I first saw Sally Potter’s movie Yes
at Telluride’s big annual film Fest-
ival last year. It’s playing now around
the country. Weeks ago, in June, I found
myself with Potter, face to face. She was
in town for Yes, to generate some buzz.
Alright, so the rhyming pentameter sounds better when its written by Potter and spoken by Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, and Sam Neill, as it is in Yes. So my first question was how audiences had reacted to the meter.
Sally Potter: Some early audiences, when there was no publicity, never noticed at all that it was in verse. Others, later, when they did know, the reaction has been consistently positive, because people have felt it to be very sensual language; enjoyable, pleasurable; sounds nice, is rich, is nuanced. It’s a gift. It’s a miracle. Words are a miracle.”
Marty Mapes: Do people find it formal?
SP: The opposite of formal. Let’s talk about poetry for a moment. The idea of a poem is that it takes you into the heart of things. It doesn’t push you away; it draws you in.
MM: A lot of people are intimidated by that.
SP: No they’re not, if you think about the popular song. Love songs are poems. That’s what they are. It’s the oldest and most popular form of language in existence. The language of love is the language of poetry or song. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” - that’s a poem. None of the words that are used in the film are long, complicated, academic, or weird. They are the simplest words of all; they are just arranged in a way that makes it easy on the ear.
MM: And was it restrictive at all to write in iambic pentameter?
SP: You swap one restriction for another. You swap the restriction of naturalism, which is “people don’t speak this way” — which is an artificial restriction; who says they don’t? — for the so-called restriction of the form. But that’s like saying the frame of a painting is a restriction. It’s not; it’s a boundary in which to find freedom.
A Sally Potter Film
MM: In Telluride, some people said of Yes, “oh, it’s a Sally Potter film.” I didn’t know what they meant by that. When I tried to pin them down, they were vague. They used the word “feminist,” but that didn’t really seem to define a style. Were they actually on to something? Does “A Sally Potter film” mean anything to you?
SP: I try not to have a style because I don’t really believe in style; I believe in finding the form of any given story. Film has to find itself. As for the feminist tag, that’s something that’s been given to me by others. It’s not something I give myself. It’s rather limiting. If you also have a central female character who is strong, suddenly it’s “feminist.” That’s because in the history of cinema overall, women are in the smaller parts and less interesting parts. You try and redress the balance and instead of that becoming “human,” it’s “feminist.”
Sally Dancer, Your Life is Calling
MM: You have a dance background, which I think more directors should have. I haven’t been trained in dance...
SP: Yes you have, because you’ve walked down the street, you’ve walked into this room, you’re sitting with your leg crossed. All that dance is, is a language of human movement in the body; an awareness of being in three dimensions. I think a dance training is indeed as good as any a training for becoming a director.
MM: What is your training in dance?
SP: After I had already made some short films — I started as a fourteen year old with film; I left school to become a filmmaker — but at the age of 21, I did a three-year dance training in modern dance. I did some ballet and tai chi. But mostly what I was concentrating on was choreography. I did a lot of performance in parallel with struggling to become a filmmaker. In hindsight, it was a wonderful way of training myself to become a filmmaker because it meant I worked a lot with performers. And as you rightly say, I developed a feeling for movement. And also a feeling for how to work because dancers work harder than anyone else, every day of their lives. So you learn the power of daily work to slowly improve.
MM: You said you started as a filmmaker at 14?
SP: I was leant, but not given, an 8mm camera by my uncle and his then-partner. They were both interested in filmmaking.
MM: How seriously did you take it?
MM: You said “here’s my career?” At fourteen?
SP: Much earlier than that. As an 11 and 10 year old I was writing plays and producing and directing them. As a seven year old I was writing stories. People forget to take children seriously as artists.
You do everything — music, writing, directing, you had dance training — did you ever feel like you were supposed to pick one and stick to it?
SP: You don’t really do everything as a director, you delegate everything. You work through the work of others. It is a collaborative form. But that itself is an art form — learning how to work with people. As a writer-director you move through all these different stages. The longest single period of time is spent writing, alone in a room. Then, other people join in. All the different disciplines that I have myself tried at different times, have enabled me to value and work with those people much better than if I hadn’t. I know what an actor is going through; I know what it’s like to look through the lens. I know what it’s like even to print and process in the lab, so when I have a discussion with a lab technician I can talk knowledgeably about temperatures of baths.
I did experience confusion in my twenties: “Am I a dancer? Am I a this, am I a that? Am I a bit of everything?” And then, I kind of realized, cinema brings all these things together. It is the synthesizing medium. Without even knowing it consciously, I’ve been training myself how to become what I want to be.
MM: It’s refreshing to hear you say that. Often, directors won’t admit to relying on others; they say it’s all their doing.
SP: [As a director,] you’re the only one that holds the whole vision in your head, and the buck stops at you. If it all goes wrong, you get blamed. If it all goes right you get praised. But you have to create an atmosphere in which everybody feels that the work is also theirs, in order for them to give as much as they’re being asked to give. And it becomes better than just you. But you have to lead it.
Queen for a Day
MM: You’ve said that you started writing Yes on September 12, 2001. What if you were queen for a day? What if you were a politician and not an artist, what would you have done differently?
SP: The first thought that came to my mind was the old and long-forgotten skills of diplomacy. Listening. The great value of people sitting down and talking to each other. Trying to have an understanding of each other’s differences based on respect. Everyone’s looking for the same thing, for respect, for happiness, for space and purpose. To worship their own god, to till their own piece of land, raise their families.
Nobody wants to be invaded. Everyone wants the power of self-determination. And everyone wants to feel that where they are is the best place in the world — not where someone else is. And every individual wants the right to speak and the right to be free whether male or female or of any color and of every persuasion.
And every society sadly puts down or degrades and denigrates people within their midst. And that takes different shapes and forms. Women may be more oppressed in some societies, but the oppression may take a different form in other societies.
If I was president for a day, I guess my overwhelming desire would be to polish up the arts of talking, diplomacy, listening, respect, modesty, and all that goes with that.