Poetry for Southern California


Yes: The Film


"Yes" you can write a film in verse

By Mary McIntyre Brown
Joan Allen ("Upside of Anger", "The Bourne Supremacy"), Sam Neill ("Wimbledon", "Jurassic Park"), Shirley Henderson ("Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason", "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") and french film star of Armenian descent Simon Abkarian, comprise the ensemble cast in "Yes," a film written and directed by British filmmaker Sally Potter ("The Tango Lesson") which premiered on June 21st at the Los Angeles Film Festival. "Yes" is in theaters now.
"Yes" is the story of a passionate love affair between an American woman called "She" (Joan Allen) and a middle eastern man called "He" (Simon Abkarian) in which they confront not only the complexities of love and sexuality but also those of religion and politics. Sam Neill plays Allenís betrayed and betraying politician husband and Shirley Henderson is a philosophical cleaner who examines the crumbs of dirt and heartbreak left behind by the lovers as they embark on a journey that takes them from London to Belfast, Beirut to Havana -- East meets West speaking in iambic pentameter all the way.
I had a chance to sit down with Sally Potter, Joan Allen, and Simon Abkarian. We talked about poetry, love and politics, and how in the world they managed to prevent "Yes," a very artful labor of love, from getting a "No" in Hollywood.

Director Sally Potter

Q: This film started out as a 5 minute short. How did it evolve into a feature-length story?

SP: Well in a way it was an experiment to see if a short scene written in this way and featuring these two main characters would work. So I made it kind of like a pilot. That was the scene that later on became the Ďcar park sceneí which is the pivotal scene, really, of the film. Then I worked backwards from there to develop the characters and the kind of workplaces they might be in and the kind of friends they might have.

Q: Why did you choose to write the dialogue in verse?

SP: I think it decided to be written in verse. Itís as if the characters needed to speak this way in order to really speak from the heart and from the strange complexity of solitude, that in a way each of them is living in. The verse form seems to give a kind of flow to the combination of thoughts and dreams that the characters are struggling with. I believe that verse takes us closer to the kind of stream of consciousness that everyone has inside their heads somewhere in the back of their minds. People donít think in organized paragraphs and sentences, but more like a tumbling torrent of thoughts and feelings and associations. A flowing river of thought, image, feeling, dream, fear, God, dirt, love, sex, war, food. All the things that make up our consciousness, I think, are all mingled somewhere in the mind. Call it verse, call it poetry, call it rap, call it the song form, it allows for us, with a lyric structure, to contact that secret part of the mind and the heart.

Q: Some poets feel that through verse itís easier to express things that are difficult to say, do you find that to be the case for you?

SP: I think thatís the history of poetry. I think thatís what poems are there for. An interesting fact is that in times of war, sales of poetry go up suddenly. People feel their hands reaching for the poetry book on the shelves that they would perhaps not normally touch. But they see in the particular language of a poem a kind of distilled, heightened, sharpened sense of their own experience that can be very useful and that can move somebody to tears.

Q: Why did you choose to write in iambic pentameter?

SP: Iím not sure what proportion is in actual iambic pentameter. Iíve never analyzed it, but probably most of the script is maybe ten syllables a line. Some are eight syllables a line, occasionally less, but mostly. Some say that ten syllables a line is very close to a natural rhythm of speech. If you analyze and break down how people speak in everyday speech, it often comes out iambic because itís got a kind of rolling nature to it. So thereís nothing artificial about it at all. Eight syllables is more like direct speech, when itís a command or a very pointed statement.

Q: So whatís the biggest challenge in writing a screenplay in this manner?

SP: Editing it down. I always make it far too long, most of the speeches and sequences and scenes were much, much longer. It came out in a big flow, the whole time and I just had to edit it into narrative shape so the scenes, in a way, conformed to not exactly rules, but to dramatic tension.

Q: Was it a daunting to maintain the verse and at the same time achieve the emotional depths which the characters must portray?

SP: Well it was both a challenge and a liberation really. The actual process of writing it was like a kind of passionate liberation from the crawling naturalism. Itís like going to a deeper level of reality that people carry inside.

Q: Is this, perhaps, a new genre in modern screen-writing, and is that something you had wanted to do?

SP: It didnít occur to me that this was something new. It was something I had to do this way, it wanted to come out that way. It was an instinct, it wasnít a conscious decision. But, bit by bit I realized as people told me, "this has never been done before." There has not been a screenplay, for the modern day, written in verse. There have been adaptations of plays, obviously, from the past. And there arenít that many things left to do for the first time in cinema. So as I realized that it was a kind of responsibility and a challenge.

Q: How about directing a lyric sex scene with the emotional bareness that Joan and Simon display in the Ďcafť scene,í is that just like another day on the set?

SP: Well Iíve directed quite a few sex scenes now in different films. What Iíve found is the key, actually, is to get everyone relaxed by laughing a lot. So we have a riot in rehearsal because itís an embarrassing thing. Youíve got two actors who are not in a relationship and they have to act into this kind of intimacy. Well, thatís not the easiest thing to do. But if you go into it with a lot of laughs and a big sense of humor, everyone gets relaxed and then you can go to the next level of really entering an emotional space and thatís what we did. We had fun with it.

