Acclaimed filmmaker Sally Potter is best known for her film adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton. Her other films include The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried (with Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett), and now YES, starring Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian. A renaissance woman, Potter has also written the screenplays of all of her films; performed as a singer with two bands, actor, and performance artist; choreographed; and directed documentaries and stage plays. During the San Francisco stop on her world tour on behalf of YES, Potter did double duty, meeting the press but also the public at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where Yes screened and Allen collected an award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting. Potter chatted with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on April 29, 2005.
Groucho: I'd like to start by talking about your writing process. A screenplay doesn't come whole. I've read you talking about the idea of finding the kernel for a script. What was the kernel for this film, and what was your experience of developing that into the full screenplay?
Sally Potter: I used the opportunity of having been asked to do a five-minute film for something called Paris, je t'aime—which was to have twenty different segments for each of the arrondissements in Paris and have somebody write something about love in that segment. And I hummed and hawed and I—originally proposed it. And then thought I could use it to have the idea of two lovers having an argument—that was the sort of general idea. Then 9/11 happened. So on 9/12, I started writing an argument—East and West—with the idea that the two lovers would be, in a way, speaking out their respective states of anguish—East and West—but that in the end, in the act of being listened to by the other, they would find some kind of reconciliation and hope. That was the idea. And that scene, which I did make into a five-minute film, became, finally, the scene in the car park in the film. And I kind of expanded outwards from that. But, in a way, it was an opportunity to make almost a pilot. By the way, it's not going to end up in the Paris—(laughs) now I've got to make a new one now for Paris, je t'aime because this one became the film. But it was a very useful kind of testing ground of the form, of the basic concept—and of the verse, of course—and of the whole kind of principle of the thing. And, after that, I just had to find and develop characters, structure, narrative, and all the rest of it.
G: Am I right in thinking that, when you began rehearsals for the film, that was just as the war was breaking out?
SP: Yes, it was.
G: What was the rehearsal process like? How much time did you have, and was there a feeling of kind of escalation?
SP: We had about three weeks, which by film standards is total luxury. You know, it wasn't uninterrupted. We had to do costume fittings and location searches and all the rest in the middle of it. But basically, we had a three-week period with Joan and Simon and then odd days within that for the other characters, and a read-through with everybody and all that. Luxury, luxury—total luxury. And it paid enormous dividends because it was a short shoot, with a lot of moving around. But to answer your question, the fact that war broke out at that time meant that everything already written in the script came even more painfully alive. It felt kind of prophetic and timely and the paradox of the pain in the global situation—I mean the paradox for us—was that being able to do something, however small, that went in the other direction than global events—in other words, that had hope in it and love and respect, one for the other—meant that there was enormous joy in the atmosphere. We also—the actors and myself, but the actors, of course, primarily—had to process a lot of emotion in order to be able to get through it, and we used some of the rehearsal time for that, with lots of weeping and discussion and soul-searching—all the issues that lie behind the story.
G: You mentioned that the film is sort of counter-cultural, which I would agree with. And perhaps the narrative form is also sort of counter-cultural. How do you get investors to say "yes" to making a film of that type?
SP: With great difficulty, because we live in risk-averse times—that's a word that they often use. And this sort of seemed to be risky on just about every front: the political undertow, going to Cuba, but, above all—and this was the thing they were most frightened of, really—the poetic form. But because I believed in it so strongly, I had seen it had worked in the five minutes, the actors were totally in love with it—you know, everybody working on it was passionate about it—so it was just about finding the right partners in the end. But it was really tough. And the budget kept having to get slashed in half, you know. But we had this feeling. You know, we said, "Oh, we'll just do it anyway, even if we really have to do it for nothing." So in the end, most of us deferred up[-front] fees and all that kind of thing.
G: The limited budget doesn't really show—
SP: No! Nor should it.
G: Mostly probably due to deferred fees, but "How do you maximize that?" I suppose is my question, and, as a related question, how did you approach the visual look of the film?
