. And it's not a traditional narrative. And it is so layered and visually complex with the production design and the language. It's not a traditional narrative, but if I were to ask you, in more traditional narrative terms, what was Julie Christie's, the protagonist’s conflict? What was she trying to transform? 

 

SP: So I think about the question of the interior female voice. I was very conscious then, as I am now, of the history of female silence and in a way, the absent voices in the culture and certainly in the kind of films that I grew up watching and stories that I grew up watching. And I often felt that the the forms that developed in the avant garde that were less narrative, less character driven and so on in certain ways, had more space to explore that silence and rectify it by giving voice to the things that had not been said, had not been expressed that nobody had found a way of expressing. So I began to explore what they were and wrote them down often as questions and in Thriller it’s a lot of questions that she asks. And in The Gold Diggers, I guess, the discussions that I had with my two collaborators on the script, Lindsey Cooper and Rose English were a lot about form because Lindsay was a composer and therefore very interested in the forms of music, not just in music itself, but in the forms of music and how it works. And Rose English had come from the visual arts world. She was absolutely a visual artist and worked on the design for the film. But the combination, therefore, of the places we had come from meant that we were interrogating the nature of form, the nature of storytelling, a narrative, and what it left out. So the form we chose in The Gold Diggers was more circular, more looking at itself and moving back and forth in time to really examine what it was doing rather than linear. And that was a very, very conscious thing to do formally. But I think you could say that both of those stories around the globe were sort of imbued with the language of performance art as much as the language of cinema. Although I was very much in love with cinema and still am. 

 

And but to decode it, it seemed necessary to draw on all the ways of structuring a story and other ways of structuring a presence on film. And Julie Christie, one of the reasons for asking her to be in the film was that she, in a way, well she was a great film star, a great grand film star who was bringing with her that sort of presence, if you like, from classical mainstream cinema and placing her, literally lifting her out of the ballroom on a horseback and putting her in this film and seeing what that did and then having her role be in a way, as a star within that system economically, ecologically, psychically, emotionally, to get that to be interrogated to. 

 

So that's how we were thinking about character; it was rather different. It wasn't like a classical view. This is a character with a backstory. It was more, I am an image. I am an image that you are receiving and I am going to start to unravel for you. 

 

GCC: And so coming from performance art, what do you think the camera brings? 

 

SP: Point of view. It adds point of view, it adds framing it as a relationship, a very particular relationship with time, with leaving a trace in time, and it brings with it the whole history of photography and cinematography. So it's only life in the sense that you are recording a live moment, but you are recording something that will then go on to have its own life. So it's a very big jump. But I think what in performance art, what was developed in the dance world that I was part of as well, was a very, very strong feeling for presence and for the present moment. And so that became very much a theme actually, how to achieve that feeling of absolutely being in that moment rather than anything that was more forced. It was almost a feeling of improvisation, but very structured. It wasn't actually improvised, but there was this conscious relationship with how to get something to feel very alive and so present at the moment that the camera was turning. 

 

GCC: Your background was in choreography and dance. How does that lend itself to filmmaking and directing? 

 

GCC: Very well because first of all, nobody works as hard as dancers. It's the hardest artform and the poorest art form and the most demanding of the body. And it's a short life for most dancers. But choreography has developed a very acute relationship with space, with bodies in space, and also with the body itself, you know, how it moves, what it's telling you. So I think that when I work with actresses, it's kind of a 360 degree full body act, full body performance. You know, it's not just about the face speaking. And so it's a very good training for that, for that kind of awareness. And it's a very good training for working with people because I was able in that world to work on many, many pieces with a lot of people, turn over a great deal of work, get a lot of experience of how to work with people. Whereas I think for a lot of young filmmakers, film is so difficult and expensive and difficult to organize that people often don't have many flying hours in the actual process of working and making something happen and working with people and building relationships. So that was helpful, more than helpful. And it's Andrè Bazin, the French film theorist, who said the essence of cinema is movement. So if one already has a feeling for movement through time, movement in space, it's a very good discipline to have when thinking about how to set up a shot or scene, how to work with the camera, whether it's still or moving. If it is moving, in what way? What height is, how are we seeing it? And with the actors, all the performers where in space are they? Close or far or are they moving or still all these questions, you develop a vocabulary with that in live work whether that's dance or performance work with theater.

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SP: Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with the DP Babette Malgotte. She’s worked with so many great female directors. 

