PRINT Summer 1993


Sally Potter’s Orlando has a certain miraculous quality in that it makes a much-loved, phantasmagoric work of 20th-century fiction plausible in film terms while sticking to the book’s fantastic premise. Potter follows her hero/ine through the centuries, but Orlando remains unmarked by passing time except in the getting of wisdom—which involves. In this case, a change of sex. The film can be read, like the book, as a meditation on gender relations, inheritance, historical consciousness, and sexual identity, yet it’s pure fun, whimsical enough to feature Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I and Tilda Swinton’s Orlando roaring into the 20th century on a motorbike.

Various compressions and croppings occur in Potter’s translation of book to film: Virginia Woolf depicts gender in Orlando as a quality subject to sudden reversals, not simply in Orlando him/herself but mirrored in every character Orlando has relations with. Potter has muted the bisexual or pan-sexual ambiance of the story, evoking it instead through certain casting choices. The film also attaches significance to Orlando’s child (male in the book, female in the film), while in Woolf’s narrative the biological event has little significance compared to the “birth” of the book he/she has been trying to write for centuries. One could argue that the film, perhaps unintentionally, reinforces a conventional view of posterity as a matter of genetic reproduction, whereas for Woolf the important thing is the making of one’s life work. On the other hand, it can also be said that Potter’s Orlando becomes liberated from the onerous, cyclical rituals of the class system via the disinheritance that does not figure in Woolf’s original.

Sally Potter was born in London about 43 years ago. She left school at 15, joined the London Filmmakers Cooperative before she was 20, and made numerous short films early on. She became a dance choreographer and started her own troupe, Limited Dance Company. She did performance art and music while making films, toured with a band for several years, and in 1979 made Thriller, a feature-length film that examined 19th-century opera from a feminist perspective. This was quickly followed by The Gold Diggers, with Julie Christie, an elaborate and radically experimental meditation on gender and capital. The Gold Diggers was not well received, and Potter “went into the wilderness cinematically,” though she made another short film, The London Story, and a television series, Tears, Laughter, Fear, and Rage, a documentary about images of women in the Soviet cinema.

Orlando took four years of preparation and an arduous shoot in Russia and Uzbekistan. It is undoubtedly Potter’s breakthrough film. intellectually complex but at the same time surprisingly accessible.

Gary Indiana

GARY INDIANA: Your ideas about narrative seem to have changed a lot between The Gold Diggers [1981] and Orlando.

SALLY POTTER: The Gold Diggers was pulling all the codes of cinema apart; in Orlando, I tried to put them back together again. I traveled a lot with The Gold Diggers, and really listened hard and watched how people responded. My experience as a live performer, and particularly with music, has taught me that you can have it all ways: you can do very radical things and still keep the audience in the palm of your hand if you work with timing and if you effectively manipulate certain conventions. But you’re right; in Orlando I did become more interested in narrative again. I wanted to keep a sense of timing that would engage an audience on almost any level that they cared to come with me. After all, cinema is a mass form, and I am interested in audiences.

GI: You don’t really problematize issues around homosexuality in Orlando, though you managed to switch genders on a lot of different characters.

SP: Well, if you mean that the film wasn’t didactic—that was a conscious decision. I wanted to find ways of expressing whatever needed to be expressed, without resorting to polemics, partly because I think the effects are subtler and stronger when you avoid preaching. My favorite films are never didactic, however complex and peculiar they may be. I also wanted to be true to Virginia Woolf’s intentions to suggest that the human species happens to have been divided into two genders for the purpose of reproduction and not for much else, and that it’s perfectly possible and desirable for persons of the same sex (or opposite sex) to love and respect each other. It’s a kind of gentle politics; in a sense, of course, Woolf’s attitude was a product of her specific time, but I think what she says has a lot to give now, when gender politics have escalated to an almost violent level—when people have to hoist their sexuality up a flagpole to claim their identity.

GI: In your version of Orlando you have altered Virginia Woolf’s idea about this immortal person considerably. There seems to have been a lot of interest in this kind of story during the continuum between the wars, in the ’20s and ’30s: in the Čapek play The Makropoulos Secret, in Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Orlando is the only narrative of this type where the protagonist sort of takes this experience for granted.

SP: Exactly.

