The first thing Sally Potter discovered after getting behind a camera was that the movement of dance and the movement of cinema could be easily combined. The celebrated British director started making films at age 14. They were “like visual poems with an emphasis on movement,” Potter says. “At the relatively ancient age of 21,” Potter made a dancer’s training film. “You learn about discipline and also movement through time and space,” she says.
Potter trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance as a dancer and choreographer, then joined Richard Alston’s dance company Strider, before founding her own company called The Limited Dance Company. “It was always more experimental theater dancing rather than pure dance,” Potter says of her company. “I loved to do it, I learned a lot from it, and I found it fascinating as an art form. But I don’t think I ever felt I would make that entirely my life’s career.”
She became a performance artist and a theater director, as well as a lyricist and singer. But though Potter says she still sings around the house, the cinema has become her sole calling. And her wonderful films Orlando (1993) and The Tango Lesson (1997) more than justify it.
Her breathtaking new film The Man Who Cried, starring Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, and John Turturro, comes almost four years after her last work, The Tango Lesson, in which Potter herself starred as a woman learning the tango. To the untrained eye, four years is a long time to make a film, but Potter has been working on The Man Who Cried the whole time, with no time for other pursuits. “As soon as I finished The Tango Lesson, I went into writing The Man Who Cried. It’s been a continuous process.”
The Man Who Cried is almost a traditional holocaust story, but not quite. This one is about a character who gets away to follow her dreams. Ricci plays a young Jewish girl sent to live in England where her foster parents completely cover up her heritage, save for a photograph of her Orthodox father. Her natural talent for singing lands her a job in a Paris play with her Russian roommate (Blanchett) and a famous Italian singer (Turturro). She falls in love with a Gypsy (Depp), a horse wrangler in the play, but the impending war causes her to take stock in what’s important to her.
The film has already opened in Potter’s home country, where she says the reactions have been mixed. “There were passionate advocates and people who were deeply moved, and others who were resistant to it, and also resistant to the feeling it stirred up in them.” She believes that the holocaust theme was too much for many Europeans. “The reaction to the subject in Europe is that it’s still amazingly close. It’s still experienced as recent events on that soil. But also I think that when the film deals with the inner life of a character that demands a certain amount of bonding, if the person can respond to that it can be a great experience.” Potter’s theory was backed up by a “pre-eminent psychoanalyst” who saw the film, loved it, and wrote her a letter about his experience.
Amazingly, the film never shows any of the World War II horrors that have become familiar in recent films. “If you evoke the shadow of the holocaust on the horizon, everybody knows what that is,” she says.
Potter’s music and dance experience comes in at the most unlikely moments, such as Depp’s and Ricci’s love scene. “For all love scenes there’s always an embarrassment. So what I do is talk about it almost like a piece of choreography. And then I make sure we have a lot of laughs—we laugh loudly like teenagers on a date.”
For Turturro’s role as a professional singer, the actor worked with a singing coach, learning how to breathe and move. During filming, he actually sang, accompanied by recorded playback from vocalist Salvatore Licitra. For the final mix, Potter took out Turturro’s vocals and left only Licitra’s professional voice. She did the same for Ricci’s singing voice, recorded in real life by singer Iva Bittova, who “managed to capture both the child’s voice and the untrained young adult’s voice,” Potter says.
But when it really matters, Potter knows enough not to use any music or movement at all. For the film’s final scene, when Ricci meets her long-lost father, Potter leaves the soundtrack absolutely silent. “I’m glad you noticed that,” she says. “I was hoping time would stop, and you would hear the silence. You wouldn’t hear a pin drop in the cinema.”
Remembering the excitement of showing her first amateur films to her friends and family, Potter admits that nothing has changed. “It felt exactly the same as it is now showing on big cinemas around the world.”