Ginger and Rosa: Interview with Writer-Director Sally Potter

Directed and written by Sally Potter, Ginger and Rosa, which played at the N.Y. Film Festopens in March 2013

Genesis of the script?

I wanted to tell a raw, simple story that explored the ways in which the most intimate parts of our lives are deeply interwoven with global events. We are part of everything, and everything is part of us. I explored this idea through the eyes of two girls growing up in the early 1960’s, when the Cold War was coming to a head, the “nuclear family” was under threat and the nuclear age was reaching its most dangerous moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many people felt the world might end. The global crisis is mirrored in the dynamics of the relationships between the characters in the story; their lies and betrayals, clashes of belief, fears of annihilation, hopes for a future. There are no good or bad characters in the story, despite the events that unfold; just individuals doing their best, given what they believe at this moment in history and what they feel they need to do in order to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Memories of the specific time period of the film?

I have many poignant memories of the period. I was intensely conscious about the existence of the atom bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima. I found it unthinkable that such weapons could exist, designed by man and threatened to be used again. During the Cuban Missile Crisis I was thirteen, and I really felt that it was the end of the world. But my own memories were not enough for this film; I also watched every documentary I could find and asked people who were active in that period – in the Committee of One Hundred, for example – what it is was like and what it meant to them. I read and remembered and listened and imagined. I wanted to make it as authentic as possible, as true as possible, as real as possible. A portrait of a slice of British society rarely seen on screen; idealistic, free-thinking, atheists and believers, passionate, flawed, full of contradictions.

Accessible script

I always want people to be able to relate to what I do and I’m disappointed when that doesn’t happen. But I learn from each successive film about what works – or doesn’t work – in mirroring the hidden worlds that everybody carries within them. In this case, I’ve made a conscious decision to remove anything obstructing a direct experience of the film, so that hopefully each person can find themselves in it. For this reason, it is shot in a very direct way, and always in a singular way: the point of view of Ginger. The clarity of taking that position helped with a lot of decisions during the shoot and, of course, during the writing also. I tried to eliminate some of my aesthetic habits and obsessions and make it a film about the complexity of experience.

How did you work with Elle Fanning?

Elle was twelve when I first met her, thirteen when we were shooting, and is now fourteen. She said to me she had grown up through the film. It’s extraordinary to work with somebody at such an incredibly important time of their young, professional life. Having said that, she’s been acting since she was two, so she brought experience, professionalism, dedication, and preparedness to the process. She was open to go further, to go deeper, and to work in layers; the top layer of what was apparently going on in any given scene and the deeper feelings beneath that: fears and hopes and memories and grief. I’ve never met somebody so hungry, able and willing to take directorial notes. Her openness, absolute lack of resistance, and quality of joy in the working process mean you can do anything with her, you can go anywhere. It was blissful working with her.

Work with Alice?

It was also a joy working with Alice. She’s a little older than Elle but they managed to quickly build a cooperative relationship with each other. They were learning from each other and had fun together. There was a lot of laughter. Alice faced a very different challenge to Elle. Ginger is a more inherently sympathetic role whereas Rosa is doing something that people might not like. Alice tackled that with grace, intelligence and subtlety. The way she tracked the initial closeness and childlike quality with Ginger into a kind of premature adulthood is quite astonishing: it was like watching somebody grow up four or five years in the space of a five-week shoot– quite amazing.

Casting Non-British actors

They were the right individuals for the roles. An actor’s job is to become whatever they need to become, wherever they come from. I found casting actors who were not themselves British curiously gave the film an authenticity. When you look at documentaries or newsreels of that period, it’s not the Britishness that we know now, it’s something else. Any actor would have had to work with a voice that was not quite their own in order to come into this period. In the end I think it’s about how an actor links with the role that they are being asked to embody and I don’t think that has anything to do with a passport. I think it has everything to do with hunger, inclination, ability and resonance.

Approach to rehearsal process?

My definition of the word rehearsal is broad; it’s not just about sitting around a table reading a script, although that’s part of it too. For me it’s about building a one-on-one relationship with each of the actors, finding a mutual language of trust and understanding. What are we doing in this film? Why? Asking the big questions while there’s time to do that before you start shooting. I also try to keep my eyes and ears open at every stage of preparation. I go to the costume fittings, seeing how each individual responds to clothes, colours, textures, to their own image in the mirror, to intervention, to design, to me. I learn a huge amount about where they relax and blossom, or where they get tense and contract. Nothing is too small or apparently trivial to be worthy of attention. Sometimes a part can be unlocked in the tiniest details. Or sometimes it is about overt dissection of the script together, finding a back-story, analyzing the themes: making sure everything is clear, understood, there for a reason. Given a chance, every actor will reveal to you what they need in order to do their best work.

Film’s shooting style?

There is deliberately no formalism in the film, in line with my desire to make it as raw and accessible as possible. I chose Director of Photography, Robbie Ryan, based on his previous work, which I admired very much, but also for his personal qualities. I wanted somebody who was going to be fast and free with the material. I wanted to let go and have life breathed into the film by him as part of a spontaneous and flexible collaboration between us. That proved to be a joyful and vibrant working experience. Most of the film was shot handheld and the only rule was to see everything and everybody from Ginger’s point of view. She was the axis of the story and the visual axis of every scene.

Editing withAnders Refn?

I had a gloriously combative and creative relationship with editor Anders Refn. He often laughingly repeated Bergman’s maxim that the editor’s job is to save the film from the director in the cutting room. So I was at pains to prove to him that I was more of a slasher than him! You have to be prepared to let go of your attachments to the script and your memories of the shoot. We had some really passionate arguments about the themes and the characters in the story, the ethics and morality of the individuals’ choices and actions, as we shaped and re-shaped the material again and again. We finally arrived at agreement about how to tell the story. It was exhilarating. The cutting room process is … magical.

Shooting on location?

I loved shooting locally. There was an area of waste-ground that we found not too far from where I live in East London. I wanted a feeling of a broken-down cityscape that I remember from my own childhood in London. I was very pleased with the skeleton of a gasworks in the background, smouldering fires, and kids running around in rubble. Production designer, Carlos Conti and I tried to find ways of suggesting London in 1962 – not the London that is self-consciously period London but rather the world that these girls are inhabiting, what’s important to them; the look of an alleyway, an old bombsite where they hang out and learn how to smoke cigarettes. Each of the locations really tries to express, or mirror what the girls are seeing and feeling.

Music choices 

The music in this film is in effect the soundtrack to these people’s lives. There is no “score” in the conventional sense, just the music these individuals are listening to on vinyl or on the radio. I chose songs that were in the hit parade at the time (ranging from Apache by the Shadows, to Take Five by Dave Brubeck) and also Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt.

Themes of the film?

The themes are of friendship and betrayal, freedom and responsibility, the politics of love and the love of politics. How we are all linked – whether we know it or not – with the big events on the other side of the world, for we are in the world but the world is also in us. It’s also about the moral and ethical choices that people make according to their belief systems. And the struggle of young girls as emerging artists and activists.