"I think it was sort of considered impossible on several fronts," said Orlando director Sally Potter. "I remember how deeply unfashionable this film was when we were making it," said Tilda Swinton. "People would say to us, 'A costume film?'"
With the benefit of 18 years of hindsight, the director and her star spent an evening this week talking about the impact of the film, and the difficult process of getting it made. The Museum of Modern Art is currently hosting a series of screenings of Potter's films, including Orlando and her 2009 release, Rage, and Swinton and Potter spoke with the curator Sally Berger, as well as members of the packed audience.
Orlando is a sweeping adaptation of one of Virginia Woolf's most challenging novels — a story of a 16th Century nobleman and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I's who, miraculously, does not appear to grow older as he ages. He falls in love, enters the diplomatic service, travels to Constantinople, becomes imbricated in intrigues — and mid-way through, he wakes up one day as a woman. (Orlando's androgynous good looks draw comment both when he is a man, and when she is a woman.) She lives on through lawsuits, wars, getting insulted by Jonathan Swift at a salon, the loss of her stately home, and the 20th Century. It's a film that's both quick and deep, and Swinton's performance in the title role is extraordinary.
The challenge of adaptation was one key topic of conversation at MoMA — Potter said she was once told, "'There's only one golden rule: Nobody should ever try to adapt Virginia Woolf!' I sort of slid down in my seat."
"In many ways it's much easier to dream up an idea, to dream up a scenario," said Swinton. "To sort of snail your way around your own whims about what the narrative's going to be and how the relationships are going to develop and what the impact of the story is going to be. And we were doing something that, when I think about it, was really, really ambitious. Because it wasn't only one of our favorite books, it most of the people we'd ever met's favorite book."
Swinton described the quest to capture Orlando's metaphysically concerned 400-year-long storyline, while retaining the text's spirit of lightness, as "like getting a hairnet on a jellyfish." The audience laughed. "We were constantly trying to catch a fly. That wasn't even there."
"What I learned through the process of adaptation was that in order to be truly respectful of the work of somebody like Virginia Woolf, you have to be incredibly ruthless," said Potter.
Orlando was shot in ten weeks, on a budget of just $4 million. Getting even that amount of funding was a struggle that took years. One man in the audience asked which pitches actually worked. "Well, we came to New York City in — one of those eighties years," explained Swinton, "and a friend gave a cocktail party in an uptown apartment, and in the middle of the cocktail party, I read out passages from the book! That was a pitch."
Potter noted, "They didn't give us any money."
"We ended up with a folder that fat —" the director held her thumb and forefinger phonebook wide "— of written rejections. Some people have begged to have their letter destroyed."
Swinton also talked about the costumes. Costume designer Sandy Powell was nominated for an Oscar for her work on Orlando; she eventually won her first Academy Award for her work on Shakespeare in Love. (Powell also designed the costumes for everything from Velvet Goldmine to Young Victoria. Like Swinton, she got her start in the film industry working on Derek Jarman's movies. "For me, it's no secret that dressing up and playing is really all it's all about," said the actress. "So working with a costume designer like that is bliss, because all the play is at the front of the process. It just sort of spins out while one shoots. But Sandy really is extraordinary. I remember a certain point in Orlando when — and you can imagine how design-heavy the film is, but of course it was such a poor budget that she was working with — that at one point in the film during the 18th Century section she had run out of almost all the money she had for that section. And so she went to Brick Lane Market and bought a bunch of saris for almost nothing, and made these 18th Century costumes out of saris."
Above all, as Berger pointed out in her introduction, it was kind of refreshing to see a film made by two women who self-describe as feminists without a second thought. Potter laid out a strong case for making "challenging" movies, arguing that the film industry has become too risk-averse. "I can't see the point in not taking risks," she said. "I always have a feeling of absolute optimism, that if I'm trying to make a film reach out to the intelligence, complexity, and daring of the audience, then they'll come to meet it. That's the hope."
MoMA: Sally Potter [MoMA]