Tuesday, 29 September 2009

"Barefoot filmmaking": Rage and Q&A (Sally Potter), BFI

Last week we went to the premiere of writer-director Sally Potter's new film Rage - a tale of murder set against the backdrop of a New York fashion show.

However, Potter departs radically from traditional film narrative; the film is a series of intercut talking-head monologues, shot by an unseen and unheard student (Michaelangelo) who claims to be compling a school project. The film was shot very simply; the crew consisted of Potter herself and a sound recordist, filming each of the actors in turn against a green screen in a photographer's studio.

His 14 interviewees include models (Lily Cole and Jude Law), an acerbic critic (Judy Dench), the flamboyant designer (Simon Abkarian), a burnt-out photographer (Steve Buscemi) and the fashion house financier (Eddie Izzard).

It's a very bold attempt, but while the writing and performances create a compelling series of character sketches, the draw of the narrative runs out of steam after a while. The approach becomes increasingly unsatisfactory as the action being depicted just off-screen escalates later in the film.

The novel narrative approach is matched by Potter's distribution strategy. The film is being released free via Babelgum on internet and mobile phone formats day-and-date with the digital cinema release.

The Q&A included quite a bit of unneccessary guff about it being the "first social-networking premiere": questions were sent by text and Twitter or beamed in from a number of UK cinemas, while Jude Law, Eddie Izzard and Lily Cole took part remotely via webcam.

Sally Potter was the star of the Q&A though. Charismatic, intelligent and able to clearly articulate her ideas, it's easy to see why actors are so keen to work with her. Video extracts of the Q&A are available here, but these were a few of the key points she made (taken from my scribbled notes - apologies if I've got anything wrong:
  • Despite Rage being a performance-led piece, there was no improvisation during the scenes. She had to be very precise with the timing and phrasing because of the nature of the film, which precluded the use of a wide range of cinematic narrative devices.

  • She thinks that watching a film like Rage on a mobile provides focus, like viewing a miniature painting. Also, people can cluster around it, so it affords intimate access to the film.

  • In her approach to distributing the film, she's attempting to sidestep what she calls the "cultural gatekeepers" - particularly film critics, who exert a heavy influence on how films are distributed. She referred to her approach as "barefoot filmmaking" - an attempt to swerve around the lumbering studio system and enable direct communication with the audience.

  • However, she doesn't see films like Rage heralding the end of the regular distribution system. As with previous developments in technology and narrative, she thinks it's just offering another way to tell stories. She hopes that it will encourage filmmakers to work with new formats (like mobile phones) in mind.

  • She created the unseen and silent character of Michaelangelo to be characterised by openness and non-judgementalism; he's the only person in the film who really listens. He originally had scenes and dialogue, but in the edit Potter decided he'd become a more powerful vehicle for audience projection if he existed more as a blank canvas.

  • The script existed previously in a more traditional form, but starting to keep a blog made Potter increasingly aware of the intimate nature of communication via the web, inspiring her to approach Rage differently.

  • The film isn't a direct attack on the fashion industry. The rage depicted is a backlash against the alienation and exploitation that seems to characterise consumer society more generally. The world of fashion just happened to offer a very fitting metaphor.

  • She doesn't believe in 'interactivity' to the point where the audience could influence the direction of the narrative. However, she does firmly believe that the audience interacts with a piece of work through the way it interprets it.

  • She was interested in exploring the historical form of the monologue, particularly the way it has developed recently on TV into the 'diary room' confessional. She also looked at the way Michaelangelo worked in the film in the light of psychoanalysis. By allowing the characters to continue talking without interruption, he enabled their various truths to emerge from a world of pretence.
Video interview with Sally Potter (BBC Film Network)
Variety review
Little White Lies review
Independent review

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