Sally Potter

Sally Potter at the Cambridge Film Festival

Orlando, this luscious classic turns 30 this year and it is more resplendent than ever. Tilda Swinton takes us on a journey through Elizabethan England, in time, through gender, starting as the young Nobleman Orlando to then one morning wake up a woman. Sally Potter bases her most acclaimed film on Virginia Woolf’s eponymous novel and the final product dazzles with its affective visual style and simmering meditation on death. Lady or Gentleman, Orlando remains a queer staple that will bring literary lovers, Swinton stans, and cinephiles together around the fire. A spectacle, a joy, a profound piece of cine-philosophy.

Sally Potter also considered Michael Powell a dear friend. She has shared how Powell and Pressburger’s work has influenced and reflected her own perspectives on identity and history and wrote a dedication to Michael at the end of Orlando.

We are thrilled to welcome director Sally Potter for a Q&A with the audience after the film.

Unfortunately, due to a technical issue, the film will no longer be shown with English subtitles, but there will still be  BSL interpretation provided for the film introduction and the post-screening Q&A

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Sally Potter on BBC Radio 4's This Cultural Life

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Film-maker Sally Potter talks to John Wilson about the formative influences and experiences that inspired her own creative work.  

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Sally Potter on Caropopcast

You may know Sally Potter as the groundbreaking English director of such films as OrlandoThe Tango Lesson and Yes, but now she also is a recording artist. At age 73 Potter has released her first solo album, Pink Bikini, writing, singing and playing keyboards. The songs look back on her teenage years in 1960s London, when she was discovering her own sexuality, wrestling with shame, rebelling against her mother and finding her artistic and political voices. Speaking from her studio, Potter also reflects on the transformative effect of having a film camera in her hands at age 14, the paucity of female filmmakers when she started and her unwillingness to let age limit her creative pursuits. As she puts it: “Who cares about the calendar?”

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Sally Potter in Interview magazine

Sally Potter in conversation with award winning violinist Viktoria Mullova for Interview Magazine.

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Sally Potter on Talkhouse

Music and Longing 

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Sally Potter in Document Journal

Sally Potter talks time travel and other mysteries

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Filmmaker Sally Potter built her reputation as a highly respected auteur who launched Tilda Swinton’s career in the Oscar-nominated film “Orlando.” Now in her 70’s, she’s kickstarting a music career with her debut record, “Pink Bikini.”

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Sally Potter ruminates on adolescent rage, longing behind debut album 'Pink Bikini'


JULY 16, 2023

On the cover artwork of his seminal 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan languidly hunches over, sporting a slight smile. He’s accessorized by an unnamed woman clasping his arm — her overflowing, dizzy sentiment evoking enough feeling for the two of them, even as his imagination is, of course, the guiding force behind the record.

“It was puzzling that, on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, there’s Bob Dylan slouching in the snow arm and arm with this person. She’s of equal size, equal weight in the image, but isn’t quite named anywhere. We don’t know who she is. So there’s this funny mixture of being present but being invisible,” Sally Potter mused in an interview with The Daily Californian. “What did she do? Did she sing? Did she write lyrics?”

It was this very yearning to know the faceless woman — a woman that, in essence, was an amalgamation of her mother, her grandmother and the sublimated desires of generations of women — that stirred Potter as a budding artist then and now, informing the temper and tenderness of her debut album Pink Bikini, which releases Friday. One particular track on her debut album, “Black Mascara,” notably references “fighting with my mum,” haunting her and not being able to bear to see her for long. 

“The feeling I got above all from (my mother), and to some extent from my grandmother as well — who also studied singing and was an actress in her twenties — was disappointment,” Potter said. “Disappointment about what they weren’t able to do … with limits that life seemed to have placed on them. … Both my mother and my grandmother didn’t dramatize it all the time. But I felt it so strongly. I felt the grief for what they weren’t able to do with their lives. Why did they accept these limited lives? I wanted them to fight back. Later I realized they couldn’t.”

Grief bubbled into rage, and rage into perhaps an insatiable desire for authorship amid these very constructs and institutions that had long barred women from entry. Indeed, the album sees Potter traffic in a modus operandi entrenched in a longing to transcend a psychosomatic, intergenerational malaise. 

Over the past few decades, Potter has found success in filmmaking, a standout of her directorial oeuvre being the 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation “Orlando.” In “Orlando,” Potter wielded an unabashedly postmodern lens, conversing with Woolf’s text through a lush, formal subjectivity that brandished a score of anachronistic synths and constructed a narrative concerned with leitmotifs rather than continuity.

Potter’s work in music, though, is not a new endeavor for the artist, having toured with the avant-garde band the Feminist Improvising Group in the 1970s — and having produced some of the music for “Orlando.” It is perhaps a more acute cut to her artistic roots, with music being an intergenerational mainstay: Potter’s mother was a music teacher and her grandmother an actress and singer.

“I never really left music,” Potter said. “One of the feelings that stayed with me (from touring) was the feeling of a live audience. You begin to sort of feel through them what works, what’s getting across and what’s not getting across. That feeling of audience that you’re working for becomes internalized after a while. It’s very useful as a filmmaker too — to be able to feel the audience even when they’re not there, even when you’re working in solitude for a very long time and imagining them watching it in the future.”

In her return to “a world of pure sound,” there came “a pleasure of deep listening” that comes through what Potter deems an art form that evinces what is “beyond representation.”

“Film is always representational. The way that the eyes take in information — every frame of a film is jam-packed with thousands of pixels and bits of information that people can absorb,” Potter said. “But music evokes a kind of universal feeling, transcendent feelings. It’s a shorter form. Each time it can take one into this whole other zone through the ears in which you link with your own deepest feelings, but you don’t necessarily have to represent those feelings in a concrete form.”

Through a single, succinct title, Potter employs the short form of song to sublime, meticulous ends. The title of Potter’s debut, which is also a track on the album, is one that encompasses an amusing, melancholy anecdote, demonstrating the paradoxical feelings of adolescence and the gradual, liminal descent into womanhood. 

“Just the phrase ‘pink bikini’ makes me laugh. It’s ludicrous,” Potter said. “I really did see a pink bikini in this shop window and I thought, ‘if I get that bikini, my life would be different. I’ll be attractive. I’ll look good on the beach.’ So all of my longing got focused on this bloody pink bikini. So, for me, it’s a sad thing as well, about teenage longing — particularly for someone growing up as a young girl — and about all that focus on your body, on your clothes and that idea that if you have just that one thing, it’ll make the difference.”

The thematic ambitions of Pink Bikini recall the artist’s perhaps most directly self-reflexive film “Ginger & Rosa,” a coming-of-age picture centered on a young girl growing up in 1960s London; her fraught relationship with her housewife mother and intellectual father; and her trajectory toward activism and rebellion. Just as Potter toed implicit and explicit barriers then, she finds herself doing so through the release of Pink Bikini, even as she returns to recurrent themes and feelings in her body of work.

“I was the first female director in the UK since the Second World War,” Potter said. “It was ridiculous when I started — I really was one of the few female filmmakers and that’s very different now. Now, I find myself in this strange position at an older age of putting out a debut album. I’m going against the grain if you like, and trying to just follow the longing and the certainty of what I feel needs to be expressed in some way. Not necessarily for my benefit — hopefully for my benefit — but also mainly because I hope that this is something that there is a place for in the world and in the culture.

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In this chat, we get to meet the fantastic, storied filmmaker Sally Potter. The writer-director of such acclaimed and varied films such as Orlando and Ginger & Rosa, Sally is actually just now releasing her debut full-length album (!) which is called Pink Bikini. In this conversation, Sally and I talk a lot about the new record - its themes, its songs, its lyrics, its music, some of her influences and inspirations - as well as what drove her to recording and releasing such a personal singer-songwriter album now, after such a robust career in cinema. We talk about her film work (especially the Tilda Swinton-starring, Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando), how her filmmaking overlaps with her music making, and so much more. It was a humbling honor to talk to a cinema great, and her new album is such a delightfully wondrous surprise. I think you'll enjoy this as much as I did. Thank you for listening.

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LOS ANGELES  — Award-winning director Sally Potter has challenged British society throughout her 50-year career, in films like “Orlando,” “The Party,” and “Ginger and Rosa.” Now, at 73, Potter’s creative resolve forges on with her first studio album, “Pink Bikini.”

The LP, self-released Friday, is a semi-autobiographical collection of alternative tracks that detail Potter’s adolescence in 1960s London.

Across 12 songs, the filmmaker revisits tumultuous relationships and oppressive social strictures.

“There’s something very life-affirming about working in another medium, learning a new skill or making a change at what was considered to be a point in one’s life where you’re supposed to know exactly who you are and what you’re going to do,” Potter told The Associated Press.

Potter found lyrical inspiration in notebooks she filled with poems over her lifetime. Coincidentally, the songs on “Pink Bikini” deal with a variety of different subjects, including frustration with beauty standards (“Ginger Curls”), a “ban the bomb” march (“Black and White Badge”), and female authorship (“Ghosts”), delivered atop minor keys and alluring instrumentals.

“Some people say I have a rhyming gene,” Potter says.

The AP spoke to Potter about making the move from movies to music. Answers are edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: Your background is interdisciplinary; you’ve co-composed or curated music in your films. But when did this album begin for you?

POTTER: It’s quite a mystery to me, actually. Why now? Why this? I think I felt a very strong desire to work with the apparent simplicity of the song form. After making big films that always involve vast numbers of people and a lot of money ... the appeal of the short form is so enduring and so emotionally rich and so direct and so intimate.

AP: What was it like revisiting your adolescence on this album, at this stage in your life?

POTTER: I’m not sure she’s ever left me, actually. I’m not sure that any of our young selves ever leave us. But revisiting those memories is such a strange thing, and that’s one of the things that the songs (are) about: Am I remembering this? Or am I remembering a photograph of this? And then in the act of telling the story, because each of the songs is a small story, one begins to kind of rewrite history.

AP: How do gender dynamics influence your songs?

POTTER: I chose these teenage years because (it is) the moment of intense crisis around gender identification, when you first start noticing that you’re being treated according to the sex you were born. If I just speak about myself, and my generation of girls, as we were moving into puberty as a time of great loss, loss of freedom, dynamism ... all of a sudden (you’re) having to think what impression you’re making and the restrictions of being a female. At the same time, it’s an incredible kind of growth, seething with hormones, feelings, confusion, trauma, intensity, and finding out very many things about yourself in the world. It’s a very brilliant, intense period to write about.

AP: On “Pink Bikini,” are you exploring what it means to be like a woman reclaiming artistry?

POTTER: I would say not so much reclaiming as carrying on regardless of whether people want to or not.

AP: Songs like “Ginger Curls,” “Pink Bikini” and “Hymn” are intertwined with a feeling of shame. Does shame intersect with your sense of femininity?

POTTER: I think young girls learn to feel shame. (Even) before social media, we had a very problematic relationship with the body, where it’s a double message. You’re supposed to display (yourself) on the one hand, and be proud of it, on the other hand, you’re supposed to hide it. Because if you display it too much, you’re a slut. And if you hide it too much, you’re frigid. That was very much a kind of sixties and seventies thing — those impossible, contradictory demands of all women.

“Hymn” is a fight back against religious oppression. It’s a fight back against shame. A show of love between people of the same sex. That was more the feeling of all of the songs actually, about this oppression that suddenly arrives.

AP: You bring up nuclear warfare in “Black and White Badge.” Your films also talk about this period and political dissidence. How was it exploring your life and those feelings in music compared to in film?

POTTER: In film, you can tell the story in a more rounded way through characters, put words in people’s mouths, set up the situation, and get lots of visuals. In a song, it’s evocative in a distilled way, an era with simple language. I thought, “How can I write about something that was so important to me — climate change, the threat of an apocalypse essentially — and not to make it too heavy?” I wanted to lighten it. I sang in a fairly undramatized way. You can be a 12-year-old girl on a march — militant against the very existence of nuclear weapons on the one hand — and on the other hand, worry about not being looking cool enough. There’s a bit of humor in the midst of fear of the apocalypse, the ultimate terror.

AP: Are there questions from your ‘60s childhood that you think are relevant in 2023?

POTTER: One can’t mention climate change too many times because I think the fear of everything ending — what’s bigger than that? There is nothing bigger than that. It’s paralyzing.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, which (happened) when I was 11, looked very close to being World War III. I think (this generation’s) feeling of crisis is similar to then. Confusions around sexuality ... and domestic life. There are so many things in common, and those are the simple things.

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Sally Potter on BBC Radio 4s Front Row

Filmmaker Sally Potter on her first music album. 

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The film director lets us into her cultural life

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Filmmaker Sally Potter on her first album: 'Part of me relishes being a renegade'. 

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Filmmaker Sally Potter Shares First Music Video From Her Debut Album 'Pink Bikini'. 

EXCLUSIVE: Last month, we told you that British filmmaker Sally Potter (Orlando, The Party) has written and recorded her debut music album, Pink Bikini. Today, we can share the first video Potter shot for the project.

The video is for the single Black Mascara. It features Potter in a monochrome frame, turned away from the camera, and performing a hula hoop routine as the song unravels with lyrics popping up on the screen in bright red typeface. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite) shot the project alongside a small crew of graduates from the UK’s National Film and Television School.

Black Mascara was one of the earliest tracks I wrote for Pink Bikini, an album of songs based on a look back over my shoulder to the despairs and longings of my turbulent teenage years; a time of change: the end of childhood, the beginning of life as an adult,” Potter said.

“Making the video was a different kind of return. It needed to be made in the way I made films when I first started as a teenager. Back then I had no money, training, or equipment. The need to invent and imagine things out of nothing became part of a philosophy I later named ‘Barefoot Filmmaking’. It meant working with minimal means, borrowing gear, and working with the goodwill and energy of a few beloved friends and co-conspirators.”

Pink Bikini will be released on July 14. Billed as a “semi-autobiographical” collection of songs, the album will feature music and lyrics by Potter, and will be based on the filmmaker’s experience coming of age as a young woman in 1960s London, as a “young rebel” and activist. Musical arrangements on the album will feature work from guitarist Fred Frith, who has long collaborated with Potter on her film scores.

Best known for her directorial work on features such as 1992’s Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel starring Tilda Swinton, and Ginger & Rosa (2012), starring Elle Fanning, Potter had a music career that predates her work in cinema. During the 1970s, she was a member of the Feminist Improvising Group, an avant-garde band that toured extensively in Europe.

Potter also performed with the Film Music Orchestra and collaborated (as lyricist) with Lindsay Cooper on the album Oh Moscow, performing in the USSR and East Berlin in 1989, before the wall came down.

