Just Say Yes

Photo by A. Majoli/Magnum PhotosWhen Sally Potter’s Yes screens this week in the Los Angeles Film Festival, it will mark the end of a nine-month festival tour for the movie and its maker that began last Labor Day weekend in Telluride, Colorado. At that time, in a review published in Variety, I wrote of Potter’s film — in which a pair of lovers, known only as He and She, address each other in rhyming Shakespearean couplets, and touch upon a broad range of politically and emotionally charged issues, from capitalist imperialism to faith in an almighty God — that “Yes is the type of purely intellectual construct that, even when it works, inspires most audiences to say ‘No.’” I then launched into a more detailed explanation that, in the words of one longtime movie publicist, was “the most vicious review I’ve ever seen printed in Variety.” Such had hardly been my intention, but as I would soon discover, nothing about Yes prompted nearly as many “No”s as the piece I had written about it. Since September, I’ve scarcely been able to attend a film festival (or open my e-mail inbox) without someone haranguing me about the review. None of those discussions, however, has been as meaningful as one I had with Potter herself earlier this year a discussion about the film itself, but also about the vagaries of film festivals, film financing and film criticism. By the end of our talk, even if we still didn’t see eye to eye, we had, not unlike the characters in Yes, moved toward an understanding. So much so that, in anticipation of the film’s release, I proposed we speak again and publish the results here. FOUNDAS: Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about the screenings of Yes at the Telluride Film Festival and the audience reaction there. SALLY POTTER: The first screening — which, as I recall, was on a very rainy afternoon — was incredibly focused and very emotional, and many people in the audience came up to me afterwards weeping, males and females of various different age groups. And that applied to every screening at Telluride. It was a surprising level of really profound emotional engagement with the film’s subject matter, with its form, and with the various subtexts and subthemes. And then my review comes out. I have to say that the decision to do this interview at all was made with some trepidation, because I was nervous about giving any further oxygen to your original review. It did damage, and I certainly don’t want to add to that. But I think there are some very specific things to say about Telluride, about Variety and about reviews. First of all, I think generally what people were saying in Telluride was that Yes was the hit of the festival, or at least one of the hits of the festival. So it felt like incredibly bad luck that the only review that came out of Telluride was from a person who didn’t respond positively to the film. The next point is that trade publications, and Variety in particular, play a very specific role — they tend to come out first, and the name Variety is bigger than that of any individual reviewer, so people are turning to it more for a sort of quasi-objective view on the potential future of a given film in the cinemas. The effect is that the next round of reviewers and interviewers all read that review, and so when I start doing interviews and junkets, it usually gets quoted as being the first opinion out there. So I end up having to do damage control on what is, in fact, one individual’s opinion. And there’s one more side to it. It’s so difficult financing independent films today, and from a filmmaker’s point of view, when it takes a very long time and great difficulty to fund a film that’s risky for political, aesthetic or formal reasons — in this case, for all three — it’s a blow when the industry paper gives it a thumbs-down, because that only adds to that risk-averse climate. It makes all other films that are similar in their intent even harder to make. So the implications are much wider than for just that one individual film. Which is something that people should bear in mind when they’re reading those reviews . . . And when they’re writing them! It would have been different if everyone in Telluride had thought the film was no good. Then, however well-intentioned it had been, however hard the people had struggled, however long it took and that nobody got paid and everything — in a way it all would have been irrelevant, because in the end the film didn’t work. But in this case, 99 percent of the people not only thought it worked, but thought it worked brilliantly. The other 1 percent happened to have its voice in print. But I’m happy to say that the film has totally recovered. It’s already been sold in 61 countries, and I don’t think 61 distributors can be wrong . . . It’s interesting to note, though, that festival screenings in general have this reputation for generating strongly polarized, love-it-or-hate-it reactions, especially at major festivals like Cannes, Sundance, et al. Well, one of the reasons I was advised to take Yes to Telluride was precisely to avoid that merry-go-round. It’s considered a much more private festival in that sense, without the presence of paparazzi and so forth. But these things are a lottery from a filmmaker’s point of view. I think that festival screenings are a very useful kind of dress rehearsal for how the film is going to go over. They’re not like test-screening audiences, because you’ve got genuine punters who are coming to see the film out of interest and the film is not a work in progress — it’s complete. But it gives you as the filmmaker a feel for how it’s really playing, and then what you get to do is to go to festivals in quick succession around the world. I always sit through the film with the audience, I always do a long Q&A, and then I make myself available afterwards for individual comments. So I