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Fiercely independent filmmaker Sally Potter returns with ‘The Party’

"The Party" actress Patricia Clarkson, left, and director Sally Potter.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Sally Potter’s office is tucked away in East London near Haggerston Park, encompassing several floors in an old building where the British filmmaker both lives and works. Removed from the corporate media landscape of central London, it’s not an unlikely setting for such a resolutely independent film director, one who wholly embodies the term “auteur.”

The building also plays host to Adventure Films, the production company formed by Potter and Christopher Sheppard in 1990, which has been responsible for all of the director’s work since “Orlando.” Inside, there’s a sense that Potter’s vision is supported and nurtured without question.

The writer and director’s latest effort is a 71-minute, black-and-white satiric comedy called “The Party.” It’s a contained, fast-paced and carefully wrought piece that unearths essential conversations about healthcare rights, social politics, friendship, motherhood and love.

The idea for the film came to Potter during Britain’s 2015 general election, which pitted Conservative leader David Cameron against Labor leader Ed Miliband at a time when both parties took notably centrist stances.

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“Everything became spin,” Potter remembers, sitting in one of her office rooms that’s filled, floor to ceiling, with books and filing cabinets. “People were no longer saying what they really felt or what they really thought, but what they thought would be the vote catcher.

“That felt like it was storing up massive problems, and the massive problems were about the inability to speak the truth. I got this notion that I could write a comedy wrapped around a tragedy and that it could be about the politics of health and the health of ill-politics.”

In “The Party,” which Potter initially wrote as a short story and then adapted into a screenplay, Kristin Scott Thomas plays a politician named Janet who throws a dinner party to celebrate being named the new shadow minster of health. Her political affiliation is never named (although her strong devotion to Britain’s National Health Service suggests she may be left-leaning).

A group of her friends, played by Cillian Murphy, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones and Bruno Ganz, join Janet and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) in their London home. Over the course of the evening, which unfurls in one space in real time, all hell breaks loose.

“It needed confining in lots of ways,” Potter says of the story. “It’s like a pressure cooker and everything builds up. That’s really useful, dramatically. And then there’s the challenge of how to create movement, variety and momentum within that space and within apparent real time. That was kind of exciting, actually, and created a very focused, very concentrated and very freeing atmosphere.”

The film is a true ensemble piece. No one has top billing, and Potter ensured that everyone was paid the same, including herself. Each character has a deep specificity, with well-defined attributes and opinions.

Because of that, the debates that play out during the story feel real. “My main thing is trying to compassionately creep into the shoes of others — people who are not like me and who do not have to have my viewpoints,” Potter notes.

Patricia Clarkson, left, and Kristin Scott Thomas in "The Party."
(Roadside Attractions )

She found herself interested in this idea of “setting one against the other,” and worked to ensure that each character lives in a moral gray area. As details are revealed throughout the film, it becomes evident that each of these seven characters is just as flawed as the next.

“I like doing portraits of people who are more than one thing,” Potter says. “Most people in reality have qualities coexisting in them, contradictions and pulls in different directions. I tried to make each character have an arc of change, so that in this relatively short story, when we start, you’d think they were one way, and by the end you’re completely reevaluating who and what they were.”

The actors met with Potter individually at her office to discuss their characters and then gathered as a group for a few days of rehearsal. But there wasn’t time to linger over anything due to scheduling and budget constraints. The entire film was shot over just two weeks on a soundstage in the West London Film Studios in June of 2016.

Exactly halfway through production, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. The Brexit vote sent shockwaves through the cast and crew, reviving the sense of internal civil war that already existed in Potter’s script.

“Everyone came in weeping,” the director remembers. “For most people it was a disaster. It was a very, very international crew — like I usually work with. That feeling of people from different nations and even different languages working creatively and happily together was massively important for everybody. And, of course, it was a mixed cast as well. So this was going the complete opposite direction.”

“People were devastated,” Clarkson adds, calling from New York. “It was in the room, on the set, in people’s eyes and minds. Even at my hotel people there were weeping. Everywhere you went it was present. I felt the sorrow in people and the fear and the disappointment.”

Still, the camaraderie was strong among the cast. Clarkson calls the experience “one in a million,” partly because of the caliber of the other actors and partly because of Potter’s intense attention to detail.

The director doesn’t have a chair on set, instead preferring to stay close to the actors and be as physically present as possible, always moving. Her goal is to find a way to get each actor to the right place, whether it’s by talking a scene out, offering specific direction or simply by listening.

“We all had these individual journeys,” Clarkson says. “And that’s, I think, the beauty of this film. We’re true to the array of characters. It’s a cacophony, but you can hear the separate sounds. I think that’s a tribute to Sally and just how well-written each character is.” She adds, “It taught me on a craft level as an actor to be fearless. It just took me to a different place as an actress. It was quite different from all the things I’ve done. And that’s what I hope to do, to be open to new possibilities.”

Although “The Party” was conceived over three years ago, there is a striking relevance in its discussion of healthcare. In Britain, the NHS is revered for its all-inclusive approach, which ensures that every resident receives healthcare without insurance or extra fees.

The film doesn’t take a particular stance on whether the NHS is working (President Trump recently came under fire for disparaging the system), but it does raise contradictions and pose questions. The discussion of the NHS and universal healthcare doesn’t exclude American viewers. It actually makes the film even more timely.

“I’m aware that healthcare is a massive, massive issue for everyone in the States,” Potter says. “It shapes itself slightly differently, but in a way it’s the same argument: Healthcare as a right vs. healthcare for money. I knew it was a risk to make something that was so specific and local to the U.K. in many ways. But I also knew that to some degree, the more specific and local you can make something the more universal it becomes.”

She adds, regarding whether the film will resonate with a global audience, “It’s a mistake to think that people only want to see themselves onscreen. People have a natural, innate curiosity to see people who are not like them, who are different, who have a different struggle. It’s illuminating. It’s rewarding. You don’t just want to look in the mirror when you go to the cinema. The world is much more interesting than that.”

In some ways, “The Party” is a risky endeavor in 2018. It’s black and white, free of special effects and ends on a surprisingly violent note. It emphasizes language over action, and in its terse 71 minutes much of our reality is questioned. It’s the sort of movie that lingers, which for Potter is the exact power of independent cinema.

“What an independent film can do is engage the viewer in a more collaborative way and a more active way and perhaps a more respectful way and certainly in a more intimate way,” she says. “But then I’ve never been offered to direct a James Bond or a Star Wars. It would be an interesting challenge, wouldn’t it? Instead I’ve had to create my own world.

“Nobody was going to give me the passport or the ticket or the job offer. It didn’t happen. I’ve created my own cinema, and that is also amazing because within that I have complete freedom and total control. I need the money to do it, but its failures are my own. There’s nobody breathing down my neck making me do it differently. There’s something to be said for that.”

calendar@latimes.com


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