You Are Poets

You Are Poets

Acclaimed English filmmaker Sally Potter is perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated film 'Orlando' with Tilda Swinton, and 'The Man Who Cried' with Cate Blanchett. She has composed music for her films since the early 90s and just released her debut album, 'Pink Bikini', an evocative semi-autobiographical journey through her rebellious, turbulent youth in 1960s London. For Violet issue 20, actress and filmmaker, Hailey Benton Gates, spoke with Potter about the myths of age, surrendering to the process of perpetual change, and life's 'pink bikini moments'.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 20
Published: 2024/01/25
Updated: 2024/02/15
Elena Rendina
Leith Clark
Hailey Benton Gates

HAILEY BENTON GATES: Hello. How are you?

SALLY POTTER: I'm fine. I'm good. How are you?

I’m so honoured to meet you. Thanks for taking this time.

I wanted to start by talking about your album title, Pink Bikini. When I was young, my father had records I would go through, and there was one cover burned into my brain—the cover of Nancy Sinatra's 'Sugar'. She's posed in this pink bikini and kind of pulling down the bottoms a little bit. I thought it was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen in my life. I remember being so disappointed by the music associated with the photo because it didn't seem like there was any kind of cohesion. But Pink Bikini, that's my first thought when I think of it. I wonder what “pink bikini” means to you?

The Pink Bikini song is one of the songs on this album that’s virtually a documentary. It really happened. I really was 16. I really did see a pink bikini in a shop window on the way to the station where I was going with my mother and brother. I insisted on going into the shop and meeting them at the station. I nearly missed the train and so on. Somewhere, but I haven't managed to locate it, there's a photograph of me in that pink bikini. I think what it meant to me was everything I hoped I might be or become. Wild, free, sensual, daring, and somehow managing to turn my redhead, freckly, short self into Brigitte Bardot by just wearing a pink bikini and so on.

At the same time as having those fantasies about a possible self or an imaginary self, I was also a very politicised, young, 16-year-old person. I think I was inhabiting those contradictions, which gave me certain kinds of feelings of shame. Why did I want to be something other than what I was? Why did I want to be the kind of person that would go golden brown, instead of red and freckly? All of those things.

Nevertheless, that's what it was. This kind of lust was there for this pink bikini—to get it, to own this thing that I would wear on my body. And then everything that happened, the song describes—being shamed and so on.

It's so evocative, that line where it says, “You say that you can't tell the bikini’s pink because…”

“I’m so pink, top to toe, the bikini doesn't show.” Right.

Was there a moment in your adult life where you felt like you did have a “pink bikini moment” where you felt like, this is how I imagined my sexuality or my prowess would present itself.

I remember somebody saying to me at one point, “you are too young for everything.” And not quite right. Then you hit a certain age, the age is 33, and from 34 onwards, you're on the downward slope of being too old for everything. This notion that there’s an age at which you become, so to speak, a woman who is considered glorious. The kind of self-consciousness about both age and femaleness. I remember that. And I also remember being about 32 or 33 and feeling pretty good in my body.

Was it a pink bikini moment? Not really.

The Jesus year—33.

Yeah, exactly.

I’m in my Jesus year.

You are well congratulated. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Thank you.



Of course. It's all nonsense, by the way—of course there are many other ages at which aspects of pink bikini come into being. And what are they, really? I think I was aware of the irony. Was I aware at 16? I'm not sure.

Possibly the irony of the word ‘pink’, and how it's associated with femininity. I don't think every little girl in the world wore a pink tutu and things when I was at that age, as they now seem to do. Or fairy skirts and things in the street. That kind of indulgence and attraction to that colour, I think, as I would quite quickly have become very ironic about it and mocking of it. Also of the notion of the unattainable idealised self who would be attractive to all.

I quite quickly rejected, at least ideologically, the notion of that being a goal in life. Very quickly, probably even at 16, my goal was not who I am, but what I do. That was always the emphasis—not what I am physically, but again, what I can do, what interventions I can make in the world. More specifically, what music I can make, or the choreography I can do, or the film I can make, or the piece of writing I can do.

