Interview: Sally Potter on Ginger and Rosa
The director discusses the making of her 1960s-set teen drama
Working on her new film Ginger and Rosa, Sally Potter found herself oddly attuned to a particular feature of the landscape. ‘I kept seeing teenagers everywhere,’ says the now sixty-three year old director of Orlando, The Tango Lesson and The Man Who Cried. ‘I found myself feeling very empathetic towards them, especially teenaged girls.’ Ginger and Rosa centres on one such adult-in-waiting, Ginger, who like Potter herself, hits a critical phase of emotional development at a time of massive political upheaval and real danger of nuclear war. As well as the looming threat of annihilation, Potter’s film deals with the conflict between adolescent idealism and adult apathy; the intense sense of betrayal that accompanies growing awareness of one’s parents’ failings; and the fierce importance of formative friendships. ‘I wanted to draw parallels between the personal and the political, but at a time before the personal was really considered political,’ Potter explains. ‘A family at war at the same time as the Cold War; a personal crisis alongside the Cuban missile crisis.’ As Ginger tries to engage with the adults around her about war, they preoccupy themselves with petty emotional matters like sexual infidelity. We might mock teenagers for their idealistic intensity, but as Potter puts it, “Who’s the more realistic about what’s going on?”
Ginger is, like most teens, at once endearing and preposterous - possessed of both a child’s enthusiasm and a tendency to hop on the nearest high horse. It sounds like a gamble to have cast a thirteen-year-old American actress as an English girl three years older, but in fact Elle Fanning (last seen in JJ Abrams’ Super 8 and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere) is one of the film’s great assets: fresh, dynamic, just right at being at once naive and imperious. Potter notes that while her young cast members had direct access to the right feelings, the film’s time period presented crucial differences. ‘So they needed exactly what they had, which was a really vivid, empathetic imagination,’ the director says. ‘We underestimate young actors as workers. Extremely young actors can be incredibly sophisticated and professional. I don’t think that your quantity of years corresponds to your level of depth – unfortunately!’
Fanning – in a rather flattering red wig that also pays clear tribute to the director’s own Titian tresses – has a further ally in Northern Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who makes her look downright staggering in shot after shot. Yet this is not the chocolate-box period style of Anna Karenina or even the pastel-prettiness of An Education: Ryan, known for his work with Andrea Arnold, favours handheld camera and natural light. ‘The way he works is very mobile and very free,’ says Potter. ‘We worked hard on the feel and the look of the period; but apart from that there’s really no formality: he follows the action. The actors love him, because he gets right in there with them.’
Those actors include Annette Bening in a very dressed-down cameo as a family friend, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt as Ginger’s unofficial extended family, Alessandro Nivola as her playboy dad and Christina Hendricks as her beaten-down mother. ‘Whether people recognise themselves, or find something quite different from their own experience, I wanted them to see the complexity, the ambiguity of these relationships,' Potter explains. 'We are so often encouraged to view the world as if it’s black and white.’
Ginger and Rosa is on selected release from Fri 19 Oct.