Director Sally Potter talks to Guy Lodge about her new film,The Party
Sally Potter, the resolutely independent British film-maker, is back with the most broadly entertaining film of her career – a star-studded black comedy about a disastrous dinner party that reflects the dark state of the nation
Sally Potter isn’t quite sure how to react to seeing her name on a T-shirt. With bemusement, she turns over the garment I’ve given to her, as if concerned I might be playing a prank, but there it is: SALLY POTTER, emblazoned in bold black capitals on white cotton. She holds it up to her slender frame, its glaring whiteness almost garish against her tidy black turtleneck, and squints down at it. “People are wearing these?” she asks sceptically. Hers is one of several similarly stark tees celebrating women in film, run up by Etsy startup Girls on Tops, and now popping up all over the international film world. Isabelle Huppert has one. Ava DuVernay has one. Greta Gerwig, too. Tracy Letts, a star of Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, wore it to the film’s Toronto premiere. Why not Sally Potter? She smiles wryly. “Well, that’s lovely. And also rather embarrassing.”
It’s fair to say that Sally Potter, now 68, did not go into film-making to see her name up in lights, let alone across people’s chests. One of Britain’s most staunchly independent writer- directors, she has mostly resisted the lure of mainstream attention and awards in order to work on her own restlessly inventive terms: tackling Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992), once deemed unfilmable, with Tilda Swinton switching genders across a 400-year timespan; directing herself in the semi-autobiographical terpsichorean meditation
The Tango Lesson (1997); writing and directing contemporary culture-clash romance Yes (2004) entirely in iambic pentameter. These are not the choices of a film-maker hungry for mass audiences or an Oscar, though she cocks her head when I say “small scale”.
“Ish! Small-ish!” she laughs in mock-defence. “Let’s compare it to a bestselling novel. You consider it a bestseller if 10,000 people read your book, right? Well, 10,000 people have already seen
The Party – more, actually. And it’s just beginning.” Certainly, The Party, the eighth feature film of Potter’s career, looks set to be her most widely watched work in some time. Briskly shot in crisp black and white, it’s a tight, zesty, riotously funny black comedy, with a deluxe cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Timothy Spall and Patricia Clarkson gleefully scratching each other to shreds over the course of just 71 minutes. Scott Thomas is a newly appointed shadow health minister whose marriage and career both come spectacularly undone over the course of her own farcically doomed dinner party; it was conceived, Potter says, “as an entertainment, in the Graham Greene sense of the word”.
It is arguably the most broadly entertaining film of her career, though Potter doesn’t see it as quite the departure that critics have described. “I always thought Orlando was a comedy – in fact, I often think my films are comedies and then I’m surprised when people don’t laugh,” she says. “I’ll get better at it. When writing comedy, it’s technically difficult because you don’t know: is anyone going to laugh?” Early test screenings were merrily received; concerned they were a fluke, Potter tried it on progressively larger crowds until its Berlin film festival premiere in February. “There’s nothing like sitting with 3,000 people and then hearing the whole place vibrate with laughter. You know it’s doing everyone good, it’s a kind of medicine and it’s also incredibly validating. Because I wanted to work with the healing power of laughter as, let’s say, a shortcut through the really tragic elements.” You don’t have to scratch far beneath The
Party’s japey surface to find that layer of tragedy, the characters’ seemingly petty personal crises reflecting a wider despair over Britain’s social and political corruption. To the side of the personal meltdown of Scott Thomas’s steely minister, there’s a battle of principles between Bruno Ganz’s apolitically humanist life coach and the waspish nihilism of his wife (Clarkson), who believes democracy to be over; Murphy’s City boy counters the ultra-lefty discord between a lesbian couple who have differing standards of radical feminism.
Potter wanted to examine such tensions on a contained canvas. “Part of the project was to go back to cinematic bare bones,” she explains. “Strip away everything other than characters dealing with those difficult things in their lives, but do it lightly. And have that be a microcosm of wider, quite heavy and difficult times politically.”
Those precise times have shifted a bit since Potter first started writing the screenplay in the run-up to the 2015 general election. “Around that time, it felt like all politics had moved into a centre and lost its way, lost its feeling for telling the truth,” she says. “So I felt that the struggle for people to tell the truth was very fertile territory. The gap between how people present themselves, to each other, to the world and to themselves even, and then what happens to them under extreme pressure, as delusions of self-image start
scattering, falling, disintegrating. So that feels like it’s part of the way things are written about truth and post-truth. That wasn’t there when I wrote it. But it has become that.”
That realisation came rudely home to Potter midway through the film’s two-week shoot last summer, when the Brexit referendum threw her, not to mention her thoroughly international cast and crew, for a loop. “People turned up weeping,” she recalls. “On both sides of the camera, we had a lot of mixed European and other talent. A Russian director of photography. An Argentinian designer living in Paris. A French sound team. An Italian assistant, an Indian producer, lots and lots of different origins and a lot of people fearful suddenly or full of grief.
