‘Compassion Is a Very Important Word for Me’: Sally Potter on “The Party,” “Orlando,” and Her Love of Actors

"I try and be the first and best audience that actor will ever have." The legendary filmmaker talks about her long career and her caustic new film.


Sally Potter has a new movie out, and it is not like any other Sally Potter film — except when it is. Over the past forty-plus years, the British filmmaker has put together one of the most diverse and innovative filmographies you can imagine — from her early experimental work, to her fourth-wall-breaking classic of gender fluidity, Orlando (1992), to the minimalist dance-romance The Tango Lesson (1997), in which she played herself, to the Cold War coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa (2012). These titles are not only broadly different in theme and subject matter, they’re also quite different in form; Potter is not one of those directors with a signature shot, or a consistent mood. She’s a shapeshifting artist who makes shapeshifting films, often about people who are themselves in flux.

And yet, watching her latest effort The Party — a tight, bitter, and very funny 71-minute dark comedy about a group of old friends who come together for a dinner party and realize just how utterly screwed up their lives are — it’s hard not to sense Potter’s sensibility and presence throughout. It’s politically charged without being sermonizing. It shows the ridiculousness of its characters’ actions without sitting in judgment of them. And it’s filled with terrific performances, including Kristin Scott Thomas as an earnest career politician, Bruno Ganz as a spiritually enlightened (and more than a little smug) Zen teacher, Patricia Clarkson as take-no-bullshit realist, and Cillian Murphy as a vengeful yuppie.

I talked to the director recently about making her new film during the Brexit vote, her collaborative approach to performance — she’s actually written an entire book about working with actors — and that time she tried to talk to Martin Scorsese about Orlando.

The Party feels so politically charged, but it also offers no great lesson or any clear moral equations. We’re watching people who think they share the same values as they fall apart over the course of an evening, and it’s all somehow hilarious and despairing at the same time. What inspired this idea?

I never quite know where ideas start, but I started to write it when there was an election in the U.K. Ed Miliband at that time was head of the Labour Party, up against David Cameron. And the way that they were talking in the lead-up to the election was identical rhetoric. It was all spin, and everyone had moved to the center and nobody was saying what they meant. And this was before Brexit, but you could take the temperature of something going on in a subterranean way; there was a big crisis of identity going on.

I wanted to make something that didn’t name any names, give any dates, that couldn’t be tied down too specifically to what was going on politically. A lot of the politically charged nature of it is, so to speak, in these people’s bones, and in the atmosphere, without a clear and rigid moral compass. They’re all people who are trying to be good, and do good, for the common good, but failing. And they have some history behind them about things they’ve tried to do and slipped up.

Today, there seems to be such a quest for absolute moral certainty and clarity. We see people as either misogynist or they’re not, either racist or they’re not, and so on and so on, and there’s been a great retreat from nuance and complexity — from the fact that most people are a mix and full of uncertainty. I wanted to explore that idea of the gap between what people think they are and how they actually behave in a crisis situation. But most importantly, I wanted to do it all in the service of laughter, the cathartic power of laughter.

Your films are so wildly different from one another, but one theme that does seem consistent is this idea of characters whose image of their selves is being challenged. Whether it’s the title character in Orlando, or your own character in The Tango Lesson, or Ginger’s dad in Ginger and Rosa — your characters often see themselves in a very specific way, and over the course of a film they, and we, discover that the rest of the world doesn’t really see them that way. Is that something you’re cognizant of, or is it just organically there in what you write?

I guess the fact that you’ve spotted it means there must be some truth to it. I don’t set out to do that, but I can see myself that there’s a lot of questioning of fixed identity, and that most of the identities we claim are much more fluid than we think, and open for question, and in a continuous space of flux and transition and so on. If I’m clinging to the notion of “I am this” or “I am that” — whether it’s male, female, or trans, or nationhood, you know, “I am an American,” “I am an English person,” “I am younger, I am older” — it seems to be, often anyway, limited.