SP: Yeah. Well a big budget doesn't necessarily make anything look better. It just costs more getting there.You know, really, it's all about—anything is in the end about inventiveness and a certain kind of perfectionism that means that you just go on and on and on with whatever tools there are at your disposal, until it works. And, in this instance, we shot on Super-16 for budgetary reasons, but then, in post-production, I went through a long digital process transforming the negative we had onto 35 and, you know, working with it in various ways. And even an American cinematographer didn't believe it was shot on Super-16. Now that's also testimony to Aleksei Rodionov, who was the D.P. and who I think is superbly inventive in a particularly Russian way, in that he has the really old skills, which are almost lost now, of portrait lighting—as from the 40s and 50s: the golden age of portrait lighting close-ups—combined with the most cutting-edge willingness to experiment with camera speeds, hand-held on the shoulder, (snaps) "Go. Shoot. Done" out-in-an-hour, you know, attitude. And that kind of combination is a very vital one, I think. And he and I share a visual sense of framing and all the rest. So I mean it's just a combination of all of those things. In the end, it's irrelevant how much it was made for, because it goes out into a level playing field with every film made, whether it's a hundred million dollars or two dollars or somewhere in between—this being closer to the two than the hundred million, I have to say. And an audience just takes it as it comes.
G: Absolutely. Is that process, though, of trying to get that support—does it require—where do you draw the line in terms of compromise of your original vision?
SP: Never compromise. It's a word I ban from the set. If anyone comes up with it in conversation, like "Well, don't you think, Sally, we should compromise on the—" "No!" Adapt, yes—be flexible like a willow tree, bend in the wind, you know, and keep your strength that way—but mostly to use obstacle and lack simply as yet another fuel—you know, part of the engine to power further levels of invention. And I try and say that at the beginning to all the people I'm working with. I say that "This is the philosophical approach of the film. There's no such thing A) as compromise; B) there's no such thing as disadvantage or a problem. Every problem is an opportunity for us to refine our vision and invent something new."
G: Let's get back to that philosophy of the film. I'd like to start with the idea of the cleaner in the film. There's a dramatic tradition there of the maid and the holy fool and the Cassandra, the person who no one is listening to. But there's also a personal aspect there, in that your first job—correct?—was as a cleaner?
SP: How do you know that?
G: Well, I've done my research.
SP: That's fast! (Laughs.) I've hardly told anybody that!
G: Well, I've been reading your web diaries—which are wonderful, by the way.
SP: Oh, good. Yes. It was. But, you know what? I didn't consciously remember that until relatively recently—I mean, it wasn't in the forefront of my mind. But I think it must have burned itself into my experience and sort of memory banks somewhere—the kind of humiliation of the job and the sort of thankless nature of it combined with this fact that you're suddenly exposed to this level of intimacy in people's lives if you make their bed or clean their toilet. Jesus, you know. You're seeing the remnants of the soft tissue of people's bodies! (Laughs.)
G: And taking responsibility for them.
SP: And taking responsibility for it. But cleaners are the great unsung heroes and heroines. They're in the lowest caste, or class, of every society everywhere. You know, from the untouchables in India to you know, just the lowest of the working class to immigrant labor that you see pushing brooms and things around in airports and in the streets, and it's a really tough job. And a really important one—because if we don't learn how to clean up in the global sense, after ourselves on the planet, with pollution and so on, we won't have a planet. So I became more and more fascinated with that end of it, which is, in a way, the political end of the cleaner identity, isn't it? And then the other end is the metaphysical end, which is the nature of dirt and dust and the smallest of the small and karma, and it goes into the area of the unquantifiable—you know, into physics and so on when you start looking into the world of the very, very small.
G: And the futility of cleaning, as well.
SP: Yeah. You just push the dirt around. Quentin Crisp taught me that first. He said—"I don't believe in cleaning. After two years, it doesn't show anymore, or it doesn't get any worse, anyway."
G: But eventually, you have to clean off your writing desk, don't you?
SP: Oh, I'm a fanatical cleaner. At least in that part of my life.
G: I want to get into that duality as well. Shakespeare loves that kind of contrast. And you've talked about this time we're living in being one of, perhaps, extreme duality.
G: Is all of that somehow just boiled down to the idea of getting in touch with the other in our lives?
