The British director discusses her new film, Ginger & Rosa, reflects on her earlier work and reveals why she still loves making movies.
Sally Potter’s films, from her highly experimental anti-musical The Gold Diggers to the ‘naked cinema’ of Rage have provoked praise and derision in equal measure for their stylistic quirks. But no one can deny that her new film Ginger & Rosa, about two teenage girls in early '60s London, is her most accessible film since the brilliant Orlando. LWLies sat down with Potter at her home-cum-production office in Hackney recently to talk about the film, her earlier work and why she still loves making movies.
LWLies: What made you decide to focus on this period, 1962, now and make the two teenage girls the centre of the story?
Potter: Well, teenage girls are a force to be reckoned with at any time in history and I think often a very underestimated force. But there’s all this vibrancy, energy and vigour and intelligence and finding things out, nothing’s fixed yet, you know, it’s like a massive learning curve. It’s an interesting medium. And I think friendship between girls is often underestimated. It’s a very serious business, you know, meagerly serious, war and peace [laughs], friendship and betrayal. And the period I think, 1962, was a really interesting moment because the 1950s, which was the post-war period of people trying to build a life and stay stable and be domestic , after the two big world wars. And yet it’s also before the 60’s revolution, the sexual liberation, women’s liberation, the civil rights movement and all that. It’s sort of the end of 50’s really but on the cusp of something. And of course the Cold War coming to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis so of course people thought, 'Oh my god, the world’s going to end again!' So I think the combination of dynamic, explosive teenage friendship and then the explosions that happen inside the family with this explosive moment historically, felt like a very fertile ground in which to explore a story.
How much of what you remember about this period did you bring to the story and characters?
Memory’s a strange thing, it’s like when you look at a photo and you think you’re having a memory but what you're remembering is the photo. But I do remember the Aldermaston Marches, the 'Ban the Bomb' marches, I was on those as a very young girl and I do remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I do remember this atmosphere of a world of ideas and free-thinking in which the girls were not treated that well. It’s interesting seeing as there’s a whole bunch of stuff in the papers at the moment, the Jimmy Saville case, there’s a lot of writing about exploitation of young girls, and one would hope that had changed you know. But I think certainly in that period at the end of the 50s there was very little awareness, because there wasn’t a women’s liberation movement or any of those kind of things. There wasn’t really a language or vocabulary even for thinking about it. So if an older man fell in love with a younger girl, it was, 'Well what can you do? It’s love!' And teachers would routinely have relationships with school students, and I don’t think anyone frowned on it, they thought they were a bit of a cad. So interesting contradictions to explore dramatically.
How much does Ginger relate to you as she seems similar to you in her fervent belief that she can change the world, her need to write about her experiences, which goes with your stated belief in the transformative power of cinema and the need to make sense of disturbing experiences through art?
There’s some parallels definitely and I think every writer injects their own experience to some degree into the character, but then they become something-else. They’ve taken a life of their own and especially when you cast somebody it’s like Ginger for me now is Elle Fanning’s performance. She exists in her own right as a character in fiction, a character in the film. But I do recognise some aspects of my experience. I guess, I didn’t consciously set out to do it, but the fact that she’s a young poet and that’s how she makes sense of her world. When tough stuff happens to her she goes to bed and writes a poem you know, I did that too. I think the growth of a young artist through those years I remember that, I still feel a bit like that actually. I’m not sure it’s about being young, it’s just what you if that’s what you do.
What other kinds of research did you do for the period?
Lots, I looked at documentaries, everything I could find actually. I looked at a lot of fiction films from this period, the wonderful period of films that were written around 1961-2, like Saturday Night [and] Sunday Morning, The L-Shaped Room, The Pumpkin Eater, brilliant writing and a wonderful period in British cinema actually. And documentaries about the protest movement, about the Ban the Bomb movement and tons of photographic research, every photo book I could lay my hands on. So I had like a stack of images like a visual bible for the design team and the camera team, and the set decorators and everybody-else. Yeah there was a lot of research.
How easy was it to find the right locations?
Not easy at all, that’s a big search you could look around and try and find London 1962 and London now you going to have a lot of trouble. So the idea was to make a lot out of a little. Choose one or two key places and then imply a lot more than you actually see. And I think Carlos Conti [production designer] and his whole team did a really great job with that, and he and I went around and around looking at locations, and the location searchers too. So a huge amount of searching and work went in the end into finding a few key locations that did it.
Thematically speaking you link Hiroshima and the fear of bomb raids in wartime Britain to the Cold War, which could also be linked nowadays to the fear of terrorist attacks and what’s happening in North Korea and Iran with their threat of nuclear war. Would you say that you were trying to create a sense of history always repeating itself?
Yes, is the short answer. I think that when I was writing it I was wondering how are people going to relate to the feeling of nuclear threat. Because for a lot of people the immediacy of that threat has gone away but you’ve only got to be involved in thinking about climate change to think, 'Oh, Jesus how long have we got?' Or as you say to be aware of what’s happening on the so-called other side of the world-it’s still our world, we’re one earth-to know that danger is not far away and we’re in a deluded bubble to think…you know I’m alright Jack is not a good way to think. So history repeats itself to some degree but also we can learn what was before, and dealing with fears of apocalypse and destruction maybe it’s useful for people to know this isn’t new. And it’s also possible for people to rise up and do things and change things, it is possible, it’s difficult but it is possible.
