Acclaimed director Sally Potter on redheads, the 1960s, and 'Ginger and Rosa'

Growing pains: Rosa (Alice Englert) and Ginger (Elle Fanning)
Courtesy A24 Films

It's the 1960s, nuclear war is a real possibility, and nuclear-family war is an absolute certainty, at least in the London house occupied by Ginger (Elle Fanning), her emotionally wounded mother (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks), and her narcissistic-intellectual father (Alessandro Nivola).

In Ginger and Rosa, a downbeat coming-of-age tale from Sally Potter (1992's Orlando), Ginger's teenage rebellion quickly morphs into angst when her BFF Rosa (Beautiful Creatures' Alice Englert, daughter of Aussie director Jane Campion) wedges her sexed-up neediness between Ginger's parents. Hendricks (playing the accordion — just like Joan!) and Annette Bening (as an American activist who encourages Ginger's political-protest leanings) are strong, but Fanning's powerhouse performance is the main focus — though even she's occasionally overshadowed by her artificially scarlet hair.

Ahead of the film's release Fri/22, I spoke with Potter about teen drama, redheads, and more.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Many, many films tell coming-of-age stories and tales of female friendship. What sets Ginger and Rosa apart from the rest?

Sally Potter I think what makes it different is that it links the transition in the personal life of two girls with the transition in the world outside. A global crisis as well as a personal crisis. So it's not really just about going through the baptism of fire of a learning experience. It's really shatteringly transformative, as the girls try to grapple with the big questions as well as the smaller questions in their lives.

SFBG The film is set in the 1960s, another favorite era for filmmakers. How do you go about creating a period film that avoids the clichés viewers have come to expect?

SP Research. Research into memory, research photographically, research cinematically. I think clichés come from lack of knowledge. I can remember 1962 — I grew up in London, I was 12 at the time, but I remember the city, how it looked and how it felt. This milieu that the story takes place, this social setting if you like, is one that's very rarely shown onscreen anyway: not much money, but cultured in a certain way. It's a stark, bare aesthetic, with idealistic views about the world.

SFBG Are there autobiographical elements to the story, as there are with the setting?

SP There's some. I mined in my own memory and observation of other peoples' lives as I was growing up, to try and make sure that the story was authentic and as real as possible. But it's a fictional story. I was on the "Ban the Bomb" marches as a young child and a very young teen, and I do remember the Cuban missile crisis very vividly — the feeling that the world might come to an end.

SFBG The film depends heavily on the casting of leads Elle Fanning and Alice Englert, neither of whom are actually British. Was that a challenge, and how do you guide two young actors (who've just met while working on the film) into portraying a lifelong friendship?

SP I had real rehearsal time. I think that's the key to everything. It was a short shoot, five weeks. We were moving very rapidly through the story, though we did try to shoot [in order] as much as possible. But it totally depended on preparation time, where in the privacy of my studio we could really go deeply into the characters, their lives, and what they felt about each other but were not saying — in a way, exploring the silences between the words.

I did lots of preparing with both [actors], one-on-one and together, and Elle and Alice bonded very quickly through this deep and vigorous work we were doing together. And we had a lot of fun as well. There was a lot of laughter in between [scenes], and hugging, and so on. It was a very warm atmosphere in rehearsal and on the set.

SFBG I'm assuming you're a Mad Men fan...

SP Of course!

SFBG It was nice to see Christina Hendricks playing a completely different kind of role here.

SP Absolutely. Showing a whole other part of her range, something that's much more subtle, and much less depending on her appearance, although of course she always looks beautiful, but it's not so much about the outside. It's much more about the hidden world of the character that she's grappling with.

SFBG I maybe shouldn't follow that up with an appearance-related question, but as a redhead (and the daughter of a redhead) myself, I have to ask: why did you choose to have two redheaded characters, and what does red hair mean to you?

SP There's a lot of reasons for having red hair in a film. One is that it photographs absolutely brilliantly, and sort of inflames literally all the colors around it. So if you have red hair against a blue sky or a gray wall, it does something amazing to the retina of the eye, to your experience of the color. Then, there's the fact that redheads are a recessive gene, so it really is a minority. Some redheads, when they're children, are teased for being red. But visually it already kind of sets somebody apart as being slightly different.

I have to say — there is an autobiographical element because I grew up a redhead myself, with a redheaded brother also. So I remember the feeling of what that meant, this sort of funny mixture of special but also teased for this standout red hair.

GINGER AND ROSA opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

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