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The Garden Cinema is delighted to host a weekend of screenings and events celebrating the films and music of one of the UK’s foremost artists: Sally Potter. This retrospective anticipates the 14 July release of Sally’s debut album, Pink Bikini, a semi-autobiographical collection of songs about growing up female in London in the 1960s, as a young rebel and activist. Sally will be live at the Garden Cinema for Q&As following Orlando and Yes and giving a special introduction to The Party. Additionally, Sally will be discussing her album, film music, and more with Miranda Sawyer on Friday 9 June.

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LOOK AT ME showing at Clermont Film Festival

Look At Me

The British filmmaker Sally Potter’s audacious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Orlando, with Tilda Swinton, in 1992 initially brought her to the attention of wider film audiences. Other films followed, including The Tango Lesson (1997), The Man Who Cried (2000), Yes (2004), Rage (2009), Ginger & Rosa (2012), The Party (2017) and The Roads Not Taken (2020). Her films have won over forty international awards and have been nominated for the Oscars and BAFTAs. In 2012 she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

In 2022, Potter made the short film Look At Me with Javier Bardem and Chris Rock, which will be shown during the Festival’s opening ceremony on Friday, 27th January in the Salle Cocteau. Audiences on hand will then have the opportunity to dive deeper into her world by talking directly with her, in French in public, with the MC Abla Kandalaft, a journalist for the Brasserie du Court (the Festival blog).

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Sally Potter and Javier Bardem video Q&A

Shorts Exclusive: Sally Potter Talks to Javier Bardem About Their Collaboration on ‘Look At Me’

Why is it so hard for men to talk about their feelings? In Sally Potter’s hypnotic short film, Look At Me, two men (played by Javier Bardem and Chris Rock) face off in a surprisingly emotional showdown to see who will break first. It has qualified for the Live Action Short Film Oscar.

In an Awards Daily exclusive, Potter sits down with Bardem to talk about their second collaboration (they worked together for The Roads Not Taken), and it’s a warm feeling when they see each other on the opposite sides of the Zoom screen. They talk about power struggles and how Chris Rock really gave himself over to the safety of the material, Potter comments on going back to short form filmmaking. It is an invigorating conversation between two dedicated artists.

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Sally Potter Confronts Male Anger In Oscar-Qualifying Short ‘Look At Me’

A boundary between helping a loved one and walking away from them is being played with in Sally Potter’s thought-provoking and sly short film, Look At Me. It explores masculinity and anger as we witness creative differences spiral into something more personal. Anchored by a pair of duelling and dancing performances from Javier Bardem and Chris Rock, Look At Me makes us wonder what all men are hiding behind their outbursts and swagger.

A refined and illustrious evening is being planned to encourage guests to open up their pocket books for a worthy cause, but the entertainment still needs fine tuning. Potter’s film opens on a rehearsal where Bardem’s Leo, a rock drummer whose most successful days are behind him, is butting with the gala organizer (Rock) as they try to unify their vision. His beats are loud and rough, and Savion Glover’s tap dancing is being overshadowed by Leo’s raucousness.

Rock’s character begins to strip down Leo’s equipment, and the drummer begins to feel alienated. His art is quite literally being taken away from him piece by piece. But then Potter’s film takes a gentle and unexpected turn as we learn about the connection between these men and just how exhausted the organizer is. While you could be fed up with Leo’s behavior, Bardem brings a weighted sadness to the part. When we see him alone, his eyes are cast downward or even inward as if he is replaying painful memories over and over again in his head.

Rock has slowly been adding more dramatic roles to his resume (Fargo and even Spiral), and here he gives his most mournful performance. He is a man fed up with Leo’s behavior but he cannot fully release himself. Rock is fantastic.

Men push and shove and explode to show their feelings. It’s stupidly primitive, and some cannot find eloquent words to express themselves. Potter sets the stage for these men to explode with their fists and their words, and it’s contemplative, measured, and meaty.

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Look At Me reviewed by FilmThreat

A clash occurs between a former drug addict and the one who stood by his side during the worst of it in Sally Potter’s short film, Look at Me.

During the rehearsal for a big gala event, a drummer (Javier Bardem) and a dancer (Savion Glover) duet together in a battle between the beat of the drum and tap in this artistic performance piece. The gala director stages the two “combatants” side-by-side in separate chain-link cages. The star of this piece is the dancer, but the jealous drummer refuses to play backup, forcing himself into a battle of wills with the director.

As the frustrated drummer storms off, the director chases after him. We soon find that the two are lovers, and the drummer has struggled with drug addiction (on and off again) for quite some time. The director was always there to bail him out, but not this time.

Look at Me uses the intense rhythm of the drum and tap to illustrate the struggle those with addictions face between relapse and sobriety. The story sets this inner conflict against a real-world one, the one between the person who has stood by them, only to see the cycle of addiction loop around once again. Writer/director Sally Potter masterfully blends the elements of rhythm and brilliant acting from Rock and Bardem to complement the heartbreaking story of addiction.

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Look at me is a is a "stunning examination of the pressures of work, and providing for others"

Hollywood has an obsession with ‘what could have been’. It’s a question which haunts many of its finest films, from ‘La La Land’ to ‘Sunset Boulevard'. However, it is perhaps ‘A Star Is Born’ - that eternal Hollywood fairytale - to which ‘Look at Me’ is most similar. Similar, but also distinctly its own short, ‘Look at Me’ takes the best parts of Hollywood classics, but is also inventive, and creates its own story.

 Directed by Sally Potter, whose previous credits include ‘Orlando’ and ‘Ginger and Rosa’, ‘Look at Me’ is a stunning examination of the pressures of work, and providing for others. Potter imbues each scene with a sense of emptiness - from a sparsely populated warehouse to an expansive rooftop - illustrating the isolation felt by Leo (Javier Bardem reprising his role in the underrated 2020 film ‘The Roads Not Taken’) and his boss, and partner, who is played by Chris Rock.

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Metrograph interviews Sally Potter on her body of work

Best known for her 1992 adaptation of Orlando, Sally Potter is among the few artistic polymaths who’ve left their mark on narrative feature film. As a teenager in England, Potter started experimenting with an 8mm camera her uncle had loaned her, and began studying choreography and performance soon after that, co-founding a highly influential dance group (Limited Dance Company), before creating series of expanded cinema pieces, such as Combines (1972), a multiscreen film/dance work with choreographer Richard Alston and the London Contemporary Theatre. Her incisive but never didactic worldview has allowed her to explore issues of class, gender, race, climate, and colonization, as well as the act of artistic creation. I spoke with Potter in early September at her London studio, via Zoom, about her relentlessly experimental, ahead-of-its-time filmography.

VIOLET LUCCA: This week has been marked by the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II and Jean-Luc Godard. Both of these very different personages seem relevant to your filmography—for example, Thriller (1979), The Gold Diggers (1983), Orlando (1992), and Rage (2009) are each explicitly confronting imperialism, gender, and pageantry. So what does the Queen’s death mean to you? Is it a sign of anything shifting, or everything just staying the same?

SALLY POTTER: It’s everything rising to the surface—the roots of the unconscious relationship with queendom, which is sort of mythological. I dreamt of the Queen last night. And I thought, “Oh my God, she’s even inserted herself into my dream life!” Well, it’s not her who has inserted herself, it’s the power of mythology, which is as powerful as it ever was for the early Greeks. Here in the UK, it’s like an outbreak of madness—madness mixed with a sort of deep vein of emotion that is actually not about the personal at all, but about the sense of being alive or being dead. It’s like everyone has kind of gone mad for their own lost ancestry, or their own lost grandmother, or their lost country. Because, you know, whilst it looks as though most British people are in denial about the end of empire, in reality, everybody knows. So, that’s the Queen. But it’s a bigger subject than that, because it’s like, how can people still be talking about being reigned over? How is this language still possible? It is all quite extraordinary, and coming from sources that I would never have expected. There’s a few lone, timid voices of republicanism. But people basically want to be polite in what’s perceived as a time of what, for many people, feels like personal grieving, when in fact it’s something mythological that they’ve lost.

As for Godard, I adored early Godard. Like everybody else in the world of cinema, we’ve either been influenced consciously or unconsciously by his work. Although I have to say, just to remind everybody, Agnès Varda came first in many ways. Things that are credited to the guys were things she’d already developed in La Pointe Courte (1955). But he was there, being visible and authoritative in a way that he could be. He came from traditional criticism, so his work was all about cinema that was criticizing other cinema, as well as celebrating it. His death is not accompanied by pageantry. But on the other hand, the things he made live on. The royal family doesn’t make things, they inhabit roles.

VL: Yes, they make scandals. They make entertainment.

SP: And other people turn the things that they do into scandals, things that might otherwise go unnoticed. Because they lead symbolic lives, everything they do is symbolic or on a bigger scale.

VL: Right, but on the other hand, they own real land and get real public money, they have exemptions from real laws…

SP: They have always done. When we’re talking about the reign of Elizabeth II, we’re actually talking about the reign of Elizabeth I, which is where the British Empire started; the beginning of expansionism and the Empire was Queen Elizabeth I. I read in the paper this morning that the amount of wealth behind the royal family is in the billions. It’s extraordinary. Wealth and ownership and class—these are corrupt diseases.


The Gold Diggers (1983)


VL: I don’t mean to be reductive, but there’s a Marxist feminist critique that runs throughout your filmography—The Gold DiggersThrillerRage, and so on. This sort of politics is experiencing a bit of a resurgence. Do you find that heartening?

SP: The people I’m close to now who are in their early twenties, by and large, I find very encouraging people to be around. They’re very aware, analytical, and activist—I know, this is crazy generalization, but they’re a fantastic generation. It’s hard to be encouraged in a much wider sense, partly because of the way information is disseminated, shrouded in the most utter gloom and despair. To find a contradictory sort of pathway through that, it’s tricky.

You’re right to say that my films come from this, in a way, activist impulse. But it’s always been an impulse that is in part political, part aesthetic. So Godard was important to me, as were so many other individual filmmakers, because of what they were doing with the form as much as any wider politics. My larger struggle has always been how to acknowledge that politics is everywhere, is embodied deeply in everything—in every piece of clothing, every surface we touch, every relationship we have, if you open your eyes. On the other hand, to work effectively in cinema, music, or the arts, you can’t take that political awareness and put it on the form. The form itself is embedded in politics, but also in its own aesthetic history, that is, to some extent, transcendent of politics. To find forms that evoke those deeper levels at the same time as encouraging a kind of analytical explosion, if you like, of given concepts about the world we live in—that’s what I’ve been wrestling with for a long time.

VL: I would love to talk about the role of pleasure in your films, which is on the terms of the female characters’ pleasure, but also formal pleasure, the pleasure for viewers: things like the sumptuous flashes of the fashion world in The Tango Lesson (1997), the intricate period costumes of Orlando, and the overt passion in Yes (2004). That tendency is in stark contrast to a lot of your contemporaries—you know, serious independent female-centric films, as well as general British miserablism.

SP: It’s simple: I’ve always thought of myself as an entertainer. I’m in avant-garde show business, whatever you’d like to call it. I want people to enjoy, to soak themselves in different kinds of beauties and pleasures, and feel enlivened by that. Not bored, but nourished. And that takes a great deal of attention to craft. So everything I’ve just been saying about politics, it’s all true. But I don’t just sit around thinking about politics. I’m much more likely to think, “Is this color, right? Is this music gonna go here? How could this shot move? What do we think about the light here?” It’s all the tons and tons of details that go into making up this incredibly sensual experience of the hybrid form known as cinema.

VL: I once interviewed Yvonne Rainer, who like you trained in dance and performance art rather than film. She was doing expanded cinema stuff before she went on to feature films, and there are certainly a lot of parallels between your filmographies. She told me—I’m paraphrasing this badly—that unlike choreographing dance, she doesn’t really understand acting, that it’s this totally mysterious thing to her. Because you can say, “Okay, move your arm like this,” and the dancer will move in that way. But acting doesn’t work like that. Do you feel that way, too? Or has your background in choreography influenced your communication with actors?

SP: Choreography was where I learned about how you move bodies through space, how you work with the whole body, rather than a face, and how you understand movement in every single sense. The essence of cinema is apparently movement, according to André Bazin. There’s no better way of understanding how bodies move, but how the camera moves, or is still—stillness being a huge part of movement—than choreography. So that is true. But I’m completely at ease with a way of working that is from the inside, that is not visible or choreographed, whose expression is in this thing called acting, performing, whatever. I love working with actors on the invisible world. Choreography is, in a sense, the formal language of movement, the organization of movement within the frame, or movement of the frame itself, whereas acting is more like the choreography of interior life that, as its final form, expresses what is visible, unhearable, in the actor’s body and voice. 

VL: Rhythm plays an important role in your work across multiple media—you’ve written and arranged music; you’ve written poetry, and Yes is written entirely in iambic pentameter; and then there’s the drumming in your new short film, Look at Me (2022). Beyond the fact the main character is a drummer, the rhythm and progression of Look at Me is so clear. The film came out of The Roads Not Taken (2020), but how did you build out or generate that idea?

SP: Well, in The Roads Not Taken, it’s all in the title: the choices that one makes in life that could have led one down a different road, and what happens to that part of the self that, at least in the world of the imagination, carries down the road you didn’t take. I took that idea for a walk and I wrote initially five or even six different roads not taken by the lead character [played by Javier Bardem]. I ended up shooting four, but one of them was always like a road apart. The other three were kind of interlocking, so you could feel that the road not taken would at some point coincide with the road that was taken. When I was shooting this story, the one with Chris Rock, I thought, “Oh my God, this doesn’t really work with the others, you know what have I done?” But I loved making it. Each story was shot separately, like, four days very quickly. In the cutting room, it became clear to me that this is a separate film. Oh, my God. I’ve got this out—oh, God! So I cut it out and put it to one side, to return to later. I thought of it as having absolutely nothing to do with The Roads Not Taken. And indeed, it has nothing to do with. It is its own story.


Look at Me (2022)

VL: In the ’80s, while attempting to make Orlando, you made The London Story (1986), which is a satire of a spy thriller. And there’s an element of comedy, let’s say, in Look at Me. How do you see yourself in relation to genre? Or comedy in general? Is it of interest to you? Would you like to do something that is purely just for laughs, so to speak?

SP: Well, with The Party, I deliberately set out to allow myself to let go in that area, not restrain myself, and not make something self-consciously sincere. To allow a sort of wickedness to be there, for taboo thought to be there, and for it to be funny. I hoped it would be funny, because it was making me laugh. Then when the actress first read it to me, we were all laughing. But still through the whole edit, I thought, “Oh God, but is an audience going to laugh?” So I did a test screening and people laughed—o much that I couldn’t hear the soundtrack anymore, so I had to create some additional little pauses. That was great as far as I was concerned.