“It didn’t change anything in the script because the script was written and there it was,” she continues. “But what it did change was the subtext: it had an additional layer of meaning and people were aware of that. They had that feeling of, ‘Well, this is England. Right.’” She makes a mordant grimace. The party to which Scott Thomas’s character belongs is never specified in the script but the political sympathies of The
Party are far from ambiguous. “It also became about what it really means to be on the left, what it means to be effective.”
Like most of her professional peers, Potter is pessimistic about what a future outside the EU holds for the UK’s film industry: “It’ll be damaging institutionally – financially as well, obviously. But it’ll be most damaging in the wider sense, for sort of encouraging a form of xenophobia, a polite sense of civil war.”
But she brightens. She’s fought all manner of obstacles to get her films made for decades and this is just another. “For artists, for filmmakers, there will always be this impulse towards collaboration,” she says. “There is always a spirit of internationalism, because you don’t write only for your own country. My films have been, on the whole, much better received and more widely seen outside the UK than within it. So although often, as in this case, you have to work with a very specific subject matter, I never have a feeling that I am only working for this country. I’m working for wherever what I do will land.”
Potter divides her time across borders, with most of her writing completed in a remote pocket of central France. “I have a very small hut there where I’ve written the last five plays or so,” she says, “with absolutely no distractions at all, which I need.” She adheres to a fairly ascetic writer’s routine: “I sort of have to whip myself into shape every day but, you know, no emails, no phone calls, no washing-up, no anything – I just have to get to the table. As long as I can get to the table and stay there for a minimum of five hours every day, with a day of rest a week, I can get it done.”
Now, however, we’re sitting in her more capacious London study, a warm, book-lined buffer zone between her adjoining offices and flat in a renovated shoe factory near the Columbia Road flower market. Early autumn morning light pours in through the top-floor windows; with it comes children’s playground chatter from the school opposite. A grand piano, an heirloom from her grandmother, takes up much of the room: Potter, a sometime composer, says music is critical to her films and the piano reminds her of its presence.
It seems to me, I remark, a pretty ideal writing space, though the city, where Potter grew up, is more a place of distracting inspiration for her. She’s been in her corner of east London for 27 years and the area feeds her people-watching instincts. “I go out for my coffee in one place, scrambled eggs in another, go out to Haggerston Park – the bleakest small park in London, which I love – or maybe I walk along the canal or something,” she says. “I like how mixed the neighbourhood is. Differently mixed,” she adds, with a nod to encroaching gentrification, “but we’re still in Tower Hamlets here and it remains very mixed racially, culturally, ethnically.”
A question about her spare time is answered with a rueful wave of the hand: there isn’t much. “There are no gaps,” she laughs. “I write all the time. If I had to add up all the hours in my film-making life and look at what proportion was spent on what, vastly the largest space would be taken up with writing.” She’s an avid theatre- and cinema-goer, but only in waves; when she’s at a crucial stage in the writing process, she explains, it’s best not to have other people’s ideas and stories in her head.
As we learned from The Tango Lesson, Potter is an accomplished dancer, though she has less time for that these days too. “Once a dancer, always a dancer,” she says wistfully, “but I don’t do it in the same way as I once did, not at all. I miss it desperately. The kind of dancing I did most recently meant going out and staying out until 3am. And that doesn’t jibe well with getting up at seven to work, so I find there’s a conflict.”
Whether she’s practising them or not, Potter’s broad array of artistic interests feeds into her film-making. Her dance training, she explains, is invaluable to her direction of actors: “The need to move physically, to be in the body, helps me to look at an actor – not just at their face to hear what they’re saying, but 360 degrees, top to toe.”
‘I object to having my films called feminist, implying they’re only for a certain audience of like-minded people’
The daughter of artists – her mother was a singer and music teacher, her father a poet and designer – she learned early on to view such disciplines as overlapping, though she doesn’t feel she inherited an especially creative gene. “I think everyone is creative, actually,” she says. “I mean I really do, I’m not just saying that polemically.”
She didn’t go to film school, which she does feel gives her a different perspective from many of her peers; instead, having dropped out of school at 16, she joined the London Filmmakers’ Co-op as a teen, later studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance, and experimented further in music and performance art. “I started with film aged 14; that was my first love, but I didn’t know how you got to this other magic land of making big films,” she says. “So I learned in a ragtag way. But film itself is a mongrel medium, so if you understand a little about all those things, you’re going to be a much better delegator, you’re going to understand what people’s struggles are, you’re going to have a feeling for movement – not just of individuals but of the camera, the movement of space, the choreographic element of being alive.”
Potter wears her outsider status with pride, well equipped to handle the discriminatory pinch still affecting women in the film industry. When I relate the dispiriting findings of a recent BFI survey into female representation on screen and behind the camera between 1913 and 2017 – suffice to say that advances, if any, have been incremental – she sighs.