 

GCC: It's a long time since that collaboration, but it was a very fruitful one and it was the desire to work in black and white to shoot on 35 mm film. So it was very analog. And she had, of course, a sensibility that came also much more from the avant-garde and much less from the mainstream filmmaking. So I think that point of view was very helpful. And she was at the time, I would probably think one of the more experienced female DP's and leading, you know, an all female crew that we had on that film. 

 

GCC:  That’s so great that you had an all female crew on that. On The Gold Diggers you and Babette Malgotte were very free with the camera and blocking. Did she storyboard or did you storyboard together? 

 

SP: No, no, no storyboards. Definitely not. And it's not about not blocking. Of course, I would set up and give the parameters of a situation, but all I'm questioning is there's a lot of orthodoxies about how you're supposed to behave on a set or how you're supposed to set up a scene which are often quite tight and rigid and stop people from seeing all the ways of doing it. Other possibilities. But the way that I work with DP’s and certainly did with Babette is very much shoulder to shoulder, looking together shot by shot, figuring out the best way to do it. I would always plan. I would always, even then I think, always have a shot list at the beginning of the day, what I wanted to get through, what I wanted to see and approximately how that might be organized through the day and in what time and in what order. And so it wasn't all spontaneous. It was planned in that sense very much. But I think that's the kind of thing at the end she and I were talking about often were more like composition within the frame or lenses, which lenses how wide, how close, what are we trying to see here? 

 

GCC: The film is so beautifully shot. I love that wide shot you have of all the people walking up the glacier. Okay, I'd like to move on to Orlando, which is a loved film of yours, and it was recently made into gorgeous 4K restoration. Orlando is a novel from Virginia Woolf. What made you want to adapt that particular book? 

 

SP: Well, I think it's a combination of those things which were…how can I say? Seems that it could take one a very long way; the theme of immortality. Therefore, an exploration of the human lifespan. And the aspiration of the impossible was physically humanly impossible at this point, which takes it into a kind of metaphysical feeling about. Human existence through time. So it's such a big subject. I mean, that's like physics and biology and religion and everything, just that alone. But of course, what it is more known for, more famous for narratively is the change of sex all the way through. So to be able to so-to-speak see the world from the perspective of male experience and then female experience in the body of a person who is exactly the same, the same individual was itself very radical. Critique by Virginia Woolf of the nature of identity, fluidity of identity, but also what she thought of as the androgynous mind. The mind has no gender and the heart has no gender. Love has no gender. Skin has no gender. Blood has no gender. So she was taking a very, very specific line on what makes us the way that we are. And it was a great deal to do with the performance agenda that we're forced into by stereotypes and by oppression, really, within society. So I thought the combination of those subjects was so incredibly interesting, and the way that she'd done that in the book was through images. It's just full of images.

GCC: How do you even begin to approach adapting a novel like that? 

 

SP: Reading it over and over again. And then analyzing it, breaking it down into its narrative threads and breaking it down into acts and scenes just like aspects of the story. I cut a lot of characters, a lot of scenes, a lot of events. And going back to the core again and again and again, sort of charting it, analyzing it. I did so many drafts. I think the first draft of the script was like 200 pages long. And at the end of the minute-a-page I ended up at about 99 pages. I cut way more than half of what I wrote. And then I also read most of everything else that Virginia Woolf had written, including her diaries, the things she wrote, what she was thinking about while she was writing Orlando and so on. So I tried to get really, really close to the spirit of what she was writing, but gradually departed further and further and further from the book in order to make it work cinematically. Because it was too complex, too literary to be cinematic if one took it literally off the page. So I needed to make a lot of ruthless changes. But I did try and stay very, very close to the tone of the book, the speed and the wit and the lightness of it. 

 

GCC: That's one of the things that is so wonderful about the film is its tone. And Tilda Swinton’s performance, her delivery has this kind of subtle humor. But in terms of performance how did you achieve that tone with her? 

 

SP: Rehearsals. Endless rehearsal. Endless preparation. Not formal rehearsal like her standing there performing or anything, but going over and over in practice and different ways of looking at me as if I was the camera finding, you know, what we both laughed at? We just spent a great deal of time together working on it again and again and again through each successive draft. And so by the time we came to shoot it, we understood each other. Absolutely. And it was a great deal of mutual trust. And the ground had been prepared. For what proved to be a very exhausting and difficult shoot. But done with great, good humor. 