I love working with humor. It’s very difficult, technically. I’m very admiring of comedians. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Chris. The timing and the delicacy of it all, and how far you can tip something into laughter and then it becomes not-laughter anymore, and all that. I’ve written another [film] that I hope to shoot next year, which is not in the same genre, but which I hope will have laughter embedded in it.

VL: When I think of The Party (2017)—I mean, this is true of a lot of your work, you have a lot of films that were ahead of their time, which I know is a silly phrase, but it’s true—I’m focused on the fact that these are people who are almost purely defined by their political views, in a way that wasn’t entirely true when the film came out, but now it’s very true. It’s not like people didn’t have politics then, but now politics are a part of identity in a way that is aggressive and inescapable.

SP: That’s really interesting. I’ve learned that, to my cost, quite often I’ve been about five to 10 years too soon. For example, Rage, you know, was the first ever film deliberately made for people to be able to look at on their phones. At the time, unfortunately, there were less than 12,000 phones in the world that could receive it. So the technology just wasn’t there. And people said to me, “Nobody will ever watch your film on their phones, this is a ridiculous idea. This is going nowhere.” Ho! Ho! Ho! This has happened quite a few times to me, which is odd. But then I feel the writer’s job is to put your ear to the ground and hear the distant rumble, much more than to look out there and see how things appear to be. You can feel the earthquake coming before it breaks.

VL: It’s interesting that Rage is going to be re-presented in a theater now, when everyone watches films on their phones, because even though it’s shot for a phone, the things that are going on with form are fascinating. I think it’s generative, putting what is meant to be seen on a tiny screen onto a big screen, as opposed to the other way around.

SP: Well, I did shoot for both screens. I shot it with these very plain color backgrounds, because I thought it’d be the clearest rendition for a small screen. But I graded it, timed it, and it looks beautiful on a big screen, actually.

VL: Yes, and what you do to the various characters’ faces with that lighting is sort of like what Warhol did with the Xeroxes of photographs that he used for prints—the brightness gets rid of all the wrinkles, and it gives everyone high cheekbones and a “nice” nose.

SP: It’s very flat frontal lighting, shot against a green screen. And then the colors generated in the background were taken from a detail in a person’s face or body. Indeed, it was done as a fine artist would work with the silkscreen print.


Rage (2009)

VL: The fashion world in Rage connects to The Tango Lesson, which is the film that you—or your character—was struggling to create. I really love The Tango Lesson because it shows what is so rarely shown: a woman being creative, in the act of creation, making decisions; a woman who has created in the past tense, having made the film we’re watching. This emphasis on the act of creation and the creator was especially rare in the ’90s, which was the height of the notion of “the death of the author.” Could you discuss the evolution of that film?

SP: While I was making Orlando I was struggling with the—I use the word “struggle” advisedly here—with the fact that the whole story is set in this aristocratic, landowning class universe. Obviously, Virginia Woolf was working satirically, but it’s a very, very contradictory story to work with. As light relief, for my immersion in the Bloomsbury set mentality—by reading everything Virginia Woolf had ever written, and reading everything anybody else has ever written about Orlando in order to really understand what she was trying to do with it—I went off to learn ballroom dancing. I thought that I needed to do something that is a working-class form of populist—and at that point, much mocked—dance. Not ballet, not modern dance. Real old-fashioned waltz, quickstep, salsa, you know? But while doing that, I also learned a little bit of Argentinian tango, and realized that I wasn’t learning the real thing. I managed to find an Argentinian tango teacher in London, the only one. Then eventually he said, “Sally, you need to go to Paris and take lessons from this guy [Pablo Verón].” This was all private, had nothing to do with my film life. I thought of it as something I was doing completely on the side for my own physical and mental health. And then I went to Argentina, and whilst I was there, I started filming a few lessons, and thought, “I’ll make like a little documentary about the tango,” because what I was discovering in Argentina was so different than what everybody’s image of an Argentinian tango is—you know, sleazy, sexy stuff. Because actually it’s a meditation for two. So this 10-minute documentary started to grow. I was taking more lessons, and getting embedded in the experience, and I thought, “Well, the only way I can really make something interesting about this is to use my own body as the kind of medium.” It went from there.

I was very afraid people would misinterpret it as gross artistic narcissism. Friends of mine would tease me and they’d say, “Oh, you’re making a film called This Is Me Dancing with Pablo, This Is Me Dancing with Gustavo.” And I would laugh and laugh and laugh with them. But inside, it was sort of quickening. I told myself, “No, this is in the tradition of collapse. This is in literature, and so many writers who’ve included themselves in the first person, using their name as an alter ego or possible other self. This is in the tradition of Cindy Sherman, and artists who use their own body as a kind of doppelganger of the self. This will just be me in the film, being a person with my name, so it’ll be a double bluff situation,” I thought naively. Of course, they’ll know it’s not really me. How could I be so wrong!? [Laughs] So indeed, I was accused of gross acts of narcissism by some. But on the other hand, it also became a real cult film, playing for like two years nonstop in Paris, where people loved the romanticism of it.

It was an amazing experience. It was also a very difficult and educative experience, to be on both sides of the camera. In particular, experiencing the extreme vulnerability of the performer in trying to do their best when they haven’t gotten the nice kind eyes of the director looking at them. It was very lonely because I had nobody to turn to to say, “Help me be better,” or “Do I look alright?” or “What should I do here?” I really was thrown back on my own resources. The only yardstick I had was: Does that feel true? Is this authentic? What I am doing here? In the end, analytically I could say: this is a film about a process of its own making, and we eventually realize the film this person wants to make is the film we’ve been watching. Very simple. It’s also about somebody exploring another culture that is not their own, but for which they have great love. That is incredibly topical at the moment, in terms of how do we relate to other cultures.

VL: Yes was something you wrote as a response to 9/11, and this insane period of forever wars that we are currently in, as an attempt to engage with and understand other cultures. In order to promote the film, you started a blog and created message boards where people could respond to you directly—again, things have become mainstream now, particularly the idea of constantly interacting with fans. But you’ve chosen not to participate in social media.

SP: As of a week ago, I’ve changed. After years of silence on social media, I’ve decided to open my arms wide, and see what I can do. I don’t allow myself to look because that way, addiction and madness lies. Glimpse, you know, have a little peek. But it’s in order to put out more and to see what happens.


VL: Do you envision yourself exploring via, let’s say, TikTok or other shorter online projects?

SP: Well, I mean, making this short film, we’re at 16 minutes, which by TikTok standards is ridiculously long, but it did remind me of the changing nature of duration, for absorption of the moving image, and how generationally cut that is. Most of the younger people I know only get their news from social media, looking at things and absorbing the information very fast. They’re very, very quick. It’s not just that they have a short attention span, it’s that they get information fast—a kind of quickness of awareness. And that, I think, is really interesting: the flexible absorption of different kinds of duration, and how people are, in a way, in a constant state of montage. I’ve found my own films mashed up and rejigged and remixed and everything on YouTube, and I always think, “Oh, that’s great! How interesting!” I prefer to be open, and try to be aware of how people are absorbing the moving image. I’m not interested in being nostalgic. I was very happy to embrace digital filming, although I loved filming with film, and I loved cutting on film. But now I also love digital work, and [want] to see where it goes really. I don’t think the feature film form is dead. It still holds this classical shape that endures.

I was just at the Telluride Film Festival for the unveiling of the remastered version of Orlando. I watched it with audiences who were largely young and hadn’t seen it before. The fact that it was made 30 years ago was completely irrelevant. It could have been finished last week, as far as they were concerned, because to them it was new. And it looked new, and incredibly topical—somebody changing sex halfway through? And living in China? Excuse me, you thought about this 30 years ago!? It’s like, yes, Virginia Woolf. Anyway. But a film like that, if it’s made in a certain way, will endure. That’s hard to imagine with a lot of TV series, for example.

There’s a place for that shaped, refined experience, approximately an hour and a half to two hours—any longer not necessary, in my view anyway—that kind of shape that you can live through and that will stay with you as a whole in your consciousness somewhere. That’s extraordinary, to work with that form. So it doesn’t lose out. But what, 16 minutes suddenly? Or 30 seconds? Wow, that’s interesting!

VL: My interest in this comes from the fact that popular narrative film has largely remained the same since the 1930s on a formal level. Close-ups are used in a very particular way, shot/reverse shot, the 180 degree rule—all these conventions, and imparting narrative information, have stayed the same. When I’m thinking of moving things forward, I feel like your films and your formal concerns have really aspired to push things in a new direction, to experiment and see what is possible with narrative. What is the guiding principle in creating that formal play and progression? Do you set out with the intention of breaking new ground?

SP: Usually form follows function. If I feel there’s some idea that I’m really wrestling with, that I want to find a way of embodying, it’s like, well, how can I do that? So it’s more that kind of rumination, rather than, “I’m definitely going to be original and break new ground here.” With Rage, for example, I was getting fascinated by—it’s hard to believe this now, but at the time, it was the beginning of people doing selfies, right? Now, selfies are so ubiquitous, they’ve actually only been around for about 15 years. Everything was being shot the length of a person’s arm? Suddenly, the world is closer, and at a particular kind of angle.

I thought okay, if I’m going to make something that is as if being made by this child, it has to be within that aesthetic, because that is what has been burned into the retina of this person. So everything needs to be shortened, closer, handheld, and so on. But when do you see a film that’s shot entirely and close-up? So suddenly, that’s like new syntax… The desire for new forms is the consequence of form follows function. But it’s also excitement. It’s like, ooh, oh, that would be great! It’s this completely sensual, playful thrill. Working with the medium of film, or whichever thing that has suddenly called, always feels terribly exciting to me to do. It comes from that impulse.

VL: Finally, because we kind of have to, because it is the dominant narrative film at the moment: superhero films. Marvel films have this very specific lack of spatial awareness that you would not expect from an action movie. They’re very flat, very desexualized. Has anybody been in touch with you to direct one? They’re always desperate for female directors.

SP: No, they haven’t. I don’t think I’d be a very good contender, because I don’t really watch them as part of my ecology of time, and about how I’m going to spend my life. People have, to some degree, given up on approaching me for anything [laughs] because I have a 100 percent record of turning everything down. I’ve always got something I’m writing, or I’m in the middle of doing, that I’m very passionate about. I live in hope something fascinating might pop in through the door. It’d be interesting. But on the whole, it’s the journey from complete authorship or from complete nothingness—this thing didn’t exist at all in the world before I started building it, image by image, moment by moment, until it’s whole. And then: Oh, my God, there it is… is that complete? That is so exciting. I imagine it’s harder to come in later, when the ideas have already been worked out by somebody else. Although I remember I was with this one director who said, “Yeah, but that’s where the heavy lifting is.” It’s great if you can come in after that has been done, and indeed, the heavy lifting is the writing. That is the heavy lifting. Yes.

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Sally Potter in Document Journal

Ahead of a retrospective at the Metrograph, the legendary filmmaker reflects on her groundbreaking adaptation of the Virginia Woolf classic

As the poet Sina Queyras wrote of Virginia Woolf earlier this year: “If I close my eyes, I see bodies tumbling through time. I see many bright colors, textures, pleasures, sounds—it is a bacchanal of sensations, [Woolf’s] vision. And through it she stitches a firm line.”

Something similar could be said of the film Orlando (1992), adapted by British filmmaker Sally Potter from Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name. Considered a landmark in queer and feminist film studies, as well as a breakout role for Tilda Swinton, Orlando celebrates the fluidity of both time and gender, tracking the life of the immortal Lord Orlando across four centuries of British history, during which time Orlando also becomes a woman. Woolf’s source material is one-part extended love letter (to Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had an affair), and one-part satire of British culture and its patriarchal traditions of property, inheritance, empire, and marriage. In Potter’s hands, the story of Orlando indulges in a postmodern—even parodic or camp— sensibility, set to the tune of a score that she co-composed. It is a sensory feast—a propulsive, vibrant, playful adaptation that continues to enchant 30 years later.

On the whole, the films of Potter are films that think—they are not satisfied simply to ‘represent’ ideas on the screen, but must wrestle with them, actively, at every level from style to performance. Potter’s work dates to the late ’60s London Film-maker’s Co-op and a subsequent career in choreography, performance art, and theater. Despite her move into narrative features in the late ’80s, however, her taste for experimentation has never waned, even as she has migrated somewhat closer to the ‘mainstream.’ From the iambic pentameter of Yes (2004), to her self-reflexivity and self-representation in The Tango Lesson (1996), to directing the first feature film conceived to be watched on a mobile phone with Rage (2009), Potter’s cinema is morphing, responsive, and uncompromising, unwilling to be easy, and never predictable.

In recognition of Orlando’s 30th anniversary and a major retrospective of Potter’s work opening at Metrograph, Document spoke with Sally Potter about the challenges of adaptation, the legacy of gender and sexuality in film, and how it lives in cinephiles’ minds today.

Tia Glista: What was your relationship to Woolf, and to Orlando more specifically, before you began this project?

Sally Potter: Well, my relationship to Virginia Woolf was one of admiration and intimacy. I think every reader has a very intimate relationship with a writer that you read again and again. You enter their world. Their world enters you. It’s a sort of private space, the reading space, and I was an avid reader as a child and teenager. I still am an avid reader.

I do remember reading the book as a young teenager. I’m guessing fourteen, something like that, and being very, very affected by it—visually, emotionally. The world of ideas that she was presenting excited me, and when I later came to read her diaries and all the other things she had said about writing Orlando, and about how it was received, and all the rest of it, I was fascinated by how she described it visually as wanting to exteriorize consciousness; in other words, find images that would somehow illuminate the way the way the mind works.

But Orlando was, when it came out, trivialized by critics. It was rather light and so on. But it’s not. It’s a serious exploration of ideas with a light touch. And because it was difficult to raise money for the film (and I mean very, very difficult), in the end meant that I had a lot of time— time I didn’t necessarily want—but it gave me time to revise and revise and revise the adaptation, and to figure out really how how to do it, how to turn it into a film.

Tia: I’ve read that you always felt you could visualize the book as a film—what specific images were the most vivid for you, and did any of them make it into the final version?

