Love and the Bomb: Sally Potter Returns to 1960s London with Ginger & Rosa

From Orlando, her audacious breakthrough film (based on a Virginia Woolf novel many considered unadaptable) to the stylistically polarizing Yes (in which most of the dialogue was written in rhyming iambic pentameter), Sally Potter has proven to be a consistently innovative moviemaker.

Her latest film, Ginger & Rosa, follows two teen girls (played by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) growing up in turbulent early 1960s London. Inseparable friends, Ginger and Rosa’s tight-knit relationship begins to fracture as the threat of nuclear war looms in the background. Featuring riveting performances from Fanning (Somewhere) and Englert (Beautiful Creatures), and an impressive supporting cast (including Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, and Annette Bening), Ginger & Rosa is a powerful coming-of-age story that proves to be both unpredictable and emotionally devastating.

The film opens in limited release March 15. Just before Ginger & Rosa hit theaters, MovieMaker caught up with writer/director Potter to discuss why her latest feature might also be her most personal.

Alice Englert, Sally Potter and Elle Fanning. Photo by Nicola Dove.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Could you talk a bit about the development of the script? How much of the story is autobiographical?

Sally Potter (SP): Ginger & Rosa is fictional. Its structure is tighter than any messy and chaotic group of intertwined lives ever could be. But memory played its part in the development of the script; I marched against the Bomb as a child, and at age twelve, did what I could in my small way to avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. The story, however, weaves the most intimate aspects of personal crisis with these global and potentially catastrophic events.

To write it I drew on my memories of friendship and betrayal, and of a lifetime of observation of unintentional cruelties inflicted in the name of love. I wanted to ground the story in an emotional landscape that viewers would recognize. For the fabric of the film, the feeling of the interiors, the look of London, I drew on photographs, films and vivid memories of growing up in a city that now looks and feels different in many ways. In my quest for a fiction that felt and sounded authentic, I drew on my inner ear, the sounds, speech patterns, and ideas I absorbed growing up in a milieu of radicals and free-thinkers.

MM: Ginger’s father [played by Alessandro Nivola], in particular, is a very complicated creation. Where did the inspiration for his character come from?

SP: I wrestled with his character throughout the writing, rehearsal and shooting process. It was essential to me that he was not “bad,” but contradictory. It is too easy to point a finger, to accuse. Roland is a child of his time. During this period, the end of the 1950’s, when men were glad to have survived the war and searching for life and freedom, even the most intelligent and conscientious could be blind to the lives under their own roofs. He is a rationalist, in love with ideas, but driven by desire; a romantic at heart, blinded by need. The gap between word and action was a rich terrain to explore.

MM: Ginger & Rosa feels more accessible than some of your past work. Was that a conscious decision?

SP: Yes, it was. I have made formal decisions in the previous films that seemed to push some people away. I wanted to see if I could divest myself of my cinematic “identity” and find a different kind of freedom and openness. I want to communicate complexity, not alienate a potential audience by an obsession with formal innovation.

Elle Fanning contemplates as Ginger.

MM: The 1960’s is a decade that seems to be ever-popular—it’s provided the backdrop for many recent films and TV series. Why do you think this particular era is so appealing to moviemakers? What attracted you, in particular, to setting the story of Ginger & Rosa during the early 60’s?

SP: In my case, the 60’s were simply the backdrop to the most formative period of my life: confused and confusing years. This story is set in 1962, however, which is not yet the 60’s as popularly remembered. In subsequent years it became increasingly volatile. In the UK it was a decade of response to the fifties, which was, in turn, a decade of recovery from the ravages of the Second World War. The virtues of stability, domesticity and conservatism had triumphed in the 50’s and then the 60’s—in the western world—were an explosion of rebellion and questioning. This makes it a rich and complex historical setting.

MM: The relationship between Elle Fanning and Alice Englert feels very intimate and natural. How was it working with these talented young actresses, and what did they bring to the roles of Ginger and Rosa?

SP: Working with Elle and Alice was exciting, rewarding, validating. I loved the qualities they brought to our working process. They were intelligent, hard-working, quick-witted and generous. We had the “luxury” of proper rehearsal time, and were able to prepare and explore quite deeply together for what was going to be a speedy shoot (five weeks). The constant quest for truthful, unsentimental performance, rooted in understanding of the characters they were embodying and the fictional world they were occupying, was an exhilarating ride for all of us. I came to love and admire these young women very much.

MM: What was it like shooting on location in London?

SP: It was great to shoot “local.” London is a big city and we shot in East London, an area I did not visit much as a child, but where I now live and work. It was part of a strategy to use every second of our precious five weeks and not to waste time and energy traveling from one distant location to another. By making this decision we were forced to explore every nook and cranny in our area and discovered lots of interesting places and spaces in the quest for a London that looked and felt like it did 50 years ago. East London is a relatively poor part of the city, and there are still some corners that have not been developed.

MM: In addition to film, you’ve also worked in theater, choreography and performance art. Does your experience in these different fields inform your film work? How so?

SP: Working in different, but related, areas trained me to be a director. I learned about timing, music, image, framing, movement, and above all, how to understand and work with performers. A director works through the work of others, but you have to know what they are struggling with in order to bring out their best—which in turn illuminates what you are trying to do. Film directing is a mongrel job, with a mixed lineage from theatre, literature and the fine arts, so it helps to run around and do as much of everything you can before you can practice “doing nothing” and become effective. MM

Ginger & Rosa premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2012. Images from the film courtesy A24.

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