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

The Observer - The New Review - - CONTENTS - BY GUY LODGE POR­TRAIT BY AN­TO­NIO OL­MOS

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).

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