Sally Potter had been working on another script when “The Party” came to mind as the murmurs of the 2015 General Election in England had somehow made their way into the quiet quarters she keeps in France to write. What she had been writing was larger in scale and serious-minded, but for a filmmaker who challenges herself with each production, whether it was the bold gender-flipping in her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” casting herself in “The Tango Lesson” to capture the epiphanies she had learning the dance, having Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian embark on an affair entirely in iambic pentameter in “Yes,” the idea of something smaller offered the ability to go deeper – not only into the lives of the seven people she assembles for a celebration gone horribly awry in “The Party,” but for herself as an artist.
“I decided I really wanted to do something that was really different, that was designed to give people a cathartic laughter as medicine in kind of sick times, and to make a link between the politics of health care and the ill health of political life,” Potter said recently of the film, which was inspired by seeing the election between David Cameron and Ed Miliband become a battle of personalities when the two fought to be seen as centrists, abandoning the positions that liekly brought them into politics. “It grew from there.”
Like the kudzu that crawls up the trellis in the back patio of the tony London flat shared by Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Bill (Timothy Spall), “The Party” is as likely to ensnare audiences as readily as the wickedly fun idea insinuated itself into Potter’s mind, a sprawling satire that takes no prisoners, literally starting at the tip of a loaded gun and has killer instincts that only sharpen from there. The soiree is intended as a coronation for Janet, recently appointed to become the Shadow Minister of Health in Parliament, but all the other attendees have news of their own, with Bill’s fellow academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) announcing they’re expecting while Janet’s bestie from college April (Patricia Clarkson) jubilantly declares she’s likely separating from her Eastern spiritualist husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) right in front of him. Far quieter is Bill, who suspiciously appears to want to get something off his chest as well, but confines himself to the living room where he listens to an eclectic mix of Bo Diddly and Carlos Peredes albums from his collection, and making a last minute entrance is Tom (Cillian Murphy), who couldn’t get his wife Maryann to attend and anxiously awaits a reckoning of some kind for reasons that gradually reveal themselves over the course of a snappy 71 minutes.
Although the guests may start to find one another insufferable, Potter makes one feel right at home in “The Party,” even perhaps a little too much as uncomfortable conversations commence involving domestic politics, with each of the partners facing down what accommodations they’ve made over the years for one another or more accurately, which ones they haven’t, and national concerns once the National Health Service and the futility of attaining parliamentary accord enter the mix. If “The Party” was born out of a disruption for Potter creatively, it became eerily prescient when the film’s stealth two-week production was interrupted with the Brexit vote, echoing the distance between people’s private beliefs and public stances. Between the two, the writer/director chisels out both a raucous comedy and a seriously provocative consideration of a culture in which striving for the middle has rewarded those who hold extreme positions in attention, but not accomplishment since finding compromise becomes impossible. Still, Potter proves an exception to the idea she puts forth, at least as a filmmaker since “The Party” is every bit as audacious as any of her previous work, with the usual grin that her films inspire with their inventiveness accompanied for the first time by gut-busting laughs.
A year after the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, “The Party” arrives in America and Potter was recently in Los Angeles to talk about having an audible response to one of her films for the first time besides gasps of awe, as well as constructing such a dynamic film in a single setting.
In a certain way, it did. Certainly the dialogue, it was as if the characters were speaking to me and I just had to quickly write them down. But the themes underneath, they are of the moment politically in the atmosphere of divisiveness and people turning against each other having secrets and really struggling to tell the truth to each other or even knowing what the truth is. But I also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just about this exact moment historically, so no political party is named, no politician is named, no date is given. And I hope that means that the themes have a quality that really goes right back to the roots of drama…tragedy, actually, paradoxically, with a one-woman Greek chorus in the form of Patricia Clarkson’s character. And it’s a comedy, except that I don’t think it’s strictly within most comic genres that one could think of.
But as for the speed of how it came out, there was an immediacy, but absolutely the same degree of perfectionism, since you mentioned that word. It was day upon day in the writing first for two years and then a very fast shoot and lots of finessing in post-production.
I had read elsewhere that your production designer Carlos Conti had come in early to create a miniature set to figure out physical movement within the room such as blocking – is that as early as the script stage?
The script was already done, but at the beginning, Carlos and I both thought it should be shot on locations, so we visited a lot of locations and it became clear that every single one seemed to be under a flightpath. [laughs] And really there was one rule about how to shoot this, which was we have to be able to just keep going and use every moment for shooting because it was such a short shoot. It was just two weeks. Eventually, we decided the best way to go was a set, but by then, we had researched all these different locations, so the set became an amalgamation of the real spaces and places we had found.
