Q&A: Sally Potter


More Berlinale coverage

Eclectic British helmer Sally Potter is known for her way with actors and her innovative approach to material (note the visual design in her breakthrough "Orlando" or the iambic pentameter dialogue of "Yes"). Those talents are in full display with the Berlinale competition title "Rage." A murder mystery set in New York's fashion scene, it shows neither fashion nor the Big Apple, composed instead of a series of direct-to-camera confessionals that gradually reveal the tale. The director spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's German bureau chief Scott Roxborough.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why the fashion industry and why a murder mystery?

Sally Potter: Well, although it's set in the fashion world it's not about fashion and you don't see anything of New York or the world of fashion. It is just these individuals over 10 days talking to a young boy we don't see who appears to be doing a school project. Then, because of what happens (a murder), they have the need to speak to him and the interviews become like a confessional. But it could apply to any high-pressure industry where things start to go wrong. And I chose a murder mystery because it is an known genre with its own rules and laws that you can use to keep the audience hooked. And I do follow those laws though perhaps not in the way some might expect.

THR: Why did you decide to make a film set in New York without showing the city and why do a film on the fashion scene without showing cameras or catwalks?

Potter: The danger with doing anything about fashion it that it's out of date before it's on the screen. And New York is so overly familiar, it's such an over-filmed place that around the world I think people have their own vision of the city, even if they've never been there. So we don't really need to show it. The way we filmed it -- digitally on a hand held camera with a very small set, I was the camera operator -- allowed a very intimate approach. The actors just talking to this unseen and unheard diminutive person. ... It's a celebration of "poor" cinema. Appropriate for these lean times.

THR: This actually has the lowest budget of any film you've ever made. Why did you set it up this way?

Potter: Well, it's a good survival tactic. If you can't adapt these days, you are going to go under. And ecologically it's good not to be wasteful. I think there is a need in the psyche right now for things with integrity. For not just throwing money around for its own sake.

THR: How is digital technology changing the way you work?

Potter: It is possible now to make films in a different way, (though) not necessarily good films. There was the idea that with digital cameras there would be all these great films coming out. That hasn't happened. But the possibilities -- with grading, with editing through Final Cut Pro -- do allow you to do more with a smaller crew.

THR: Do you see parallels between the fashion industry as shown in "Rage" and the film industry?

Potter: There are parallels with the film industry and with any kind of area where art and industry meet and where the individuals are fearful of redundancy. Which is pretty well everywhere at this point.

THR: Does that mean you are trying to make a political point with the movie?

Potter: I think there is politics in everything, but it's mostly unconscious in this film. It's not a lecture but hopefully very funny and entertaining. But it is political in the sense that it's about fame, about the pursuit of celebrity and power and the dehumanizing effect that can have.

THR: Is that why you chose so many famous people for the cast: Jude Law, Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi?

Potter: The cast is a mixture of the very famous and people just starting out. The common factor is that they are all incredibly good and incredibly nuanced at what they do. Every actor just came for two days. One actor at a time. They were totally exposed, with no props, no fancy special effects. It is really about the very intimate relationship between the actor and the camera.

THR: The series of direct-to-camera confessions resembles the kind of video blogs you see all over the Internet. What that deliberate?

Potter: Well, it shows the influence of my Internet experience, writing a blog and so forth. The young boy in my story is posting these interviews on the Internet and the film is also about the world of the Internet and what its done to how we look at faces and how we think about what is true and not true. It has something to say about confession and the need to confess. But this is a written script performed by actors. It's a fiction. I haven't been that active (on the Internet) recently but when I was I found it quite extraordinary how it opens up a world. People were reading (my blog) from all corners of the world. I have no idea how they even found it. But the Internet opens up of the world, it offers something quite unique. I think it also creates a kind of generational divide. With a very young audience that is very at ease with this world and can navigate and work easily within it and an older alienated audience and that is part of the story (of "Rage") too.

THR: Tell me a bit about Sp-ark, your online film educational program. Why did you set it up and what are your hopes for it?

Potter: It's about transparency of process. About demystifying the process of filmmaking. About giving access to an archive for students to find what interests them. Eventually, we want to have all my projects up there. All the details of the planning, financing, producing and promotion of my films.

THR: You work in several media: film, theater, opera. Does this cross-fertilize your work?

Potter: Cinema is such a hybrid form, so you are always working in other media. If you are framing a shot, you are immediately involved with the history of art. If you're working with text, you're involved with the history of literature. If you're working with performers, you are involved with the history of acting. You are always working musically, even if you don't have a score, because you are thinking of sound. But my main concentration is on cinema, even if I've ducked and weaved through these other media. Films are my main focus.

THR: Your films "Thriller" and "Gold Digger" screened in Berlin. What do you associate with the city and the festival?

Potter: Historically, Berlin has been a city of extremes. Back when it was divided between East and West. And with the fall of the Wall it became symbolic of the end of the Cold War. It's a very lively city in terms of the arts and it has a population that is very cinematically alert. And, of course, it's very cold there in February, so having a warm cinema to wrap up in is a nice place to be. I think Berlin is kind of astringent, where Cannes is more glamorous. Berlin is exciting in a different way.

THR: How do you feel about being in competition here for the first time?

Potter: It's a big honor, especially for such a film, which was made on the hoof as it were. It really is an honor and is very exciting for all of us. And I have my usual stage fright because I have no idea how the film will be received. So I'm looking forward to it.