I like this concept that you spoke about inappropriate ages. That you were always doing things at the wrong age, or what some people might say would be the ‘wrong’ age.

It's funny that you talk about 33. I always felt like I had a kind of age dysmorphia, where I felt like I looked like Anne Bancroft in The Graduate or something, and then I would go to the mirror and wash my hands in the bathroom and see the face of a child and be like, oh god. Thirty-three is the first time I've ever felt like, okay, I'm kind of like my age.

I wonder what your relationship is to that concept of inappropriate age, and how you think about age at the moment?

Most ideas about age always seemed to me, and continue to seem to me, nonsense. Like a performance, just as gender is often a performance, but a sort of performance of what you're supposed to be and do at a certain age, that may or may not be relevant to who and what you are.

If, like me, you don’t have children, you don’t go through the rites of passage that locate you and tell you what age you are. You are a child, you are a daughter, you become a mother. So, you are no longer a child and then you are possibly a grandparent or you’re taking a child to school. You are part of a whole set of layerings that tell you where you are in the spectrum of age and what the appropriate behaviour is. Not that everyone sticks to those rules at all, but I think a lot of those stereotypes are very imprisoning. Not helpful at all.

I’m intrigued by the idea that you suddenly feel at home in your body, or at least that the mirror is reflecting back to you, “oh, I’m this.” Whereas before, it wasn’t reflecting back something that seemed accurate. I rarely find that the mirror—literal mirrors—reflect back to me anything resembling what I feel on the inside. I remember asking my grandmother who I adored, when she was in her nineties, “what do you feel like?” and she said, “well, I feel about 17.” I don’t feel any different on the inside except that there’s this little problem or that little problem, but the essential sense of self does not have an age. It’s a continuity in a way of non-self. It’s a continuity of interaction with the world and with others that has no self and no location on the age spectrum.

That stayed with me very powerfully. I’ve certainly known individuals who completely explode the notion of what age is. I was fortunate to become very close to John Berger, for example, in the last 20 years or so of his life. He died at 90, I guess. The feeling I had with him was that I had never met anybody as exuberant and curious about every aspect of life, not just great art, or important politics, but also shopping in the market for the best carrots that day or apples or something—a kind of absolute joy of interaction with daily life and purpose in life. That seemed to me like the qualities that would normally be associated with somebody when they’re about seven.

For girls, in my memory anyway, there is this terrible wake-up moment around 11 or 12 of moving into puberty, depending on the age of the person. It’s when the infinite possibility of everything-ness up to then within the strictures of given life shrink massively into female behaviour, or the biological realities of physical change, and the limitations that come with that. I think age then is marked by those big biological changes. Other than that, I think a lot of it is just nonsense and if one can keep one's curiosity and, in a way, adoration for all things living, then age really isn't relevant.

It seems like you have a lot of access to that teenage brain, though? I mean, based on your record. For me, I think maybe not enough time has passed, but I feel like travelling back to those moments would be a little harrowing.

It was totally harrowing travelling back to those moments. But the wonderful thing about travelling back to harrowing moments is you are then making them into something—it's a transformative process. The harrowing moments become material or research rather than just reliving a harrowing moment.

I’ve kept the memory, possibly, of all ages very alive but particularly the teenage years. What I found so interesting was how the scale of the intensity of the things that happened to me and the feelings I had, and probably the feelings all teenagers have, were so strong that it was the stuff of tragedy and comedy, of course. This is the big scale stuff. I was eager, in a way, to dignify that lightly in using the structure of song. What song can you uniquely do?


Do you have writing from that time of yours?

I do have some, yes. I was always writing poems.

What's it like to read?

The poems I wrote about that age? I read a lot of poetry at that time, and they're more like concrete poetry. Nothing was rhyming. I wasn't interested in rhyming at that point—I had been when I was younger and I turned to that later, but they're quite abstract. I just was in love with words.