SP: I'm not sure if it boils down to that entirely. But I think that somebody once said love is really important, but even more important than love is respect. And you can't live without that. And it's the cri de coeur of every immigrant group, of every oppressed group, of every individual. You know, you struggle for that feeling of being respected. And I think flowing from the notion that every individual on earth of any gender, shape, size, age, color, creed, or identity is worthy of total respect. If you take that line for a walk, you end up with, first of all, a world which is much richer, and full of the sort of the joys of diversity and endless learning about difference. And, on the other hand, also, you know, war and destruction of the beloved others becomes an impossibility.
G: In terms of the style of the film, how conscious of you, as you were writing of—your own literary experience—or was that something that you—that just comes out as a matter of course?
G: The literary background from which you come.
SP: Well, I'm completely uneducated, you know. So my literary background is that of the magpie. Self-taught magpie picking things from here and there and all over the place. But, you know, "yes" is the last word of James Joyce's Ulysses. And it was a knowing quote from the great project of the stream of consciousness and the idea that it might be possible onscreen to somehow get into the deepest of recesses of the mind—somewhere in the secret machinery of the mind—and reveal its workings—was a great motivation, and that's obviously been a literary project with James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and many others. And I think it's also, to a degree, what rap—some of the very best rap—is, that kind of flow from one idea to another unconscious. But in this film, more than any other thing I've ever done, I wasn't consciously referring to, referencing, pastiching anything. I felt as if I was stepping out completely into the unknown, from scratch. And I think that's partly because this is the first screenplay ever written entirely in verse for the screen, modern-day film. And I only gradually became aware of the responsibility of that first-through-the-gate feeling. And that's sort of exciting, too. But that meant there was nothing to draw on. Because there were no other examples. I mean, obviously I can read Shakespeare and be inspired and in awe, but this is not Shakespeare, you know. And its not Shakespearean language, although it uses, often, iambic pentameter. But that's it.
G: I know when I watched the film—other than—obviously, the poetic tradition—I became very conscious watching it of the Joycean feel of it and, particularly, towards the end of the film—I thought if ever Ulysses were to be attempted as a film again that you might be the only filmmaker alive who can manage it.
SP: Well I can't think of a higher compliment. And Ulysses is a book that I pick up, sniff, weigh, hold under my arm, hope it will seep into me by osmosis. I find it as difficult to read as anybody else. But it's the attempt that's so interesting. It's the scope of it. It's the daring of it. And you know, James Joyce has a kind of identity in the fact that he loved tap dancing more than he loved writing. And that kind of—these little trivial titbits that are so interesting about a person's life—you know, he was this curious mixture of the farthest-out, avant-garde high art on the one hand and a completely, sort of, popular sensibility on the other. And I think, as a filmmaker, I guess I've been straddling something of that line all my life, actually.
G: It made me think about the broad possibilities of cinema. I think we're so used to those possibilities narrowing into what's commercial. Do you think there are any limitations to the form?
SP: Not really. I think the limits to any form are the limits of human invention, you know, and daring. And whenever you sort of inch out into a new area, you have to be prepared for hostility and attack as well as praise, you know. You get both: bouquets and brickbats. And I think it's partly that. Preparedness—if you're prepared to risk, I think, you know, anything can happen. Having said that, film comes out of—grows out of—as does every other form, the history of all forms. So we're standing on the shoulders of giants and rarely can match up to what they were able to do. But there's still room to grow.
G: Obviously the film deals with East and West quite extensively, and that conflict. What about the gender conflict in the film? How did you see the essential nature of man and woman expressed in the story?
SP: I think that the gender conflict is a secondary thing, probably, in the film. But is deeply embedded in it. But more than gender conflict, I think there's gender love. I think it really is a love story. And I think that, as a writer, what I tried to do is—(referring to the hotel conference room artwork) oh, I've just seen the word Shakespeare above your head, and twice—that what I really tried to do is give equal amounts of compassion to each of the characters, male or female, and make—I'm not taking sides as a writer with anybody, male or female, and I tried to imagine myself, as empathetically as I could, into the male psyche. And certainly, the male actors felt understood. And I have noticed the male response, much of it, to the film, has been very, very open. There have been men weeping at the end of the film in a very gratifying kind of way. I think people weep if they feel a resonance, if they feel seen, or if they feel some kind of relief, as a sort of catharsis of something that has been long held in. And, what was your question? Gender conflict! Have I answered?
