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Interview: Sally Potter on Casting Her New Film ‘The Party’

It’s the most random odd couple pairing. Timothy Spall and Kristen Scott Thomas portray a married couple hosting a cocktail party. Scott Thomas is Janet, a politician who’s just become Shadow Health Minister. Spall is her drunk husband Bill. As the guests arrive, director Sally Potter brings together a dream guest list, but the evening swiftly goes to hell since everyone in attendance stands for something that irritates someone else, as their strong political leanings and conflicts are aired. Bitterness and wicked humor in The Party make for delicious viewing. I caught up with Sally Potter recently at Chateau Marmont to talk about her divine new film.


Read our chat below:

What started The Party for you?

I was actually writing another script at the time because I’m often writing two scripts at a time and it’s a very helpful process for me. I approached this in a lighter way than I sometimes do. I found myself letting go a little bit and letting these rather wicked voices come through.

What was the political climate like at the time you were writing it?

David Cameron and Ed Milliband had both moved into the center and neither was capable of sincerity and everything was spin. I thought, let me see what it’s like to put a female politician in a story but make it more like a personal microcosm of the larger political world. There are divisions, almost like an English Civil war of some description and see what happens and that’s where it grew from there.

Your casting is superb with the perfect party guests in a way. How did you approach the casting?

I love it. It’s the biggest decision you make as a director. I take it full on, seriously and obsessively. I think about the people night and day and I do huge amounts of research. I imagine all the different alchemical combinations and I’ve already written the characters so I know them very very very well. I’ve been in their shoes for over a year at this point. I also work with two great casting directors and I brainstorm with them. I’ll take out photos and put them in combinations. Once I’ve made a decision, in this case, I knew I needed to establish Bill and Janet first because it’s their house and their party. I’d worked with Timothy Spall and matching him with Kristen Scott Thomas is not a marriage most would expect.

Exactly, it’s the most unlikely pairing.

I met them both and they both wanted to do it. It gave me the confidence to think of other couples who were odd. I’d always wanted to work with Bruno Ganz and so on and I built it like that.

Were you surprised at that dynamic between Timothy and Kristen?

They worked to get to that place and I worked with them individually. That’s my prep that I always do. I get to know the actor so they have that rapport with me and they trust me so that whatever interventions I make, they will go with.

These are already extremely wonderfully good actors but all actors want to go further. I talked to each of them about married couples who may start off very individual, through a period of time slightly morph into each other. We had to find this center ground with their voices and accents. On the screen you don’t question it at all do you?

Not for one second.

These are actors who react a lot to each other and are present time responsive in their process.

Once you had your casting in place, did you tweak the script?

I always tweak it a little bit. Sometimes I don’t need to. Once they’ve read it to me in the first reading, I might hear a tone or phrase that doesn’t quite fit that person’s voice so I’ll tweak it. In this instance, there was hardly anything. The characters were very fully formed.

I do love that you shot in black and white yet it’s so lush and rich.

It’s velvet.

It’s like chocolate.

It’s like Green and Black’s [laughs]

When did that decision come to shoot in black and white? It’s very daring.

Very early on. I knew I had to fight for that but it felt so right for this particular film. It was a constrained environment. The light gets turned on and it looks like police interrogation light at a moment of truth. It says that in the script.

There’s not too much redundant information.

Was there a scene that was difficult?

Nothing springs to mind but what was hard was that we had to shoot it in less than two weeks, but we did it. It was a different pacing.

I loved the timing of 71 minutes and it was perfect.

It started off longer but I tightened it up and sharpened it up. I did that through testing it with audiences. It needed to keep moving and the pace needed to be improved and that meant cutting the material. I needed it to be lean and mean, very minimal in length, in the environment, but maximal in terms of the human experience. The aim was to see how far can I go with these` people in that time in this place. Just when you think you’ve gone further, another thing comes up.

Have you ever been to a dinner or cocktail party and been in a situation like that?

No. There’s no real dinner party in this, it’s like cocktails and some canapes. It was a very much imagined story. It was like taking “What If” on a walk and seeing how far it would go and where it would go.

I’ve been with people who have a crisis and people who are struggling in power. I know plenty of men who are struggling to be in a less status role, secondary supporting with their partner. It’s all things in the air, they’re not completely unknown.

Talk about your cinematographer, Aleksei Rodionov.

It’s my third collaboration with him. We know each other well. He comes from this Russian tradition of how a cinematographer works with a director.

It’s very script oriented. We do a lot of sitting down, going through the scenes one by one and what is this for? How do we shoot it? What’s the point of view? All that. Then we work out the package and then we do tests to establish the look. The more tests we do, the better it is.

We talk it from the big screen and it rolls from there.

What was that like for you seeing that final dynamic?

In the test screening, I’m still working so it’s different and it’s a work in progress. Once we get to the premiere, we get to sit back. What was amazing was to hear the whole lot roar with laughter.