It’s what happens when you move them around and evoke mysterious states of mind and feeling, without pinning them down polemically or literally in any way. That's what they look like. They're ambitious, the poems. I think my desire at that age and much younger was to take myself seriously as an artist and be taken seriously as an artist. That wasn't always mirrored back by the outside world, but that was what I wanted.

When you make films—I just finished shooting my first feature…

Great! That's an Important moment.

I'm interested in what your relationship is to control, because after having done that, and now I see that you're making this record, I wonder if there must be some pleasure in making something that requires fewer people?

Oh no, listen, it's much easier to control. I wrote that whole album either here or in my hut in France with my keyboard, my computer, Logic Pro, my lovely microphone, boom—total control. Fabulous. You can get the whole thing, at least the demo. Then of course you bring in musicians to interpret. But what's your question about control?

When do you feel most in control, and when do you feel most out of control? And what's your relationship to those feelings? Do you like being in control? Do you like a sense of not being able to wrangle something?

It's quite a big subject, actually.

First of all, I'll just accept the word ‘control’ for a moment and then I'll break apart the word. If I accept the word ‘control’, I would say the closest to my experience of being in control of my medium is when I'm writing. In other words, it’s just me, pencil, and paper, and it usually is pencil and paper in the early stages. Then I'm in an absolute one-on-one relationship with the coming-into-manifestation of an idea. There's no one else I'm referring to. I'm totally alone in a room for month upon month upon month while I do it. It's just me in relation to what I'm producing and then refining and so on. I can't turn to anybody else. I can't blame anyone else. I can't ask anyone else to help, really. That's it.

Now, can I call that control, or can I call that solitude, or can I call that a sort of intimate relationship with what I'm producing? I'm not sure. As soon as other people are involved, that is ruptured. That status is ruptured. The job, over the years, has seemed to me, as the director, to keep that sense of holding—that writerly sense of holding the vision or the concept. And I'm showing this around my head because it always feels like this enormous, enormous world that no one else can see that I'm carrying through to the end. Other people can only see parts of it. Then my job is to somehow coax, seduce, inspire, and draw out what I can already see needs to come into being, but through the hands, skills, bodies, whatever, of others. Then it becomes not a matter of control, but a matter of subtle psychology, of bringing other people into a vision in such a way that they feel it is their own, but they are not going off on some kind of tangent. That means it's just a conglomeration of bits. And there is a magical feeling, I think, when I feel that I'm somehow coaxing out of people exactly what I had written in solitude.

But don't think it's about controlling other people—I think it's much more a question of inspiring and seducing people into a space and clearly communicating to them what it is we're searching for. And then, of course, things they offer up become part of the mix. I mean, you must've experienced all of this. So where does the question come from you about control?


Dress and beaded scarf SIMONE ROCHA.

I think because I started in theatre as an actor-playwright, there was a lot of control in that space. Then I came out and was acting in other things, and there's kind of a giving up of the self. I mean, for me, it's a little bit sadomasochistic, whereas in one I can guide and in another I have to give over to something.

Surrender. Yeah.

I guess it's more a question of, are there moments in your life where you are surrendering to things in that way, where you don't have the reins? And does that give you pleasure? Does it give you fear?

I prefer to have the reins in my house, but I'm surrendering at the same time to a process of perpetual change. Unpredictability and all the rest of it. I know that once that initial writing solitude thing is there, then it's an opening process as well. Receptivity to accidents, weather, individuals, surprises. Letting the world surprise me as well, and finding ways of incorporating that immediately into the forming of the thing, whatever the thing is, whether that's the music or the film or whatever.

That, I think, is more an improvisatory spirit which is built upon a foundation of preparation in solitude. For example, I have rarely been directed by others. Occasionally, for example, when I have my photograph taken or I think I'm a nightmare to photograph, I know exactly where, what's wrong with the lighting setup or whatever, or the angle of the camera. Oh God. Jesus. I'm just longing to kind of direct it into shape to make it better. That's difficult. Let me think of when else I found pleasure in surrendering to somebody else…clearly not very often.

You describe writing as a kind of listening process and a conduit—that sort of fugue state where something is sort of coming down and through you. Is there anything specifically that you remember reading back that you were shocked by? That you were like, ‘who wrote this?’

