Interview: Ginger & Rosa, dir. Sally Potter
Currently in the Official Competition at the 56th BFI London Film Festival, Sally Potter’s latest film is a coming-of-age drama set in the 1960s London of burgeoning sexual freedom and anti-nuclear fervour. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are two inseparable teenaged girls who have been best friends since they were children. However, as the threat of nuclear war begins to overwhelm the city, their bond is stretched to reveal the differences which could cause it to tear apart. Touted as Potter’s most accessible film to date, Ginger & Rosa features a strong supporting cast including Annette Bening, Timothy Spall, Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks.
BEVer Sonia Zadurian sat down with Sally to talk about working with editor Anders Refn, test screenings and the reality of awards.
Can you tell us a bit about casting the lead characters?
The search for Ginger and Rosa was very long. It was the first and most important search, so I really took time with it. We used Facebook and had lots of conventional auditions, but then went to LA to meet Elle. At the beginning, I didn’t know how it was going to pan out. First I thought it might be best with a couple of unknowns from the UK, but in the end it’s about finding the individual who instinctively brings the role to life. I felt that immediately with Elle. She’s a lovely person as well as being incredibly gifted and hardworking. She’s also very mature as an actor, even though she was only twelve when I first met her.
You’ve stated that ‘sometimes things can be unlocked in the tiniest details’. Could you give us an example of this?
Clothes. For example, finding the right duffel coat with the sleeves a bit too small so that you have a feeling that the character had it when she was 11 and she’s got taller and the family can’t afford to buy her a new one. Little things that an audience would absorb unconsciously but that would tell you a huge amount about the background of the character, their aspirations, their financial possibilities and what they’re identifying as.
You’ve mentioned that in Anders Refn, you worked with an editor who cared so much that he would fight you on some profound things. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Blood on the floor! We had some really strong disagreements about certain scenes or actions to eliminate, and I fought to the death over keeping various scenes in. Eventually we did a couple of test screenings at my behest and I didn’t need to hear anybody in the audience say anything. As soon as I saw it with an audience I knew he was right. Then there were certain things I was right about, but it’s a give and take situation. It was great to work with an editor who was so experienced. He’s cut over 150 films and is very instinctive and fast. I knew I wanted the film to move fast, to tell the story without any self-indulgent dwelling on things. It was great to work with an editor who cared so much about making it work that he was prepared to fight me. That said, there were some things that I wanted to take out that he didn’t, so it wasn’t all about me hanging on to stuff and him wanting to take it out.
Do you always like to have test screenings for your films? And could you describe any changes that you made as a result of these tests?
Several major scenes were taken out. There were more traumatic things that happened to Ginger and we took them out because it was too much. With The Man Who Cried, we had to test because it was a studio stipulation. It’s very different when you setup tests yourself. I don’t routinely do it, but we did it in New York and it was wonderful. It’s so much better to do it while you’ve still got time to make changes. It’s like the equivalent of dress rehearsals in the theatre; you can’t tell what you’ve done until you see it with an audience. It’s not so much what they say, but it’s what you feel when you sit at the back of the cinema and start cringing when you see certain scenes. The presence of the audience allows you to feel how it really works, rather than what you hoped was happening.
Did you find that the audience response during test screenings in the US and UK differed at all?
There’s a bit more tolerance in the UK for really tough stuff. In the US, people were actually shouting at the screen and it had just gone too far. When you over push it, you rob people of that experience of connectedness. They get to a point where they switch off. It’s fascinating, because even in the scenes that were cut, there was never anything explicit or overt. People are so used to watching films where people’s heads are blown off, but everything in this film was done off-screen or implied; yet people are crying and shouting at the screen. It’s the emotional connection in the end. If you set up to sensitise the audience, rather than numb them down, you open them up.
At this time of year the industry is geared towards the upcoming awards season. Do you think this is beneficial to filmmakers?
I have very mixed feelings about awards. I’ve picked up a few in my time and it’s nice when you get them, but really what they have become is a giant publicity machine. It’s a way to draw attention to a film in a very overcrowded, competitive market. A lot of awards are the result of enormous amounts of money put into a campaign and so they favour either big distributors and studios or an individual distributor who’s prepared to sink a great deal of money into it. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. It certainly isn’t a meritocracy.
What advice would you give to women just starting out in film, in front of or behind the camera?
Be prepared for obstacles. Any directors, male or female, are really stunned when they do their early work, by how extraordinarily difficult it is. How many rejections, how many humiliations, how tired you are, etc. People start out and think there must be something wrong with them, because it was so tough, but this is absolutely standard. I’ve worked in theatre, I’ve worked in music, I’ve directed opera and so on, but from my experience nothing compares to how demanding a film is. Persistence is another thing. If you’re a director just starting out, you’ve got to be prepared to work harder than anyone else that you’re asking to work with you. There’s absolutely no reason why being male, female, young, old, black, white, any of those things should make any difference whatsoever. All you’ve got to have is an enormous desire. But no woman should ever listen to anybody who dares to suggest that they weren’t up to it because they were female. That’s ludicrous.
Ginger & Rosa is currently screening as part of the 56th BFI London Film Festival, but arrives in UK cinemas 19 October. Until then, you can watch the trailer here.