It’s not quite the same as what you were saying, but I think the exploring of this gap — the Buddhists would talk about it as the illusion of self, and look at it from a spiritual point of view. I’m sure there’s many other ways of thinking about it, too. But it’s a rich idea to mine from a dramatic point of view.

As I understand it, Brexit happened right in the middle of your shoot?

Right in the middle of the two-weeks-long shoot, yeah. [Laughs] We all turned up the next morning, and half the crew and cast were crying. Shock, horror, and surprise, you know. Nobody that I knew thought it would happen. And I think a lot of the people that were in favor in Brexit also didn’t think it would actually happen. They voted that way as a kind of protest.

Did anything change with the film as a result?

Not at all. Not a word. What most of the actors said the next morning was, “This is so prescient,” and, “Did you realize what you were writing?” We didn’t need to change anything to match the events. It was more a slightly shocked feeling of how close my writing was to the ground, without necessarily knowing it.

There’s a tremendous physicality in The Party, which is also common in your work. But movies set in one location, or that follow the dinner party concept, usually center on conversations. But here, the relationships of bodies to one another is quite powerful, and foregrounded.

I’m glad that you say that, because the challenge I set myself was how much movement I could find within this confined set of spaces. And also how much will these people’s bodies tell us about what they’re not saying. I call it “360-degree acting.” Full embodiment.

There is something about working with confinement. There’s always a limitation; you can’t film everything everywhere, so you always make choices. But there’s often a feeling that you’ve got to expose the camera to a great deal of variety in order to make it interesting, whereas in fact if you can mine deeply into a more apparently limited environment, you start to find other things that are very exciting.

My designer, Carlos Conti, made a model of the set, and we worked with stick figures to see how many ways in and out of different rooms people could move. We played a lot with that, and the sets were built to fill that need. By the way, there were no movable walls; there was a ceiling, everything was fixed. It was all about maneuvering within a completely physically real space.

Watching your work from the earliest shorts right up to now, it seems like your relationship to actors and performers is constantly developing. Each film has a completely different performance style. There’s a lot of broad humor, I feel, in The Party, and it all works wonderfully. Ginger and Rosa feels very naturalistic. Orlando is very precise, very controlled, often breaking the fourth wall. The Tango Lesson is quite minimalist.

I absolutely love working with performers of all kinds. I mean, love it — the relationship and the force field of attention you can give to people and watch them build something. I mean, these people are at the top of their tree. They’re wonderful, and it’s not like you’ve got to sort of help them along or something. But you can create conditions in which they can go to places that maybe they haven’t been before. And it’s all about building a relationship, and a kind of trust, so that people can surrender to the process. And I do that one on one. So, I work, first of all, individually with people before they even meet each other.

As for the evolution from film to film … I wanted [The Party] to be funny, but to be a comedy wrapped around a tragedy. So you couldn’t call it a kind of straight comedy. It seemed that the way to go was not to play it for laughs but to play it for truth. And the lines and the situations create laughter without having to announce it. So, the direction was in a way about playing it very straight. Okay, so Cillian’s character is accentuated, but he’s high, you know? This is actually real for somebody who’s high. But also, people in extreme situations start behaving in big ways. Big and unexpected ways.

When you cast yourself in The Tango Lesson, did that change your view of actors at all?

It absolutely did. I’d done a lot of live performance, but I hadn’t done a performance on screen, and so I felt directly what that level of exposure and vulnerability is, to the lens. The feeling of your moment being fixed for all eternity, and therefore the pressure to arrive in the moment and in a transparent way. Now, of course the thing that I lacked in The Tango Lesson was a director [laughs] — exactly the thing that I try and give to actors, which is a sense of extreme, respectful attention and a really beady eye. I try and be the first and best audience that actor will ever have. And on The Tango Lesson I had none of that. And I was extremely critical of my own performance when I saw it. It was frankly agonizing from my point of view. But at the same time I learned so much about working with actors, what actors need, what works, what doesn’t work.