Sally: The apple seller frozen in the ice, with the apples suspended in the ice around her. That image stayed with me very strongly, and in the end it’s the first thing I shot when I came to shoot the film, and it was obviously very difficult to figure out how to do it, because this was before the days of CGI, so I shot it with a stunt woman in a swimming pool… I think in many ways it was that image that triggered the film. Why that image, I think, is so particular. There’s something about the apple that is sort of mythic, and of course the brutality of this working woman trapped under the ice, being laughed at as this spectacle by the men who are looking down. Because it’s just an image for them, you know. So it felt to me like there was so much going on in that image. That’s where it started.

Tia: This is a film with so much intricate movement, right from the first frame. There is ice skating, and dancing, and that iconic sequence of Orlando’s run through the maze in which she bursts from the 18th-century into the 19th-century. How does your background in dance and choreography come to bear on your filmmaking?

Sally: Hugely. I think first of all, anybody who’s studied dance knows about work and actually how much you need to work to improve. You know you don’t kind of hang around waiting for inspiration. You just go to class every day, and it’s very pragmatic. Anybody who’s done choreography knows what it’s like to stand there thinking, ‘Hmm. Should somebody cross from right to left or left to right or come closer, or be further away? Should this be fast, or should it be slow? And are they far or are they near? Are they at speed? Are they changing direction?’ All those choreographic questions are decisions that, as a director, I’m making all the time. And I’m absolutely sure that all the work that I did as a choreographer, and in performance, and with my own body, informs how I work as a director.

Tia: The costumes by Sandy Powell are also outstanding, and of course, you had to have enough of them to span 400 years of history. So there is the historical side of costuming, but I am also curious about the gendered aspect of making these costumes, and what the film has to say about the relationship between gender and clothing?

Sally: Well, male clothing historically gives much more freedom of movement. Just to put it very basically, you can run. It’s harder to run when you’re wearing crinoline. Harder to breathe when you wear a corset. So I think what the clothes come to evoke is a feeling in the body, and the performative aspect of gender, which is a lot of what Virginia Woolf was writing about. She was not writing about somebody feeling male or feeling female, but rather how they perform what is expected of them by virtue of the gender that is perceived as male or female, and then how they are treated as a consequence. She was talking about oppression, really. Oppression and performance, and not any sense of essential identity.

She was constantly addressing this sense of the sort of illusory self, to cite the Buddhist way of thinking about it. It’s the kind of self that we all circle around and assume we are, but it is not really an identity that can be fixed in any sense, or even deserves to be respected, because we are something much more transcendent, and ephemeral and loose, and then we then get pocketed and bracketed according to how we are perceived. So it was a very, very radical, very sophisticated view of sex and gender, and I think one that would offer a lot to all the current ways of thinking about identity, and about gender, and about sex, and about biology and about oppression.

Tia: At the time around Orlando’s release, you were hesitant to stand too squarely on the label of ‘feminist film,’ due to concerns about the work being pigeonholed or disregarded. And yet Orlando is widely regarded as a feminist, queer, and trans classic. Reflecting on it all now, what do you think makes a film ‘feminist’? It’s an idea that gets thrown around so much these days.

Sally: I don’t find the prefixes to any film particularly useful of any kind; it’s like calling something a ‘Black film.’ I’m sure that the filmmaker, who may have been Black, would want that film to go out into the world on a kind of equally broad and universal basis, even if the subject they’re addressing is race. If you’ve made, let’s say, a film with an all female cast, why should that not be of great interest and curiosity to men? I really, really don’t like this kind of narcissistic trend of people wishing to see [only] their own experience on the screen. For example, everything in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy has nothing to do with my direct experience, but I adore those films, and will watch them again and again. I learn so much by being deeply moved by the experience of others.

This is a kind of circular way of dealing with your question, because politically, of course, I’m a feminist—but there’s this tendency to want to name films that should have an unrestricted, free journey out into the world to anyone who wants to look at them. That’s part of this resistance on my part. The other is purely experiential, because in the films I made before Orlando, the term ‘feminist’ had been used pejoratively in my case—‘that feminist Sally Potter hates men,’ or something like that. I realized it was being used as a weapon by the other side.

At the time it was very difficult to talk about, because then it began to seem like I was trying to be in denial about feminism. But just look at my films. Look at what they’re doing, and what they’re saying. Why debate about the prefix?

Tia: I think what feels unique and particularly prescient about Orlando’s feminism is that it is very much a film about desolidifying identity categories, and so as you say, it’s very non-essentialist in that regard, very open and fluid in such a forward-thinking way. But it also has a complex relationship to British colonialism. Can you talk about Orlando’s relationship to Empire?

Sally: Well, this is essentially what Virginia Woolf left out. I mean, she lightly skips over ownership, property, royalty. She toys with the sort of clichéd view that the British, and the English in particular, tend to have about their own history, which is nostalgic, and consists solely of the lives of the monarchs. So it’s something I wrestled with deeply at the time and I didn’t feel I could change because it was the media that she’d set in the story, and also because within British history, the ones that are considered, so to speak, to have history, are these aristocratic families, because they’ve all got these family trees and they stay in the same houses. People in other classes, there isn’t a cultural memory about them, and this is, of course, a crime. It’s a crime! And it’s one of the faces of colonialism. But what I tried to do with the book, I tried to get rid of the exoticism that she had in the sequences in Constantinople, and instead, shot the scenes in the Middle East, in Uzbekistan. The vanity and the naivety of the aristocrats who went into other territories and kind of supposedly took on, you know, ‘authority’ over the population, and so on, was very deeply satirized in the film.

I had an uneasy relationship with the entire sort of shadow side of colonialism that is, let’s say, cast over it. But we don’t see it in the film. It’s implied. So that’s the price of an adaptation in a way—you have to some degree to stay within the world view of the writer.

Is that what you meant?

Tia: I meant it quite openly, but I do think that is one of the frustrations of Orlando—the fact that the anti-colonial stance is undercut by the kind of flattening, stereotypical representation of the ‘Eastern’ peoples, who are shown very much from an Othering, Western point of view.

Sally: Do you mean in the film or in the book?

Tia: It’s certainly more acute in the book, but even with the film, I think some people may interpret it as you intended—as critical, as a comment on the naivety of the British—while others may see it as repeating these tropes rather than mocking them, as being offensive.

Sally: I’ve never actually heard anyone say that it’s offensive. But I would be the first to critique it. I’ve been writing stuff about it now—the invisible realities of colonialism and the realities of where the money came from for these great houses, the plundering, and to make the kind of jewels that you see on the costumes, you know, on and on, and on and on. I certainly never wanted to, never had ever, ever any intention of romanticising it. And at the same time, it’s through Orlando’s eyes. So we’re seeing through this naive aristocrat. That’s how we’re seeing until eventually, it’s the present day.

Tia: Exactly, yes.

Sally: I’m painfully aware of what a story like Orlando leaves out. And I’m aware that Virginia Woolf was also a product of her time. I mean, there were people who were right about colonialism at the time, but there weren’t too many novelists who were writing that way. She was, you know, trapped to some extent inside the Bloomsbury group. The worldview of the Bloomsbury set was very middle class, and I would say, limited. They were not revolutionaries. But she was a revolutionary in her art. That’s where she put energy into what she was doing with form and consciousness, and consciousness about gender, but not consciousness about colonialism. Sadly.

Tia: I could talk about all of those complexities in Woolf’s work for hours, but I want to ask you quickly about your new short film, Look at Me, starring Javier Bardem and Chris Rock. It too is so inventive.

Sally: I really enjoyed making it—in this age of questions about duration of the moving image, because of the Internet and streaming, and how we absorb the moving image, [there has] been an enormous sea change, so to work with something condensed to 16, 17 minutes and to find form, shape, development, and concept within that limited period was wonderfully challenging and incredibly interesting.

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Sally Potter on Roger

Trailblazing filmmaker Sally Potter began experimenting with moving images after her uncle gave her a 8mm camera when she was 14 years old. This passion continued with the experimental films she made after joining the London Film-Makers' Co-op in the late '60s. But it was her fiercely feminist debut film “The Gold Diggers,” starring Julie Christie and made with an all-female crew, that not only introduced Potter to larger audiences, but also announced a new era in British filmmaking. In her decades-long career since that auspicious debut, Potter has pushed the creative limits of the medium many times over, never afraid to try something bold, risky, or new. 

Opening this weekend at the Metrograph in New York City, Yes: The Films of Sally Potter offers audiences a rare opportunity to engage with the totality of her innovative body of work. Included in the retrospective are seven of her feature films, from her groundbreaking debut to a new 4K restoration of her breakthrough Oscar-nominated film “Orlando” starring Tilda Swinton, but also more hard-to-find films like “The Tango Lesson,” “Rage,” and “Yes.” Along with her feature films, the theater will be screening her early shorts in conjunction with her latest short film “Look At Me,” starring Javier Bardem and Chris Rock

Although originally conceived as part of her most recent feature film “The Roads Not Taken,” her latest short “Look At Me” features Bardem as a volatile rock n’ roll drummer in a battle of wills with the frustrated director of a fundraising gala (Rock). As the short progresses, the true nature of their relationship is slowly revealed. Making its North American debut after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, the short is as politically provocative and emotionally impactful as anything in her filmography.

Ahead of the retrospective’s opening at the Metrograph this weekend, spoke to Potter over Zoom about her latest short film, the themes found in her filmography, and the importance of discipline.

"Look At Me"

Your new short film “Look At Me” is about to have its North American premiere. It was part of your feature film “The Roads Not Taken,” which was a very personal film for you. I'd love to hear sort of when in the editing process you realized this didn't fit into that film and how you decided to return back to your origins in short filmmaking?

I actually had a feeling even while I was shooting it, even while I was writing it. “The Roads Not Taken” is about parallel roads, literally, the roads we don't take in life that we sometimes look back at and say, oh my god, if I'd stayed in that relationship, what would my life be now? Or if I'd emigrated at that point in my life, what would my life look like now? That was the state of mind that Leo (Javier Bardem) is in. He's going down all these neural pathways due to his neurological condition that allow him in a way to visit his parallel possible existences. This was going to be one such one path. But what I also realized very quickly was that this story was completely a story apart. The others were all interlinked. They all made kind of sense in terms of the choices that somebody would make. 

But this was like, just a totally different story. I don't know why I didn't fully sense that while I was writing it or while I was shooting it. I think it's partly because I was really enjoying it as a story in its own right, and the characters in it, and what it was doing. So I totally went with the flow and made it, but as soon as I got into the editing room, I realized, Oh my god, I've made a film inside another, like a Russian doll. It's like it's sitting inside and actually doesn't belong there. So with searing heartbreak, I removed it and put it on one side thinking, I can't cut out this sequence that I love so much, but I knew I absolutely had to. I thought, Okay, one day, I don't know how soon it's going to be, but I will turn this into a separate film. So finally, I did, and that's the way it feels; it feels like it really is its own film. It may have been shot on the back of the other one, but it's absolutely its own story. It was fascinating to me to go back into the rushes and remake it as a dedicated short, not having made a short for decades. It's such an interesting form. It really has its own disciplines. It's not like practicing for the real thing, a feature, which is how people often think of shorts. It's like short stories with its own disciplines and rhythms. It was fascinating to make and really enjoyable.

In a way do you feel that it was similar to Leo in the feature film? He's looking back at choices he made when he was younger, and where he would be when he was older if he had made those choices. With filmmaking, you started out doing shorts, so I’m curious if it felt similar, just in terms of revisiting that sort of creativity you had when you were younger and making shorts?

It felt like something new. It didn't feel like going backwards at all. It felt like an exploration of the short form, which is in fact, completely of this moment. People's sense of duration right now, has radically shifted because of social media and streaming and the way that people absorb the moving image. So whilst there's still absolutely a place for the classic feature length experience, a lot of people absorb shorter forms at speed. I don't think that's at all a bad thing. Some people really diss them a lot, and say nobody's got any attention span anymore. I say, well, no, people have got a lot faster. They just read images really quickly. So I approached it like that. As something absolutely of this moment. New. New for me too, which is exciting.


Going back a bit to “Orlando” and this restoration ... 

Thirty years!

How do you feel about it being the film that most people know you for? It seems, myself included, people come to “Orlando” first and then get to the rest? What do you think draws people in?

I think, first of all, the central idea is sort of eternal, timeless, and universal. In other words, everybody, if they dare to think about the fact that one day they won't be here, has to contemplate the notion of mortality and therefore of immortality, and where we are. What is this experience of living longer than a human lifespan? What would that be like and so on? That's an absolutely transcendent kind of concept. Then what Virginia Woolf did is in her book, she married that idea, that feeling, that exploration, with the idea of what would it be like to live life as a man and then live life as a woman? What experiences would you have if you’re the same person, no difference at all, just a different sex and subsequent to that? That's also revolutionary. And, of course, now completely timely. 

So it's as if each epoch of the existence of the book first, and then of the film over these last thirty year, it's always up to date. Because I decided to come at the subject matter in a very modernist way. Big words, not that kind of reverent heritage bonnet picture. But really a kind of go for it approach. I think that makes it continue. It seems that it makes it continue to feel fresh and light. Humorously dealing with these quite big transcendent stuff. That is my explanation anyway. Then, of course, the way it looks. Sandy Powell's amazing costumes. Tilda Swinton’s incredible performance. Aleksey Rodionov’s amazing camerawork. And I have to say my rather good adaptation.  

It's definitely a film I have returned to often. There's so many layers to it. In preparing for this interview, I watched a few films of yours that I hadn't seen before. One was “The Tango Lesson,” which floored me. I loved that film so deeply. In a retrospective like this, there's so many of your films that are probably going to find new audiences. Are there any films in your filmography that you're particularly excited for audiences to either discover or rediscover?

The two that spring to mind, aside from“The Tango Lesson,” which you've mentioned already—but which was a very intriguing thing to do immediately after “Orlando” in a very so risky, in a completely different way—are a film called “Rage,” which was the first film, I'm told, ever to be designed to be watched on mobile phones. At the time it was considered outrageous. There were headlines in the paper, “Sally Potter Is Trying To Kill Cinema.” But I was just embracing the new. So that would be interesting for you to see, perhaps, on a big screen. The other one is “Yes.” Which again, was a different kind of risk, because of it being all written in verse and the subject at the time was very difficult. It is about a love affair between a Middle Eastern man and an American woman. So trying to turn what was the beginning of incredible hostilities and deaths, awfulness, and ghastliness, and to make them go the opposite way, and have curiosity and mutual understanding. So I'm differently proud of both of those. They never had the same audience numbers as “Orlando.” But I think they may be interesting for people to see them now. 

Do you think with this restoration of “Orlando” and with this retrospective that there is a possibility of having a home video release for some of these films that are harder to find? I know “The Tango Lesson” had a DVD release, but it's hard to find now.

