With Ginger and Rosa currently playing in Toronto, we were lucky enough to chat with writer-director Sally Potter about the autobiographical nature of the story, her filmmaking process, and how she collaborated with her two very unique and young stars. Read our Q&A below.
This is a film that takes place in a time period that you had lived through and you talk about how you’ve put a little bit of yourself into these characters, but at the same time it’s something that has gone by and you’re making fiction out of it. How did the crafting of these two characters and their families come together, as you probably have very specific memories of it, but still want to create something a little different?
Sally Potter: It’s really in the writing. I think all writers really ruthlessly scavenge in their own lives for material and not just of their own experience, but also in the observation of other peoples experiences and in the act of writing that gets transformed and the sum of these characters begins to come alive and you follow them in whatever direction they take you and after awhile you start to believe in them. Now, I can’t even quite remember which parts were to do with my own life and which were completely and utterly made up, but it’s kind of a magical process where the characters take over. And you are right — I did live through some of this at a younger age, and I do remember the fear of living in the shadow of the cold war and that the world might come to an end during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I was on some of those Ban The Bomb marches. I remember being a teenager with passions and fears and longings of that age.
That really does feel like it would be the easiest thing to come back to.
SP: Yes, I think so. Young people are often underestimated about what they are thinking about and what their concerns are and it is no different than being at a later age except that the younger ones think that there is something that can be done about it and that gets sort of drummed out of you.
Even though the film draws upon this earlier time in your life, how did the modern parallels in the film effect and inform your writing process?
SP: I am very aware of the effects of climate change on younger people, and have been in direct contact with younger people who have been trying to do something about it and have a feeling of absolute terror that the world is going to melt and split apart. There’s a fantastic parallel, and really I think that there is a fear of the apocalypse with every generation… it just ultimately takes a different shape. I mean with my parents generation, they lived through World War II and they didn’t know when it was going to end or if they were going to survive and their parents lived through the World War I and so on. And much earlier there were all these diseases as well, so fear of mortality and of the consequences of government influence and decision that were beyond your direct influence or power is omnipresent, but the kind of global catastrophic events that people are facing now is on a completely different scale and we can’t forget that the nuclear threat has never really gone away either.
The mood, in particular your use of light and shadow, was so key in making this story for you. How was the process for you in terms of getting the visual feel of the film in line with the words you had written on the page?
SP: First off, I obviously work with great collaborators because as you well know filmmaking is a team effort and I have to direct that team. I worked with production designer Carlos Conti, who I’ve worked with on many films, and I wanted it to be a location shoot with a real vibrant feeling so we searched every nook and cranny of East London and the coast to find those locations. I also worked with a director of photography who I’ve never worked with before named Robbie Ryan whose work, his handheld work in particular, was so amazing that we made the decision to work digitally and do a lot of work in post to bring out that light and shadow to really give that feeling of almost a black and white world, but filmed in color to give it that intensity and it was also a world that was bleaker and more rundown. The London of my youth still had bomb sites in it and wasn’t so highly developed and there weren’t that many cars on the road either. A lot has changed. So much work really does go into the visuals to create a kind of atmosphere that is kind of authentic and quite stark as well.
There are always highs and lows when reconnecting with a best friend after many years, some of which are on display in the film. What is it about teenagers, particularly teenage girls, and that one friend they cling to that fascinates you?
SP: I think that “Best Friends” is a concept that often gets trivialized and are really like Greek tragedies. Those friendships are absolutely huge and girls work out everything ranging from how to dye your jeans or straighten your hair all the way to things like “Is there a God?” and politics and other things. They move with great agility between the biggest of things and the smallest of things. I think for best friends, and I’m sure boys do it as well, is really the first big passionate relationship outside of the family. It’s also how a lot of subsequent relationships get figured out, like how you relate or how you love, what your loyalties are and what your definition of betrayal is and how close you can get to a person. They are very, very intense relationships.
On that note can you talk a little about the casting process and ultimately finding Alice Englert and Elle Fanning and how much rehearsal time went into them developing their unique on screen chemistry together?
SP: I did a huge casting search of about 2,000 girls on Facebook, and from that I met about 200 of them. I did a conventional casting call, as well. Then I met Elle Fanning and that was it. Although she was much younger than I ever would have imagined at the time casting for that part. She was playing 16, going on 17, and she was 13 when we were filming. She was so astonishing and so open, transparent, inspiring, and emotionally accessible and so adorable that I cast her immediately. With Alice, once I had met her, she just had this quality and was on the cusp of dangerous womanhood, but still with this adolescent quality about her.
We had real rehearsal and preparation and I prepared individually with them over the course of a year with Skype and conferences before we ultimately met and then we had a three week rehearsal period where we went in-depth into the whole thing. Not how to shoot it, but what they are thinking and why they are thinking it and what they aren’t saying and building that relationship. We were building a relationship together, so they were really primed by the time it came time to shoot because that connection was absolutely there, but what I did interestingly enough was that I had shot their auditions in separate countries, and then I went home and edited them together like two sides of the same scene to see what their on screen chemistry would be like even before they had met, and they looked like they were in the same room. They got the characters and the timing just right, maybe not the accent quite yet as that came later, but the timing and the emotional tone was right on and when we worked together they were very cooperative and not competitive at all. They helped each other out and they bonded very, very well. It was a great working atmosphere.
