Potter was born and raised in London. Her mother was a music teacher and her father was an interior designer and a poet. Her younger brother Nic became the bassist for the rock group Van der Graaf Generator. When asked about her background, which influenced her work as a filmmaker, she responds, "I came from an atheist background and an anarchist background, which meant that I grew up in an environment that was full of questions, where nothing could be taken for granted."
Potter began making amateur films, at age 14, with an 8mm camera given to her by an uncle. She eventually dropped out of school at age 16 to pursue filmmaking. From 1968–1970 she worked as a kitchen worker and a picture researcher for BBC in order to support herself and her work. She had joined the London Film-Makers' Co-op and began making experimental short films, including Jerk (1969) and Play (1970). She later trained as a dancer and choreographer at the London School of Contemporary Dance. She made both film and dance pieces, including Combines (1972), before founding Limited Dance Company with Jacky Lansley.
Potter became an award-winning performance artist and theatre director, with shows including Mounting, Death and the Maiden and Berlin. In addition, she was a member of several music bands (including Feminist Improvising Group and The Film Music Orchestra) working as a lyricist and singer. She collaborated (as a singer-songwriter) with composer Lindsay Cooper on the song cycle Oh Moscow, which was performed throughout Europe, Russia and North America in the late 1980s and commercially released.
Potter continued as a composer when she collaborated with David Motion on the soundtrack to Orlando. She wrote the score for the film, The Tango Lesson, for which she sang "I am You" in the final scene. Her most recent music work is as producer and co-composer with Fred Frith of the original tracks for Yes and Rage.
Referring to her career as a choreographer, Potter said, "Choreography was the perfect 'poor theatre.' All you needed were willing bodies and some space. So it was as a choreographer that I learnt how to direct and it was as a dancer that I learnt how to work."
Potter returned to filmmaking with her short film Thriller (1979), which was a hit on the international festival circuit. This was followed by her first feature film, The Gold Diggers (1983), starring Julie Christie. She directed another short film, The London Story (1986); a documentary series for Channel 4, Tears, Laughter, Fear and Rage (1986); and I am an Ox, I am a Horse, I am a Man, I am a Woman (1988), a film about women in Soviet cinema.
As director of the internationally distributed Orlando (1992), Potter received greater appreciation for her writing and direction. Starring Tilda Swinton, the film was based on Virginia Woolf's novel by the same name and adapted for the screen by Potter. In addition to two Academy Award nominations, Orlando won more than 25 international awards, including the Felix, awarded by the European Film Academy for the best Young European Film of 1993; and first prizes at St Petersburg, Thessaloniki and other European festivals.
The novel had previously been considered impossible to adapt for the screen, because it took place over 400 years and followed a character whose sex changes from a man to a woman. Funding the feature proved difficult, and Orlando took seven years to complete. Filming and editing took 20 weeks. Preparation for the film, including adapting the novel, funding the film, scouting locations, etc., took four years.
Orlando is often considered a feminist film; however, Potter denies that label. She said in an interview,
"I have come to the conclusion that I can't use that term in my work. Not because of a disavowal of the underlying principles that gave birth to that word – the commitment to liberation, dignity, equality. But it has become a trigger word that stops people's thinking. You literally see people's eyes glaze over with exhaustion when the word flashes into the conversation."
Potter claims that the story shows the difficulties both of being a man and of a being a woman.
She next directed the film, The Tango Lesson (1996), in which she also performed with renowned dancer Pablo Veron. First presented at the Venice Film Festival, the film was awarded the Ombú de Oro for Best Film at the Mar del Plata Film Festival, Argentina; the SADAIC Great Award from the Sociedad Argentina de Autores y Compositores de Música; as well as receiving Best Film nominations from BAFTA and the US National Board of Review. The Tango Lesson is semi-autobiographical, based on Potter's experiences learning Argentinian Tango with Veron while writing the screenplay for Rage.
The Tango Lesson marks Potter's first time performing on screen. Regarding this decision she stated, "I knew that I had to perform in this one because the impetus for the film came out of my own desire to dance." Potter's professional collaborations with Pablo Veron continue in The Man Who Cried and the stage production of Carmen (2007).