G: I think so. (Laughs.) —Many things struck me in reading your web diaries, which are evocative and very funny at times, as well: you discuss the idea of the impact of the film and what the film can do in dealing with the good and the bad of—I mean, love is something that the film reflects, but there are also a lot of problems and conflicts in the film. How do you see your role in addressing the problems?
SP: I think, you know, we can't sort of be grandiose about what a film can do. I think that would be a mistake. You know, a film, at a stroke, does not kind of, you know, change the political structure of a country. Would that it would. Maybe Fahrenheit 9/11 did a bit—I don't know. I'm not sure. Hard to measure. Hard to measure. But anyway, certainly, documentaries aside, I think the function of fiction is slightly different. I think it works in ways that we perhaps don't even understand—storytelling, the image, music and fiction, and film—in the kind of subtle dimensions of experience. The stuff that we don't even know how to articulate. And what I look for, when I go to a film, is that feeling of awakening, you know, of "Ahh. Ahhh. Oh yes!"—sort of recognition of experience or of things being somehow placed in a way that suddenly you realize you were half asleep about that dimension of experience and, suddenly, for at least for a moment, you've woken up. So that's perhaps, on the deep level, a form of nourishment that enables a person to become stronger in any area of their life that they need to—a kind of effectiveness—it's sort of like soul food that helps you go back into your life.
G: It is a movie that sort of doesn't end. Hopefully it blends back into our lives at the end.
SP: I hope so.
G: It's so open-ended. Let's talk about the casting. How did you arrive at this cast? Which I think is perfect.
SP: Well, they're the best cast—it was the most joyful experience of working with actors that I've experienced in my whole working life, so far. I chose them with great care. I really took my time. And chose people for their qualities and their skills and so on, but also for their willingness to work together in an ensemble way and other things. But basically I think it's so intuitive, casting. But it's the alchemical moment, the single most important decision the director makes and, you know, your work can stand or fall on who you choose to work with in that way. But—this is really key—there was no cynical casting for, you know, "This will get the film made. This is the financing box," blah, blah, blah, blah, which is a way I resist entirely and hate. These are all serious actors chosen for their skills and their abilities and their gifts. And then once you've made the decision, and you get in the room together, then the fun starts, you know. These, as it turned out, were all people who were prepared to turn themselves inside-out for the film. And we had rehearsal together, which is a great luxury. And we were able to go very deep.
G: The classical training probably helps a bit. But how did you, as a director, approach directing in verse?
SP: By ignoring it. So, you know, it's there in the writing. The structure is there. Now fly. You know, throw it away. Be irreverent. I mean, each actor needs a slightly different direction anyway—whatever is going to be the magic key to unlock the spirit, but that was the general principle. Stay word perfect because otherwise the whole thing starts to fall apart. But, in the delivery, we had to find, just as you would with any kind of dialogue, the necessity from which to speak—the impulse from which to speak. That means tearing it apart, analyzing it—what does this mean, what does that mean, how does this relate to your life, how does that relate to your life, what do you feel about this? So that nothing's done by rote. Nothing's done because it's there. It's done because it has to be. It's said because it has to be said. And that's what you do in rehearsal. By doing a lot of it. By experimenting, falling on your face if you need to—creating an atmosphere of trust and allowing for lots of emotional expression along the way, so that people can really get in touch—the actors can get in touch—with whatever they need to in order to achieve a certain kind of transparency of purpose.