I'm always slightly in awe of the fact that things come into being at all when I'm writing. Where did that come from? Suddenly, there it is. I remember when I was writing The Party, for example—I don’t know if you've seen The Party?

I have.

I was very surprised at the ease with which abrasive, cutting sort of speech flowed really naturally. I wasn't expecting that. It didn't quite fit with my self-image or something, but it wasn't me anyway—I was channelling these characters.

I do know that if, when I'm writing, I over-control the writing or try to make it go somewhere I want it to go, that doesn't work. Even within the state of when there's no one else in the room, there's no one else doing this, this is me. I need to, in a way, surrender to the material and where it’s asking me to go.

There is also, I think, that state of relinquishing control in a peculiar way. I was just writing a little thing last night here and it was going in a direction I wasn't expecting. I was going to sit down and wanted to work around A minor and C and D minor and see what I could do with some soft transitions from one to the next, but it just turned into a completely other thing. That felt like entering a zone of surrender to an idea arriving.

One can start to sound, how can I say, rather New Age and sort of fanciful about these things. Even the word “channelling”—all these things become overused, these words, but nevertheless, there seems to be some truth in the sense that when you're working, you just kind of need to get out of the way of the work to allow it to come into being without all this weird, controlling censorship and tightness.


This is a very different question but sort of around a similar theme—I'm interested in your creative desire for constraints with a movie. Like giving yourself a frame or rules to move through something. Did you do that at all when you were working on the record?

I did. I started out with it being more conceptual. I was going to do a song for every year from birth to age 21, so 21 songs. I did about 40 songs, versions of variations upon the song. Then I gradually realised, in a way, it was over-conceptual. It wasn’t interesting to have a song about being age four. It was interesting but maybe not as interesting as choosing a looser shape with a smaller period of time in a life. So that became the constraint. Then I also constrained the extent of the arrangements. I've written things with many, many more instruments but in this instance, I decided to limit the number of instruments and musicians to create a kind of sound, in a way. To go for the constraints of a certain kind of modest minimalism.

I was aware that this was going to be perceived as a debut album, even though I have put out quite a few soundtrack recordings. So rather than come out guns blazing saying, “here I am, world!” it’s more like, okay, here are some songs. Then that would open the door. Now the next [album], which I've nearly finished writing, can come through with a bit more oomph.

Will you go on tour?

Thus far I've said probably not because I've also got a film in the works, and I feel like I've got so many things to do. I've got a book I'm supposed to be writing. Then I think it's just about scheduling. I remember touring —the demands of touring, and the rehearsing, and getting a group of people together who can possibly make those dates. The musicians I work with tend to be very busy and they're very good, doing all of their own things. Even getting them into the studio to record is tricky enough, so getting people together to tour can be tricky.

The next album was the first one where I can imagine possibly getting up and singing again. Maybe. Other than in the studio, which I love to do, but working with an audience? I don't know.

You get stage fright?

Yes, absolutely.

I've tried, in my life, to never let fear get in the way of actually doing anything, but it's not always very pleasant to feel it that much. I remember when I used to do some one-woman improvised monologues, I would quite regularly throw up before I went on because I really didn't know what I was going to do at all. That was the challenge and the frame, the limitation, which goes back to your previous question about the necessity of those. I find that they [limitations] are always there anyway.

Even if you're making a $201 million blockbuster, it can't be $2 million and one. There's going to be a limit somewhere. Or you can't shoot for five years, you're going to be shooting for X months. My limitations tend to be a bit smaller in scale. The Party had to be shot in two weeks, no more, and had to be shot in one place, no more, and so on to be able to get that group of actors together. But those constraints are useful and inspiring, because you are kicking against them and finding solutions that perhaps would never have occurred to you if you had more freedom.

I love that you’re still committed to making shorts.

Am I committed to making shorts?

I mean, it seems like you still make shorts?

I’ve made one since my early days. Does making a 10-second thing for Instagram count as a short? I'm not sure.

