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‘In desperate times, we need laughter’

‘In desperate times, we need laughter’

October 09
07:47 2017

“Nothing is sacred. Not terminal illness. Not babies. Nothing.”

On a blue-skied London afternoon, Sally Potter is explaining the secret of comedy. For all the acclaim she has had in her long career as a director of bold and provocative films, the business of LOLs is not what you first associate with her. But they’re there in abundance in her new movie, The Party — a dark farce set in a London townhouse, where over a single night a gaggle of couples and old friends fall prey to chaos.

Which may be why, since its premiere at February’s Berlin Film Festival, Potter keeps being asked about one subject: Brexit. In promoting the film among European journalists, she has found every conversation leading in one direction.

“It’s been the same everywhere. Berlin. Zurich. Paris. It’s all they want to ask me about. I think it’s just because there’s something in the film that feels so definitively English.”

When we meet, Potter is freshly off the Eurostar and back in London, alternately thoughtful and playful. (For the record, Brexit appalled her: “I’m an internationalist.”) Her case is still unpacked in the corner of her office, a light-filled space in a court of gently scuffed postwar flats. Books line the walls, a piano stands nearby. The ambience is some way from the mania of The Party. There, we meet the newly appointed shadow minister for health (Kristin Scott Thomas) about to celebrate her promotion. Her husband (Timothy Spall) is brooding in a corner while an array of friends arrive, and later we learn exactly why. There is a pregnancy — triplets. There are furtive phone calls. And there is a gun. Students of Chekhov will know to watch out for it even after it ends up in a garden bin.

From left, Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson in ‘The Party’

For Potter, inspiration came in a rush. The starting point was two years ago, the backdrop the now-prehistoric Britain of David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the 2015 election. Potter says that even pre-referendum she picked up “the scent of chaos”. She had been knee-deep in another project — “profoundly serious” — when a new idea arose. At first, it was just a lark. “I wanted it to be quick and propulsive, like what Graham Greene used to call his ‘entertainments’.” But if Greene’s idea of fun yielded the horror of Brighton Rock, for Potter the result was hilarity.

Writing it, she consulted the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s. In production, speed remained of the essence. “Everything shot in two weeks. A tiny budget. Everybody paid the same, working in a studio in Hayes. Do it. Done. Don’t waste people’s time.” Editing, she took up the scalpel again, cutting everywhere the action seemed to sag. “It ended up shorter than I was expecting [a fat-free 71 minutes]. But things are mostly too long, aren’t they?”

Even so, she realised she would have to build in pauses after certain lines to stop the next one being drowned by laughter. For Potter, the discovery at preview screenings has been the power comedy has on an audience. After 71 minutes of lies, betrayal and simmering violence, she says they emerge from the film looking “so happy”.

“Well, laughter is catharsis, isn’t it? The clichés are true. It’s good for us physically. In desperate times, we need it.”

But comedy also needs a sharp eye — and The Party’s sense of place is unerringly precise. As a stage for her cast of politicians and academics, Potter found a very particular kind of Georgian terrace that will instantly make sense to anyone familiar with the fine gradations of class embodied in London property. But Potter is keen to point out that the world on screen is not her own. It’s true. Her office lies in a sweetly unkempt corner of east London, around the corner from a minicab office and a shuttered dog groomers. And while she has always been political, the parliamentary variety has never interested her.

Brought up as an anarchist in a bohemian household, she never formally studied film. Her training came instead in the experimental, feminist avant-garde of the 1970s. As a young woman, she was a dancer as well as a filmmaker. (“That was how I learnt to respect that great, quick-witted thing, the audience.”) Behind the camera, the breakthrough came with Orlando, her 1992 adaptation of the Virginia Woolf story of an androgynous nobleman, played by Tilda Swinton. Much to her surprise, the film was a critical and commercial hit, nominated for a pair of Oscars for its splendid visual design. “Number one at the box office. Award ceremonies.” Potter widens her eyes and slips into the present tense as she relives the moment. “This is insane.”

For another director, it might have been the springboard to a whole career of winning prizes for lustrous English period films. But Potter found much of the experience silly (“I thought, why don’t they give Oscars to factory workers?”). The road she took was different — a circuitous journey through politically charged love stories told in verse (Yes) and meta narratives involving filmmakers called Sally learning to dance (The Tango Lesson), aimed less at befriending studios than pursuing a muse. The result has been a place in the highest ranks of European arthouse film, with devoted admirers and countless interested parties.

Among her recent films was Rage, a 2009 fashion satire released first on to mobile phones. Initially seduced by technology, Potter is becoming sceptical. “Since Brexit and Trump, the problem is news. I check my phone 20 times an hour to see if the bomb has been dropped. It’s not useful for my brain and it steals my time.”

The Party hums with intimations of mortality — so too conversation with Potter keeps returning to time. (The director is now 68.) “I just can’t afford to waste it. It’s hard enough already to have even a chance of getting done what I want to get done.”

Of course, filmmaking is a tricky life for a restless creative spirit, a medium dependent on finance, where ideas can stay unmade for decades. At one point, she mentions the “slim results” of her career. I think I must have misheard — after all, this is a woman with eight films behind her.

“But I always wanted more. I’ve always felt like I’ve got this stuff in me and somehow I’m not getting through it.” She looks troubled. Then she glints again as she says she has turned down every single project she has ever been offered by another producer. “I’m just not a director for hire.” There must, I say, have been one or two projects she said no to that she later saw and thought “What if?” She grins, tickled by the thought. “Oh no. No regrets.”

The other price of adventure has been a mixed reception — as much as her films have intrigued, there have always been takedowns. And while many directors claim to relish the drama of divided critical opinion, Potter is beyond that. “Ha! Liars. All lies. No. You want everyone to love it. It’s not about the praise. You just want it to land. To communicate. That’s the reason you make films.”

And now she has The Party. “Yes, and it’s such a fascinating thing to discover at this point in life…” She pauses and leans in, letting me in on another secret. “Hearing hundreds of people roar with laughter at something you’ve written is actually really nice.”

‘The Party’ is in cinemas from October 13

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