Rage (2009) is the sixth feature film in Sally Potter’s long and varied career. Having burst onto the scene with her short film Thriller in 1979, she broke new ground for women in film with her first feature The Gold Diggers (1982), with its all-female crew. A brilliant adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “unadaptable” classic, Orlando (1993) thrilled critics and audiences alike with its zeitgeist-tapping androgynous cool, and led to offers from Hollywood. But Potter has stayed resolutely true to her indie roots – which stretch back to mid-1970s performance art “happenings” in evening wear with the Limited Dance Company. Like her film-in-verse Yes (2005), Rage was made swiftly on a shoestring budget with a small cast of dynamic actors. It’s the most immediate of Potter’s films, resonating with our current focus on consumption, whether it’s the credit crunch and bankers’ kickbacks, obesity and anorexia, carbon footprints and wars for oil. What Potter calls her “barefoot cinema” is the perfect response to excess – set in the fashion world, the film strips away labels and hysteria to reveal beauty.
BEV asked Sophie Mayer, author of The Cinema of Sally Potter to interview Sally about Rage. Read on for the full interview.
Sophie Mayer: The idea of a film called Rage has been around in your work since The Tango Lesson (1997), where there’s a film-within-a-film about murders in the fashion world. Why make it now?
Sally Potter: The YES (2005) website gave me such a profound experience of connectedness. It became the key to the storyline, and to a credible point of view: a child who might be allowed in for a school project about fashion. People would give him an interview on his cellphone and not take it seriously – but he might be the only one actually listening to them.
SM: How did you know that the film’s radical format, where we see only Michelangelo’s cellphone interviews, was going to work?
SP: Because I got to know Simon Abkarian [who plays Merlin, the designer] so well so well while making YES, I was able to ask him to come and test the idea a couple of times. He’s a wonderful workshop collaborator because of his background in theatre. He knows how you develop something in the privacy of a workshop, the freedom it affords you so that the flame can come alight, and he gives himself very generously to that.
SM: Rage is a murder mystery set in the New York fashion world, where you never see New York, the fashion world, the murders, the murderer, or even the main character. Why?
SP: New York carries the sense that it’s the centre of gravity and attraction, but it’s also an over-visible world. Likewise, everybody thinks they know what the fashion world is, because we’ve been so oversaturated with images of it that we can no longer see beyond them. Thus the solution of making it invisible.
SM: Not entirely invisible, because of the incredible costumes! Were designers keen to have their clothes showcased in the film?
SP: Designers were very generous; we got access to some very exciting studios and archives. The costumes became the set. They had to be very precise so as not to give away too much about what was happening offscreen.
SM: Speaking of offscreen, whodunit?
SP: I don’t think I’m going to answer that! I hope there’s plenty of clues in the film already. The idea was that at the end you would feel that anybody could have done it, and that they were all responsible.
SM: Why make a whodunit if not for the big reveal?
SP: A whodunit is called a mystery because it evokes the unknown. I thought it would be interesting to work with a very known genre, but with an unknown aesthetic and form. It provided a very useful structure for an invisible world.
SM: Yet the world is palpable to the viewer, as are the events offscreen. How did you do that?
SP: It was very peculiar, working with an invisible story. It was if there was a whole story that had been written and then lifted out, leaving an invisible trace, being people’s thoughts and what they had to say. We reconstructed it in the cutting room, and then again through the sound. So there are clues in the soundtrack and in what people say, so that by the end you feel as if you’ve seen it all, but in fact it’s the power of your own imagination working with the clues that you’re given to construct the story.
SM: And the story is told by an ensemble of characters – there’s no particular protagonist – which is quite unusual.
SP: Of course there is the central protagonist, invisible and unheard throughout: a protagonist in the sense that he is the witness of each of the characters, a journalist covering the story over seven days. It’s about giving equal weight to the unsung ones as to the famous ones. His interest in everyone around the shoot redresses the fact that any industry or sector is interdependent, but that’s not reflected in how we perceive the differing values of work.
SM: Was that reflected in how this film was made?
SP: Everyone worked on very equal terms for very little money. Each actor gave themselves completely to the situation without complaint and with great dedication, even when having to get changed in a toilet.
SM: It sounds like just the film for the “credit crunch” era. Was that part of your intention?