learn quite quickly a real genuine variety of responses, and what I’ve discovered over the years is that after about the first half-dozen audiences, you have a completely statistically consistent reaction, even in completely different cultures. After Telluride, I was in Havana, Berlin, San Francisco, Istanbul and so on, and people laughed in the same places, cried in the same places and asked extremely similar questions. Even in comparison to your own earlier work, the reaction to Yes seems unusually passionate. Among the many people who took issue with my review, one filmmaker approached me to say that she hadn’t liked any of your earlier work, but thought this film was a masterpiece. I’ve never known a reaction like this, and there’ve often been very strong reactions to my films, from tremendously positive to aggressively hostile, and I’ve gotten used to that over the years. If you’re a filmmaker with a voice and one who takes risks, you’re going to push people’s buttons. That’s inevitable, but this I think is different, and I’m still in the process of trying to understand and analyze it myself. I think part of it must be a reflection of where the film came from. It felt to me so necessary — I felt I had to make this film because I wanted to give something out into the world that would go in the opposite direction of this global hatred and fear and destruction. Yes was driven by my passions as a being in the world at this historical moment, combined with the passion to work with language in this way. Can you talk specifically about the decision to write the screenplay in iambic pentameter? It was a very instinctive impulse. The very first words of it were always written this way, and I gradually began to feel that verse was closer to the structure of the soliloquy that we have inside our heads than prose is. I don’t think that in the recesses of our mind we think in organized paragraphs, but rather in a continuous flowing stream. Of course, with Ulysses, James Joyce was exploring exactly that idea in a literary form, and “Yes” is the last word of Ulysses. That was a conscious quotation, if you can call one word a quotation. The other thing to say is that although the form is exactly 10 syllables or eight syllables per line and rhyming and so on, the actual words that are used are very ordinary words — street language, or, let’s say, the language of that individual character. He, the Middle Eastern man, speaks in a slightly more ornate and flowery language, because that’s the way the actor, Simon Abkarian, speaks and, in my experience, the way other men from that part of the world tend to speak. But there are no academic, big words like “ideology” and “discourse” or anything like that. There are words like “dust,” “dirt,” “fuck,” “two,” “six” — normal, short words, said with the musicality of ordinary speech. Did it take the actors some getting used to? They never had a problem with it. They dove into it like thirsty shipwrecked sailors — “At last! At last!” — because they knew what they could do with it. It feels lovely in the mouth, you can eat it, you can munch this kind of dialogue, whereas a lot of film dialogue is so distilled that, as an actor, you have to really work with it to get somewhere. The only issue in the rehearsal process was finding a way to make it completely natural and unselfconscious. It was never supposed to sound like a poetry reading, but rather as though this were the way that we all speak. Throughout the film we’re shown various cleaning ladies, including one played by Shirley Henderson, who delivers the film’s opening and closing monologues, and there’s the idea that these women may be the seers of all things and the keepers of all the universe’s secrets. I think they are the witnesses who become invisible in their jobs. When you’re in an airport or somewhere, there’s something about the way cleaners walk through the crowds of tourists, almost like ghosts as they push their brooms. They’re downtrodden, but it gives them a privileged position too. That was the premise, and then the form of having Shirley talk to the camera — it’s like she is, in a way, the only one who notices the audience is there, and that’s like the function of the chorus in Greek drama. I think there’s also a sense in which she’s the real philosopher and scientist of the piece. The character played by Joan — her job is to be a scientist. But the cleaner is another kind of scientist, another kind of thinker. Plus, I wanted funny stuff. The subject matter, the times we’re living in — it’s all so heavy and difficult that you’ve got to let people relax and laugh so it doesn’t all become too difficult to digest. As I recall you mentioning the last time we spoke, it was a cleaner at that first screening in Telluride who in some way had the first and last word on the film. It was a cleaning lady who was waiting in the back of the hall holding a big trash bag, waiting to pick up all the popcorn and drinks that people had dropped. Just as I was leaving the theater, I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She was very heavily made up, and she had mascara just streaming down her cheeks. I asked her how she was, and she said, “Look, I know nothing about movies, but this is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” For me, it was probably the most important bit of feedback that I had, because she was a working woman, a cleaner, who found her voice in the film. Which took away, at a stroke, any suggestion that the film is difficult or obscure. Here was somebody trusting her own immediate response to the material, and she was gripped by it. Yes screens in the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 21 and 22 before opening in general release on June 24. Call the festival at (866) FILMFEST or visit www.LAfilmfest.com.


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