G: The art is obviously the thing and not the money. But the process is so involving, and here you are now, four years after you began, still chatting up the film and promoting the film. How do you get along between getting financially compensated for your films? Not to be indelicate, but I'm curious: how does that—
SP: No, its important. And it's a decision I made right at the beginning of my working life—you know, in my teens—I don't know how, but I actually remember it as a "Eureka!" moment: walking down the street and saying to myself, "I will never allow money to determine my life—or lack of it. It will not be what I'm looking for, nor will it limit me." I grew up poor. And I know what it means to suffer from lack of money—even lack of food, at times. And I've had times of awful struggle financially. But, you know, intermittently, I get this great—phew!—lump of money thrown at me for a film and that—you can then kind of juggle with it. But basically, I don't open bank statements. All my bills are paid by direct debit. I live in a kind of blissful ignorance of what I haven't got. And it works—for me. My friends look at me and say, "Oh, tell me again, Sally, how much you are in debt." And then they go "Aaaaaaiiahhhhhh! How can you do it?!" I say, "What's the difference? The lines are either black or red on the statement. What's the difference? It's all fiction." But, what I have discovered with films is that—another example of how money is a fiction—is that having more money doesn't necessarily make it better, easier, or the result better. There's never enough money; there's never enough time. But it's really how you deal with what you've got, whatever that is. Derek Jarman was a great teacher in that respect. You know, if he had a pen and paper, he did a drawing. If he had an 8mm camera and film, he'd make an 8mm film. If he suddenly got enough money to make a feature, he'd make a feature. If he had nothing at all, he'd go out and find some scrap of an old shoe on the beach or something, put it on a stick and it was a sculpture. And I think that attitude is incredibly useful.
G: Another buzzword for your career would be "adventure." This film seems, when I watched the film, I thought, this film is about everything. It's about existence, so I wonder: is that daunting for you as an artist—where do I go from here?—or have you already moved on to your next project?
SP: Well, it's actually a criticism I have of my own films is that they're all about everything. And I look enviously at other filmmakers who dare to make films about something, rather than everything. And I think it starts out—I think it's where my female identity as a director and writer probably is most evident. Which is that I remember consciously feeling, at the beginning of my life's work, "I may only ever get one chance. I'd better put everything in it, just in case." And I think that kind of anxiety has never gone away. But maybe I've gradually turned it to advantage. I do also think that all of us carry around in our heads everything. You know, we're constantly switching from "God, what are we having for supper tonight?" to "How do I look?" to "Do I need some new shoes?" to "What happens when I die?" to "By the way, what's happening in Iraq?" We zap between levels that makes zapping between television channels seem like slow work. So dealing with everything is okay. But, you know, I'm a great fan of, let's say, Sokurov—Mother and Son—where the whole fucking film consists of somebody taking his mother for a walk—end of story. I find that beautiful. I found watching Andy Warhol's Empire State—I may be the only person who's watched the whole film—in a state of reverent awe—as a sort of meditation. That single pointed thing is glorious, too. But you're asking where do I go next. Finding ideas is never a problem for me. It's choosing between them. So I have a lot of ideas now in my back pocket. And as soon as I get down to a nice clean desk, you know, one of them will shoot ahead of the pack.
G: Do you think a full-fledged comedy is in your future?
SP: I really yearn to do comedy. It would probably be weird comedy, knowing me. But I love making people laugh. For me, the gratification when I'm in the cinema and people laugh at something up there; it's like, "Aahhhh!" I can relax. And it may be because it's sort of evidence of reaction. But I also know that it's healing—I love to laugh. People need to laugh. Your whole body relaxes. Your system relaxes. And it can be very subversive. The Marx Brothers are an example of that, Duck Soup being the best anti-war film ever made. Yeah, I'd love to do a comedy. I'd love to do a musical, as well. And I'm trying to steer myself away from heavy seriousness, by which I'm often seduced. But we'll see.
G: You seemingly are a very effusive writer—I should say prolific writer—by looking at your output. And you authored the press notes, it seems, as well, right?
SP: I did, yeah.
G: Do you ever find writing a chore or is it always something you're ready and eager to sit down and do?
SP: It's often agony. I'm always very critical of what I generate. I rewrite a lot. I almost never like what I do the first time. With some exceptions—I mean, some scenes in this film, for example, came out word perfect. And I haven't changed a word. People tell me I'm prolific. I don't experience myself as prolific. I do see the mountains of papers that grow from the end of my pen. But I always feel like I don't write enough. I'm always chastising myself that I don't do more...
G: Thank you very much for speaking to me. It was wonderful.
SP: Well, your questions were really good...thank you very much, indeed.
G: It was a pleasure.
[Click to read Groucho's reviews of YES and YES: Screenplay and Notes and interviews with Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian. To read more about Yes, including Potter's blog (with her description of her San Francisco stay), check out http://www.yesthemovie.com.]