Ginger and Rosa really does feel thematically and visually different from a lot of your other films. Was there a conscience change in philosophy for you in your artistic flow?
SP: I never think of myself as someone who has one kind of style or one kind of signature. I always thought of my process as something that was in perpetual revolution until I came around to what felt appropriate for each kind of story and to find a form that was necessary. A necessary form rather than a style and I think that in this case that maybe there was that conscious attempt to sort of be more accessible, and to be easier for an audience to come into this story from outside. I didn’t want it to be too much in your face or formal. To be, in a way a bit more simple in the story telling because I wanted to deal with these issues that were subtle and complicated in the lives of these characters and I didn’t want to put any obstacles in the way.
When you go to make a film and you have a story along with an artistic idea in mind of what you want the film to be, what ultimately comes first for you and is more fulfilling for you in your process — the artistic side of it or just telling a great story?
SP: I really can’t separate one from the other, I really really can’t. One of the things I truly love about the filmmaking process is that you really do have to work on so many aspects of it all at once because it is such a complicated thing on the whole. You need to work on the composition of the image along with every nuance and detail of light and shade and you have to focus on the music with the same kind of intensity. The casting is so important and working with the actors and their individual needs along with the language and text of it all that is truly such a complex bundle that it really isn’t a very pure medium at all it’s actually quite impure. You can never concentrate on one aspect at the expense of another because you really are creating this synthetic world that has to hold together.
You seem very energized by the whole collaborative process of it all?
SP: Oh, I love the collaborative process. It’s a very fulfilling relationship that you develop that can also be very fractious at times as well when you fight and what not, but it really allows you to cut to the core of what’s important to everyone when you all work together. The relationships are very intense and there is no time for small talk as we are all reaching together to achieve a vision that is bigger than all of us and as a director you have to steer that vision as you are the only one who has the whole vision of what it is meant to become. It’s a big responsibility, but the process can really be a joyful one as well in guiding everyone in service of the bigger vision that we are all striving for.
A lot of the actors that you have worked with have described your process as very distinctive, meticulous and very attentive as a director. How would you describe your thinking about actors and working with actors?
SP: First of all I love working with actors and I think that is kind of infectious because they know that I love working them and I have such great respect for their process along with the difficulty and the vulnerability that it takes to be able to do a role when they have to get truly raw like their skin is on fire. I do try and make real preparation time and work one on one with people, including the people behind the camera, so we can build a one on one relationship. Actors like that process along with the feeling that they are being given a mixture of freedom and of boundaries in which they can expand and also feel like they are going to be pushed to go beyond their habits but in a safe environment where they won’t be criticized if they try something and fail.
Does your process differ at all with younger actors as you begin to mold the characters with them?
SP: No, I proceed in exactly the same way. I take an attitude of respect with them because I feel that one of the things younger people suffer from is a lack of respect. Just because they have lived less years doesn’t mean that they have less to give because that is really not the case. I think that even an 8-year-old has the capability to be a truly serious actor. And to be honest I think I felt very protective with Elle and Alice because I was pushing them hard, but I was also loving and protecting them as somebody who had more years under her belt. We would work really hard on a very emotionally demanding scene and pushing them really hard one moment and then they would either be in my arms or sitting on my lap. It was that kind of dance of protectiveness along with a really professional rigor. It was kind of an exciting dance to do together. But it is a very interesting thing, especially when people are at the beginning because they are bringing so much to the table. There can be a certain openness before someone has developed habits, and as a director it can be very exciting because you are getting in their before stuff has gotten rigid.
Was there a certain essence you were trying to capture when writing the film?
SP: I think that there was a drive for me to tell a story that linked the inner world with the outer world so they were echoes of each other. The global crisis and the personal crisis can mesh so they meet in the middle. I also wanted to do a story about the outsiders, the marginalized, the believers, a little confused, but also idealistic which I always have felt have never really been portrayed. Visually it was really interesting for me to create these environments that were very stark and not the stereotype of what domestic life might have looked like physically in that period and then to explore a whole different world of ideas. To look at people who were thinking about different ideas and excited by them really sowing the seeds for what happened culturally in the later 1960′s that really wasn’t there.
For you as a storyteller what is it about the ‘coming of age’ story that was appealing to you?
SP: From my own experiences, I’d have to say this ‘coming of age’ thing does take a lifetime and I’m not quite there yet (laughs). But that experience of transition, growth and baptism by fire with each new and extraordinary experience is something that is easily relatable.
You mentioned previously that you worked with a new director of photography and that you are very conscience of crafting this new world. Is it important for you to work with different people on different projects or is it a question of the right team for the right film?
SP: I always try to get the right people for the project and historically I like to mix it up with a group of my familiars where you have such a comfortable feeling with one another where you hardly have to say stuff out loud, but at the same time it is always great to be able to put new people into the mix as well because it will shake everyone up and put us all on our toes making the process all the more exciting. It’s good to build on the old relationships and make new ones as well.
Ginger and Rosa is currently playing in Toronto. It expands to Montreal and Vancouver on April 5.