 

GCC: It felt like you guys were having a lot of fun. 

 

SP: We did. We were laughing all the time. 

 

GCC: Another playful and witty part of the film is the costume design and the hair. Sandy Powell did the costumes, which were so beautiful. I really loved all the exaggerated proportions in the costumes and hair and even with some of the makeup. That must have been a fun discussion. What was that like, what made you decide to go in that direction? 

 

SP: Endless discussions, A, B, lots and lots of historical research. Looking at paintings. They're not even that exaggerated. They're pretty true to the paintings of the time of the period and the wigs. Some of them were a little exaggerated, but not a lot. I think what tends to happen is that people, when they work with this period stuff, they tone it down. Whereas I went to the most extreme end of silhouettes and wigs and so on, but also I was working with people who were brilliant at what they did. You know, the wig makers were extraordinary. And the wigs were, a great deal of attention, lot’s of tests. We tested everything, all the colors. I provided a very clear palette to Sandy and to all the designers. Each era had a completely different color palette and excluded all the other colors and so on. So I think there were clear guidelines and there was a lot of historical research. And then these individuals were incredibly creative with what they had and we pushed it to an extreme. What did I used to call it? Magic realism in effect. 

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GC: Ginger and Rosa is a coming of age film that takes place in England during the 60’s protest era. I'm very curious about your collaboration with Elle Fanning. Elle Fanning is always so luminous on screen and bright. But there is also in that particular film she had an almost translucent quality and you let her cry on screen. It feels very raw, but it also feels like there's a little bit held back. Could you talk about how you brought her there? 

 

SP: Well, firstly, when Elle auditioned for this, she was 12. When we were shooting, she was 13, playing 16. So extraordinary that she could manage it. But it was clear to me, even when she was 12, that she was going to be able to do it. When I would meet her in L.A. and filmed a little bit with her and because she was already very experienced, she'd already made appearances in about 20 films or something by the age of 13. So she had an amazing facility and an amazing feeling of being at ease, very, very comfortable with the camera, with the set. But the key for me, because she was so young, I wanted to build a very, very safe space for her and build a very close personal relationship with her so that she could go to those places. And she also had the capacity of all really good actors, which she could go into something then she could just come back out of it. She had enough detachment. She knew she was performing. You know, she didn't start drowning in trauma or something. So yeah, we discussed the scene. We knew where it was coming from and what was happening, and she would do it and then she'd come back out and we'd hug and we'd laugh and she'd say “why potatoes?” That was refreshing. She was wonderful to work with and eager to learn and eager to understand the material that she was working with. But we became very close. 

 

GCC: That's what I found so truthful about that scene and those moments that she isn't drowning in the trauma. It felt like the loss of innocence was captured. And there's a lot that she's seeing and experiencing for the first time. She's feeling so much, but I don't think she totally understands what's going on. 

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GCC: What would be your advice to a young director in order to gain confidence in working with actors? Because with cinematography and editing, for example, you could probably learn a lot from books or courses, but I think that it's very intimidating for a young director to work with actors for the first time. How would they prepare the day before? 

 

SP: Well, first of all, the day before it's too late. You have to get every bit of preparation you can with time with actors before you're on the set. And amazingly, a lot of actors don't do that. And that's a big, big mistake, because it means you discover the problems on the set when you've got no time. You need to have dealt with those things beforehand and in private. So it's always the best thing to try and find some private time with each actor and then do a lot of listening, ask them questions. Alot of young directors often feel they've got to hang around looking very authoritative and know what they're doing and being decisive and kind of tell the actors what to do. That's not what it's about at all. It's about creating an environment in which an actor feels listened to and find out their point of view. Listen to their suggestions. Or you may not agree with them, but it doesn't matter you’re creating the space in which they will feel respected and a creative partnership is beginning. That's very important. And then it's really just about observing what works. What's the quality you want to get as a director? What is it? Is it talking with the actor or is it standing back and just giving them space to try out different things? Or is it being very warm you know, huggies sort of warm, kind of nice cozy environment. Or for some people that's “no don't come near me.” So it's just observing the individual actor and what makes them tick and what gets the best out of them and then trying to build on that. So it's about observation, which includes listening, and then it's moment to moment feedback. So for example, during the set when we're shooting, I don't know how other directors work, but I don't usually give a direction out loud across the set. I go over and talk quietly to an actor in between takes. Try this, try to do this, and then it's like a nice little private kind of cocoon in a way of trust and I think that's important. It's so much about trust.

