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In the 70s and 80s. Sally Potter was a controversial figure in British independent cinema, making films that blended narrative invention with theoretical and formalist concerns. Her 1979 short Thriller has long been a staple on film courses for its deconstruction of opera’s sexual politics through a re-reading of La Boheme. She followed it up with her feature debut The Gold Diggers (1983) with Julie Christie, and The London Story, a technicolour spy musical. More recently, Potter has worked in television: making Women in Soviet Cinema (1988) and Tears, Laughter, Fear and Rage (1986), a four-part series on the politics of emotion.

Potter’s new feature Orlando is produced by her own company Adventure Pictures, which she formed with Christopher Sheppard. A free reading of Virginia Woolf’s historical fantasia, Orlando represents Potter’s first venture into more mainstream narrative, but it also continues some of her past concerns. Her Russian connection carries on in the co-production deal with Lenfilm and the use of a Russian crew that included Elem Klimov’s cinematographer Alexei Rodionov. Potter also co-wrote the score with David Motion; her past work as a composer includes the song cycle Oh Moscow, and she has also run her own dance ensemble, the Limited Dance Company. All these diverse concerns find their way into Orlando, which with its elaborate staging and exuberant cultivation of artifice gives a startling new twist to the British costume drama.

This interview first appeared in the March 1993 issue of Sight and Sound

Location: Blackbird Yard, Ravenscroft Road, and like birds alighting on a field Sally Potter and I are sitting here in her workroom in the renovated London shoe factory where one draft after another of the script of her new film Orlando was exposed, criticised, knocked into shape. Almost a year since the troop set off for St Petersburg to film the Frost Fair sequences, this interview took place.

Walter Donohue: It’s strange to be sitting again at this table where so many of our script discussions took place. Can you describe something of the process of adapting Virginia Woolf’s novel into your own film?

Sally Potter: It was a process of reading, re-reading and reading again; writing, rewriting and writing again. Cutting characters, stripping thing right back to the bone. I did endless skeleton diagrammatic plots, all to find the guiding principle and then reconstruct the story from the inside out. I also went back to research Woolf’s sources. And then, finally, I put the book away entirely for at least the last year of writing and treated the script as something in it own right, as if the book had never existed.

I felt that by the time we were getting ready to shoot I knew the book well enough, was enough in touch with its spirit, that it would have been a disservice to be lavish to it. What I had to find was a live, cinematic form, which meant being ruthless with the novel. In other words, I learnt that you have to be cruel to the novel in order to be kind to the film.

Where did your interest in ‘Orlando’ begin?

When I first read Orlando as a teenager, I remember watching it as a film. And from the first moment I considered doing an adaptation, I thought I could see it, even if parts were out of focus. The book has a live, visual quality to it – which was affirmed in Woolf’s diaries, where she said that what she was attempting with Orlando, unlike her other books, was an “exteriorisation of consciousness”. She was finding images for a stream of consciousness, instead of using a literary monologue.

But the single idea that was sustaining enough for me to live with the project for so long was immortality, or the question: what is the present moment? And the second idea was the change of sex, which provides the more obvious narrative structure, and is a rich and lighter way of dealing with the issues between men and women. The more I went into this area, and tried to write a character who was both male and female, the more ludicrous maleness and femaleness became and the more the notion of the essential human being – that a man and woman both are – predominated.

Clearly, here was just a character called Orlando: a person, an individual, a being who lived for 400 years, first as a man and then as a woman. At the moment of change, Orlando turns and says to the audience, “Same person, different sex.” It’s as simple as that.

Orlando (1992)

But Orlando – a character who is both a man and a woman – has to be embodied in an actor. And you chose a woman to play this part. How did you deal with the maleness and femaleness of the characterisation?

We worked primarily from the inside out and talked all the time about Orlando as a person rather than as a man or a woman. Then there was a mass of small decisions which added up to a policy about how to play the part – for instance, we decided on no artificial facial hair for Orlando the man. Whenever I’ve seen women playing men on screen, it’s been a mistake to try to make the woman look too much like a man, because you spend your time as a viewer looking for the glue, the joins between the skin and the moustache. I worked on the assumption that the audience was going to know from the beginning that here was a woman playing a man, and so the thing to do was to acknowledge it and try to create a state of suspended disbelief.

I was attracted to Tilda Swinton for the role on the basis of seeing her in Peter Wollen’s film Friendship’s Death, where she had a cinematic presence that wasn’t aligned to what our cinematographer Alexei Rodionov called “crawling realism”, and in the Manfred Karge play Man to Man, in which there was an essential subtleness about the way she took on male body language and handled maleness and femaleness.

Tilda brought her own research and experience to bear on the part; as her director I worked to help her to achieve a quality of transparency on the screen. The biggest challenge for both of us was to maintain a sense of the development of the character even when we were shooting out of continuity and with the ending still uncertain. The intention was that there would be a seamless quality about the development that would carry that suspended disbelief about maleness, femaleness and immortality.

The idea of suspended disbelief – was direct address to camera one of the devices used to maintain this?

The speeches of Orlando to the audience took many forms during the writing, and during the shooting they were the hardest things to get right. The phrase I used to Tilda was “golden thread”: we were trying to weave a golden thread between Orlando and the audience through the lens of the camera. One of the ways we worked in rehearsal was to have Tilda address those speeches directly to me, to get the feeling of an intimate, absolutely one-to-one connection, and then to transfer that kind of address into the lens.