Ask Sony Pictures Classics [laughs]. But yeah, I'd love to. I mean, all of the films do crop up now and then. Somebody will say, "Oh, I saw 'The Tango Lesson' on TV last night at midnight" or something. I'm not usually up to date. I think the wonderful thing, actually, about the whole sort of digital universe is that it is possible to remaster some of these original films, especially those that were shot on film, and introduce them to a new audience, a new generation. I just had that experience at the Telluride Film Festival with “Orlando,” with the first showing of the remastered version there. The audience was mostly young, a lot of them students, and they'd never seen it before. They were very open mouthed. I did a student symposium afterwards and realized, every day, a film can reach a whole new audience. It's as if it could have been made yesterday. So it's a wonderful potential. I'd absolutely love it if these films could be released. 

"The Party"

I will harass every single distributor I know because I want more people to see “The Tango Lesson” in particular. You spoke of shooting on film earlier. Several of your features and shorts are shot in black and white. In particular, I remember seeing “The Party” in theaters, and thinking the black and white is so bold today. What do you love about working in black and white?

I think first of all, I'm sure that as I was growing up, a lot of my favorite films were in black and white. So I have a great feeling for it in terms of memory, because most of the great classics were black and white. But also, I think the great beauty of working with black and white is what you get from a purely visual point of view. It does things to your brain. You get true black and true white contrast, which you don't have in color. So with that kind of light and dark, your retina is literally kind of opening and closing in a particular way as your eye scans the image. I think that creates a kind of dance within the brain. I'm talking fake neurological here. This is not science, but it's my sense of how you absorb black and white. The eye swipes the image in that way. Also, it simplifies things, like the chaos of color. You get shapes and you get a feeling of a three-dimensional world drawn like a charcoal drawing, that your mind then reinterprets in color. So in a very peculiar way black and white experientially is more colorful than color. Because you are coloring it in, in some sense. There's a kind of freedom of that in the imagination. It stimulates the imagination in some way that I love. I love working with black and white.

I'm a classic film, silent film sort of junkie, so seeing good uses of modern black and white always thrills me. I want to talk about some of the themes I found in your work for me in particular. I love the way many of your films discuss the difficulty women have in fulfillment, whether it's creative fulfillment, or familial fulfillment. That kind of push and pull, like they have a family but they aren't creatively fulfilled. I thought “Ginger & Rosa” was a really interesting one, where the teenagers look derisively at their mothers, but they don't really understand the struggle their mothers went through to even just have the lives they have. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on if that is a theme you find in your films, and what you find is interesting in looking at the various generations of women.

It’s certainly in “Ginger & Rosa.” I wasn't aware of it as a theme in my other ones, but it may be there. If you've experienced it, then it must be there. I think that in “Ginger & Rosa” I particularly wanted to explore that generation of women. I grew up in that period. I was like 11 I think during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I'm a little bit younger than the generation I was portraying, but the generation of mothers of these young women were the post-war generation. In the '50s, women were pushed back into the home and domesticity was being romanticized again, as men came back from war and wanted to take their jobs back. So the freedoms that women had paradoxically had during the Second World War, to drive ambulances, work in factories, to explore professional lives, do all kinds of things, despite the incredible ghastly, horrible difficulties and pain of war. 

Nevertheless, there were certain freedoms that happened to women, and those freedoms were taken away again in the '50s. So you have a whole generation of women who tried to, in a way, accept and enjoy domesticity as their lot, the arena of the home. But this didn't suit all women. So there were a lot of frustrated women, I think, who felt that they had given everything to their children or to their families, but never found themselves in some sense. My own mother came into that category. So I think I wanted to give a kind of compassionate portrait of both the mother in that situation, but also of the feelings of the daughters who look at their mothers and go, no I don't want to be like you. And of course, they’re cruel. Teenagers are cruel. But it comes from looking at their mothers and suffering with them in some sense, and then also resenting that. Which other films did you see that same theme?

I felt a little bit of it in “The Party.” The women in that film are looking back at their lives and their choices and where they are and assessing their situations. Patricia Clarkson’s character, she feels very, maybe not unfulfilled, but she definitely feels like she's at a point in her life where she's not sure she's done the right thing and made the right choices.

That’s interesting, because I saw Patricia Clarkson as somebody, well her character has a sharp tongue. She has all the best one liners in the script, and she claims the right to be irritable, and, and so on. I didn't perceive her as unfulfilled. I perceived her as somebody who had made the choices. The choices of being a single woman and non-mother. There's certainly the contrast between the mothers and the non-mothers. There’s Kristin Scott Thomas, the politician who chooses to have a life, a career, a success, and then the portrayal comes from behind, in private. Now, we've seen that, very importantly, with several biggest public female figures this has happened. So I was exploring that. But the choices that we all make are interesting and the choices that sometimes that we are not able to make, or the choices that are not yet not available to us of all the different generations.

"Ginger & Rosa"

You also have this recurrent theme of men having difficulty dealing with their own emotions and their own feelings and sort of wreaking havoc on people's lives. I'm thinking of Alessandro Nivola's character in “Ginger & Rosa.” But also with Javier Bardem in “The Roads Not Taken,” who in the various lives he's thinking about there's emotional choices that help him, but take things away from other people. I think it's really interesting the way that those later films center on men a little more. Not necessarily center, but there's definitely a lot of exploration of men and their emotions in some of your later films.

Absolutely. In “Yes,” there's equal central parts between Simon Abkarian, who plays the Middle East man, and Joan Allen, the woman, and there is really a compassionate look at each. And I think it's, well, we know it's true that male conditioning, perhaps not so much now, but certainly in many countries in the world now, and in the West certainly in the previous decades, young boys are not given the same space to truly feel what they feel and express what they feel without being mocked for it. So that creates real distortions in the psyche and great, great problems. And women are given more permission to access what they feel. Even if those feelings are hard and difficult ones that they don't want to have. We are, generally speaking, more able to access them. 

That’s shifted to some degree, which is good. But I indeed wanted to explore what happens when you remove people's normal and natural kind of humanity and vulnerability, and try and pretend that that isn't there? What starts to get distorted and what starts to go wrong with the psyche? And that's not only a male problem, but it's, as a generalization, boys don't cry and girls are encouraged to be a bit fearful. Don't do that, you might fall. That kind of thing. So women get this kind of fear thing happening that is very limiting, the feeling of limits, and boys get a, I've got to be tough and not have feelings and therefore forget how to be empathetic and to understand how their actions affect other people.

I thought that was particularly well done in “The Roads Not Taken.” But then when it comes full circle, that final moment with Elle Fanning is really lovely. Where she realizes he is thinking about her this whole time. I thought that was really impactful. Which brings us back to the shot. It’s a very political short, and obviously, your films have always been very political. “The Gold Diggers,” when you think about the era when that film was released, is incredibly political. What are your thoughts on whether art in general could ever not be political, whether it's subtextually or surface level clearly political, do you think that's possible to separate the two?

No, because I think what tends to happen is that the word political gets attached to something which is oppositional, which is questioning the status quo and the status quo is supposedly not political. This is not true. Everything, when you start to look at it, you can analyze it in political terms, or in terms of oppression or liberation, or structural or institutional sexism, or racism. All of those things are everywhere. Literally everywhere, and so you can't ignore them. 

But it's always been a problem that the status quo is considered neutral, somehow, and this other thing is like, red flashing lights, isn’t it? 

I think for me, it's very joyful to want to address all those things. It's a kind of exuberant feeling of reality. It's like restoring people's experience to them, of this is how it feels and I can reflect it back to you; yes, it is like this! And so that's part of the feeling of what cinema can do. When watching a film, the feeling that I've had anyway when I've watched some of my favorite films, suddenly everything sort of comes into focus. It literally comes into kind of a focus, experientially. Literature, of course, can do that too. A wonderful book where you feel you've woken up to a whole level of reality through reading it. Politics as a word is rather general, right? But I love the feeling of, let's dig down and look at what's behind the surface and how all these dynamics work.

I am definitely on the side of everything is political, because life is political. But the word political gets misused. I think people think of it as one single thing, and it's literally everything. I read that you like to work parallel on several projects at once. You’ve made so many films in the last ten year it feels like you’re always working. Are you working on several things now, and if so could you share about anything that might be coming down the pike?

Yes, I am. I always have a queue of stuff on my desk or in my head or in you know. I have a script that's ready to go, but I'm always cautious about talking too much about stuff before it's made because they often change. I've occasionally announced a film with a title and everything and then a few years later it comes out and it’s not completely different, but it’s different.

"The Tango Lesson"

Like how “Rage” was a bit in “The Tango Lesson,” but then when it came out over 10 years later, it was slightly different.

Exactly. Sometimes I just plant the seed of a thing. But I can say the new one I’m working on is called “Alma.” That's the next film I'll probably be shooting. I wrote it after I made “The Party,” when I discovered that I loved writing stuff that made people laugh. I mean, that’s always been a thing. People laughed during “Orlando” and I was just delighted about that. But when I was at the premiere of “The Party” at the Berlin Film Festival, which was a huge cinema of I think 2,000 or 3,000 people, and the ground was shaking with laughter in the cinema, people were laughing so much. And I thought, Oh, this is wonderful. This is healing. It was great. So it's a rather bleak comedy. So let's see if I do that now. I've also been working on a lot of music stuff. I write music. I wrote the scores for my films, and I've been dedicating myself to some songwriting, too. So we'll see what happens with that. But film wise, I hope that will be the next one that I shoot.

When you're working on something creatively, do you ever feel the need to recharge? And if so, like, how do you recharge that creative spark?

I don't ever have a problem with recharging, actually. I mean, what I always think is creativity is not really so much about creativity. I don't use that word much at all. I don't use it. What I do talk about is habit and discipline, which maybe sounds a bit more boring. But I basically think that—and I learned this as a dancer—you get better by doing something every day, whatever you feel like. It's not about feeling inspired. It's not about feeling creative. That's a bonus, it happens occasionally. But mostly it's about getting down to it. The more you work every day, every day, every day, every day more and more and more, you get better at what you do. I love working so much that there's no pain involved in that. If I break the habit, if I stop for a little while for a few days, it's always harder to get back on the horse again. But as long as I'm in that sort of rhythm of productivity, I just love to work. So I work as many hours as I possibly can every day,

I find that incredibly inspiring. I feel the same way. If I take too much time off, which I do way too often, then it's harder to get back on whatever project I had been working on.

It’s about developing a good habit, isn't it? 

Yeah, it really is.

I talk with students about that. They often want to know, how do you find your inspiration? You know, and I say, mainly it's not about inspiration. It's about forming good habits and keeping going with that. It's so simple. 

Most of my body of work is in celebrating the films directed by women and in highlighting women whose history has not been as mainstream, and I would love to know if there are any women either from the breadth of cinema or who are working today that perhaps you find inspiring?

This is such a tricky area because I grew up in a time where I couldn't find any. I was alone as a female filmmaker. That has changed so much and I think for young women filmmakers now they can't even imagine what that was like, to be so to speak first through the gate. I mean, in the UK anyway, when I made “The Gold Diggers” I don't think any woman had made a film since the war.

Muriel Box.

Yes, since Muriel Box. But nevertheless, I remember when I found Dorothy Arzner’s film “Dance, Girl, Dance” and I thought that was amazing. Of course Agnès Varda’s “Cléo from 5 to 7,” which was so underestimated. She was doing what Godard and Truffaut got all the credit for, inventing the New Wave, when she was the first in many ways. There was also Chantal Akerman, when she started doing her work. So there were these kind of beacons here and there. When there were not so many female filmmakers. I found my inspiration from women working in different fields. 

I consider Billie Holiday my teacher. I would sit and listen to her LPs, as they were called, again and again and again and again. She was my master. The expression, the range, the subtlety, the phrasing, the feeling of humanity and so on in her voice. One can find one’s sources of solace and inspiration, historically, in different media and of course writers, like Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. There are so many writers who managed to forge a path in their own ways. I don't think one should get to, in a way, distressed about female absence from any medium, but rather look at where we always have been, and get inspiration and solace from that.

"Yes: The Films of Sally Potter" begins at the Metrograph on October 7th.

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Gentlewoman Interiew with Tilda Swinton, Sally Potter & More

Sick of rejections from Hollywood’s bonnet-crazed bigwigs, Sally Potter set out to make a movie of Virginia Woolf's “unfilmable” novel Orlando on her own terms, decamping to the former USSR as the Iron Curtain collapsed. What sounds like a recipe for art-house obscurity yielded box office gold, presaging contemporary conversations about sexual and gender identity by three decades and launching extraordinary careers, not least that of a certain Tilda Swinton. As the film celebrates 30 years in print, here’s how a passion project became a landmark cinematic revelation.

The Book

Sally Potter: I met Tilda on a march in 1988. The 1980s was the decade of marches. Women’s marches, gay rights marches…

Tilda Swinton: I remember the exact spot in Hyde Park Corner. I was with Derek Jarman. Sally rang me up afterwards and asked me to tea at a cafe in Camden Town. Between us on the table she put down a book. It was a copy of Orlando. I didn’t say much, so she probably didn’t realise what it meant to me.

Sally: It was Cafe Delancey in Delancey Street. I remember this quality of shock in her.

Tilda: Orlando had been my most treasured book when I was a teenage poet. At boarding school, I used to sleep with it under my pillow.

Sally: For four years prior to meeting Tilda, I’d been studying Orlando and writing a treatment for the film. I’d reread the book multiple times, read all of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, plus everything I could find that could illuminate her writing of the book. And the more I delved into it, the more I found. Underpinning this celebration of impermanence, there are philosophical themes about the illusions of identity, about what is the present and what is the past.

Tilda: Sally had seen me at the Royal Court in 1988 in a one-woman play called Man to Man by Manfred Karge. It’s about a woman who disguises herself as her dead husband, who had been a crane operator.

Sally: But the real key for me to knowing that Tilda had the qualities for the role of Orlando was the 1987 film Friendship’s Death, because she was playing, if not an alien exactly, someone non-earthly. She had this still centre, and I realised she was someone who could receive the gaze of the camera not just with equanimity but with love. Tilda fed on being looked at. Strangely, not every actor does.

Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor: Vita Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”. It encompasses everything Woolf found attractive and intriguing about Vita, this wealthy aristocrat and diplomat’s wife with whom she enjoyed a short affair and a deep and enduring friendship. Woolf was very interested in the relative sexual freedoms that were afforded to noblewomen like Vita.

