The temperature was minus 14 degrees, and British director Sally Potter was shooting a scene against the clock on a frozen lake. “I’d worked since 6 a.m. for that scene. I spent 20 straight hours out on the ice.”
Ah, the joys of low-budget, independent filmmaking. But Potter’s hardships are now paying off. Her film, “Orlando,” based on Virginia Woolf’s fantasy novel about a man who changes into a woman and stays in the prime of life over four centuries, has become an international art-house hit.
Not that Potter likes the phrase “art house": “I don’t like ghetto-izing films,” she says sharply. “A film’s a film, an audience is an audience. This was designed for as wide an audience as possible--other people are the ones who have categorized it. It’s a film called ‘Orlando.’ End of story.”
For emphasis, she ticks off the successes of “Orlando": No. 2 film in Hungary after “The Bodyguard,” No. 1 film in London its opening week, then No. 3 for six weeks. (The film opened two weeks ago in one Seattle and two New York theaters to strong business.)
This awareness of box office is surprising in Potter, who before “Orlando” had made experimental films that found small cult audiences. Now she’s fielding offers from Hollywood. “I’ve been asked to do adaptations as a writer-director,” she says. “But I can’t rush into anything; embarking on projects takes an awfully long time.”
“Orlando” is a case in point. Potter first read Virginia Woolf’s novel as a teen-ager. “Even then I remember watching it as a film. And from the first moment I considered doing an adaptation I thought I could see it, even if parts were out of focus.”
She wanted to make a film about the issues between men and women. “The change of sex in ‘Orlando,’ which provides its narrative structure, was a rich and light way of dealing with those issues.”
You meet her in her office, an unused shoe factory in a decidedly unlovely area just north of the financial district. Potter has converted its top floor into a light, airy loftlike working space for herself.
Tilda Swinton, the actress who plays Orlando, is barely known to American audiences, though she was the murderous queen in Derek Jarman’s “Edward II,” a gay-themed reworking of Marlowe’s classic Elizabethan play. Yet, she was always Potter’s first choice.
“She can really hold the screen,” Potter muses. “She knows how to work in a natural way with non-realism. And Tilda has a still quality, which I wanted, because we are in such a whirlwind of time travel with this story and we needed someone to be a constant.”
Potter also opted for eccentric casting choices. In addition to the gay octogenarian writer Quentin Crisp, who plays Queen Elizabeth I in drag, poet and playwright Heathcote Williams has two roles.
Given the lack of known actors, Potter’s own non-mainstream experience and the tricky subject matter of “Orlando,” it’s no surprise to hear the film took four years to get financed.
“I was turned down by every major source of funding in Britain,” she said. Producer Christopher Sheppard traveled around Europe seeking funds for her and the first bite, surprisingly, came from Russia. “Once we had them, we got a little money from Britain, France, Holland and Italy,” said Potter.
The film cost $3.2 million plus a lesser sum of Russian rubles (which cannot easily be converted). But overall it was far less than the $11.2 million Potter had originally budgeted. “We took 10 weeks to shoot on three continents; we shot summer and winter, and 400 years of history,” she said wryly. “This film would have cost $30 million if we had made it in the States.”
Because of the Russian backing and because of Potter’s love for Russian cinema, she decided to shoot the film’s remarkable winter scenes in St. Petersburg. The “Orlando” crew also shot in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, miles from any sizable town.
She admits the success of “Orlando” has surprised her. “I didn’t have any trouble daring to dream of doing the film, but daring to hope that people will like what you’ve done is another matter. I was terrified of what the critical reception might be.”
Instead, “Orlando” has already picked up 14 awards from various festivals. “It did well at Toronto, and I have to admit the reception at Sundance was ecstatic,” noted Potter, of the annual festival in Utah. It also got raves when it opened the New Directors/New Films series in New York in March.
Sony Classics, which distributes the film in America, is encouraging the notion that “Orlando” could be this year’s “Howards End"--a film with arty pretensions, adapted from a classic novel, that could find a wider audience. Potter isn’t sure.
“I haven’t seen ‘Howards End’ yet, but I think it’s a filmmaker’s obligation to be liberal with the text if you’re filming a book. If you’re overly reverent, you end up with a literary film, and I’m not interested in literary films.”
She agreed that the method of adapting literary works used by James Ivory, maker of “Howards End,” is quite different from her own.
In one scene from “Orlando,” our hero sits dreamily in a meadow while her auburn-haired daughter plays with a camcorder.
“It’s a lot of things,” said the auburn-haired Potter with an enigmatic smile. “But that little girl with a camcorder is a little bit me with my first eight-millimeter camera, which I picked up when I was 14. I’m 43 now, and it’s taken me that long to feel I have a mastery in film. Even now, I feel I’m just beginning. It would be nice to feel younger women might get there quicker than I’ve done.”