GI: But in the book other characters, Nick Greene and even Sasha, show up again, in the 1920s. They have stayed alive through this whole period.

SP: I thought that in a film, it might take some of the energy out of the notion of immortality if anyone other than the central protagonist appeared to possess this quality. So that was a kind of simplifying decision. I think generally film needs to be streamlined, where literature can afford to go in tangents. However, the person playing Nick Greene, Heathcote Williams, does reappear at the end, but he looks so different that most people don’t recognize him; nevertheless there’s a little echo there. But I had to add to Virginia Woolf, to be true to what she was trying to do on a literary level. I had to strengthen some of the narrative muscle for cinematic purposes—to supply little bits of motivation for the story’s premise, to make it psychologically convincing on film. That Queen Elizabeth says she’s giving the inheritance to Orlando on certain conditions—“do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old”—does not appear in the book. In the book it’s given unconditionally, but I think the film needed this little moment to launch us onto the path of immortality.

Another big adjustment was around the change of sex. I had to create a motivation for Orlando to change sex, which was that he was pushed to the limits of what was expected of him in his masculine role—to kill or be killed, to go to war. It was this crisis that pushed him into the female experience. In the female role Orlando then also experiences a crisis at the limits of femininity. But in the book it’s an arbitrary change of sex. It’s not prompted by war; there isn’t one in the book. So I made various changes with my heart in my mouth, as one does when dealing with a great classic of literature. I hope we’re being true to the spirit of the book, if not to the letter of it.

GI: You also switch the terms of the inheritance around considerably. In the film she’s going to be dispossessed unless she marries, and she doesn’t marry. In the book, she’s actually relieved of the onus of a marriage she made when she was a man; she is allowed her inheritance and does marry.

SP: Virginia Woolf, as I understand it from reading the diaries, wrote Orlando as a gift to Vita Sackville-West, and I think she lets Orlando keep the house in her story because Vita had been disinherited in real life. She kind of decided to give Vita’s house back to her through the book, which I think was a cop-out. I’m much more concerned with dismantling the ideology of inheritance, and I think it’s more interesting narratively for Orlando to lose everything by the end, in order to find something else. Whereas in the book, Orlando keeps the house, and somehow the message becomes, Everything is eternally the same—you know, history repeats itself and all of that. I don’t think this is true of Virginia Woolf’s attitude as it comes through her essays, for example, or of her opinions in general. I think that this development in the plot was a slightly private joke a gift to Vita.

GI: My own opinion is that the book begins to wear on you—

SP: After chapter 2?

GI: No, just toward the end; you start to become aggravated with it because it’s such serendipity. After a point you say, “Well, let’s have something bad happen.”

SP: Exactly.

GI: If you’re a novelist, it may take you four or five years to write one book. But you sort of have control of it—you know if you live long enough, you’ll finish it. But if you make films, you have these hiatuses between the time you conceive an idea and when you get the money to do it. There’s always the possibility that you won’t get it—that a project will fall by the wayside.

SP: As a film director you have to learn a kind of invisible practice—you learn to carry the film around in your head and to have the flexibility to allow it to reflect the changes you inevitably go through in the time it takes to realize it. It’s not a form you can practice until you practice it. You can paint every day or write every day but you can’t film every day because of the expense. Of course if you’re a writer/director you can always write, and that’s one of the ways I’ve sustained myself—certainly during the making of Orlando.

GI: Can you talk about the gaps between the invisible practice and what actually happens, the things that turn out to be different?

SP: Even though for me the work is largely preconceived, it takes a certain courage to recognize what is really happening in front of one’s eyes. The skill is somewhere between preparation and improvisation, and that’s where my practice as an improvising performer and musician comes in—being site-specific, letting, for example, the location influence the product, being prepared for the unexpected and chance, whether it’s somebody who sounds more interesting because they happen to have a cold or an unanticipated change in the weather.

GI: A lot of the film was shot in Uzbekistan?

SP: The winter scenes were shot in Russia, the desert-type scenes in Uzbekistan.

GI: Did you run up against a lot of bureaucratic difficulties?

SP: Yes, but really I don’t know of any film that I care about that doesn’t have horror stories attached to its making. And look what it gave. It gave desert, a walled city, intact Islamic architecture from the 16th and 17th centuries and earlier; it gave light, heat, huge numbers of extras—even 20 pairs of twins.