Maybe some of this also has to do with how compassionate your work often is. There are so many points where it would be so easy to judge somebody on screen, and yet you really don’t. In Ginger and Rosa, the character of the father is somewhat deluded about how he’s perceived, and yet you don’t condemn him. He is pathetic, but there’s also a real understanding there for this person and how he’s lived his life, and the sacrifices that he’s made. I wonder if that is also tied into your being able to connect with the actors — because they have to have some compassion for their character, whoever they’re playing, right?

Absolutely. You cannot sit in judgment of your own character. Compassion is a very important word for me. Hugely important. And certainly when I’m working with actors, and the people behind the camera too, the working process for me is so full of love. I can’t think of a better word. It’s a quite intoxicating feeling — I used to call it “falling in work,” as opposed to falling in love. It’s a kind of connectedness and intensity. You couldn’t live that way all day every day. But you can for a period of time imbue the quality of your relationship with others with that level of nonjudgmental love.

I think it’s what we were talking about at the beginning, isn’t it? That we’re living at a time when people are reaching for a kind of ethics and morality that works, but often with that come the easy judgments that resemble the very thing that they’re trying to get away from, this idea of rigid morality. But I think compassion is key, because compassion is about putting yourself into the shoes of others. So, you’re not always looking at it from your side, you’re looking at it from whatever the other side is as well. And you’re looking at people’s failures in the light of the knowledge that, taking everything into account, everyone does the very best they can all the time — even if they fail.

Your roots were very much in the underground arts movements of the late Sixties and Seventies in London, which were by nature (and often by necessity) very collaborative. Do you think that also fed into the collaborative nature of your films? 

Probably. I cut my teeth in a sort of ragged cinema and performance on the streets, so to speak. And in that situation you develop a comradeship with the people that you’re working with, but more importantly there’s just excitement when you’re sharing something with your peers and working together. You can push each other along and expand your horizons. When I made my first feature, I realized that some of the boundary crossing that I’d done before with people did not work.

Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean everybody doing everything. As a director you have to be a leader; you can’t hide behind collective ideology. You have to accept that you are the leader of this vision — but you have to create within that a feeling among people that this is also theirs. It’s an inclusiveness and an invitation in to the vision, to the process. So, the collaboration is a sort of atmosphere. People often confuse that: They think that for the actors to be more collaborative they’ve got to be improvising all over the place. They can, but it’s not necessary. It’s not a prerequisite for that feeling of collaboration — because it’s about having their abilities, their ways, their bodies, their voice, their face, their capacities welcomed and used to the maximum, rather than resisted.

This might sound like a weird question: As a filmmaker, did you have to learn to see? Or was it always there?

No. I learned to see doing life drawing. I think that that was the massive eye opener for me in my teens. While I’d always painted and written stuff before, I remember the feeling when I first sat down to draw somebody for two hours, and realized that in the act of drawing, I was just beginning to see what was in front of my eyes. So, that’s a training of the eye, a training compositionally. Just training literally to look.

In a shooting environment, with my D.P. — with, for example, Aleksei Rodionov, who I’ve now worked with a third time — we go shoulder to shoulder around looking, looking, seeing, seeing. He calls it “searching.” Searching for where we need to put the camera or how to look at the scene or how to look at the face, and that’s the same feeling, I think. That sort of training the eye, not just to glance and think that you’ve seen, but really to somehow open the retina and open the psyche to what’s in front of you.

Now, as for seeing performance, that’s a whole other thing, because when I look at an actor while we’re working, I’m looking at what they’re offering up, what they’re doing in the moment, but I’m also always looking at a ghost imprint of the person’s potential — their innate sort of genius. And when you do that, you see what needs to be lifted — which veil needs to be lifted, what obstacle you need to try and find a way of helping with. So, that’s always a strange way of looking. I’m looking at what they are, what they look like on the outside, but I’m also trying to see lots of invisible qualities.

