Sally Potter

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.

read the piece here:

Back to Listing