The Man Who Cried (starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett and John Turturro), premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2000.
It was followed by Yes (2004), with Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian and Sam Neill. Yes was written in response to the attacks in the United States of 11 September 2001; it is considered Potter's return to more experimental methods of filmmaking. The screenplay is written in verse and the film's budget was much smaller than that for The Man Who Cried. Regarding the film's budget and stylistic approaches, Potter has said,
"Originally I was trying to figure out how we could shoot this film without any lights, because there didn't seem to be enough money in the budget to have any. One solution was to shoot at six frames a second, or even three. Later you print each frame four (or eight) times to bring it into sync at twenty-four frames per second. You can shoot almost in the dark, and still see people's faces...we did some tests and found that it was very beautiful; so I decided to make it part of the language of the film."
In 2007 Potter directed Bizet's Carmen for English National Opera at the London Coliseum, starring Alice Coote and designed by Es Devlin.
Rage (2009) was the first feature ever to premiere on cell-phones. The cast includes Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole and Jude Law. Rage was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 and nominated for a WEBBY for Best Drama in 2010.
Potter's seventh feature film entitled Ginger & Rosa was written and directed by Potter and produced by Christoper Sheppard and Andrew Lityin. The film starred Elle Fanning and Alice Englert as the title characters and received its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. The film went into limited release in the UK in 2012 before enjoying a limited run in North America in early 2013.Sally Potter had career retrospectives of her film and video work at the BFI Southbank, London, and Filmoteca, Madrid, in 2009, and MoMA, New York, in 2010.
She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2012 Birthday Honours for services to film.
Awards listed have been won unless otherwise stated.
The Gold Diggers (1983)
Berlin International Film Festival"Zitty" Audience Award
Florence International Film FestivalBest Film
Venice Film FestivalAudience prize for Best Film
Catholic International Critics' Prize for Best Film
Elvira Notari Award
Festival International du Cinema au FemininBest Film
Festival du Film Britannique de DinardAudience prize for Best Film
International Thessaloniki Film FestivalGolden Alexander for Best Film
Best Artistic Contribution – Sally Potter
International Critics' Prize – Sally Potter
San Francisco International Film Festival1st Satyajit Ray Award – Sally Potter
Agrigento Film FestivalNominated for "Efebo D'Oro" Award for best staging of a literary adaptation
St. Petersburg International Film FestivalCritics' Prize
Durban International Film FestivalBest Film
Festival Internacional de Cinema Fatastic de SitgesBest Film
International Festival of Films Directed by WomenFirst Prize
European Film Academy AwardsFelix for Best Young European Film – Sally Potter
Women in Film & Television AwardsRank Film Laboratories Award for Creative Originality – Sally Potter
Sitges - Catalan International Film FestivalBest Film
The London Film Critics' Circle Annual Film AwardsNominated for British Film of the Year
Golden Bug AwardsNominated for Best Foreign Film
Independent Spirit AwardsNominated for Best Foreign Film
The Tango Lesson (1997)Mar del Plata Film Festival, Ombu de Oro Award
Best Film, National Board of Review Awards, Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking
Sociedad Argentina de Autores y Compositores de Musica, SADAIC Great Award
American Choreography Awards, American Choreography Award
BAFTA Awards: nominated for BAFTA Film Award, nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language
The Man Who Cried (2000)Florida Film Critics Circle Awards, FFCC Award
World Soundtrack Awards, nominated for World Soundtrack Award
Yes (2004)Nominated for British Independent Film Award
Emden International Film Festival, Nominated for Emden Film Award – Sally Potter
Seattle International Film Festival, Golden Space Needle Award
15 Mostra Internacional De Films De Dones, Audience Prize for Best Feature Film
Feature films:The Gold Diggers (1983)
The Tango Lesson (1997)
The Man Who Cried (2000)
Ginger & Rosa (2012)
The Party (2017)
Shorts and experimental films:Jerk (1969)
Hors d'oeuvres (1970)
Black & White (1970)
Thriller at Women Make Movies (1979)
London Story at Women Make Movies (1980)
Documentaries:Tears, Laughter, Fear & Rage (1986)
I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman (1988)