The Director's Chair Interviews

Seven Questions with Sally Potter of "The Tango Lesson"
by Augusta Palmer

Click here for Sally Potter films, books, and soundtracks

In "The Tango Lesson", another ambitious and bi-continental fiction feature from the creator of "Orlando", director Sally Potter and dancer Pablo Veron play versions of themselves to tell a story which centers on the struggle between leading and following -- in dancing, filmmaking and life.

indieWIRE: It's not uncommon to see people who are triple threats - actors, singers, and dancers - but you're a quintuple threat in this film because you wrote and directed it as well as singing, dancing, and acting in it. How did you manage wearing all those hats?

Potter: You simply don't sleep. Directors never get to sleep anyway. You simply dedicate every precious moment to shooting. Actors and dancers, on the contrary, need sleep. They have a lot of down time, usually. The amount of time the camera is actually turning is relatively tiny. The ultimate problem for many actors is learning how to pace yourself, waiting five hours for your close-up. The difference is I didn't have any down time. In between being in front of the camera I was running around doing all the things I always do as a director. One minute you're looking at a button on someone's coat, deciding whether it should be bigger or smaller, brighter or darker; the next minute, somebody's hair; the next minute at a change in location, the budget, the shooting schedule; the next minute at the deep psychology of a scene. Now that means that you're already wearing quite a lot of hats, so to put on another hat and be a performer, paradoxically, is not such a huge leap.

iW: Do you think being a dancer actually helped you make decisions about shooting?

Potter: I think it would have been impossible to do it without being a dancer. You have to know what dancers go through, what they can and cannot do realistically and then transfer that understanding to the camera, to the relationship between the dancers and the camera. I don't know how one would do it without a knowledge of choreography.

iW: Why did you make the choice to cast yourself in the film?

Potter: Well, I'm not sure who could have played me better. There was a kind of inevitability about it, really. It had to be someone close to my age, in order to have the life experience to be an experienced director. It had to be someone who was English to create the maximum cultural contrast with the fiery Latin American (Pablo Veron). And someone who had already reached a professional level at the authentic Argentinean tango, which takes at least 2-3 years of studying, so that in the story we can see somebody graduate from the stumbling first steps to credibly performing on stage. Now, to try and get all of those three ingredients in one person. . .

There are lots of wonderful actresses out there who might well have played a better version of me, or a different version; but there weren't any out there who at this point in time could fulfill all those requirements. But, you know, it wasn't just that. I think its that I was truly indivisible from the story that was being told. We're watching a film director thinking about, imagining, struggling with how to turn what's in her head into a film; how to move from looking, from the gaze, to being looked at.

iW: How close is the film's version of Sally Potter to you?

Potter: Impossible to measure, really, because it's not a documentary. We all know documentaries can lie. But this wasn't even planning to be a documentary: it looks like a feature film, it has the lights the cameras, the changes in location, the music, the sound effects, everything. But the feeling is essentially real, even if things have been altered a bit to make it follow the rules of fiction and storytelling.

iW: That's interesting because I think most people might have a difficulty with that lack of separation between your real life and the film; but you seem to like that confusion.

Potter: Well, "like" isn't quite the right word. When I first saw this film with the public and started getting comments, and I realized that people assumed every thing was true, I went into shock because I had always assumed that on some level they would realize that it's a play or a game. But, on the other hand, I didn't want to make something at arm's length, that's ironic or satirical. This is very much of my heart and maybe the only way the story could work was through the real fragility of the characters and find their own struggles mirrored in them. From that point of view, I'm happy about the reality people see because it means that the story is working. From the point of view of the confusion between reality and fiction and the amount of exposure this brings, I've realized that it's something I have to accept.

iW: How did the film's multiple locations [London, Paris, Buenos Aires] effect production planning and funding?

Potter: Well, after "Orlando" it was quite simple, because"Orlando" was shot in Russia on the frozen sea of St. Petersburg, in the deserts of Uzbekhistan, and in England. We shot on three continents in the space of 10 weeks, covered 400 years of history and a gender change. "the Tango Lesson" was a piece of cake in comparison.

Christopher Sheppard (the film's producer) invented this (multinational) production structure out of necessity for "Orlando". We discovered that if you spread the risk over six production companies, each one is more relaxed because they haven't had to invest everything they have. They get the whole film back for their territory in exchange for having only financed a little bit of it. And that's a very good deal for them, but its also a good deal for the filmmaker. Because they're all sharing responsibility, they don't ask for control. So as a director I'm very free. And artistic freedom is what any director wants above all.

So, it [having multiple locations & multinational financing] works both ways: it creates bureaucratic and administrative headaches for the production team with laws and currencies; but that is creative producing -- finding a solution and a financial structure that allows your film to be made the way it should be made.

iW: My favorite scene in the film is the dance sequence which takes place on moving walkways at an airport. How did that scene evolve?

Potter: I wanted to make a scene about good-byes. The traditional film location for a good-bye scene used to be train stations. There's a feeling with the train pulling out of the station, the bittersweet moment of separation. But I wanted to make a romantic scene in what is, in fact, a very unromantic location for good-byes, with hard shiny surfaces that have been depersonalized. And I wanted to play on all those escalators and travelators. I feel like a kid inside because I want to walk the wrong way down the escalators and slide down the banisters. It's like a giant playground which none of us are allowed to play in. So I took Pablo to the location and we played around there and worked out a scene. But the scene that ends up in the film was done in one take at the very end of the shooting day just as the light was about to fade.

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