 

GCC: So ideally you would want to build in a lot of time with them. 

 

SP: Yes. Well, the more the more the actors don't want their time wasted. You don't want to be with an actor just doing that same thing for hours and hours and not really helping anything to develop. So it's got to feel like it's an efficient use of time and find out from them what their concerns are and if they're already working on it. They've already read the script, they already know what they think, maybe what they want to do, but maybe they're worried about what they're going to wear. So if that's what they're worried about, you have to ask the question directly, what are your concerns? What will help you to do your best work here? Do you think they might say, well, I'm really concerned about my hair or I don't like this line, I don't understand it or whatever it may be and then deal with it. 

 

GCC: Your last film was a short with Javier Bardem and Chris Rock, called Look at Me. And you've made many, many incredible shorts and we a lot of times we don't get to see those. Now it's easier to access more shorts, of course. But could you talk a little bit about the value of making shorts and just the short form, because a lot of young filmmakers don’t ever even get to make a feature, or they don't have the resources to make a feature. 

 

SP: And yes they do, if they have an iPhone, they do. [holds up her iPhone] So if one has the will and now there is the technology— I can go out with this tomorrow and make a feature, but I need the idea. So where do you need to put your time? Writing. You need to figure out what you want to make a film about. But the technology is so much easier now. So much cheaper. Several very good films have been made that way. So with shorts, there's a certain amount of misunderstanding about shorts, which is somehow the idea that they're just a form of practice for a feature. You know I don't think that's true. And going back to making a short after so many years of making features, nine features in between the previous short and the recent short, I remembered and rediscovered, what a demanding format it is. And it's not just a short version of the feature. It's certainly a practice. It's a form in its own right, very demanding, needs a great deal of precision and confidence and a great deal of attention to the writing and to the concept. So it's a really interesting format. And I think now that people are absorbing short forms on Instagram and TikTok and so on, there's probably going to be a need for more skill and dexterity with short forms and to really understand how they work for people as well as features and TV series. There's so many ways now of absorbing images and stories. 

 

GCC: Do you have any final words of wisdom for young filmmakers just starting out? Maybe they're about to make their first short, let's say. 

 

SP: I would say to do as much work as possible and to understand, really how important the script is. You know, it's the architecture of everything. And I don't mean the dialogue that is the least of it, it can be a script with completely no dialogue. It's how you organize the concept, what it really is, the underlying clarity that you need that becomes the engine that then propels the whole thing and propels it for everybody working on it. So to anyone working, I would say if maybe they don't want to write their own work, in which case they work with a writer, but the attention on the writing is key. And then the second is do as much as possible, make as much as possible, make a little with an iPhone or get together and shoot something. It's about developing the muscle. You know, just doing it, doing it, doing it as much as possible in any way possible. And know that everybody, even the most experienced filmmakers, suffer from doubt, insecurity, fear about how their work will be received or perceived. These feelings are hard and are very difficult. The beginning of a working life is to understand that this is normal and that this actually also doesn't go away. It's not very reassuring for people to hear that, but I think it normalizes it. Part of the working process is to struggle with the material and with yourself to feel that what you're doing is of some value and that it will eventually get there because at the beginning, often it's not working brilliantly. And it needs a lot of work to get through all the different stages until it finally arrives. But at that point, you have to kind of give yourself a pat on the back and say keep going against all the voices of doubt that will be crowded in your head. So it's a kind of word of encouragement, really, about that. Don't let the feelings of doubt paralyze you, but welcome them as a way of refining the work that you want to do and refining in a way, your own motivation about the work. What you want to put out into the world because there's so much garbage out there. So how to find a way through that to your truest intentions. 

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You can follow Sally Potter @sallypotter 

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"PLAN 75 through a Gen Z Lens" by Asa Ohira

The poster for PLAN 75 reads: “an institutional system where one has the authority to choose between life or death at the age of 75. Just or unjust?” 

 

Objectively speaking, the answer comes quite easily to me as a Gen Z: unjust. However, looking around at the faces of the Boomers who were in the same theater as me sitting only a couple of seats away, they seemed to contemplate this seemingly easy-to-answer question for the entirety of the film. 