Sally: The book doesn’t speak to my class background at all. My father was an anarchist, and I grew up left-wing, very poor. I’d been on the road as a singer in a group called FIG, which was an acronym for Feminist Improvising Group, and I’d made several short films and one feature. Christopher Sheppard: I met Sally at the Moscow Film Festival in 1987. I was a documentary filmmaker, and Sally was there shooting material for a Channel 4 programme about women in Soviet cinema. It’s hard to comprehend now, but there simply were no women film directors back then. When Sally made The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, in 1983, it was the first British feature written and directed by a woman that had been seen in cinemas for nearly 30 years.

Sally: By the late 1980s, there were already a lot of what I call “bonnet pictures” that were happily reinforcing the myth of heritage with no mention of where all the money came from to pay for the manicured lawns, great costumes and enormous houses — namely colonial rape and pillage. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s use of wit and irony, my film of Orlando was going to be a critique of all of the above. But lightly done.

Tilda Swinton with Billy Zane as Shelmerdine, a fantasy character who Virginia Woolf may have based on Vita Sackville-West’s husband, Harold Nicholson.


Christopher: The big puzzle was the budget. Sally knew that for Orlando to work it had to work on an epic scale, because the premise is so preposterous — this is someone who lives for 400 years and changes sex in the middle. When I came on board, I had meetings with the established production managers and producers. Immediately they were saying, “This needs a budget of £10 million or more.”

Tilda: We went all around the houses looking for funding. I remember a fancy cocktail party in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that someone hosted for us on the condition that I would read aloud chapters from the book. We didn’t raise a penny. Not one dime.

Sally: We were staying in a tiny borrowed place on the Lower East Side. Tilda slept on the sofa bed, and it was like a range of mountains; it was so uncomfortable.

Tilda: We had lists of all the people we were going to hit up for money. People were saying to us: “A costume film — for who? Why? What?” They couldn’t imagine beyond the sort of Merchant Ivory Victoriana.

Allison: Merchant Ivory encapsulates a quietness in English life and character that EM Forster is so good at capturing. But Woolf resists the easiness of nostalgia, not least through all the discontinuities in Orlando’s character him- or herself.

Sally: I have a letter from the head of an American studio saying, “Not only can this film never be made, it never should be made.” Once my folder of rejection letters got very fat, I thought I would have to somehow show people what this film will be.

Tilda: We decided what we needed is what’s now called a deck. I said, “Well, I went to school with a Sackville-West so I could ask if we could do a photo shoot at Knole.” We pooled our money and hired two costumes: a pink Victorian lady’s dress and a brown velvet boy’s doublet and hose. And we went down to Knole in my little car, and I sort of ducked behind a hedge and changed, and Sally took these photographs of me draping myself over walls and up against doors.

Sally: I took the photographs to a Xerox shop, stuck them alongside some texts and made 100 books by hand.

Tilda: It was absolutely beautiful: a hardback, gold-embossed book with these photographs and our biographies and Sally’s idea of what the film was going to be like.

Christopher: There was also a meeting with Harvey Weinstein, who had distributed My Left Foot, which had just won an Oscar. Sally I literally made an elevator pitch, and I think Weinstein said something like, “I admire your guts,” and that’s as far as it went.


Christopher: Sally’s vision — the film she had in her head since she read Orlando — included incredibly ambitious things, in particular a frozen River Thames.

Sally: The ice scenes were crucial, because they’re near the beginning of the story, and I wanted to see people really skating.

Christopher: I said, “So let’s go to somewhere where there’s real ice. Let’s go east.”

Tilda: Sally and Christopher went on that first recce to the USSR to look for locations for the frozen sea, and when the people helping them asked what the film was about and they said, “It’s about immortality and history and capital and collective action,” they said, “Yeah, we get that! We’d like to be partners.”

Alexey Rodionov: It was the time of perestroika, and Russia was of fresh interest to the West. Sally had meetings with several cinematographers, including me.

Christopher: We started to think: What if we can shoot the whole film over there? We went through several possible Russian partners, including an oligarch who had a four-storey house on a square behind Harrods.

Sally: We made something like 30 visits to the Soviet Union, mostly to Russia and Uzbekistan. I was in a constant state of jet lag and hope and disappointment. Christopher: When Sally’s photographs of Tilda at Knole were combined with some of the Russian and Uzbek locations, people could see this wasn’t just some parlour game. We had one of those big zip-up portfolios for Sally’s collages, which we called the fucking folder.

Sally: The fucking folder got traipsed along from one meeting to another. It got left behind regularly in the overhead lockers of planes or on the train.

Christopher: The big breakthrough was a change of personnel at British Screen in 1991. The predecessor to the BFI 3 Production Fund had consistently turned Sally and the project down. Its new boss, Simon Perry, was a believer, and he is the one person, in terms of funding, without whom Orlando would never have been made.

Simon: Perry When I came to British Screen, I did so on a strongly European ticket, minded to encourage directors to supplement the money they got from us with money from Europe rather than America.

Tilda: It all started to snowball after that.

Christopher: When we went to Cannes the second time looking for funding, I met the person who became our Dutch co-producer, Matthijs van Heijningen, who still has a little art-house cinema in Amsterdam called The Movies. He had a Rolls-Royce and smoked cigars. I showed him the fucking folder.

Matthijs van Heijningen: I was attracted by the ambition. My partner, Guurtje Buddenberg, and I were the first co-production company to come in before France, Italy and Russia. By coincidence, Sally and Christopher were insisting on the Dutch production-design partnership Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs because of the work they had done on Peter Greenaway’s films, including The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. We had worked with Ben and Jan on an adaptation of the Dutch 19th-century novel Eline Vere. So the six of us came together on Orlando.

Sally: The design team, Ben and Jan, were absolutely perfect. Sandy Powell wrote me a note, and of course I already knew her and the brilliant work she’d done with Derek Jarman. Valerie Steele: The scenography and costumes are absolutely essential to this film, because they make Orlando’s time travel immediate and intensely visible — like a dream.

Christopher: It felt precarious — and it was — putting together this patchwork of European funding. But it was also liberating. Because no single entity was writing the one big fat cheque, no one felt like they owned us. Once we had enough money to get that core crew on a plane to Russia in February 1992, that’s when I felt, They can’t stop us now.

Shooting the desert banquet with Tilda Swinton and Lothaire Bluteau in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Sally Potter is with the script supervisor, Penny Eyles, and a hard-grating crew.

The Locations

Renny Bartlett: There was a naive utopianism to what we were doing, despite history and the Cold War and all that.

Christopher: Clearly Russia could deliver tremendous production value — our money went 50 times further than it would have in the UK — but it was a bit like the Wild West: people who’d lived entirely under Soviet communism were working out how to be capitalists.

Valerie: The fact that Orlando is structured around distinctive eras — winter in the Elizabethan era, the Ottoman Empire, 18th-century London and so on — plays a crucial role in the narrative of an individual who lives for centuries in wildly different milieux. It holds together in part because this is no more unbelievable, in a way, than Orlando’s change of sex.

Christopher: The Olde London scenes were mostly shot in and around Lenfilm studio in St Petersburg, including an ice rink, where the banquet scene was shot. But Orlando’s house plays a big part in the story and is revisited repeatedly from one century to another.

Allison: The idea of Knole having had so many illustrious inhabitants was important to Woolf and Sackville-West, and both were distressed at the prospect of that history coming to an end because of Vita being disinherited on account of her sex.

Christopher: Early on we tried to make this place Marfino — a grand house 20 kilometres outside of Moscow — into an Elizabethan house. Trying that in the snow was a mad endeavour, but we kept going back. I remember Sally’s assistant, Renny, holding up fake grass and talking with Jan Roelfs about how to restore the brickwork. Eventually we realised: There’s no way we can do all of this here — we’re going to need a real house in England.

Allison: Hatfield House has a relatively understated aesthetic. Like Knole, it has the air of having belonged to civil servants, people who felt very dutiful towards the monarch and the state and would run their household accordingly.

Alexey: The most exciting scenes for me were in this strange place. It has an ancient mosque that’s underground and supported by a forest of wooden columns. The light comes in from above, and it seems to be the architectural expression of the idea that, as individuals, we count for nothing.

Christopher: There was something magical about Khiva. It didn’t have to be restored, it just needed to be dressed as an ancient city on the Silk Road —a perfect alternative for Constantinople.

Christopher: But to get permission to film there, we had to be on the right side of the local power elite, and that required the giving of various backhanders and gifts.

Renny: In terms of Western consumer goods, boom boxes were the big thing at the time.

Sally: We took the mayor of Khiva a stereo system, and he took us out into the desert, where he had set a table covered in food and a lot of bottles of vodka under the burning sun. And there we stood — for hours — exchanging toasts. “To your British film industry!” “To the great film industry of Uzbekistan!” “To international cooperation in the name of cinema!” and so on.

Tilda: Oh my Lord, it was really intense. Every time anyone spoke you had to down a glass of vodka as if it was water. We were so pie-eyed by the end of it. I thought, What are we going to be signing?

Christopher: The arrangement was that our fantastic Russian fixer, Zamir Gotta, would surreptitiously top up my cup with water so I didn’t get too drunk. This was noticed, and our hosts got terribly offended. Everyone got food poisoning the next day.

Based on a book and eight years of research, the script for Orlando was constantly revised. Here, Penny Eyles, Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton gather between scenes.

Casting and costumes

Christopher: Because of the funding set-up, we had to satisfy different agendas. As it was a French co-production, we had a French actor, Charlotte Valandrey, playing the Russian princess; likewise, there’s the Dutch actor Thom Hoffman playing King William, who only appears in one short scene with a bunch of tulips. We shot that at Blenheim Palace.

Tilda: All the dames of the realm had been proposed to play Elizabeth I...

Sally: I chose Quentin Crisp because I thought, He’s the true queen of England.

Sandy Powell: I had to go to New York to meet him and take his measurements in his tiny little apartment. He was frail, and in retrospect I feel incredibly sorry for him because the costume we made weighed a tonne and he had to sit down most of the time, poor thing.

Sally: I had worked out a colour palette for each sequence which came from Virginia Woolf; there’s a paragraph in the book talking about the golds and reds of the Elizabethan period, the purples and browns of the Victorian period.

Sandy: People think of it as a period film because it jumps through decades and centuries. But Tilda was wearing Wolford tights with her Elizabethan outfits at the very beginning. I didn’t think twice about whether it was right for the period — that’s just what worked with the costume.

Christopher: The costume department was in Julie Christie’s flat. She had become close to Sally after The Gold Diggers, and they got together to find a developer to turn a derelict shoe factory in Shoreditch into affordable live/work spaces for artists. Julie lent her space to us, and that is where the costumes were made.

Tilda: Sandy did the extraordinary costumes with that modernist attitude of maybe making 18th-century pannier dresses out of very cheap saris from Brick Lane market.

Sandy: It was always going to have an element of stylisation because of the way the script was written.

Richard Brody: The best literary adaptations are ones in which the filmmakers create a style as refined as that of the writers; Sally Potter does so, and comprehensively, with drama, image, production design and performance all conceived as if from scratch, from the ground up, without recourse to familiar modes.

Sandy: Tilda has a deep understanding of character, but she’s also a fantastic body to put clothes on.

Valerie: The film is difficult to imagine without Tilda Swinton, whose extraordinary androgynous beauty makes her “pass” as both male and female. I feel certain that her role in this film also helped make androgyny fashionable throughout the wider culture.


Sally: After eight years, there was suddenly this quick, tense sprint of a shoot — 10 weeks!

Matthijs: The entire art department had left Amsterdam for St Petersburg in trucks full of every conceivable type of equipment, right down to screws and nails. I should say that not a single nail came back.

Tilda: Something that’s quite magical about the film is that it predates any of that CGI.

Renny: We used Russian technology from the 1930s! London Bridge is a three-dimensional hanging model placed in front of the camera.

Tilda: The list of things we had to take with us to St Petersburg was very long: any medicine you might possibly need, foodstuffs — and a bath plug. Of course, some of us were better campers than others.

Sandy: I had to keep the costumes in my hotel room, pack them into suitcases and drag them in to work every day and then put them on the actors and hope the creases would drop out. I mean, it was very primitive.

Christopher: Sally was revising the script all the time. There’s a wonderful photo of Walter Donohue, the legendary editor, sitting on a box on the ice rink in St Petersburg where the banquet scene was shot, retyping the script on his little Olivetti typewriter.

Walter Donohue: The script always had a solid structure, buttressed by the source material: Woolf’s novel. However, when there are harsh climate conditions, like a winter in St Petersburg, the script inevitably needs to adapt.

Sally: Meanwhile, I was in terrible debt from paying for the rights to the book and keeping going with the development. The bailiffs came during the shoot. We couldn’t talk about it. All the cast and crew knew was that they were working unbelievably hard under unbelievably difficult conditions for virtually no money.

Renny: While everyone else went back, I was sent to Khiva to conjure a unit in Uzbekistan out of nowhere and turn a decaying caravanserai into a viable hotel.

Zamir Gotta: My cousin was a famous filmmaker in Uzbekistan, so I pulled in the favours. My main job was to tone down aspects of the film — from the exuberantly gay Dutch production design team to a woman exposing her breasts — in my representations to the wider Muslim community. I’d circulate my own edit of the script with no mention of nudity. I learned a lot on Orlando about how it is to be the intermediary between different cultures. It set me up for a lifetime of Hollywood fixing.

Christopher: In Alexey, Sally had a genius cinematographer, but he was not at all used to the rigours of Western filmmaking — making a film in 10 weeks when his previous one had taken nine months. His view was that this was the worst of capitalism’s brutality, to subject artists to that kind of pressure.

Sally: Alexey was economical with praise, but if there was a shot he liked, he would say “it’s not disattractive.”

Alexey: Technically, it felt disastrous. We went to Uzbekistan for the hot sun, but it was raining all the time.

Renny: All shoots are tough, but this was particularly tough because we were working all day, then switching immediately to night scenes. Everyone was perpetually exhausted, having got three hours’ sleep night after night after night. As a crew member you’d quite often do double duty as an extra. I was forever having to pull on some outfit or other.

Sally: I learned a great deal during this film about daring not to be liked. I found it very uncomfortable because, like everybody, I want to be liked and loved.

Sally Potter directs Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I, who delivers her final lines to Orlando: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”

Editing and reshooting

Christopher: Very early in shooting, Charlotte Valandrey had a kidney infection and had to return to Paris to see the doctors, so that knocked a huge hole in the shooting schedule. But it turned out to be a blessing. The insurance payout allowed us to go to Pinewood Studios to reshoot her scenes. We made that studio time go a long way. It wasn’t just the scenes in which Tilda walks through First and Second World War battlefields that we were able to shoot but also Orlando standing on the bridge over the river looking at the people standing on the broken ice — that’s the tank at Pinewood. And we added the oak tree at the end, with Jimmy Somerville returning as the angel.

