The English director looked to her own political upbringing for inspiration for her latest film.
10 Jun 2013 - 1:39 PM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2013 - 1:39 PM

Sally Potter has long been one of cinema's greatest adventurers, ever since she came to our attention with Orlando, her 1992 adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel which spawned a gender-bending performance by Tilda Swinton that still defines her as an actor.

by the time I was 12 or 13 I’d already been on the anti-nuclear marches

Now the youthful 63-year-old Potter has delivered her most commercial film yet, Ginger & Rosa, where she has based aspects of her 16-year-old redheaded character on herself.

“I grew up in a left-wing milieu during the Cuban missile crisis,” Potter explains of her London upbringing, “and by the time I was 12 or 13 I'd already been on the anti-nuclear marches. But that's where my similarities with the Ginger character ends. I actually wanted to make a film about who we are in the world and also about how the world is in us. The year 1962 seemed like a good setting for this transition from childhood into adulthood in two girls' lives, as it was a transitional moment for the whole world. In a historical sense, it was the '50s and not quite yet the '60s and importantly, the personal was not yet political.”

Ginger and Rosa are 16-year-old best friends who dream of bigger, more exciting lives than their mothers have endured. Potter intimately captures their fresh-faced exuberance as they spend all their time together, with Rosa even attending political meetings and anti-nuclear marches at Ginger's prodding. Initially, they fall out when the less politically-inclined Rosa prefers to spend time chasing boys, though things really come to a head when she becomes involved with Ginger's anarchist writer father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), whose long-suffering wife, Natalie, is played by Christina Hendricks aka Joan from Mad Men.

Potter has never had trouble attracting strong acting talent to her movies, particularly when it comes to women. Cate Blanchett and Christina Ricci starred in 2000's The Man Who Cried, for instance. With Ginger & Rosa, it was a stroke of genius to cast 13-year-old American Elle Fanning as the very British Ginger and the magnetic 17-year-old Alice Englert (Jane Campion's Sydney-raised daughter) as Rosa. The film marked the acting debut for Englert (who turns 19 next week) before she went on to make the teen horror romance Beautiful Creatures.

The unusual thing about the casting, though, is that three of the four main British characters are played by Americans.

“I kind of forgot they were American actually,” Potter admits. “Basically, they were actors and an actor's job is to transform and become whatever you need them to become. I think the leap of national identity is one of the easier ones. Perhaps we have so much more in common than we have different. These are all very musical individuals so they have a great ear for accent and they managed that technical feat with grace and hard work. Ultimately, when you're casting, which is the single most important decision you have to make as a director, you're looking for the individuals who are not only going to resonate with the parts that you've written but also who are going to resonate in this alchemical way with each other.”

No casting was more alchemical than the pairing of the joyful, beyond-her-years Fanning with Hendricks, her onscreen mum. They share a natural alabaster complexion and here, flame red hair.

“It was not just the physical resemblance,” notes Potter, “there was something else. There was a mixture of an unquenchable spirit that was, as Christina once said to me, dampened by the times, as well as a penchant for survival.”

The process of working with the actors was intuitive, she says. “I used anything and everything like a magpie scavenging for clues. This was a five-week shoot, which is short. So it's about preparing and taking every single precious second that you have together and from my perspective finding out what is the key that is going to unlock the door. I always try and create a safe and trusting environment in which people can experiment and find things out together. By the way, despite the fact that everyone was crying all the time, we had an incredible amount of fun. Very British,” she chuckles.

Nivola, as the husband of British actress Emily Mortimer (who currently appears on the American HBO series The Newsroom), knows a thing or two about Brits. Yet fun would hardly be the way he would describe every aspect of his own preparation.

“Sally wouldn't say this about herself, but she is one of the most meticulous directors that I've ever worked with,” he says. “Most actors probably wouldn't admit this, but we like to be looked at and no one has ever looked more closely at me than Sally – to the point where she decided before we began shooting that my eyelashes were too long and that they were covering over my eyes in my close-ups. Before I knew it, I had a woman hovering over me. It was like being in a dentist's chair. She had one of those eyelash curlers that women use and she was reaching down my throat as I had my eyelashes curled. This became a ritual, which Sally insisted upon before every single take, and it was done very discreetly so people didn't even know it was happening.

“While this sounds funny, it just shows how visually she's so precise and so vigilante and so determined to have everything look right. Yet with all that there was a kind of messiness to the way that she let us play. A combination of those two things is rare.”

How did Potter want us to feel by the end of her film?

“Endings are phenomenally difficult,” she sighs, “and I guess what I wanted to do in the last scene with Ginger and her father was to indicate a possible future in the way that Roland says he's sorry. When somebody says they're sorry that's the beginning of change. So for me it was like ushering in the future decades of thought and re-evaluating the fact that if you are going to change the world, you also need to change yourself.

“As for Ginger, she's not ready for it yet, but she knows that she will be able to both transform and forgive the things which have hurt her. So without creating false hope or a false happy ending, I wanted to have a feeling that despite these difficult events, these mistakes from people who genuinely believe in a new world, that there is a kind of hope because there is a kind of learning and there is a process of transformation. Yet unless we look unflinchingly at our own mistakes along the way, true change will never happen.”

Ginger & Rosa screens at the 2013 Sydney Film festival and will appear in cinemas nationwide from September 19. Click here for our full coverage of the festival.