The 1992 release of Orlando propelled director Sally Potter to forefront of independent filmmakers. She had achieved the seemingly impossible task of bringing to the screen Virginia Woolf’s fantastical 1928 novel about a 16th-century English nobleman who lives through three centuries, while aging only three decades and changing gender in the process. Not only did she create a sumptuous historical epic with independent financing (it marked the first film co-production with Russia), she also retained the wit and tongue-in-cheek lightness of the original, expanding Woolf’s story into the 20th century as well. The movie also launched the career of Tilda Swinton, the incandescent Scottish actress who played Orlando, as both male and female.
Potter had begun making experimental movies as a teenager in England and made her first full-length feature film The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, in 1983. She had also pursued a career as a musician as well. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a two-week retrospective of Potter’s four-decade avant-garde career, including her latest work Rage, a set of confessional vignettes about a New York fashion event seemingly recorded by a schoolboy on his cellphone, which was initially released on mobile phone applications prior to a theatrical release last year.
Swinton, who was trained for the stage, began appearing in movies in her mid 20s. Starting with Caravaggio in 1986, she worked almost exclusively with iconoclast British filmmaker Derek Jarman, making seven films with him over nine years up until his death in 1994. Since Orlando, Swinton’s work has encompassed big budget productions such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Michael Clayton as well as independent projects like Female Perversions, Young Adam, and the current Italian movie I Am Love, in which she plays a Russian-Italian matriarch who falls passionately in love with her son’s best friend.
Potter and Swinton were in New York recently to attend the opening of the MoMA retrospective, and to help publicize the Sony Pictures Classics re-release of Orlando. Although they have pursued separate paths since making the movie, these two remarkable women still have the easy camaraderie of old friends, as they look back for us on their two-decade old artistic collaboration.
Gerard Raymond: Would you say Orlando is a marker of some kind in your respective careers?
Tilda Swinton: It was the first of a kind of working experience that I have come to make bedrock of my working life—which is a long, very, very close collaboration with a filmmaker on an impossible film! [laughs] This was the first Sisyphean task in my now, it feels, pretty much regular day jobs of Sisyphean tasks in collaboration with filmmakers. And very often with relatively inexperienced filmmakers—more so than Sally was at the time. Obviously, it was a very particular working relationship because Sally is a very particular person, but it set a successful working paradigm for me that I have been wedded to ever since. I’ve had a couple of industrial adventures, but that’s not where I live. I live in this kind of adventure.
Sally Potter: It was a turning point, which you can see by looking back. At the time it was just normal. It was the passion of a very long road, and enormous amounts were learned during it. I think in the eyes of the world what was different was this one went wider, broader, and was more visible and was more accessible. But we didn’t know that. It was so unknown how it was going to be received. I remember sitting in the van before we went into the first screening in Venice, sweating palms—“Are they going to like it, are they going to like it?”—and then coming out afterwards and saying, “They seem to like it!” But that’s the big difference in a certain sense, the catapulting into this very public place after years and years of Tilda working in one area and my years working in another area. This was not actually for either of us a first film or a first working experience by a long way, but that’s how it was perceived because we were suddenly so visible.
TS: But also necessarily, because of its subject. It did demand us to go to a scale that neither of us had been to. It was a big leap. We were in such beginners’ minds on this film, and I say that with such fondness.
GR: Perhaps it was that novice approach that helped you make such a film. Could you approach a project like that again today?
TS: Well, I just did and it worked again. So there you go!
GR: You’re referring to I Am Love, which you also produced?
GR: When did you decide on Tilda Swinton for the part of Orlando?
SP: I can’t remember the exact point. What I did know in the early treatments was that the most important, the overarching task actually, was to find a key collaborator who could embody Orlando’s entire journey. People proposed to me at the beginning that we have two people to play the part and that was absolutely a non-starter. So finding that person was obviously crucial.
I saw Tilda in Man to Man [the solo play by Manfred Karge, in which Swinton played a woman who adopted her late husband’s identity in order to keep his job] and I also saw her in a film called Friendship’s Death made by Peter Wollen, and of course knew Derek’s films. There were a couple of things: In Friendship’s Death there was, let me put it this way, evidence of extreme presence. Okay, that was ding. The second thing, in Man to Man, there was this moment, at the very end of the show, Tilda had to take off this wig thing and take a bow. I remember sitting bolt upright in the theater, because there was that presence again and in a twinkling of a flash, there was, first of all, an absolute radiant connection with the audience, and then a coming into the present moment from the play. It was those two things that in my mind added up.
TS: It was the only way that I could imagine taking a bow standing in front of the audience without the disguise, because it was an encounter between me and the audience. I suppose that was the very beginning of the idea of Orlando [addressing the audience]…at that stage, it so happens, I don’t think I had made a film in which I didn’t look into the camera. The very first film I was in, Caravaggio, I remember asking Derek if I can look into the camera, because I was negotiating this relationship with the camera at the time. I was not completely comfortable at being watched, so I wanted to make friends with the camera full on. That also went into my performance work doing Man to Man. That’s one of the reasons why it was the last piece of theater that I ever did. I loved the relationship with the audience so much that I’ve never been a great one for the fourth wall ever since.
SP: The lens is the portal, a very intimate portal to the gaze of the audience, so negotiating that portal is key.
GR: When Orlando wakes up a woman after a century living as a man, she looks into the camera and remarks, “Same person. No difference at all…” Would you say the same of yourselves now, 18 years after making the movie?
SP: Time has left a few scars. Same person, no difference at all, yes, but actually the paradox, being the same person and at the same time different every second. Isn’t it every 10 days that every single molecule of the body changes? So cycles of change—then what remains constant is something nonmaterial actually, and it is that which one connects with, the nonmaterial absolute unchangingness, which exists in parallel with the absolute mutability of all things.
TS: I find that there is something in the film that is very close to my experience of life now, 18 years on, which I didn’t necessarily expect when I was young person. I somehow had got hold of the idea that growing older meant somehow accruing stuff. And my experience is the opposite, and I think that’s in the film Orlando.
SP: Shedding, shedding…
TS: I feel like I’m constantly going into orbit and jettisoning great fuel tanks and bits are coming off me all the time. And I feel more and more aerodynamic, clearer, simpler, and cleaner all the time. And that was in Orlando 18 years ago, even before I had lived to prove it in my own life. I feel very close to it in that way.
GR: How do you think audiences will respond to Orlando now?
TS: It feels as if we made it yesterday; maybe that’s part of the DNA of the film. It is about the present moment so how could it ever belong to one year—the year of its release, the year of its conception, whatever. It feels like it’s been right for a long time for it to be re-released. It will be very interesting to see who goes to see it, particularly a younger generation. It feels like it still works its trick.
SP: I think it is an indication of the mysterious nature of the passing of time itself, which is part of the subject of the film. I was just thinking about how to paraphrase. Same audience. No difference at all. Just a different set of people.
TS: And a different century.