You may better know her sister, Dakota, from box-office smashes like “War of the Worlds” and “The Twilight Saga,” but 14-year-old Elle Fanning has already made quite a name for herself among the arthouse set, appearing in such acclaimed works as “Babel,” “Somewhere” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” This month, she takes center stage in a new drama from writer/director Sally Potter entitled “Ginger & Rosa” – a coming-of-age tale set in 1962 London as the threat of the Cuban missile crisis looms overhead.
“Ginger & Rosa” is the seventh feature from Potter, a British filmmaker best known for her 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation “Orlando” (the breakout film for MOMA’s occasional sleeping beauty, Academy Award-winner Tilda Swinton). While Potter insists that “Ginger” contains only slight autobiographical touches, this 90-minute period piece brims with her unabashed activist spirit, poetic sensibilities and fearlessness in exploring complex relationships. It may be her most mainstream film to date, but in some ways, it also feels the most personal.
The East Valley Tribune spoke with Potter ahead of the film’s Valley release this weekend, chatting about Elle Fanning, the writing process and what new perspective age brought to this story.
Q: So to begin with, what inspired you to write “Ginger & Rosa,” and why did this film seem like a good fit for this point in your career?
A: Well first of all, I think it’s not so much a good fit for this point in my career but a good fit for what’s going on in the world right now because in 1962, many people were afraid that the world might come to an end because of nuclear proliferation. I think now many young people are afraid that the world is going to fall apart because of climate change and maybe other reasons, too, such as terrorism. I think dealing with fear of global catastrophe is something that every generation has to face in different ways.
What I tried to do was knit together the fear of things falling apart in personal life – which seems to be where most people experience things most deeply, most profoundly – with events on the other side of the world but with which we’re also intimately connected.
Q: Could you tell me about the casting of Elle Fanning and what qualities of hers really convinced you she was perfect for carrying this film?
A: Well after a casting search in the UK that involved 2,000 girls auditioning one way or another over Facebook and in more conventional auditions, I was introduced to Elle Fanning. I knew her work already on screen from when she was a tiny child in “Babel” and then in “Somewhere.” When I flew to LA to meet her and work on a couple of scenes with her, I was so blown away by her professionalism, her emotional transparency and her willingness to work with such openness to notes. She’s kind of a director’s dream, actually, from that point of view and I fell in love with her as a person. She’s so warm and so adorable. We bonded very, very quickly and I knew instinctively that she would be absolutely perfect for the role and could carry the film in her first leading role.
Q: One line I particularly loved was during a dinner scene when one of the characters remarks, “Is this the Roland whose spell we’ve all been under?” I just thought that summed up his character so well. Could you maybe tell me about the inspiration behind Roland and what you hoped to convey through his character?
A: Well Alessandro Nivola, who plays the role with such integrity and courage and charm, said that what attracted him to the role (of Ginger’s activist father) was that I put the words of truth into the mouth of an untrustworthy character. I really wanted to explore that gap, you know, those contradictions between the ideas that somebody has with the words they say and the actions that they actually perform. The character and the kinds of things he says and does, it’s sort of like a composite of various men that I met growing up and have subsequently seen.
I’ve been really, really fascinated by the fact that nearly all the actors in the film commented on how they loved the part in the script – the part of Roland – for all his shadows, but they all said to me, “I know this man.” It was like there was something recognizable in this character. But you know what? I think it’s recognizable in all of us – this gap between the ideals of ourselves and nature, in a way, and then the blindness that we might have about what’s really under our eyes.
Q: I know that you have said previously that the film contains some autobiographical elements but it mostly comes from your imagination. Would you mind sharing what some of those autobiographical touches were?
A: Well I was younger than the girls in the film – I was about 12 during the Cuban missile crisis but I had already been on ban-the-bomb marches when I was like 10 and 11. I was very, very concerned as a young girl about the bomb and aware of its devastating consequences. That part of it – the experience of being on peace marches, which was the first ever big protest in the UK and awareness of the bomb – that’s sort of autobiographical. I also always wrote poems as a young girl so that, too. And of course I had best friends. I certainly remember the passion of friendship between girls is amazing, it’s sort of underestimated but it’s really kind of epic. So those were all starting points. And we grew up with a media that was freethinking and bohemian, you know, left of center.
Q: I know that you grew up during that time but could you tell me about your research process and making sure that all the small details in the film were historically accurate?
A: Yes, well I do have my own memory, of course, of a different kind of London and a different period, but I also watched many movies from that period. It was a very interesting period in UK filmmaking – great black-and-white classics like “The Pumpkin Eater” or “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” I also looked up a ton of photographic records of the time – of the streets, of the people, of the faces, the clothes, and watched some documentaries as well about the ban-the-bomb marches. There’s a very good one made by Lindsay Anderson. So I did, I amassed a great body of visual material to make sure of authenticity, although of course, it was never attempting to be – how can I say – a documentary about the period. It was always going to be a work of the imagination but it needed to be real in all its details and needed to have nothing that would stand out as wrong.
Q: Of all the supporting characters, I would probably say I found Bella to be the most interesting. Could you tell me about how Annette Bening came on board?
A: Well Bella is an entirely fictitious character that kind of emerged under my pen. Annette read the script and fell in love with the character, but I think more importantly, probably the film as a whole and the project as a whole. She’s one of those actors that seem to have no vanity or narcissism whatsoever. She just wants to participate in something interesting, whether the part is small or large. She read the script and responded very strongly to it, so we set up a meeting and got along very well and that was it.
Q: How would you say age might have influenced your perspective of this story, as compared to if you had made this film 20 or 30 years ago?
A: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know; I tend to think that age is to some degree an illusion. I’ve heard the film described, for example, as a coming-of-age story, but I’m certainly not sure if I’ve yet come of age, whatever that is. I think the line between childhood and adulthood is often an artificial one. There are some real physical changes that happen but age, other than that, is a state of mind. Maybe what an accumulation of years has done has made me more compassionate to the weaknesses of others and to their flaws because we’re all flawed. Maybe that enabled me to write in a way that felt nonjudgmental of each of the characters and compassionate toward their difficulties.
Q: Just to wrap things up, are there any films that you’ve seen recently that you’ve especially enjoyed or would recommend?
A: I enjoyed “Amour” – well, enjoyed is perhaps not the right word because it’s quite a difficult film [Laughs.] I enjoyed its tenderness and I enjoyed looking at very much older people on screen, that was kind of beautiful.
“Ginger & Rosa” is playing at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale. For more information about the film, visit www.gingerandrosa.com.