I think that the short is an interesting form. When I did this last one, Look at Me, which originated as part of a long, I was intrigued by what was possible in the short form. I've always been a huge admirer of the short story form, whether it's Chekhov or any of the great female short story writers—American, primarily—or Irish short story writers. I know many but it's a tricky one because I think that I'm somebody who's always had to grapple with insufficient resources to make things as big and as ambitious as I would actually like.

I've tried to make a virtue of that just as Derek Jarman did, who was a pal of mine. He would say, if you've got a paintbrush, you do a painting. If you've got a pencil, make a poem. If you get enough money, you can make a film, but don't let any lack ever stop you from producing, producing, producing. Whatever you work with, what you have. The culture of complaint about not having enough resources, enough support —that's not useful as a modality. It's much better to make a virtue of what one has.

Having said that, every now and then I allow myself five minutes of thinking, ‘if only’. If only somebody had said to me, “Hey, Sally, what do you want to do big? What kind of big thing do you want?”. I would go, right, I’d get a notebook full and I'd be ready to go. I don't, in a way, let myself go there. I think [it’s] the female tendency to shrink the horizons and be modest and all that.

I think one of my favourite films of yours is The London Story.

Oh, okay.

The scope of it feels so grand and there's so much story in a way that I don't want for more.

I'm delighted.

Economic. Yeah.

I'm delighted that you don't want for more.

The backstory is that after my first feature, I was a pariah. Nobody would touch me. It was the first film made by a woman since the Second World War, but it was savaged by mainstream critics at that point. It later became something of a cult film but at the time, it was very difficult. Everything I ever applied for—any grant or any sum of money to do anything—turned down, down, down, down. Rejected, rejected, rejected.

I really felt like I was never going to work again. This is the purpose of my whole life. What am I going to do? With The London Story, I said, “I'll show these fuckers that if they want a story that's a narrative story with pleasure in it—because they found The Gold Diggers unpleasurable, conceptual, and difficult, and Marxist and feminist and all the rest of it—I'll do it. I'll make narrative entertainment and I'll do it for whatever I can raise on my credit card,” because nobody would give me any money for it. I got favours out of people and worked with friends and stuff, but also somehow managed to get permission to film at the real Cabinet Office, the War Office, and these amazing locations. Just stealing them. And in the Royal Opera House! I don’t know how I did it, but anyway…

What about that ice rink?

That ice rink. I think the total budget was less than £7,000, because it was certainly much less than what I would've been able to raise on my credit card, which was probably £1000. Eventually, once I made [The London Story], I managed to sell it, I think, for £7,000 to the Arts Council. But we're talking seriously, seriously do it with nothing and make it look utterly relaxed and as if everything was available, but it really, really wasn’t.

It's extremely glamorous and the politics are doled out in a very almost, I don't know…I never felt like I was being whacked over the head. Very fine-tooth comb.

Yeah, whacking over the head. Never a good plan, really.


Dress and beaded scarf SIMONE ROCHA.

Why do you think we are so satisfied by films ending in dance sequences?

Movement. The pleasure of movement is sort of never ending. Organised movement, as you say, goes into a different part of the brain—the non-whacking part.

It's not like this is a message, it's like this is life. I think the maxim is the essence of cinema is movement. It’s actual people moving in that way. I've never really analysed why it's so satisfying, I just know it's gorgeous. The problem is finding a vocabulary that isn't nostalgic, because the musical form is so dominated by the continuing dance vocabulary of the 40s, 50s, 60s.

In this instance, what was great was working with two non-dancers, absolute non-dancers, but with a wonderful sense of rhythm. Seeing what the vocabulary one could get out of something so simple with what was achievable there. And, I have to say, a dress designed by [costume designer] Sandy Powell that moved so beautifully.

Did you choreograph that piece?

I did it with [choreographer] Jacky Lansley if I recall? Yeah.

That's wonderful. I read that when you were applying for your passport at 16, you wrote as your occupation “filmmaker”?