“You can’t deny those numbers, they don’t need my opinion added,” she says. “Of course it’s normal to me because I don’t know what it’s like being on the other side of the line. But when you get to some of the Hollywood screwball comedies, when you had Katharine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert, you suddenly think: Jesus Christ, look at these amazing female characters. You’ve got brilliant writers, dealing with really interesting subjects, really lightly.”
And those, I add, were mainstream movies everyone went to see. That men went to see. “Exactly, and I mean, what the fuck?” she groans. “So things rise and fall in that way and you can’t really separate any moment from the results. All one can do really is turn apparent disadvantage to advantage. Look at The Party: low budget, sure, and fast. You might think that’s a disadvantage, but maybe it’s not. You can still work with brilliant people and you can still deal with the most interesting themes. Freedom as an independent film-maker is a choice, it’s a sort of attitude. It’s a perspective on what is…” She pauses.
“I’m silent,” she eventually continues, “because it’s something I get asked about a great deal and I feel I’m never able to really answer it satisfactorily.”
She’s far from the only one. I recall something the actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste said about diversity in the industry – that it’s not for her to explain why she hasn’t been invited to a party, but the more powerful host. Potter sees the struggles of women, people of colour and LGBT voices to be heard as essentially related: “You can’t separate them. We need to eliminate this notion that there’s one neutral point of view, which is what we’ve got used to, and that the rest is kind of other, with a prefix attached to it: gay, black, female, blah, blah, blah. There is not one story – there are multiple stories to be told in multiple ways.”
Potter may strongly identify herself as a feminist – and takes pride in mentioning that everyone on The Party worked for equal pay – but she has long been leery of ascribing the same term to her work.
“This is a complicated one,” she says with a half-smile. “I am a feminist in life. I would expect you, or Ken Loach, or Martin Scorsese, to be a feminist in life. But I object to having my films called feminist, implying they’re only for a certain audience of like-minded people and that the film itself would preach that line. Feminist is somehow different from saying ‘anti-racist’. I would think of my films, or my life, everything in my life, as anti-racist, but you don’t hear that as a label. But feminist film is seen as specific.”
It’s the attachment of the term to a single gender of film-maker, she continues, that really rankles – liberal-minded men can make femaledriven stories without ever being so defined. “Why aren’t Ken Loach’s films called feminist? ‘The feminist film-maker Ken Loach’ or ‘the feminist film-maker Mike Leigh’ – why don’t we read that?”
She takes a breath. “I’m completely proud of the word. The feminist movement is one of the most vibrant, extraordinary political movements. But I object to the way it’s used as a prefix to my work, to ghettoise it, often as part of a criticism rather than an appreciation. I just want to occupy a free space without a prefix. Because what does it mean? I have to ask someone, what exactly do you mean by that term and what is it adding to anyone’s understanding who might go and see the film? Take The Party – it’s probably more important that people know that they’re going to laugh, isn’t it?”
Potter tends to place women at the centre of her films and actresses cherish her attention. (“I remember telling Sally while we were shooting how relieved I felt to be a part of her revolution,” Dianne Wiest said while promoting Potter’s film Rage. “How good it felt even if it was only imaginary.”) That said, she feels no obligation to represent women: “You can make a film about whatever the fuck you like! It’s that freedom that any male film-maker can take for granted.” As it is, she continues to write and develop her projects according to no one’s instructions or impulses but her own.
Is she ever sent other people’s scripts, to act as a director for hire? “That happens a lot,” she nods. “I have a 100% record of turning things down.” Potter admits to having been burned on her one flirtation with more mainstream film-making: 2000’s illreceived The Man Who Cried , a bigger-budget, Universal-backed costume drama with a cast including Cate Blanchett and Johnny Depp. “I was less happy with that one,” she says breezily. “Really, really much less. That taught me, if I ever needed to know again, that the only way that I can deliver something I’m at all proud of is by having complete control at every stage, to the point where I have completed it and said OK, this is the film or at least close to the film I wanted to make.” She considers and shrugs. “It is never quite the one, but that’s it.”
Does it get easier or does every film remain a battle? She fixes me with an amused look. I know the answer already. “Look, nobody’s ever said to me: oh, Sally, do make this film and here’s a lot of money to make it. This has never been the case, it’s been struggle, debt and so on.” She leans back. “Of course, that’s nothing compared to, say, working in a factory.
“But I fought for it,” she adds mildly, tougher determination peeking out beneath her light tone. Now, five decades into her film-making career, she has the T-shirt to prove it.
The Party is at the London film festival on Wednesday and on general release on Friday
Clockwise from top: Timothy Spall in Potter’s latest film, The Party; Sally Potter and Pablo Veron in The Tango Lesson (1997); Alice Englert and Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rosa (2012); Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp in Orlando (1992).