How did you set about casting the film, did you have specific actors in mind when writing the roles?
One or two, but with the girls I didn’t know who I was going to cast and it was a very, very long search, very profound search really and a very interesting one. I met a lot of very interesting girls and good young performers. But Elle… I did not think I’d originally cast an American let alone an American 12-year-old which is what she was when I first met her. But she simply had the right personal qualities of this mixture of spirit and vulnerability in her and the capacity to work very, very deeply. She was just right, it was done in that way part by part, building block by building block, building up the cast with that feeling of rightness.
How would you define your relationship with your actors?
Adoration! Adoration and respect kind of mixed and understanding, I know what they’re going through and I understand and respect the actor’s process and I try and build a very loving, genuinely loving bonded relationship with each and every one of them very fast. So that they will trust me, the process and then can give of their best. And sometimes you just have to step out of the way and let them shine and sometimes you have to go in there and really work deeply. But my bottom line is that I love and respect.
Could you talk about the music of the film as it seems a really important aspect of the film, there’s a lot of jazz for example which Ginger and Rosa listen to which you don’t often see girls of their age listening to in films of this period, and music also plays a big part in unlocking or conveying the emotions of characters like Roland and Natalie?
Well it’s the music they listen to it’s never used as a score, it really is used as a reflection of the character’s tastes and the characters are individuals. And I think sometimes films fall into the trap of, 'Okay well they’re girls, they must be listening to pop.' Why?! They’re individuals with tastes and Ginger is imitating her father’s tastes to some degree or she’s maybe learnt about jazz through him. But also likes Little Richard and Chubby Checker. It’s important that it’s not a score because I really wanted to use music that people would hear as the characters hear it.
Was it Christina Hendricks suggestion to play the accordion?
Um, no. When I was working with her and I learnt that she played it. I thought, 'Ooh, must use that.' She was always going to sing but it wasn’t going to be with that and then when I discovered that, no contest, it’s absolutely lovely. It’s appropriate music, it’s a mournful sound and she looks so great and she was really playing and singing.
Ginger & Rosa comes across as a much more accessible film to a mainstream audience than your earliest films like highly experimental The Gold Diggers or even later films like Yes or Rage and was the first of your films to be picked up by BBC Films, was this a conscious decision?
It was actually. I wanted to reach out and not be too, sort of, dogmatic about the ways I’ve sometimes made films. I’m not interested in having a signature I’m interested in making a film that works on its own terms. And with this one I absolutely specifically decided that with this one I’m really going to decide what I can do to be in a way simple, simple and direct. And as emotionally powerful and raw as I can manage to do, no compromises work with good people and all that but just open the door more and say, 'Come in!'
Your film explores the different and emerging gender roles at the time, is this a theme that still very important to you to explore, having coming from a feminist theory background and explored it on other films like The Gold Digger?
It’s odd that people have called my films feminist films more than me, not that I’m not sympathetic to feminism at all. But I always think that the film has to work not with a message tag, but because it works on its own right. And it’s fascinating to me that people often say to me I’ve made films about female characters, well yes I have, and I love the female characters but there’s also a lot of male characters. It’s as if there not there it’s very weird.
People tend to concentrate on that because you’re a female director...
But all that tells us is that it’s still unusual to have really good parts for women in the film. So much so that very good part for a man right next to it that gets overshadowed. It’s such a difficult question to answer you know because I always hope that what my films are going to do is do something useful for bringing things forward. And not shoving things into stereotypes and caricatures and destructive patterns and addictive this or exploitative that. If I can make films that can add to the sum total of respect and love for women for themselves or women for other women, and make some kind of contribution to that, that’s great. What I never want to happen is for the films to get ghettoised into second place because of that. That’s the trap, we know that don’t we? You want your film to just be considered a good film, not a good film for a woman.
Following on from that do you think things have changed a lot for women working in the film industry since you started?
Where there’s more women around, I mean when I started there were hardly any, so the figures have improved a bit. But there still very, very bad you know, the percentage is tiny. But bit by bit it’s getting there.
You’ve said that cinema is about movement and there is a lot of movement in Ginger & Rosa, whether the characters are running or in a car or spinning around, contrasting with more still moments such as the church scene. How important is this dynamic still to you?
Very important because a film always moves through time and your always moving the characters through space, so there’s always movement decisions to make. And I think it’s kind of exhilarating to get that feeling of the arrow through time and space, and people aren’t stuck stuff is moving on, and it’s a musical issue, it’s a choreographic feeling of the dance through time. So movement is important, camera movement also which includes being still when necessary, it’s part of the dynamic of how you stage a film absolutely.
You definitely get the sense of that exhilaration of being a young girl.
I definitely wanted to conjure that up that livewire feeling.
What keeps you making films, are you ever tempted to do anything else such as dance? Do you still believe in the transformative power of cinema?
I do still believe in the transformative power of cinema and I do it because I love doing it more than anything else in the world. I still write but I love every stage of it, the whole thing. And yes I’ve directed opera I’ve worked with musicians, and it’s all glorious but the great thing about film is that it synthesises all of those things into one. So it’s just a massively exciting heady mix to work with, it has infinite potential really. So I can’t think of anything more exciting to do despite the fact it’s so fucking difficult! It’s a wonderful medium to work in.