 

The first time I saw PLAN 75 in the theater was July 2022 in Tokyo, Japan. It was a blazing, hot summer afternoon. Much to my surprise,  felt oddly desolate in Tokyo during the summer. The concrete jungle captures so much humidity that the heat clings onto your shoulders and just won’t go away. It is as if the crowd’s desperation in having a hot summer had turned into heat, and somehow collectively raised the temperature of the entire city. Everyone must be hungry for excitement, itching to connect, and fevering over the summer they have projected. 

 

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PLAN 75, directed by Chie Hayakawa, is a film that brings social awareness to the issue of the aging population in Japan. The film opens with a scene of a young man who invades a retirement home and starts a massacre. This was a shocking scene for many audiences, and I even heard a couple of gasps from the crowd (it is very unusual for Japanese audiences to make a noise during a film screening). The intent for the young slayer’s action? He found the elders to be a social burden. It felt as if the older audiences sitting in the room had superimposed themselves onto the victims in the film and a piece of themselves had died along with the massacred elderly. Am I overthinking? Perhaps. Was the scene just unexpected that people were caught off guard? Maybe so. Regardless, it is true that the atmosphere in the theater had become several degrees heavier compared to when I first entered the room only within a couple minutes into the film.

 

Does that mean that the entire film is gray and sad? Not necessarily. Although it is true that PLAN 75 is not a film whose primary intent is to entertain the viewers or to make one’s heart warm per se,there are still some hopeful elements to the film. For instance, the character development we see in Hiromu.

 

Hiromu is a young social worker who sells and promotes the Plan 75 program to the elderly–a program of choosing death at the age of 75 enforced by the Japanese government. Towards the beginning of the film, despite his polite manners and diligent work behavior, because of the inhumanity of the program Hiromu is promoting, we as the audience cannot be entirely fond of his character. There is even a scene later in the film when Hiromu is, again, hard at work, testing out which park bench is designed best to prevent the homeless people from spending the night in parks. Although we can not entirely be fond of Hiromu, we also cannot detest the character entirely either. Perhaps it is his very innocence and earnestness towards his job that makes it difficult for the audience to dislike the character of Hiromu. It is not the case that Hiromu is immoral and completely senseless himself, it is simply the fact that he is trying to get his job done. Hiromu merely does not realize the gravity of the jobs that he is taking part in. 

 

We see a shift in Hiromu’s character in the scene where his estranged uncle has decided to enlist himself in Plan 75 without any hesitation. Hiromu has not once contacted his uncle previous to that day, yet he later visits his uncle a later day and tries to convince him to rethink his decision. After the job with his uncle, the promotion of Plan 75, becomes a relevant issue to him and for the very first time, Hiromu regains his sense of consciousness and sees the cruelty of the program. 

 

Not only does PLAN 75 raise awareness on the issue of the aging population in Japan, but it also brings awareness to other social issues such as solitary death, ageism in the workforce, and homelessness. These are all issues that have been prevalent in Japanese society for a long period of time, yet seem to only deteriorate with the flux of time. 

 

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As the room started to gradually lighten itself, I thought to myself about the elders who were watching the movie with me. What would they think of this film–– a film that has no obvious happy ending? As I somewhat felt during the screening, many of the faces of the older audience members seemed to have clouded. Even those who came to the theater as a couple were slow of speech, and gathered their belongings and headed towards the exit fairly quickly. A reasonable reaction, I thought, but what a waste. 

 

PLAN 75 is unique because of how much blank space is left in the film. The film leaves the audience with their thoughts provoked but does not quite give them a discrete solution to the problems it has addressed. Those margins are to be filled up by the viewer and the viewer’s take on the topics discussed in the film. Afterall, there are as many opinions as there are people. That is why I believe it is especially important for people to share their own ideas and responses to these types of films with their family and friends, or even on social media, hence was a waste that most of the people whom I have watched the film with failed to take a moment to soak in the afterglow of PLAN 75. 

 

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As I was making my way towards the exit, I saw a group of young men, most likely in their 30s or 40s, lined up for the anime film that was scheduled to stream next. The men all wore some sort of merch from the anime, one of which even had a towel wrapped around his forehead that read: mai waifu. Ahh the heat, I thought, and made my way out the door of the cinema house. 

 

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Asa Ohira is an aspiring writer with an interest in creative writing and poetry. She studies media at Fordham University. You can follow Asa @_asaohi

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