GI: Twins?

SP: In the scenes in Uzbekistan. Whenever the Khan appears he is surrounded by twins. Nobody notices, but we did auditions for all the twins in the area; it was a wonderful experience a film in its own right.

GI: How were the scenes with the ice done?

SP: The big scenes were done on the frozen sea at St. Petersburg. It’s real ice that you see, but every location was also art directed. Nothing was what you might think—London Bridge and the Great House in winter were giant hanging models, made by the Lenfilm special effects department, who still use these marvelous techniques from the ’40s and ’50s. The model is suspended in the foreground in precise camera alignment with background details. We were working on location in absolutely freezing conditions. We also picked up some shots on an outdoor ice rink in St. Petersburg and, for night scenes and close-ups, at an indoor rink. The breaking-ice scene was done in a tank at Pinewood Studios in England. So it’s mixed, really.

GI: In Orlando, each of the passing centuries has a distinct climate as well as important differences in manners and culture. Do you suppose that’s true?

SP: Oh, I think it’s poetic license, but it makes good reading, doesn’t it? And, on the principle that the whole esthetic of the film Orlando was based on place, simplification, economy, and condensation, it made sense to try and take some essence of each historical period and exaggerate it. I did this with light, with weather, and with color. How much most of this could find a basis in historical information I have no idea.

GI: Actually, there are anthropologists in France who have done enormous studies of climate changes in Europe from the 1300s on. Apparently there were radical changes in the weather from one century to the next.

SP: Really? Yes, but even so I love the idea that one could show the Elizabethan period somehow through light, dark, and gold; that you could show the Victorian period in terms of mist and green fertility; and that you can show the 20th century with electricity, whiteness, plastic, and flat lighting. It was thrilling for all the departments to work with this visceral concept—the design department, the lighting department. I drew up charts, cross-referencing all the periods: who was writing what at the time, what was happening musically, what the weather was supposed to be like, the feeling of that period.

GI: You did a lot of the music for the film yourself.

SP: I cowrote the score, yes, with David Motion.

GI: You had a regular studio at your disposal?

SP: Well, it was one of those scores that found itself in a nearly haphazard way. I was searching for a musical identity for the Film for months, and had been listening to certain pieces of music over and over again while writing and shooting. I finally engaged a music supervisor as a kind of sounding board. The weeks of the edit flew past, and there was still no score; the upshot was that the music supervisor put me together with David Motion, an engineer/producer who hadn’t written a film score before. We went into a studio and I recorded on an eight-track all the tunes I could hear in my head. Then he arranged some of the songs for instruments, or wrote instrumental parts around them, reinvented some of the cues and brought in other instruments. Then he put all the material into a sampler, and we sat and worked together on the score at night, while the film was being mixed during the day; but I had no intention originally of composing the score.

GI: What do casting directors do on an independent film? It’s only in the last few years one sees credits for them.

SP: Well, they really act as a sounding board and casting advisor for the director and make suggestions large and small; they also organize the meetings, all the auditions, negotiate contracts with the actors, maybe call agents and check actor availability. Massive amounts of legwork go into even finding out if certain people are possible. So there’s the creative level of thinking about who may be right for the film, and then the logistical work that needs to be carried out to enable the director to make the selection. There’s a tremendous difference between a good casting director and a bad one. Irene Lamb was very, very good. She’d worked on wonderful films like Brazil, and she had an array of marvelous faces in her stable. She also took as seriously as I do the tiniest appearance. When I told her who I absolutely needed—Tilda Swinton, Quentin Crisp, and Heathcote Williams—she virtually rolled on the floor laughing. For her that was a delight, whereas for certain other casting directors that might’ve been a nightmare.

GI: What are you thinking about doing next?

SP: I feel the need to confront the void—to experience blankness—after confronting so much, but I do have a few things up my sleeve. I wrote another script while developing Orlando; I think it’ll be a kind of musical called In the Beginning—about an epidemic of immaculate conceptions. I want to make something funny. I’m being deluged with scripts, almost none of which is of any interest, but occasionally one creeps through. I’m talking to people about different projects . . . I just want to go on making films.

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