Part of the idea was also that direct address would be an instrument of subversion, so that set against this historical pageant is a complicity with the audience about the kind of journey we’re on. If it worked, I hoped it would be funny; it would create a connection that made Orlando’s journey also the audience’s journey; and most important, it would give the feeling that although Orlando’s journey lasted 400 years and was set in the past, this was essentially a story about the present.

The function of the voiceover at the beginning and end is to dispatch with certain issues as neatly as possible – for instance, the film begins with Orlando’s voice saying, “There can be no doubt about his sex.” I also wanted to state that though Orlando come from a certain background, which has certain implications, he is separated from this background by a kind of innocence. One is born into a class background, but that can change.

Orlando (1992)

Was there any governing idea behind the transitions from one period to another?

I tried to find a way of making transitions through a characteristic of the period (dress, poetry, music), that could launch us into the next section. And what I found was that you can be much bolder than I ever thought in the way you jump, cinematically, from one period to another. Ironically, the most striking transition is where Orlando enters the maze in the eighteenth century and emerges into the Victorian era, which was the one l hadn’t worked out in the script and was still struggling with in the shoot. The decision to effect the transition by having Orlando enter the maze was made simply because there was a maze at the location which I knew I wanted to use somewhere; its final form was found in the cutting room.

Perhaps we could discuss one or two of the myriad aspects of the craft of film-making – such as framing?

Framing is the magic key, the door through which you’re looking. The quest in shooting Orlando was not just for a frame or possible place to put the camera, but for the only place. This became my driving visual obsession. To transcend the arbitrariness of where you put the camera became a joint process between Alexei and myself. And one of his great strengths as a cinematographer is that he won’t settle for an obvious or easy visual solution. He’s trying to peel back the layers and find this transparent place – and this search for the right frame became a parallel process to trying to achieve a transparency of performance.

Technically, we worked with a monitor, and every frame was adjusted – up, down, right, left – until there was a frame which he and I agreed was the frame. If we couldn’t agree it was an unhappy moment, and a lot of energy was spent on that kind of tussling. Alexei’s intention is to be a mediumistic cinematographer; he says that the greatest compliment Klimov paid him after Come and See was that Klimov felt as if he had shot the film himself. That’s a very ego-free statement for a cinematographer to make, and for me it was an incredible gift, as well as a challenge that was initially almost too great to meet, because it put the gaze back on me: what did I really want? I didn’t always know what I wanted; I was groping to start with. But by the end of the shoot I felt that Alexei and I had one eye.

Sally Potter during the filming of Orlando (1992)

You’re credited, with David Motion, with the music for the film. How did that come about?

A lot of people commented that sound was often mentioned in the script. And I wanted a sound effect structure and score that would mirror the scale of the film. Our policy during the mix was to make a broad dynamic range and then highlight certain evocative or pointed sounds – such as the peacock’s cry when Orlando is walking down the gallery of long white drapes, or the sound of the ice cracking, or of rain taking over the soundtrack

As far as the music is concerned, I originally wanted to use Arvo Part’s Cantus, which l had been listening to over and over again. l even got permission, but it became clear that to use it would create as many problems as it would solve – it was a piece in its own right that couldn’t be cut or repeated. So I started on a journey to find out what it was about that piece of music that was appropriate to the film, and then to look for another way of achieving this.

What l discovered was that a lot of the music I had been listening to for pleasure, and as a sort of spiritual reference for the film, was based on an A-minor triad, or the related C-major triad. This seemed too much of a coincidence, so I drew up a chart of the score and we mapped out a structure based on the A-minor triad and related keys. And the more I got to think about the score, the more I was hearing the music in my head.

So eventually we decided to go into a studio to record what I was hearing using my own voice. I recorded an S-track voice piece for each of the major cues and David Motion wrote instrumental parts around them. Some of the voice parts were lost, but others became the background to the cues, or were fitted around section he had written and arranged. Fred Frith then improvised some guitar lines around the cues.

The end song was written slightly differently: I wrote the lyrics and suggested the key; David provided some musical cues on tape; Jimmy Sommerville wrote the vocal tune and then David arranged it. It was a score that was made possible through the use of a sampler and the editorial capacity that machine gives you. It was a score that was constructed rather than composed in the usual way.

Orlando (1992)

The novel ends in 1928, but in order to be faithful to the idea of making the film contemporary, it had to finish in 1993. How did you devise the last section?

It reached its final form after everything else had been shot. What became dear was that the correct way to approach it was not just to stick an ending on the story, but to think myself into Virginia Woolf’s consciousness. What might she have done with the story had she lived until 1993? It was a strange game, a sort of second guessing that consisted in me re-reading what she had written after Orlando; her thoughts on issues post-1928.

It seemed clear that I had to refer to the First and Second World War and the effect they had on consciousness. And because the book itself is almost a running commentary on the history of literature as the vehicle for consciousness, there had to be a cinematic equivalent of what had happened to that kind of consciousness post-war. In other words, the fracturing of that consciousness and the arrival of the electronic age.

What do you want the audience to feel when they’ve reached the end?

I hope they are thrilled by the rush into the present, by the notion that finally we are here, now. And a feeling of hope and empowerment about being alive and the possibility of change – which comes through the word of the song and the expression on Orlando’s face. I want people to feel humanly recognised, that their inner landscape of hope and desire and longing has found some kind of expression on screen. A gut feeling of release and relief and hope.

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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