The British filmmaker on crafting a dinner party from hell and equal pay for equal work
Hors d’oeuvres? Check. Seven guests hiding secrets? Check. A gun? Check.
If there’s one thing British filmmaker Sally Potter knows, it’s how to throw a dinner party that the guests – and the audience – aren’t likely to forget in a hurry.
In Potter’s latest film The Party, a cast of acting stalwarts – Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones and Bruno Ganz – play out a drama in which adultery, lies, and drugs unfold in real-time in a stage-like setting between the kitchen, living room, garden, and bathroom.
It’s the kind of film that Potter has become known for over the course of five decades, weaving her trademark complicated female characters with her penchant for witty repartee in a tightly paced tale delving into the complexities of human behavior and social norms. Starting out with edgy experimental short films such as 1969’s Jerk, Potter has built a portfolio of critically acclaimed, independently financed art house movies that have made her a staple in the indie community and film festivals, such as 1983’s The Gold Diggers, 1992’s Oscar-nominated Orlando with Tilda Swinton and 2012’s Ginger & Rosa.
EW talked to the British filmmaker about her decision to work outside of the Hollywood studio system and how the industry is opening up to female perspectives and talent.
There’s so much going on in every moment of The Party, but the biggest feeling was claustrophobia. What made you create this labyrinth within this otherwise normal, everyday setting?
I think what happens if you put constraints in a dramatic situation — whether that’s constraints in time or a place or character — is that it intensifies what you leave in and becomes more explosive than it otherwise would be, like a champagne bottle being shaken, as it appears in the film, but that feeling of when the cork comes out, something’s going to shatter, and it does. It’s also technically very challenging and very stimulating to see what can I do if I give myself the following challenge – seven characters in one space in real-time, how much can each of them change in that time, how many surprises can there be?
Speaking of the actors, you managed to get a cast of industry pros here.
I think to pull something like this off, it needed people who were at the top of their game and had some experience under their belt, but — more to the point — who were happy to take risks, who were happy to work in an ensemble where they were all equal in a way, all equally important and equally special and — by the way — to be all paid equally, and to work fast, but to individually take risks and go to somewhere where they hadn’t quite been before as an actor.
You mentioned that everyone in this film was paid equally. Given the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood and the push to close the gender pay gap, do you think this is a moment of change?
Equal pay is just the most basic symbol of valuation of equality, it’s the underpinning — the money, when it comes down to it, says a lot. Of course with the film industry, in certain segments pay is inflated anyway – compare what a person could get for one role that a factory worker won’t get for five years. But it’s symbolic, so to have male actors valued so much more highly than female actors is simply insulting, just wrong, plain wrong. So to push for equal pay is a very good starting point, especially when it’s seen not just only about actors but about all people in all fields of work deserving equal pay for equal work.
Which areas of the industry are you seeing the biggest change taking place?
It’s really hard to measure change. If we talk about roles for women, that comes down to who’s writing the roles, it’s not something you can say abstractly like “there should be more roles for women”; that has to come out from somebody’s pen or laptop or imagination. I remember in earlier years, people used to say quite openly, “If you put a woman at the center of a film, nobody would go and see it.” These things have been said aloud within these last few decades — maybe they’re being said aloud right now for all I know — but I think the figures will gradually change just as they have for black filmmaking.
“Black Panther” is disproving some notion that films with black actors or directed by black filmmakers were some kind of niche, which is terribly insulting and being disproved. Similarly, to think of women as some kind of niche category is insane. We’re 51 percent of the population. But it does come down to the writing and then who’s supporting the writing, which stories get past the gatekeepers and are considered worth telling. When it comes to who’s on the other side of the camera, the invisible ones, the directors, DPs and all the crew and what kind of rate of pay they’re getting by the way — compared to actors it’s often infinitely less — I think that’s a whole other battle and that’s about gatekeepers and financiers trusting women to become the leaders of the cultural imagination and to handle big budgets.
What are you able to bring by not working in the Hollywood system?
Well, it’s a very good question and it’s one I ask myself frequently because I am tempted, of course, when things come my way. But what I’ve learned is that, just as an individual, I’m not sure whether it’s a strength but I function best when I have complete control over what I’m doing…
In my experience in the past, my biggest budget films have not necessarily been the ones in which I’ve felt the most free, nor has it really given me more time or more space to do what I need to do, so I think working independently gives you the freedom to take people by surprise.