Sally Potter on making a movie about violence with Chris Rock: ‘He’s aware of what happens when a man feels humiliated’ | Sally Potter

Ohen Will Smith took the stage earlier this year at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, British director Sally Potter was putting the finishing touches on her new short, Look at Me. The film features a scene in which Rock, as an event planner named Adam, is knocked to the ground by Leo (Javier Bardem), a drummer who was scheduled to perform that night at a fundraising gala. . The two men are lovers, which only increases the tension as Leo raises his fist above Adam.

Potter immediately realized the parallels between Look at Me, which she shot in 2019, and the Oscar smash. “I had this feeling of, ‘OK. This is interesting,’ says the 72-year-old filmmaker, as she pours us water in her office in a quiet east London courtyard. “I could see there was a thematic overlap here with the film about how men deal with their anger – issues of respect, humiliation and communication. There was a certain adequacy to that. »

Chris Rock in Look at Me. Photography: Courtesy of Adventure Pictures

The slap made headlines for weeks. “It shows the power of the gesture in this era of TikTok,” she says. “These short moments become iconic and repeat themselves in a way that before social media they wouldn’t. But I think it’s the wrong vortex. It doesn’t help to understand male violence, Or the etiquette of the response, or the ethics of turning the other cheek. There’s no point. It was a sad gesture. And, I would say, a response worthy of Chris.

That’s more than can be said for the response of those present that night. “People didn’t know what to do or say, or how to react,” Potter said. “The Oscars don’t lend themselves to clear thinking.” She was there in 1994, when her wickedly imaginative adaptation of Virginia Woolf, Orlando, with Tilda Swinton jumping between centuries and genres, was up for a few awards. “It was one of the most tense and unfortunate situations I have ever experienced. It’s not an atmosphere of success. It is a fear of failure. In this context, irrational behavior seems normal.

Alice Englert (left) and Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rose, 2012.
Alice Engert (left) and Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rose, 2012. Photography: BBC Films/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Aside from a few pointless remarks, Rock didn’t address the incident. “I totally understand that,” Potter said. “Who would want to be identified by something that has been done at them rather than something they had done? She knows, however, that the setback will increase interest in Regarde-moi. “People have that curiosity, but I hope the film will be a counterweight to that. You can’t control where things go. You can just accept it and say, ‘If you’re interested in Chris Rock, then take a look at another side of him. Look what this man can do!”

She’s right: the title of the short could serve as Rock’s clarion call, which has never sounded so delicate or heartfelt. Bardem is like a ragged caged lion; he is even shown drumming in a cage, while tap dancer Savion Glover, at one point dressed in Guantánamo orange, unleashes a storm in a nearby enclosure. “We’re gradually realizing that it’s something to do with the incarceration of people of color,” Potter says. “It’s a metaphor for other spaces of freedom and constraint.” Unlike Bardem, Rock is poised and graceful, often manipulating the situation with his eyes alone. The vanilla reflections give it a dandy side. The power is distilled in its modest setting and contemptuous looks. He is responsible for.

The actor and director inhabit such different worlds that I imagine Potter must know Rock from I Think I Love My Wife, his remake of Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon. No way. “I’ve always been a fan of his stand-up,” she says happily. Who else makes her laugh? “I like Dave Chappelle.” Even his recent virulently transphobic material? Her jaw drops and she buries her face in her hands. “Oh my God. OK. I may be out of step with their routines. I’ve never seen that one, so I’ll take your word for it. I mention one of Chappelle’s gags about transgender people from her Netflix special The Closer, and she lets out a groan. “It’s disgusting. I did Orlando, after all. These issues are close to my heart and I’ve been answering questions about them for 30 years.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando, Virginia Woolf's 1992 adaptation of Potter.
Tilda Swinton in Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s 1992 adaptation of Potter. Photo: Adventure Pictures/British Screen Prod/Allstar

For Rock, who is currently on tour with Chappelle, she has nothing but praise. “I love the way he pops on stage. That smile! It’s very lively. Like a lot of comedians, he’s a calm, serious, intelligent individual. We discussed the whole issue of vulnerability and fear of men He and Javier are both aware of fragility and what happens when a man feels humiliated.

Bardem later told me via email that he found Rock to be “a very caring and generous partner to play with, pure bliss. He was absolutely in the mood for his character, which isn’t lighthearted. At the same time, in the moments we were waiting for to shoot, he was the incomparable and natural actor that he is.

Look at Me began life as part of the Potter film The Roads Not Taken, starring Bardem as a writer with dementia praecox, his past and present bleeding into each other. The intention was to incorporate different realities and sexualities for its protagonist (very Orlando) as well as distinct eras. “The story was included in the original film as a glimpse of what Leo could have been had he made other choices in his life,” Bardem explains.

However, it was while showing an early version of The Roads Not Taken to friends that Potter realized the entire section had to go. “He should never have been there,” she said. “As a writer-director, the cycle of work is so slow and time-consuming that impatience sets in and you sometimes try to squeeze all your ideas into one film. I’ve excised pieces of material before, but I’ve never had one movie hidden inside another like a Russian doll. While Bardem remained the star of The Roads Not Taken, Rock and Glover were excised. “Chris and Savion were very understanding, but I was heartbroken. I cried.”

Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning in The Roads Not Taken, 2020.
Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning in The Roads Not Taken, 2020. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

That’s cinema for you: everything is in motion until the curtains part. I remind her that she cast Robert De Niro as the opera singer in her war drama The Man Who Cried, starring Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, only for John Turturro to end up playing the part. “How the hell did you hear that?” ” she asks. “Yes, okay. I worked with him a bit. We sat in the [Hollywood hotel] Chateau Marmont and went through the script, then met again in New York. We discussed opera singers, if I remember correctly. And the hair. When filming dates changed, De Niro was no longer available. “I had forgotten everything,” she says wistfully.

From his debut in 1983’s The Gold Diggers, which starred Julie Christie, Potter has consistently attracted the highest caliber of acting. Riz Ahmed, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Jude Law and David Oyelowo were in the Rage murder mystery; Cillian Murphy and Kristin Scott Thomas were among the guests to swap barbs in his acerbic comedy The Party; and she twice directed Elle Fanning, in Ginger & Rosa and The Roads Not Taken.

Next, it is Alma who, she says, “deals with the idea of ​​the relationship of the English to their history, this nostalgia for a non-existent past. It’s terribly funny. A TikTok-related project is also in the works. She’s certainly not a streaming refusenik. “You can disappear into the small screen if what you’re watching is magnetic enough. You can go through a very small portal and still have a very large experience. She could even describe Look at Me: a little film that stings like a slap.

Look at me premieres at the Venice Film Festival on September 9

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