Yes. The front cover of Pink Bikini is my passport photo from when I was 16. That's the stamp over in the corner, and that was the passport in which it said filmmaker.

Now that you do so many different things, what do you write on your customs form?

I'm not sure that one has to anymore. I don't think you have to sort of say what you are. To keep the peace with people so as not to explain things or make it sound like I'm boasting or something, I usually just say “film director” and leave it at that. At customs, it depends where I'm going. In the States, customs says, ’oh, anything I’ve seen?’

As a filmmaker, you’re covering so many bases anyway. You have to be working with visual composition, you have to work with sound, you have to work with people, and so on and so forth. It covers a lot of bases. Once I say I'm a filmmaker, but I also write music and songs, I see this glazed look come over people's eyes. Enough. They don't need to know.

I'm going to end with one last selfish question because I'm in the middle of my own edit. I've heard you talk about this feeling when you get into the edit that there are so many different films that exist within it.

Have I said that? Yeah.

I might have to correct myself because I think there's one film in there, really. It's a matter of finding it, digging like an archaeologist to find it. Of course, there are infinite possibilities. Digital editing gives one the delusion that there are endless versions because you can make version A, version B, version C, version D, and then too many. It's just an excuse for procrastination.

I think commitment to the notion that there's one. Find that one and then change it and then look at it and go, no, that's not the one. And sort of do another. But I think that's it.

Are you feeling like you've got more than one film in there?

I definitely feel like there's a lot of ways to skin the cat at the moment.

Yes. Are you working with an editor or are you editing yourself?

I'm working with an editor, but I've mostly been making a documentary for the last couple years. I'm very used to writing in the edit. I'm trying to challenge myself not to do that so much.


Because I like to bring in all these disparate elements, and it may not be serving the story at the moment.

Well, I think I found generally as a strategy that it's good for the first cut to stick closely to the script and to the intention. Then observe where it wants to go somewhere else, so to speak. But at least give it a chance to give all that work you did as a writer. You wrote this, so give all that work a chance—let it breathe first.

Having said that, I think there's one film lurking in there, but it can take a while to get there. In other words, I've almost always done several complete versions or gone back and done a complete re-edit from scratch. Depending on the editor I've worked with—different people obviously like to work in different ways. One editor I've worked with—two editors, actually— like to go, in a sense, straight to the final cut. None of this assembly business. That I agree with—a committed cut, even if you then totally destroy it and recut gives you much more feeling of what life is in there waiting to be found. Rather than kind of tiptoeing around it, leaving things over-long and all that.

The general principle I found, which is maybe the case with documentaries, but I’ve made very few of those, is that you can come much later into things and leave things much sooner than you think, generally speaking. The gap you create, the conceptual gap you create, puts breath and air into the thing.

Editing is such a wonderful process and such an agonising process as you let go of the original idea to some degree and find this other thing. It's also such an alchemical process because you can save or transport the performances. You don't have to keep stuff in that doesn't work. You can jettison the stuff you thought was brilliant. All of the above, and then you find something magical. It's absolutely magical. Wonderful. And as you say, it’s actually a continuation of the writing that's no different than documentary. It’s definitively the final draft of the writing.

Sorry, I wanted to avoid talking about Orlando

Thank you.

I was curious if there was ever one question you haven't been asked about it that you wish somebody would ask?

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about it over the years, but I haven't had the opportunity to talk very much about —although I've written about it—the relationship with class in the story. The uncomfortable nature of that, really, that lurks behind the transcendent aspects of the story.

I’ve written songs about that subsequently, that I haven't yet recorded. I'm not quite sure where that's going to go, but it's not like I'm sitting there longing for somebody to ask me or anything. I'm sure you can tell I like being asked questions about stuff, it's great. It's a wonderful opportunity to have a dialogue to figure out what you're thinking by thinking, and having somebody else be interested. I've very rarely ever felt, ‘oh, I wish somebody would ask me X rather than this.’ Every question gives the opportunity to explore.

Well, it's such a pleasure and I hope someday we will meet in person.

I hope so, too.


Blazer, blouse, skirt and gloves ERDEM.


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