Berlin: How Sally Potter Created Claustrophobia for Her Ensemble in 'The Party'

Sally Potter - Getty - H 2017
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The British auteur tells THR about the power of shooting in black and white, her immersive approach to casting and how the Brexit vote loomed large over her Berlin entry.

Most famous for a film featuring a plot spanning several centuries (1992’s Tilda Swinton breakout Orlando), British director Sally Potter has gone in the opposite direction for her latest feature — her first since 2012’s Ginger & Rosa.

The Party, which has its world premiere in Berlin, sees an enviable ensemble cast (Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz and Cherry Jones) on the guest list for an intimate gathering of highbrow friends in a London house and has a story that unravels, unexpectedly and violently, in real time over the course of just one evening. But as the intellectual and political debate sizzled from the script, production took place in the U.K. at the time of June’s Brexit vote, ensuring there was, as Potter explains to The Hollywood Reporter, more than enough emotion off camera as well.

What was the thought process of staging the film in real time?

Sometimes you find a lot of freedom if you impose tight restrictions dramatically. And what I wanted to do was create, in a way, the most claustrophobically right environment in time and space that would allow the events that unfolded within it to be more explosive. So it condenses a lot and distills them. It was actually an incredibly interesting way to work. People say a week is a long time in politics. Well, five minutes can be a long time in a relationship if something is revealed.

Were there any logistical issues involved in creating this claustrophobia?

We actually created the whole ground floor of a house, with a lot of different rooms. So there’s a lot of fluidity of people moving in and out of these rooms, but nevertheless, it’s all in one building and one evening. It’s the ideal environment for an ensemble cast to work on the dynamics of relationships as they occur.

And you also shot in black and white. Why was that?

I always say that black and white is more colorful. It’s more emotionally colorful. It reduces, or even expands, the world to light and dark, and you can get a much deeper black and more sparkling white. So you have the retina of the eyes dancing around constantly between shadow and brightness. As a visual corollary to the shadows and interrogatory light in some of the conversations, it seemed like a most apt way to do it. I also love black-and-white films.

The idea didn’t come from a particularly bad house party you once went to, did it?

(Laughs.) Fortunately not. There’s a threat of a murder in this one. Have I been at such parties? No. But I’ve been in my fair share of crises, and I know what happens to people under extreme pressure when they start to reveal themselves in ways that are unexpected, not only toward other people, but to themselves.

As in all of your films, you’ve amassed an outstanding cast. Is there a secret to attracting such stellar names?

I tend to really go deep in the casting process — I absolutely love it. But I watch hours and hours of people’s work before I approach them. It’s first about seeing what they’ve done already and then what qualities they’ve already brought to the screen that you can maybe tap into, maybe just a tiny moment that might be appropriate. And then it’s about meeting and seeing if this relationship is going to be vibrant. The alchemy of bringing a group together in the right way who are going to spark each other off and who are going to be open to pushing themselves is such an exciting process. And they’re a wonderful group. I’d worked with Tim Spall before and loved him. All the others are people I’d loved from afar whom I’d wanted to work with.

You were shooting during the Brexit vote. Did the decision leave a dark cloud over the production the following morning?

Yes, it really did. People turned up in tears. It was a couple of days before the end of the shoot, and there was shock, grief and horror because this, of course, is a pan-European cast and crew — a Russian DP, Argentinian designers living in Paris, French sound crew. I always do that mix-up on both sides of the camera. It creates a much better working atmosphere for everybody. Nobody can settle back into old habits. It brings new qualities into the mix, and the mix is what’s thrilling about it. So this feeling of borders coming down and nationalism rising its head ... people were in an absolute state of shock.