An Interview with Sally Potter
by Jeannette Catsoulis
Potter began writing Yes—the story of a
passionate affair between an Irish-American woman
and a Middle Eastern man in London—in the days
following September 11th, 2001. “I felt an urgent
need to respond to the rapid demonization of the
Arabic world in the West, and to the parallel
wave of hatred against America,” explains the
director. “These characters are not just symbols
of the Middle East or America—though of course
they bring those layers of meaning into the film
with them—they’re complete human beings.”
To underscore the universality of her themes,
Potter names her two leads simply “He” and “She.”
She (played by Joan Allen) is a microbiologist,
unhappily married to an inexpressive politician
(Sam Neill); he is a Lebanese surgeon now doing
menial work in a hotel kitchen. Written almost
entirely in iambic pentameter—delivered so naturally
audiences may not notice for quite some time—the
film confronts themes of alienation and prejudice,
identity and romantic longing with gentle humanity
and a keen sense of emotional vulnerability. As
is typical of Potter’s work, Yes embraces
the complex tug of cultural difference, affording
even secondary characters—like a philosophical
maid, wonderfully played by Shirley Henderson—the
intellectual space to evolve. Fluid, fearless,
and ferociously intelligent, Yes is a master
class on how to approach a hot-button topic. Ridley
Scott should be taking notes.
Reverse Shot: This is probably your most ambitious
film to date, dealing with race, sex, politics,
religion, and women’s attitudes toward their own
bodies. Why tackle so many issues?
Sally Potter: It’s a risk, there are people who
get pissed off if someone is seen to be ambitious.
The film is not just about family values, or a
modest female domestic drama. It takes on big
global issues: Is there a God? What’s the relationship
between science and religion? What is it like
to die? And then it’s all in verse!
But my feeling is that everybody is dealing with
these issues. We’re all questioning the nature
of information fed to us by authorities. In the
secret recesses of our brains we’re asking things
like, Do I love the person I’m married to, or
should I be with somebody else?
RS: How have people reacted to the iambic pentameter?
SP: Most people don’t even notice, and that’s
fine with me. My direction to the actors was to
naturalize it, to ignore the verse and just relate
to the words from your heart. We worked very hard
to make it natural—there are no long words in
the film, just ordinary language rearranged.
Iambic pentameter is one of the oldest forms of
verse, and it lets you talk about things in a
lyrical way and introduce ideas that might otherwise
RS: You begin
and end the film with a soliloquy on dirt.
SP: I left school at 15 and my very first job
was cleaning houses! And the more I wrote the
character of the cleaner, the more I thought about
cleaners and their indignities, and the fact that
they do see it all—the stains in the bed, everything.
They’re dealing with our detritus, yet they’re
completely ignored. So I made the cleaner in this
film—who’s definitely not a member of the elite—the
true philosopher. She’s the one who gets to say
the most profound things about existence. This
is of course a Greek chorus device; when you’re
dealing with heavy themes it’s very important
to have moments of levity which can, ironically,
end up conveying the most serious message of all.
RS: Like the humorous scene in the hotel kitchen.
SP: It’s a very profane scene, because there’s
something lively and vital in a conversation filled
with swear words—it’s a kind of music. But that’s
how people try to figure out their lives, by bouncing
ideas off one another and raising prejudices.
When I was in my late teens I also worked in kitchens,
and I think people in very unrecognized jobs—the
dishwashers of this world—are searching for someone
to blame for the fact that they’re not currently
making a success of their lives.
RS: You’re often categorized as a ‘woman’s
director,’ even though you write very powerful
scenes for men.
SP: There’s a blindness here I don’t understand.
Again and again I’m spoken of as a woman’s director,
perhaps because I write very rounded female characters
in central roles and that’s still very unusual.
But I have to ask, Is romance just a woman’s issue?
Haven’t you noticed that most of the characters
[in Yes] are male? The male lead is from the Middle
East and I spent a lot of time imagining myself
in his head, into all the men’s heads. There’s
a lyricism in the Middle Eastern character’s speech
that’s very full and present and I read a lot
of Middle Eastern poetry to get the flavor.
RS: Why did
you make both of your leads scientists?
SP: That idea just grew, partly because a microbiologist
would be looking at the world in relation to the
very small—just as the cleaner does when she’s
dealing with particles of dirt. And there’s a
point at which the very small starts to link with
the very large, with questions of God and existence.
Issues of scale were always a subtext. I also
liked the idea of making her a rationalist, someone
who believes in science and the material world
but is also a lapsed Catholic. Her religion is
always in the back of her mind, pulling at her.
RS: Were there any particularly difficult scenes?
SP: Everyone went into this film with enormous
gusto, but we did have difficult moments. The
core of the film is the parking garage scene—it’s
the ultimate bleak urban environment, built for
cars and things on the move. There’s no softness.
So if you put a soft, fleshy human with all her
vulnerabilities in the middle of that it’s the
ultimate contrast. When you have this kind of
contradiction between actor and setting it creates
very powerful dramatic tension. But this scene
just exhausted everyone, we never felt it was
quite as good as it had been in rehearsal. There’s
also a lot of movement in this film, and we needed
lots of practice for Joan running in those high
heels! Though she moves beautifully; she has a
kind of Tippi Hedren look in the film, and we
had a lot of fun finding clothes for her.
RS: What were your main obstacles to making
SP: Getting the money! Having a project written
in verse, with a primary Middle Eastern character,
didn’t exactly fill producers with confidence.
But then I’ve never had money thrown at me, and
the reason is that every film I make is a different
kind of risk. Before Orlando it was, Oh
you can’t do that, Virginia Woolf is the kiss
of death; then after it was released, everyone
was saying, Sally, would you like to make a costume
drama with a sex change in it? After The Tango
Lesson they wanted another tango film. They
just want you to do the same thing you’ve already
proven can be done, they need those guarantees.
My propensity for risk-taking is very difficult
to indulge in a risk-averse film culture, and
Yes was politically, as well as formally,
risky. On the other hand, I had no difficulty
at all getting actors to do the film—actors are
on the whole very courageous.