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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