Sally: As my editor, I chose Hervé Schneid, who had cut Delicatessen in sharp, short bursts, as a deliberate contrast to my own, more lingering sensibilities. I sat next to him in the cutting room at Goldcrest in Soho and bit my tongue, knowing that the tension between our approaches would create a dynamic energy in Orlando.

Christopher: Already the shots were choreographed in very fine detail. Say the Orlando character is having tea in the Victorian drawing room with Shelmerdine, played by Billy Zane. If you look at the camera, it’s mostly one complicated track, which took hours to get right. This drove some of the more conventional people in the crew crazy.

Sally: You’re expected to do a wide shot, a medium shot, a close-up, plus several others, maybe. Then in the cutting room you decide which of those angles you’re going to use. It’s called having coverage, and it tends to result in a very conventional visual language. I never wanted coverage. I wanted to fully commit to the essence of each scene. When I saw how episodic it was in the cutting room, I decided to turn this to advantage by adding title cards. I thought: if people want to know what date it is, here’s the date. And a theme: death, sex, politics, et cetera.

Allison: That kind of signalling is there in Woolf’s novel, too. At the beginning of each section she provides meticulous descriptions of the physical world that signal time and place.

Christopher: We were in the last stages of editing the sound and mixing at Twickenham Studios when Sally told me she’d been awake all night thinking about what to do about music.

Sally: I could hear the music in my head; I wanted this feeling of ghostly voice. I went to David Motion’s underground studio in Soho and multitracked my own voice. I tried to become a semi-audible choir, but I didn’t want anyone to know it was all me.

David Motion: I’d been a record producer in the 1980s, making techno-pop with a classical sensibility — I’d borrow a bit of Sibelius’s Symphony No 5 for Strawberry Switchblade’s “Since Yesterday”, that kind of thing. More recently I’d been writing music for commercials, so I had experience with writing music to picture. I’d get musicians in — people like Alexander Balanescu, the Romanian violinist — and we’d put them in the sampler and muck about with the tuning.

Allison: Jimmy Somerville was an inspired choice, appearing as an angel in the scene which brings us right up to the 1990s, where female Orlando sits under an oak tree, watching a young girl play with a camcorder.

David: He had a terrible cold when we recorded that. Subsequent versions just didn’t have the same magic, so we used the first version. Allison: In a funny way, Jimmy Somerville has a lot in common with the way Orlando works, constantly mixing up times, doing cover versions in the way that Virginia Woolf loved to do cover versions of earlier literature.

Sally: I wrote the 1990s scene in which Orlando takes her manuscript to the publisher during the edit, because I had to find the right way to end the film after rejecting several others I had already shot.

Valerie: Virginia Woolf ended the story in her time, Sally Potter in our time. By bringing the story up to the present, it becomes more real to us.

Allison: Both Woolf and Vita Sackville-West found the idea of bringing history into the present moment very compelling. The film begins in the Elizabethan period, where gender fluidity was pretty normal, and then you get to the Victorian period, where gender has become completely congealed, and then in the 1990s present moment, the boundaries have become more fluid again. There’s a definite sense that the more constricting the clothes become, the more restricted women become.

Jimmy Somerville is raised aloft by crane for the final scenes, in which Orlando has vision of an angel singing to her.


Christopher: Orlando was selected for Venice based on the working print.

Sally: It had been shown to nobody. I was still working on the sound mix in the days before the premiere. There was a screening for press, then a press conference before the public premiere on the same day. We were told there’d been a lot of applause at the end of the press screening and that this was very rare. When we walked into the press conference, we got this huge standing ovation.

Tilda: I remember Sally and I being like rabbits caught in headlights, because we’d been pushing this thing up a hill for so long without really thinking about the audience at all.

Sally: We were just kind of looking at each other and saying, “They seem to have liked it.”

Matthijs: In almost 40 years of producing feature films, the premiere of Orlando was one of our best ever.

Christopher: The reviews were fantastic. I walked around the back of the hotel, the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, and Carole Myer — this legendary sales agent that Simon Perry had brought on board — said to me, “Christopher, you’ve got a hit.”

Richard: That against-the-grain tracking shot, keeping a cool distance from Tilda Swinton’s cool gracefulness and seemingly framing the voiceover, made it apparent to me from the very start that this was going to be a masterwork. And any doubt was dispelled in seconds with the second shot, the close-up in which Orlando breaks into the monologue and breaks through the scene.

Sally: As a writer-director, a film is a world you carry around in your head for a very long time. Once it’s out, that world starts to disintegrate and take on new lives, and you see, Oh, it’s had this effect on this person, and this country sees it in this way. And you see the effect it has on you when you’re fronting up your own work later.

Zamir: Sally and Christopher invited me and my wife to the premiere in London. Jimmy Somerville performed live on stage at the after-party. It seemed to me that we were celebrating a unification. A unification of spirit and intellect.

Sally: In London it was number one at the box office. Number one! It was mentioned in the ITV soap opera Crossroads, with one of the characters saying, “Have you seen that Orlando?” And I said, “OK, that’s it. That’s the sign of approval.”

The “right way to end the film”: Orlando takes her manuscript to the publisher, played by Heathcote Williams, who earlier played the poet who mocked Orlando’s poetry.


Sally: I was 43 at the time Orlando was released, I’d already had a couple of decades of professional life. But I’d always been an outsider, always part of the counterculture. With Orlando, I felt myself cross over into… if not exactly mass appeal, then so-called success.

Sandy: I saw it on the big screen recently, and it’s truly remarkable. Sally was so brilliant to conceive it and bring it all together.

David: To this day I admire her single-mindedness in achieving it — even though things were pretty hairy towards the end.

Alexey: I teach film these days, and students — Russian 20-year-olds! — know this film and like it.

Tilda: It was fairly torturous, I have to say, but I’m all for the long gestation period. Orlando gave me the confidence to know that I could make more films and try to go down the same track. And now I have these longstanding relationships with Luca Guadagnino, with Bong Joon-ho, Jim Jarmusch, Joanna Hogg…

Richard: Free minds and uninhibited creations are always inspirations — and, above all, the sensibility that Tilda Swinton embodies has flourished throughout her career and throughout the world of movies and has set a tone for acting to which many other directors and performers have tuned themselves.

Allison: Given it came out 30 years ago, Orlando is almost bizarrely prescient — completely switched on to the present set of concerns that people have about their identities and how fluid they are.

Renny: It’s sex-positive, it’s gender-positive and it’s historically positive. It’s such a positive film. That’s not to say we didn’t go through shit to make it.

Sally: I’d like to think that if I made it now it would have the same sense of optimism.

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Festival News Reviews: Sally Potter in Aesthetica

British director Sally Potter, a major guest at last year’s Aesthetica Film Festival, makes a rare foray into short film with Look at Me, a surprising work starring Javier Bardem and Chris Rock. So the story goes, it was originally part of The Roads Not Taken, her 2020 feature which starred Bardem as a man suffering from dementia. It was designed as one of the alternative realities Bardem’s character slips into during the course of the story. When it didn’t quite work, Potter re-tooled it into this standalone short.

Bardem plays Leo, a leather-clad, long-haired drummer, who we first glimpse crashing his instrument with absolute fury, the camera trained on his eyes. Watching him is Rock, who plays Adam. They’re preparing for a charity gala concert for the “unjustly incarcerated”. Tensions are running high. A tap dancer, dressed in an orange prisoner-style jumpsuit, is close by on the stage, behind bars. “A Mexican in a cage,” says Leo, disparagingly. “That’s kind of the fucking point,” Rock quips back.

As “creative issues” come to the fore, it looks like it’s just another story about showbiz egos. But we gradually come to realise that Leo and Adam are a couple, and Leo is troubled. He’s been to rehab for a drugs problem, but Potter never glamourises this. Bardem’s character is near-suicidal, his actions far more than a cry for help. At one point, he teeters on the rooftop of a high building overlooking the New York skyline; embodying the symbol of a “man on the edge”.

Naturally, a lot of the attention for this short will be on Rock, making one of his first on-screen appearances since the incident at the 2022 Oscars. Look at Me deals with male aggression, but in a way that resonates rather than titillates. Certainly, it suggests that Rock should look for more dramatic roles, if Hollywood will allow it. For Potter, this sweaty, moody tale is yet another triumphant exploration of the human psyche; that she manages it in such a short time frame is all the more remarkable.

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Sally Potter interviewed in ScreenDaily

Pioneering UK independent director Sally Potter is back in Venice with her new short, Look At Me, which is screening out of competition. It’s one of many trips the filmmaker has made to the Lido over the years with films ranging from Orlando and The Tango Lesson to The Man Who Cried.

The new project – produced through Adventure Pictures, the company Potter runs with Christopher Sheppard – combines the considerable star wattage of Javier Bardem and US comedian Chris Rock. Made while working on her 2020 feature The Roads Not Taken, which starred Bardem, it is a searing drama about a strong-willed director (Rock) and a wildly energetic and opinionated drummer (Bardem) rehearsing for a gala show.

The drummer is providing the backbeat for a performance by a tap dancer (Savion Glover), and the two men grow increasingly exasperated with each other. The film features Bardem and Rock in peak form, with sparks flying between the two as the connection between them is revealed.

Speaking just ahead of Venice, Potter explained how, after Covid, she revisited the material “from scratch,” putting it together as a standalone film.

Did you originally intend to include the material in The Roads Not Taken?

I hoped it was going to fit in but in fact it didn’t belong in the story [of The Roads Not Taken]. That film was already a very complex interweaving of storylines and this was a story apart. Even while we were shooting, I was thinking, “Oh gosh oh gosh.” Then when I was in the cutting room, I thought, “Okay, I am going to have to take the terribly hard decision to cut it – but I hope I can make it have a separate life in due course.”

Can you say something about the dynamic between Chris Rock and Bardem?

This persona for Javier was much closer to what comes easily and readily to him and which he can give incredible energy and presence to. Chris was a whole discovery situation, really, because he is not known as a serious actor. But I think he discovered something very moving and good. Even in the cutting room, I quickly put it together as a little thing but I couldn’t put the time and resources into making it what it needed to be.

Is there anything of you in the director played by Chris Rock?

I don’t think so. But what I do know and understand well is the lives of performers and the fears that all performers have about failure and humiliation. Politically, I became interested in the whole theme of male humiliation and where to go with it, what happens when that gets bottled up.

How did Chris Rock react when he wasn’t in The Roads Not Taken and it seemed as if his contribution might not be used?

He is such a seasoned professional and understands the ups and downs. Everyone knows the cliché that you have to be prepared to kill your darlings – a terrible phrase. He was very understanding about it. I am sure he was very disappointed but I said to all three of them, “Give me time. This story has not gone away for good. I’ve put it to the side but I will go back to it.”

How are you going to release the film?

Of course, it is wonderful to be accepted for Venice and have a premiere on a big screen but the fact is that we live in an age of completely changing ways of absorbing the moving image. People are looking at short form [material] all the time on their phones or laptops. In a way, they self-edit. They choose which bit to look at. There’s a lot of critique of that in terms of [diminishing] attention span but what people are forgetting is the upside of what is happening. People are becoming haiku writers; they’re becoming fast absorbers of information.

I am going to push for this to find all kinds of life on all kinds of devices. After deliberately absenting myself from social media, I am now going to start again. For me, the shortness is not a disadvantage. It feels ecologically correct with people’s time.

Are there rights issues given that it was made originally as part of The Roads Not Taken which was released by Universal?

There have been rights issues and those are in the process of being negotiated. It is always peculiar as a filmmaker when someone else says they own your work. Really? In what sense. In the end, it is down to me to make the things that people then negotiate about. But I think we’re there pretty much. People are happy about this film appearing out with the other one.

You’ve had some very high-profile actors in your films. Why do you think the likes of Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Johnny Depp, and now Rock and Bardem have wanted to work with you?

It must be the way that I look at them, with absolute admiration and respect. I love working with actors. Of course, that’s great for them. They know they have my total attention, that I am always looking for the genius in them, to pull that out, and that I understand it from their side as I have also experienced life on that side of the camera. What they tell me is that some directors are afraid of actors and don’t really know how to behave with them. Every good actor wants to expand their range, have a new experience and give their best so I think they can sense there might be the conditions for doing that. That’s much more interesting to them than the cash, because I can’t usually afford very much [of that].

Do you feel shorts are under-appreciated as a form?

I am really a fan of the short story form. As a form in literature, it is not a short novel. It is a form in its own right. With film, the same thing applies. It is not just a compressed feature film. It has different structural demands.

What is your new feature Alma going to be about?

One tries not to put out too many storyline clues but it is about the tendency within English culture to have a nostalgic relationship with [the country’s] own history, much of which is fiction and which ignores its own shadow side. I wanted to explore some of that but through the dynamic of family relationships. It is all fully written.

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EXCLUSIVE: Deadline can reveal the first trailer for Sally Potter’s short film Look at Me, co-starring Chris Rock and Javier Bardem and touching on the issue of male anger, ahead of its Out Of Competition premiere in Venice.

Rock and Bardem play a gala organizer and drummer, respectively. Tensions between the two men are running high ahead of a performance at the gala by the latter, who violently vents his pent-up stress.

Shot three years ago, the work has taken on fresh resonance after Rock received an infamous slap from Will Smith while hosting the 2022 Oscar ceremony in March. Rock confirmed on Monday that he turned down an offer from AMPAS to host the 2023 ceremony.

The 16-minute work, also featuring American tap dancer Savion Glover, originally was conceived as a short story to be embedded within Potter’s 2020 feature The Roads Not Taken, starring Bardem as a writer in the early stages of dementia.

Produced by Christopher Sheppard at Adventure Pictures, it was shot over five days in New York and London in 2019.

“When I got into the cutting room, I saw how dynamic these titans of the entertainment world are together, their volatile, fiery on-screen relationship offset by the rhythms of the brilliant tap-dancer Savion Glover,” explained Potter.

“The destiny of the story was clear: it had nothing to do with the other project. It had to become a short film, a fast-moving portrait of conflict and love. The result is Look at Me.”

The short film’s screening in Venice coincides with the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Potter’s Oscar-nominated breakout second feature Orlando in competition at the festival in 1992.

The U.K.’s Bankside Films has boarded international sales on the short film ahead of its Venice debut.

“The combination of Sally Potter, Chris Rock and Javier Bardem is truly arresting in this mesmerizing short film which audiences are going to be thrilled to discover,” said Bankside co-founder and director Stephen Kelliher.