Not at all. It was a way of working with obviously a great deal of handheld camera where before each take, I gave the direction to Aleksei [Rodionov, my cinematographer] who’d follow and enter into [the actors’] emotional space, so to be in a kind of dance with them between the camera and what they were doing, which was often spontaneous. The words were preset – who, what, why and all of that was absolutely worked out, but the exact trajectory of where somebody was or how they would move was very much in the moment.
The transitions between the scenes were so dynamic and often fluid – would you actually have a lot of scenes play out almost simultaneously where you could leave an argument in one room and it overlaps with a conversation in the next?
No, it was shot pretty much in continuity, so it was one scene and then another, according to the editing plan. I knew how the mosaic would be although in the edit room, I changed things slightly, like cutting let’s say a little bit more back and forth between two spaces when things were supposed to be happening simultaneously, but they weren’t shot simultaneously.
Was it interesting to cut a comedy as sharp as this?
It was fabulous. I did quite a lot of test screenings, not because anyone else asked me to, but because I wanted to to see how the timing of the jokes would work with a live audience, or indeed if they would laugh at all. Thank God they did. But what I discovered is that I had cut [some scenes] too tight, which didn’t leave enough room for the audience to laugh so people couldn’t hear the next line, so I discovered the problem of that you’ve got to cut fast enough to start slowing down. At the same time, you’ve got to leave enough breath for people to respond and catch the next line as well.
It looked like you didn’t shoot with more than one camera at a time, but with this cast and so many interesting things going on in a tight space, would you collect footage of reactions to cut back to, if needed?
I’d occasionally have a two camera set-up, particularly in arguments where I wanted to be able to catch the same energy on the other side and have the other person in the frame. That was very useful actually. But in most cases, I don’t like using two cameras, Perhaps we used some [reactions] from two cameras, but on the whole that would [typically] be a dedicated shot.
No, they all appeared quite fast. Cillian Murphy’s character [Tom] went through quite a lot of transformations. At the beginning, I wasn’t quite sure [about Tom] but that became clearer and once I invited [Cillian] to do it and he wanted to do it, I tweaked his part a bit. For example, it was his idea he should be snorting some cocaine as part explanation for this wild desperation. He was very collaborative. It was great. But this notion of this seven-part ensemble, each of whom we would be able to track during this period, that was very appealing. Technically, it was very difficult from a writer’s point of view to keep so many tracks going of equal weight.
It’s interesting to hear you call Patricia Clarkson’s character a Greek chorus, which of course she is, but she’s also a bombthrower, inciting much of the action – did she become useful in creating pivots for the story?
She’s a truthteller. The pivoting happens anyway, but she was one of the easier characters to hear [because] I felt like I had heard these voices, but a lot of what she’s saying are the things people usually don’t say but think rather loud. [laughs] So that was fun to write the unspeakable truths.
At what point does Bill’s record collection come in? It really gives him a voice.
That was there from the beginning. Some of the tracks were in the script, some I found during the shoot and played to the actors so that they would know what would ultimately be on the [film] and maybe one I eventually found in the edit, but it was quite planned actually – Bill’s private score, if you like. Not a film score in the classic sense, but his life in music.
Always. I’ve always preferred working with an international crew, the more mixed the better. We had a Russian DP, an Argentinian designer, a French sound crew, Irish lighting crew, a Danish editing crew and so on. It puts everyone on their toes and it means no rigid habits of how you make a film can come into play. Nobody thinks they’re better than anyone else. It’s a real wake up and I think people are happy when they’re cooperating with each other in many languages. It’s great.
Has it been interesting seeing the reactions to this, playing so well internationally when it’s culturally specific?
Well, it’s the principle. The more culturally specific you are, the more universal the story becomes. But what really surprised me was people laughed in pretty much the same places and in exactly the same way. I’ve been in Spain, in Italy, in Greece, in France, in Denmark and Switzerland and the response was extremely consistent.
Your films never fail to elicit a response, but has being able to hear a reaction with laughter been something different?
I love it. It’s very gratifying. One shouldn’t need to depend on an audible response, but I think laughter is very special. When people laugh, it’s always authentic. Nobody sits in a cinema and does fake laughter, and if it’s authentic, it means something’s really happening inside and it often induces a feeling of happiness. People have actually cured themselves of serious illness through laughter, so it creates a very, very good atmosphere. People come out of the cinema smiling, even if what they’ve looked at is quite tough stuff in a way.
“The Party” opens on February 16th at the Landmark in Los Angeles and the Landmark at 57 West and the Angelika Film Center in New York.