Sally Potter gets personal and political with ‘The Party’

Since 1983, English director Sally Potter’s been a director worth keeping an eye on. Her 1983 premiere The Gold Diggers was an award winning feminist tale (with an all-female crew), starring Julie Christie and Siobhan Davis. Her follow-up, 1992’s Orlando was critically praised and established actress Tilda Swinton as a star on the rise. Since then, she’s directed provocative films including The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried, Yes, Rage and 2012 Ginger & Rosa. Her latest film, The Party, is no less challenging for audiences, although slightly stripped down and funnier than most of her previous films. The black and white, fast-paced (71 minutes) ensemble film stars Kristin Scott Thomas as the newly elected minister of health. Throwing a dinner party, she invites friends (Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones, Bruno Ganz) to celebrate along with her husband (Timothy Spall) and the husband of her new subordinate (Cillian Murphy). From there politics and lives implode in a spectacular style.

Lesley Coffin: When in the recent history of elections were we when you started writing the script?

Sally Potter: I started writing it during the general election in the UK. The first pages I wrote were in 2015, and it seemed that the left party and the right party were both becoming the center. They were using very similar language in a very insincere way, in order to win votes. It seemed that everything had just turned into spin. And it was in that atmosphere that I started to conceive of the script about people who were lying to themselves and others. And I wanted to make a film which would deal with those issues but would also be funny. But Brexit happened while we were filming, and that seemed to echo the fracturing we had been seeing. It felt like the final result, but somehow people were unaware until it actually happened.

Lesley Coffin: You choose to utilize a very international cast. When you make a film with overt political satire, it seems like that casting can’t be a coincidence.

Sally Potter:  You’re right. I wanted the film’s cast to be reflective of the population in London, which is the most cosmopolitan population in the world. More languages are spoken than any other major city in the world. So it would be typical to have a dinner party with people from all over the world. On the other side of the camera we also had a very international crew. I had a Russian cinematographer, and crews who were Danish, Irish, and Argentinian. And that keeps everyone on their toes and prevents people from only making films there way. And they were all paid equally. But regarding the political aspects of the film, I think the international cast helps remind us that in the UK we are part of something larger. We are very close to Germany, who we are now allies, but we’d previously been enemies. And the UK and USA has this so called “special relationship”, so the cast reminds us of that and prevents the film from feeling too insular.

Lesley Coffin: What motivated you to film in the movie in black and white? Personally, I find that style of photography tends to work especially well in satire.

Sally Potter: I think black and white allows you to remove redundant information. The film is just about people in rooms, no special effects or chase scenes. And we don’t have a lot of distracting detail in the color. Black and white cinematography allows you to bring the film down to its primary elements. And that was the goal, to go back to the skeletal aspects of filmmaking…and it allows you to emphasis the black and white elements within the story.

Lesley Coffin: When a film is so minimalistic, do you find it more challenging to add the visual elements which will surprise and energize the audience? There are lots of camera shots which are very dramatic and unexpected because the setting is so mundane.

Sally Potter: I wanted to squeeze as much movement and visual excitement out of this limited canvas as I could. I was greatly helped by our designer and cinematographer. As a writer this was the most challenging process because I had to deal with seven main characters. But visually, it was challenging as well, because you have nowhere to hide. You’re required to find a new level of inventiveness.

Lesley Coffin: The film is only a little more than 70 minutes. Did you have a longer cut at any point?

Sally Potter: I did, and I thought the film would be a little longer, but the actors talked much faster than I expected. But then in the cutting room, I made an even shorter cut, because I felt the film had to move at a kind of relentless pace. I wanted each revelation to be a surprise, so they could never feel like they were lingering. Everything needed to be moving forward in a way which felt like it was ultimately moving towards its own demise. Which meant we needed the film to feel lean and mean. But when I realized the length, I tested the film with an audience, and I asked people after how long the film felt. And people guested all different lengths. And I realized it didn’t really matter, it mattered how long it felt. And I wanted a film which had brevity. I know with box sets and binge-watching we lean towards watching longer content. I can lie down and watch 20 episodes of something. But I don’t do it often because I find that creates passive consumers. And I like a film to keep me on my toes and makes me feel more awake when it’s all over.

Lesley Coffin: The soundtrack of the film is very dominate and plays a big role in terms of the fast pace you established. I imagine you had to know most of the pieces before you began filming.

Sally Potter: I wrote most of them into the script, and others I found and choose during the shoot. I only added one or two during the actual edit. We were very aware during the filming that this wasn’t a soundtrack to a film but functioned as the soundtrack to Bill’s life. It’s his vinyl collection, and you learn a lot about him and the people around him through that collection. The music was very important in terms of the characters.

Lesley Coffin: It’s interesting as an American that you focus on the election of a woman to a position of national power and that her position in the government is about national healthcare and insurance. Where those major issues on your mind when you started writing it?

Sally Potter: Like everyone else, I was following along with the election and campaigning in the US. And I found the particular way Hilary was portrayed in the media to be very interesting. The idea that most female politicians have more attention paid to their hair than to their politics. But I’m also interested in the struggles men are facing at this particular moment in history. The demand that they have to stand back and allow the woman in their life to be the leader. Bill has supported her, but the difficulties of taking on that role in their relationship have built up. In terms of the healthcare debate, I see that as a parallel issue. It’s such a flashpoint in the UK and the US. In the UK, we have a free, national healthcare system. It’s existed since the 50s and it’s a source of great pride. But that is a system dependent on taxes and there is still debate about how much people should pay into the system, doctors entering private medicine and making millions, focusing more on preventative care and alternative medicine, the role of the pharmaceutical companies.

Lesley Coffin: I was very interested when I read that you trained to be a dancer before you became a filmmaker. I’ve talked to a couple of directors who trained in both fields. Do you see a link between the two art forms?

Sally Potter: The most obvious connection they have is the focus on movement. As a dancer you deal with movement of the body, but filmmakers are dealing with movement of characters. And you think about it in terms of movement through time but also movement of the camera and how they move within the frame. So you are always choreographing as a filmmaker. As a dancer, I think that taught me discipline. I honestly believe dancers work harder than any other artists. There is a daily grind they go through that I try to apply to my work. I write in a very similar way. I get up and I write, whether tired or not, whether inspired or not. I write every single day.

© Lesley Coffin (3/1/2018) FF2 Media

Read FF2 Media’s review of The Party HERE.

Photos: Kristen Scott Thomas & cast of The Party (Credit: Adventure Pictures)

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