In other news, Bleecker Street will release the film in the U.S. shortly after its Venice premiere, with screenings at the Metrograph in New York alongside Potter’s Orlando as well as a qualifying run at a Laemmle Theatre in Los Angeles.

Look at Me also will be made available on Bleecker Street’s app early in 2023, joining a collection of shorts by filmmaking partners including Joe Penna (Arctic), Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense), Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky), and Alex Huston-Fischer (Save Yourselves!).

“I am thankful to Bleecker Street for taking short films seriously and am thrilled that they will be bringing Look at Me to audiences in cinemas and online at a time when its themes feel so urgent,” said Potter.

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LOOK AT ME: Sally Potter interviewed in The Guardian

When Will Smith strode on stage earlier this year at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the British director Sally Potter was putting the finishing touches to her new short, Look at Me. The film features a scene in which Rock, as an events organiser named Adam, is thrown to the floor by Leo (Javier Bardem), a drummer scheduled to perform that night at a gala fundraiser. The two men are lovers, which only heightens the tension as Leo raises his fist above Adam.

Potter was instantly aware of the parallels between Look at Me, which she shot in 2019, and the fracas at the Oscars. “I had this feeling of: ‘OK. That’s interesting,’” says the 72-year-old film-maker, as she pours water for us in her office in a quiet east London courtyard. “I could see there was a thematic overlap here with the film about how men cope with their anger – issues of respect, humiliation and communication. There was a certain appropriateness to it.”

The slap was headline news for weeks. “It shows the power of gesture in this time of TikTok,” she says. “These short moments become emblematic and they get repeated in ways that, prior to social media, would not have been the case. But I think it’s the wrong vortex. It doesn’t help understand male violence, or the etiquette of response, or the ethics of turning the other cheek. It doesn’t help anything. It was a sad gesture. And, I would say, a dignified response from Chris.”

That is more than can be said for the response of the those attending on the night. “People didn’t know what the fuck to do or say, or how to respond,” Potter says. “The Oscars does not lend itself to clear thinking.” She was there in 1994, when her wickedly imaginative Virginia Woolf adaptation, Orlando, with Tilda Swinton hopping between centuries and genders, was up for a couple of prizes. “It was one of the most tense, unhappy situations I’ve ever experienced. It’s not an atmosphere of success. It’s one of fear of failure. In that context, irrational behaviour seems normal.”

Aside from a few throwaway remarks, Rock has not addressed the incident. “I completely understand that,” says Potter. “Who would want to be identified by something that was done to them rather than something they’d done?” She knows, though, that the contretemps will increase interest in Look at Me. “People have this curiosity, but I hope the film will be a counterweight to that. One can’t control where things are going. One can only accept it and say: ‘If you’re interested in Chris Rock, then have a look at another aspect of him. Look at what this man can do!’”

She is right: the title of the short could double as a clarion call from Rock, who has never seemed so delicate or heartfelt. Bardem is like a raggedy caged lion; he is even shown drumming in a cage, while the tap dancer Savion Glover, dressed at one point in Guantánamo orange, kicks up a storm in a neighbouring pen. “You gradually become aware it’s something to do with the incarceration of people of colour,” says Potter. “It’s a metaphor for other areas of freedom and constraint.” Unlike Bardem, Rock is poised and graceful, often manipulating the situation with his eyes alone. Vanilla highlights lend him a dandyish edge. Power is distilled into his modest frame and scornful glances. He is in charge.

The actor and director inhabit such different worlds that I imagine Potter must know Rock from I Think I Love My Wife, his remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon. Not at all. “I’ve always been a fan of his standup,” she says merrily. Who else makes her laugh? “I like Dave Chappelle.” Even his virulently transphobic recent material? Her jaw drops, and she buries her face in her hands. “Oh God. OK. I may be out of date with his routines. I’ve never seen that one, so I’ll take your word for it.” I mention one of Chappelle’s gags about transgender people from his Netflix special The Closer, and she lets out a groan. “That’s disgusting. I made Orlando, after all. These issues are very dear to my heart, and I’ve been answering questions about them for 30 years.”

For Rock, who is currently touring with Chappelle, she has only praise. “I love how he bursts on to the stage. That grin! It’s very life-affirming. Like many comedians, he’s a quiet, serious, intelligent individual. We discussed the whole question of male vulnerability and fear. He and Javier are both aware of fragility, and what happens when a man feels humiliated.”

Bardem tells me later by email that he found Rock to be “a very caring and generous partner to play with, a pure joy. He was absolutely fully in the mood of his character, which is not a light one. At the same time, in the moments we were waiting to shoot, he was being the incomparable and natural comedian that he is.”

Look at Me began life as part of Potter’s film The Roads Not Taken, starring Bardem as a writer with early onset dementia, his past and present bleeding into one another. The intention was to incorporate different realities and sexualities for its protagonist (very Orlando) as well as separate eras. “The story was included in the original movie as a glimpse of what Leo could have been if he had made other choices in his life,” says Bardem.

It was while screening an early version of The Roads Not Taken to friends, however, that Potter realised the entire section had to go. “It should never have been there,” she says. “As a writer-director, the working cycle is so slow, and takes so long, that an impatience sets in, and you sometimes try to jam all your ideas into one film. I’ve excised chunks of material before, but I’ve never had one film lurking inside another like a Russian doll.” While Bardem remained the star of The Roads Not Taken, Rock and Glover were excised. “Chris and Savion were very understanding, but I was heartbroken. I cried.”

That’s film-making for you: everything is in flux until the curtains part. I remind her that she cast Robert De Niro as an opera singer in her wartime drama The Man Who Cried, starring Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, only for John Turturro to end up playing the part. “How on earth did you hear that?” she asks. “Yes, all right. I did work with him for a bit. We sat in the [Hollywood hotel] Chateau Marmont and went through the script, then met again in New York. We discussed opera singers, as I recall. And hair.” When the filming dates changed, De Niro was no longer available. “I’d forgotten all about that,” she says wistfully.

Right from her 1983 debut The Gold Diggers, which starred Julie Christie, Potter has always attracted the highest calibre of actor. Riz Ahmed, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Jude Law and David Oyelowo were in the murder mystery Rage; Cillian Murphy and Kristin Scott Thomas were among the guests trading barbs in her acerbic comedy The Party; and she has twice directed Elle Fanning, in Ginger & Rosa and The Roads Not Taken.

Noext up is Alma, which, she says, “deals with the idea of how the English relate to their history, this nostalgia for a nonexistent past. It’s bleakly funny.” There is also a TikTok-related project in the works. She is certainly no streaming refusenik. “You can disappear into the small screen if what you’re watching is magnetic enough. You can go through a very small portal and still have a very big experience.” She could even be describing Look at Me: a tiny film that stings like a slap in the face.

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Pamela Hutchinson reviews THE ROADS NOT TAKEN.

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Evening Standard review of THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

Charlotte O'Sullivan reviews THE ROADS NOT TAKEN.

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Bleecker Street set for digital release of THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

From Screen Daily:

Responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Bleecker Street has partnered with US independent theatres to orchestrate a virtual release for Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken.


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Sally Potter on BBC Talking Movies: How real life influenced The Roads Not Taken

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THE ROADS NOT TAKEN Berlinale Press Conference Highlights

Watch highlights from the Berlinale Press Conference for THE ROADS NOT TAKEN, featuring Sally Potter, Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Christopher Sheppard.

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ORLANDO inspires 2020 Met Gala

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is taking ORLANDO as the inspiration for its 2020 Exhibition and Gala, with its theme "About Time: Fashion and Duration”.

Quoted in Vogue, Andrew Bolton, director of the Met's Costume Institute says:

There’s a wonderful scene in which Tilda Swinton enters the maze in an 18th-century woman’s robe à la Francaise, and as she runs through it, her clothes change to mid-19th-century dress, and she re-emerges in 1850s England. That’s where the original idea came from.”

The Met is using a clip from the film to headline their invitation to the Gala.

Sally Potter found her own inspiration for the maze scene (which does not appear in Virginia Woolf's book) at Hatfield House which was used as a location for the film. Here's a clip from the pre-production video diary (a 30 minute documentary that appears as an extra on the Orlando DVD) showing how her own experiments with time translated into the finished scene.

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THE PARTY in European Film Awards Selection

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THE PARTY receives global release

THE PARTY release dates by territory

Germany - Weltkino - 27 July

Switzerland - Filmcoopi - 27 July

France - Eurozoom - 13 September

Denmark - Camera Film - 12 October

United Kingdom / Ireland - Picturehouse - 13 October

Israel - LEV Cinema - 9 November

Norway - Mislabel - December

Belgium - Cineart - 13 December

Holland - Cineart - 14 December

Turkey - Filmarti - 15 December

Russia - Russian World Vision - 21 December

Greece - Feelgood - 28 December

Sweden - Mislabel - 5 January

Poland - Aurora - 5 January 

Italy -Academy 2 - 8 February

Spain - Avalon - February

United States - Roadside Attractions - 16 February

Australia - Madman - 12 April 

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From NY Times: In ‘The Party,’ a Portrait of a U.K. Divided by ‘Brexit’

From The NY Times:

LONDON — The party in “The Party” doesn’t go too well.

In the film, the latest to be written and directed by Sally Potter, Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a British lawmaker who has invited a few friends to her London home to celebrate a promotion to a senior position in the opposition. But before she can pour the Champagne, her husband, played by Timothy Spall, makes a less happy announcement. Secrets are revealed, relationships are shattered, drugs are snorted, pistols are drawn, canapés are burned — and the party’s over.

The good news for Ms. Potter, 68, is that “The Party” is her most widely acclaimed film since her lavish adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” solidified her reputation in 1992. The bad news for the people of Britain is that she has called her nightmarish farce “quite consciously a snapshot of the state of the nation.”

Just before the release here in Britain this week, Ms. Potter said that the disastrous soiree was “a microcosm of a whole nation in a great political crisis, a crisis about who we are, a crisis about nationalism.”

Although she finished the screenplay before Britain voted last year to leave the European Union, and the film’s machine-gun dialogue never touches on “Brexit,” Ms. Potter had her “ear to the ground, listening to the grumblings and groanings” while she was writing, she said.

The arguments that explode between guests played by Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz and Cillian Murphy represent the squabbles being played out across the country...

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From The FT: Film director Sally Potter: ‘In desperate times, we need laughter’

Available to read on The Financial Times.

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From The Guardian: Sally Potter: ‘There’s nothing like hearing a whole place vibrate with laughter’

From The Guardian:

The resolutely independent British film-maker is back with the most broadly entertaining film of her long career – a star-studded black comedy about a disastrous dinner party that reflects the dark state of the nation...

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Roadside Attractions Takes THE PARTY in North America

Read more on Hollywood Reporter.

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THE PARTY Berlinale Press Conference Success

Watch the Press Conference on Vimeo.

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From The Guardian: Berlin film festival 2017 roundup: an SOS for a world without walls

From The Guardian:

The jury – headed by director Paul Verhoeven and including Maggie Gyllenhaal and artist Olafur Eliasson – may or may not choose the most political films in contention, but they will have noticed how many films seemed to use the metaphor of a social event to make a point about the state of the world. The strategy worked beautifully in The Party, by British writer-director Sally Potter. Simple and concise, this chamber comedy, shot in black-and-white, is set at the London house of a woman (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has just been named shadow health secretary. As her husband (Timothy Spall) mooches around ashen-faced, friends – played by, among others, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy and a supremely acidic Patricia Clarkson – arrive, and the revelations start pouring out. It’s brittle, intelligent stuff, like Pinter crossed with Feydeau farce, and one of the most enjoyable things here.

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From Variety: Berlinale: Watch the First Clip From Sally Potter’s ‘The Party’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety has been given exclusive access to the first clip from Sally Potter’s “The Party,” starring Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall and Kristin Scott Thomas. The film, which she describes as “a comedy, albeit wrapped around some tragic elements,” world premieres in competition at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Kristin Scott Thomas to Star in Sally Potter’s ‘The Party’

From Variety:

Patricia ClarksonBruno Ganz, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Timothy Spall and Cherry Jones are to star in Sally Potter’s film “The Party,” which has just started its 14-day shoot in London.

Set in a house in contemporary London, the film is “a comedy wrapped around a tragedy,” according to Potter’s production company Adventure Pictures. “It starts as a celebration and ends with blood on the floor.”

The film is produced by Christopher Sheppard for Adventure Pictures and Kurban Kassam (“20,000 Days on Earth,” “Ginger & Rosa”), and is financed by Robert Halmi Jr. and Jim Reeve’s Great Point Media. ICM Partners is representing North American rights on the film, and the agency also represents Potter.

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Sally Potter preparing two new films, The Party & Molly

UK director Sally Potter has announced two new feature projects Molly and The Party born out of a joint development deal with BBC Films and the British Film Institute (BFI).

“I now have two complete scripts ready to go. One is The Party and the second is Molly, for which I am heading off to do some casting in New York,” Potter told ScreenDaily from the airport.

“I don’t know which is going to go first. They’re both being cast at a high level so it will depend on which one finalises its cast and financing first,” she said. “Either is ready to go into pre-production. They’ve been taken through multiple drafts. So realistically we’re looking at early 2016.”

Potter has kept Molly completely under wraps until now.

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In Development

The Party

All the action in the film takes place in one house in London in the present and unfolds in real-time, the duration of the film itself (about 90 minutes). Janet has just been promoted to Shadow Minister for Health and has invited some close friends to celebrate with her and her husband, Bill. But then, one by one, some revelations emerge which shatter each individual’s assumptions about love and loyalty and their most cherished political beliefs. For these individuals - who thought they were coming together for a small celebratory party and end up confronting murderous feelings and possibly murder itself - nothing will be the same again.

Oh Moscow

OH MOSCOW is a multi-disciplinary cross-media project by Sally Potter. It is centred around an entirely archive-based musical film, based on an hour-long song cycle about the Cold War. The song cycle was conceived in the late 80s by British composer Lindsay Cooper, with lyrics by Sally Potter. It was originally performed across Europe - including both East and West Berlin (before the wall came down) - and in Russia and North America.

The moving image content will take the Oh Moscow score as the soundtrack and propelling narrative thread for an exploration by Sally Potter of the political and emotional dynamics of the Cold War, telling a story that is once highly personal and increasingly relevant. An immersive digital experience will allow users to explore the themes in the film: they will be able to connect with the historical roots of current socio-political events, explore the musical work in depth and understand how a piece like this is created. A concert tour will bring live performance of the music together with HD projection of the film, as well as exploring cost-effective means of delivering an augmented reality experience to the audience.

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