Known for such titles as Orlando and The Tango Lesson, director Sally Potter sets her new film The Party in a London townhouse where Janet is gathering her friends to celebrate a political promotion. Only trouble is, her husband is morose, her best friend is divorcing and her lover keeps calling. Add a coked-up financier with a tardy wife and a lesbian couple with big news and, in the space of little more than an hour, all hell breaks loose.
What was your inspiration for the film? It feels highly topical but I have read that it predates the Brexit debate.
Yes, by a couple of years. The Brexit referendum happened in the middle of our two-week shoot and [the result] came as a complete surprise. When people turned up on the first day, they [had] asked me: Did you know this was coming? It feels so prophetic, even though no one mentions Brexit or the political party or the date. But there is something in the tone of the film … the divisions and the sense of unease.
There's a feeling it's a snapshot of a moment in the division of a nation, even though in this story they are divisions in marriages and friendships. I think that was just because I was writing during that period leading up to Brexit and the symptoms were already there.
The political climate in general was getting increasingly sick and I thought the medicine of laughter was a good place to start to get energy back into the equation. I was particularly interested in exploring what happens when secrets are revealed and people have to speak the truth, what happens in the gap between who they thought they were and who they turn out to be in situations of crisis.
Another thing that made me think of Brexit was that several of the actors don't have English accents; they are a very cosmopolitan group. Were you looking for diversity when casting or was it just the actors you happen to want?
A mixture. Gottfried was always written as a German; some of the others could have been [from] one country or another. It's important to the backgrounds of these people that they have travelled and met each other in different places. Casting was about finding the right individual actor to embody each individual character, and I was happy when it turned out to be a mix: an Irish, a German, two Americans and the rest are English.
And did you always have Kristin Scott Thomas in mind for the role of Janet?
I started [casting] with Janet and Bill, given it's their house and her party, and I worked outwards from there. Pairing Kristin with Timothy Spall was considered an unusual pairing, at least in the U.K., because they have very different speaking voices. Kristin tends towards an upper-class voice; Timothy towards a working-class voice, echoing their actual backgrounds. They tend to perform in very different films but putting them together and talking about the way long-married couples tend to resemble each other, that turned into an interesting pairing.
It's a theatrical piece in many ways; it respects the classical unities of time and place. How did you make the choice to keep it so contained?
I wrote it thinking of it very much as a film: what happens when you confine people in an enclosed space, how explosive things can become. I think it is cinematic territory, it's a kind of forensic intimacy; the camera is moving in and amongst the characters, catching every little nuance, not only what they are saying but also what they are not saying.
Part of the inspiration was my previous film, Ginger and Rosa: Towards the end there is a large revelation scene where all the characters come together in one room and it all comes out. It's a very difficult thing to do, but I found it exciting managing all these different lines of change in relationships at once. I asked myself what would it be like if I did a whole film like that instead of one scene. Of course, I was aware of the resonances of setting something all in one place and in more or less real time in relation to the theatre. Interestingly, there have now been many, many requests to stage it as a play.
And will you agree to those requests?
I decided to write an adaptation for the stage myself and see how it read. I have become really intrigued by the idea it started as a film – purely cinematic, all the black-and-white cinematography – but that it could have a second, third, fourth life is to me a rather wonderful idea, so I am choosing to follow it at the moment.
Why did you use black and white?
First of all, it links us to earlier cinematic history, grounding it visually in many decades of writer-driven films, strong on spoken word, strong on characterization, strong in parts for women, like the Hollywood screwball comedies or some of films from the sixties in the U.K. [such as] This Sporting Life or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. So that is a link by association, but what black and white does as well is remove redundant information. It is a strategy of minimalism, nowhere to hide, we are looking at bare-bones cinema.
The two-hour feature is such an ironclad format. Do you get any push-back when you make something shorter?
I have never heard anyone complain about a film being too short, but I so frequently hear people complain, and indeed I complain myself, about films being too long. We have moved into a culture of slothful viewing of massively long television series and there is something very activating about something that has brevity to it. In the cutting room it got shorter. It wasn't always 71 minutes, it was longer but for the good of the film, for the pacing in it, for the humour in it, I cut it back to the bone. I think of it as ecological filmmaking, not wasting anything, including people's time.
And I won't take up any more of yours. Thank you so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Party opens March 2 in Toronto