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Sally Potter Relives Cold War Tensions With ’Ginger & Rosa’

by Jake Mulligan
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Sunday Apr 7, 2013
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Some films feel ripped from the headlines, but Sally Potter’s latest, the Cold War-era family drama Ginger & Rosa, feels ripped from real life. For the woman who made her name adapting Virginia Woolf, and writing entire films in iambic pentameter, it’s a startling turn. The last thing we expected from Potter, a decided experimentalist, was a reserved historical drama, especially one driven primarily by its narrative. But it’s something she felt driven to explore.

Potter’s film follows the tight friendship of Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert), two teenagers living in London in 1962, at the cusp of the sexual revolution and the height of the threat of nuclear war.

"It’s a part of British history that’s very under-portrayed," she notes, "this left-wing, idealistic, free-thinking world... that also was making a lot of [personal] mistakes." Despite those, don’t expect much criticism of Elle Fanning’s Ginger, whose perennial worry about the nuclear threat leaves many of the picture’s adults shaming her. Having grown up in the era, Potter can’t help but sympathize with her title character’s plight.

But then, Potter was 12 at the time of the crisis; so don’t jump to any conclusions about autobiographical parallels. But even though "memory is deceptive" (she later jokes, noting a time where she recalled a photo as an actual recollection, that "research into your own memory is a volatile act,") she was happy to dig back into her memories to explain why "Ginger" comes from such a personal - and occasionally painful - place.


A blunt metaphor?

EDGE: Some critics have taken to the film for presenting what they feel to be a blunt metaphor - that of the nuclear crisis with adolescence. But for me that just like part of the narrative - the world was moments away from annihilation.

Sally Potter: There’s a chance of getting pathologized, if you’re too worried about the world, but actually the young people in this instance were most in touch with reality. There was really a danger that the world could have been blown apart. In those fateful ten days in October 1962. Those that were aware of it, who were feeling afraid, and felt driven to do something about it - they were indeed the realists.

EDGE: And, with Elle Fanning, we buy it. You really hang the whole film on her face - on these close-ups; at times the narrative feels predicated more on glances than on dialogue. How did you know she could handle it?

Sally Potter: Well, after a very long casting search, involving about 2000 people, I was introduced to Elle. I knew her work already, from some of her work as a much younger person, but when I met her, in Los Angeles, I was really blown away by her openness, by her willingness to go deep, by her transparency if you like - an incredible mixture of hard work and application; skill, pretty much. She has a lot of professional experience already. But we also leaped into the unknown each time.

It became clear to me that she absolutely could hold the center of the film. I made a decision as a shooting principle that she was the axis of every scene - we’re either looking at her, or we’re looking at the scene from her point of view; that’s how we’d go into other rooms if her character wasn’t in that room, for example. That simplified the shooting approach, and it made her absolutely crucial at the same time.

But she was able to work in depth, and with great courage, and with an enormous, empathetic leap of the imagination into a time and a city and a sort of psychology that was different than her own. And the accent, of course!


Influenced by memories

EDGE: So I noticed you were a bit younger at the time than the characters shown in your film - even still, I have to guess it was very much influenced by your memories of London?

Sally Potter: Yeah, memory and also research. A lot of photographic research. But I do also have memories of the city of London, as it was, when I was growing up. A much bleaker, more austere city with bombed out areas still, very little traffic compared to now, and a poorer place. The milieu that I’m describing in the film is not moneyed, it’s not the wealthy or the earning class, which is sometimes the [primary] milieu of British cinema. But memory is deceptive.

EDGE: Speaking of that, did you go back to the British films of the 1960s for inspiration?

Sally Potter: Well I rewatched films, sometimes called kitchen sink dramas of the early 1960s - films with wonderful writers, like "The Pumpkin Eater’ or ’Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ - films about working class experience, and the social institutions within the society. There was a lot to learn, from a very interesting period then. Absolutely excellent, particularly, was the subtlety of the writing [in that era/movement.]


The world of the unspoken

EDGE: On that note, I want to talk a bit about the way you do rely on close-ups to tell the story, independent of Elle. By your standards, this is a conventional film - is that a way to get away from a more conventional narrative; was that part of the genesis of the project?

Sally Potter: It’s part of the genesis of the film. I think, it’s very much about ’the world of the unspoken’; of secrets; of subjects and feelings that have no name. In rehearsals, we did a lot of work on ’what is each character thinking?’ You see it in their eyes. You know what they’re feeling. You know that something’s going on in there. And I think that evokes a whole world of longing, and of the sadness each of us carries - but in that time, that milieu, there wasn’t a language with which to express it.


Ginger & Rosa is in limited release in theaters.


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