One of your most fascinating films is this documentary you did in 1987 on the role of women in Soviet cinema, I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman. One Georgian director you interview in that, Lana Gogoberidze, says something I found fascinating — that she never wanted to make a film where it wasn’t clear that it was made by a woman. Would you agree with her?

No, probably not. But the thing is that the women there had come out of a completely different set of struggles. And the struggle for a lot of Soviet women was the right to not have to be an ox and a horse and everything. They had to be sort of superhuman in a weirdly genderless way, you know. So, some of the things that some of us from the West felt were the very things that were trapping us and oppressing us were for them symbols of a kind of a luxurious femininity, you know, womanliness. Femininity was not a bad word for them.

So, it helped me to see, first of all, how western, Anglo-centric a lot of feminist thinking was, and how you have to look at the context in which people are living — economically, historically, culturally, and so on — in order to understand what were relevant struggles for them, and what were their issues. I mean, there have been proportionally more female directors in Russia. They’ve made many films, but they faced other problems.

I watched Orlando again recently, and I was struck all over again by how little that film has “dated.” I remember when it first came out, it felt like it fit into a tradition along with some of Peter Greenaway’s or Derek Jarman’s work. But watching it today, it feels like it’s presaging so much of what came afterwards. The way it transforms in both form and mood still feels so new. How did you manage to pull that off?

Well, first of all, it is nice that it still seems so fresh. But if there’s an answer to your question, it would be in part the sheer amount of time I spent working on it. You know, it was seven years in development. And most people when they say that, they mean they were working on a bunch of stuff, and that was just one of them. But I’m talking all day, every day. I’m talking working through four different design teams who had to leave it once there still wasn’t any money. I’m talking thirty visits to the Soviet Union to try and find frozen locations and deserts, and partners in crime, and so on. I probably did two hundred drafts of the script.

I think the density of that, the volume of that work, and the stamina it took to keep faith when it was rejected so many hundreds of times from just about every source you could ever imagine — including all sources of British finance… I have letters in the files from a head of a studio in America saying, “Not only can this film never be made, it never should be made.”

The hours that somebody spends on something creates a kind of invisible density. Given the time, given the resources, given the fact we had to travel through all these seasons in a ten-week shoot and do the whole thing — all that was so incredibly demanding that the only way to achieve it was through completely committed simplicity. Once we arrived in the cutting room, there was only one way to put it together, because there was no coverage. I shot every scene one way. That was it. There weren’t multiple choices.

Now add to that, even more important than all of the above, Virginia Woolf’s fantasy at work in writing this book in the first place. Now, the adaptation was fairly extreme — big changes from the book, massive — but I think the core of it, the key concepts were kept absolutely true. Its meditations both on gender as a kind of performance, and on the mystery of mortality. She did that. And I adapted that. And I felt blessed to be in this kind of collaboration with her ghost.

I remember hearing a story about you visiting with Martin Scorsese while you were trying to get the film made, and how hopeless it was.

Yes. [Laughs] The contact was through Michael Powell, who was a great supporter of the film in terms of encouragement. With Scorsese, what was interesting was coming to his place in New York, which seemed like heaven — I was coming from a tiny little apartment in London with no money, and we had nothing. No money, no support, no company, no anything. Just the will and the enthusiasm and the vision to do it. But going into Scorsese’s place… There was a cutting room, there was Thelma Schoonmaker, they had all these assistants running around, and it was such a beautiful building. This seemed like the apex of any definition of success for a filmmaker. But when we sat in the room with him and I tried to get him interested in Orlando, all he seemed to want to talk about was his own problems to make the films that he was passionate about. And he talked about the critics had killed this or killed that, and it was at the time of The Last Temptation of Christ. So, I then realized, “Okay, it’s all relative.” You can be Scorsese and think of yourself as a struggling independent.

From my perspective of that moment, he was a giant of mainstream success doing interesting things. But every filmmaker struggles in their own way, struggling with what they really want to do, and how to do it and how to get support for it. So that was a big lesson. Not what I’d hoped for when I walked in the door, but I came out with something else that was really interesting.