SP: I saw it as a celebration of poor cinema. It’s the lowest budget – in real terms – feature film I’ve ever made. there’s something very astringent about that, and it’s a good means of survival, you can adapt to lean times and still make stuff. What was taken away was effects and the waste of big-budget cinema, the masses of visual and aural information, stripped back to something simple and direct and profound about human interactions and communication.
SM: What did that mean in terms of the production?
SP: It was shot in a series of photographers’ studios with a greenscreen. On set, I was operating the camera, and Jean-Paul Mugel was holding a boom and sound mixing at the same time. So much is done through the voices of each actor, so a lot depended on Jean-Paul’s incredible sound recording skills. On-set it was the three of us. It was very intimate, and also a direct reproduction of the situation that we were apparently looking at, which is one person filming and one person talking.
SM: So the film was shot as if you were Michelangelo?
SP: With my attention and gaze was focused on the actor, I could embody Michelangelo: I could move instinctively in relation to the actor’s body and what they were doing. We could immediately talk about things without disrupting the usual on-set atmosphere, and that was a luxury. All of it felt like a luxury, a very testing luxury because it meant that the actor and I knew when things weren’t working, or when it wasn’t truthful. It was about going back to what’s enriching about film: seeing the soul of another person, the richness and glory that lies behind the human face.
SM: You can feel that in the performances – they’re so direct! How did you create them ?
SP: The first challenge was to learn the texts, which were much longer than we ended up using in the film. The second was to set up an imaginary geography with each actor, to say: “The show is happening over there, let’s find an eyeline for that when you’re looking off.” There was nowhere to hide. No set, no other actor, no cutaways, no nothing.
SM: It must have been an intense experience for the actor facing you.
SP: It was an extremely courageous thing to do for each actor. Complete exposure, going right back to the essence of performing. And we were working within a tight discipline, with two days per actor to shoot the scenes, and usually half a day of preparation. With no set there was enough time to do as many takes as necessary for the actors; that meant we went through the whole film in two days, fourteen times, which is like running a marathon as a sprint fourteen times over. It made for a very intense actor-director bonding, partly because I was physically so close to them.
SM: Did you have certain actors in mind when you were writing?
SP: When I was writing Mona Carvell, I could hear Judi’s tone of voice because her own voice is so beautiful, with so many harmonics in it, but also it’s as if it’s part of her very being how to work with irony.
SM: What about Lettuce? Did you always intend to cast a real model in that role? And to cast a man in the role of Minx?
SP: I think it’s quite hard for us to believe someone is a model unless they look like they really could be. When I met Lily it became clear that she was perfect; and she understood the film because she’s lived it! It took me a while, though, to figure out with Minx that I could work with male beauty as a reflection of the construction of female beauty. Jude seemed an obvious choice, because his beauty has been held against him.
SM: Beauty has always been important in your work, although some people might see a film about fashion as frivolous in the midst of global crisis…
SP: I like clothes, fabric, colour: an interest in clothes is about the human body. I think what the fashion industry has become, as an obsession with appearance, is a distortion of a primary, simple pleasure in clothing the body. At its extreme, it’s the most destructive, obsessive, greedy, pernicious horror show not only in terms of the effect on people who try to make themselves look good, but in terms of how and where things are produced, under what conditions. And that’s the heart of our current situation.
SM: The film’s title suggests protest and anger, but we rarely see them onscreen. What, for you, is the essence of the film’s rage?
SP: There’s a pun in it about “all the rage” and all that the word fashion really means. Actually there’s a lot of tenderness in the film, which comes through the characters. The rage is the long, quiet rage underneath, a sort of volcanic heat of rage against an economy that has led to the individual characters in this story, to their particular kind of suffering which is about being driven by surface. They are caught up in the world that ruins lives and turns people into things, and forgets what’s important about being alive.
Rage is the first film to premiere exclusively on mobile phones. From September 21st it will be shown in seven daily episodes across one week. It will also be broadcast live from the BFI to dozens of cinemas across the UK on September 24th as part of the world’s first multi-venue interactive premiere. A Q & A with the director and cast will then follow.
Sophie Mayer’s book The Cinema of Sally Potter is available for purchase now.
For more information on this and other feature films by women filmmakers, visit out First Weekenders Club page.