Who knew that Sally Potter – the writer-director of art-house films including Orlando and Yes – and Daryl Hannah, the actress best known for Splash and Roxanne , could have so much in common? Both are soft-spoken, yet impressively articulate. (I’d expected that from Potter, but confess had underestimated Hannah.) Both make their ideals manifest in their lives. And both have new films that deal with climate change – starkly in the case of Greedy Lying Bastards , a rabble-rousing documentary that Hannah executive-produced, about climate-change deniers; and obliquely in Potter’s Ginger & Rosa , a coming-of-age drama set in 1962, when the nightmare of nuclear annihilation loomed over its 16-year-old English protagonists, much as an environmental apocalypse concerns us now.
In Potter’s film, the nuclear threat is both background to and metaphor for not only the sociocultural explosions of the early sixties, but also the personal one that engulfs Ginger and Rosa (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert, respectively) as their love for one another – platonic but intense – is tested by adult desires. Though it’s arguably Potter’s most accessible movie, she remains a master of mood, drawing viewers into her artfully shot, often wordless scenes. She observes her characters keenly, but resists judging them, even when they do, as she puts it, “very difficult things.”
Potter was in Toronto this week, and I hosted two events with her: an In Conversation With interview at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and an invitational screening made up mostly of young women. At the latter, Potter’s refusal to judge seemed to blow the audience members’ minds. They asked her question after question about what they were “supposed to” feel about Rosa’s decisions or Ginger’s dad (Alessandro Nivola, in full snake-charming mode), and each of her answers was a lesson in compassion.
“I haven’t forgotten the intensity of feelings of teenagehood, the vulnerabilities, the volatile emotions, the longings,” Potter told me in a separate interview. At 63, she’s naturally beautiful, with milky skin, pale-blond hair, and the interesting black clothes of a lifelong artist. (Before she became a director, she was a dancer, choreographer, musician, and performance artist.) Her way of speaking – musically, rhythmically, but with an underlying toughness and passion – lulls listeners into an almost fugue state of openness.
“I’m not sure I feel that different now,” she continues. “I don’t feel I’ve grown out of that passionate younger self. I’ve added experience to it. I know that states of emotion don’t last forever. But the longings, the rawness, are things I’ve had to keep alive to do the work that I do.” To her, empathy is totally fundamental if you’re going to make a film that resonates – “especially with the secret lives of others,” she says. “Because most of us walk around in a facade, because it’s too dangerous to reveal what’s going on inside. I want to make films where people feel that some aspect of their hidden life is up on screen.”
Though the cast of Ginger & Rosa contains a number of interesting adults (Mad Men ‘s Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s mum; Oliver Platt and Annette Bening as family friends), Potter especially relished working with Englert (daughter of the director Jane Campion) and Fanning (younger sister of Dakota, she’s already a movie veteran, though she was only 14 when this film was shot). “I loved the opportunity to give them the respect that I remember craving, to reach for their intelligence,” Potter says. “I often think talent is overestimated. These girls worked hard – they put in the time, they were willing to go deep, and to be open and undefended.
“They were also adorable,” she adds. “I loved them, I just loved them. I hugged them a lot, and then when we worked, I would push them really far. And they loved it. I did, too.”
Potter grew up in London, and was appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 2012. Her late parents – her father was a poet and interior designer; her mother, a music teacher – were atheists and anarchists. “Not bomb-throwing ones, but people who believed in independent thought,” Potter says. With “an almost cruelly open-eyed acknowledgement about how bad things are for many people in the world,” they taught her to question authority, to appreciate the value of a poem or piece of music, and “to reach for the things that are really true of people.” From an early age, they left her alone to direct her own life; at 12, she was on the streets in her school uniform distributing “Ban the Bomb” leaflets.