Q: Mingling politics and love with art, how do you balance that without berating the audience?

SP: I think that film is the most powerful and intimate medium that we have. We think of it as a mass medium but it actually works one on one. Everyone goes into the cinema and they enter into the film individually, the film is for them. Thatís the way I try to write it and make it, for one other person Ė multiplied times many millions, we hope (LAUGHS) thatís the response. From the point of view of trying to respect the idea of the individual audience as being complex and intelligent as I believe every human being is, I try not to talk down to them, nor to lecture, nor to preach. I wanted to have space with this story where people could have feelings and thoughts reflect upon the global situation without ever addressing it directly. So we never mention 9-11. We never mention whatís happening exactly in Iraq or anywhere else. Itís two individuals loving each other across a kind of global divide.

Q: The United States invaded Iraq while you were rehearsing this film, what impact did that have?

SP: It made me feel even more passionate about the subject matter. It felt kind of prophetic. It was like doing something in the moment as it was happening. And we felt lucky that we had a forum in which to give something back out into the world that was creative and positive in the face of such difficulty and death. So the actors were very emotional in rehearsals. There was a lot of crying and a lot of talking, and a lot of , you know, Ďwhat can we doí as artists, filmmakers, and actors. I think that made the performances deeper. Really, everyone was very committed to the film.

Q: The benefits of combining artistic mediums with a positive message seem obvious to me, but how difficult is it to convince movie executives to spend their money on this kind of film?

SP: To say itís a hard sell would be an understatement. Trying to get this film made was like walking backwards up Mt. Everest wearing high heels. But we just said, "Look, weíre going to do it any way, even if we have to do it with a video camera and whatever." But, in fact, we made it on Super 16, as it happens, and then digitized it into 35 mm. I had a wonderful cast. Everyone working on it had deferred pay or low pay for the love of it because people really believed in it. The paradox of that, of course, is it creates a wonderful working atmosphere because everyone is so dedicated and so pleased to be doing what theyíre doing. So that far outweighs the disadvantages of a low budget way of working.

Q: Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill, Shirley Henderson all give such remarkably sensitive performances in "Yes," what was it like to work with these actors?

SP: I think Joan really has to be one of the very, very great American film actors of all time. Serious, profound, delicate, radiant and very individual. She inhabits the characters that she takes on and in a very total way. Basically, I called her up and went to meet her and within seconds we really bonded around the idea. It was a joy working with her from start to finish. As it was with Simon Abkarian, who plays the male lead. He is well known as a stage actor in France and this is his first big breakthrough role in the English language, which is also an amazing achievement given that, for him, English is not his first language. And, of course, Sam Neill and Shirley Henderson and the others were wonderful, it was an ensemble cast. Everyone were people who love to work together .

Q: You use the kitchen workers who work with Simonís character and Shirley Hendersonís character, ĎCleaner,í whoís very funny by the way, as a sort of Greek chorus, donít you?

SP: The Cleaner came in pretty early on. I always wanted her to speak to the audience and I gradually realized that was a very old device from the Greek chorus and from Shakespeare, who always had moments of lightness in the midst of quite heavy dramas so to speak. It gives the audience a moment to relax, to breathe, to laugh and then you can go back in refreshed into the story.

Q: They also make a statement about class structure and stereotypes, donít they?

SP: Oh yeah, absolutely. The Cleaner in this story is not just light relief, sheís also the real philosopher of the piece. Sheís the one thinking about the world of the very small, the micro-world of dust, dirt, molecules, Ďvirusesí as she says, germs and stuff and the traces of the detritus, the things that we leave behind unconsciously. Nobody sees her, but she sees everything. Sheís inviting us to step in, she says "I can see you, letís talk about it." Itís part of the intimacy which is why she speaks so softly, itís like sheís talking to each and every individual out there in a whispering intimate way as if it was her best friend she was talking to. And the guys in the kitchen too. Part of the same impulse, perhaps, of wanting to create a middle eastern male character whoís sympathetic and round and complex was to go against the racist stereotype that there this around now. And I think there are still very strong stereotypes of working people as being less than or, yo! u know, being Ďheart of gold but not very bright.í So I wanted to create working people who are very bright and philosophers in their own way to go against that very heavy stereotype of the working class person. Itís nice to shake it all up a bit.

Q: But is there a danger of losing the audience when you break Ďthe fourth wallí?

SP: I think there is often a misunderstanding about realism. Apparent realism came probably with the photographic image, but in previous days everyone knew when they were watching a play, they were watching a play. You know, they didnít confuse it with watching real life, but it was a part of life called a play. Weíve gotten to this notion somehow that just because itís filmed with a camera that itís real. Well, weíve learned better than that. We know that a documentary can be as much of an invention or a fiction as anything else. Whatís just outside the frame is also important. What you choose not to shoot or what you cut out, you control reality.

Q: Letís talk about the soundtrack. From Chopin to Philip Glass to your own compositions, how did you choose the music for "Yes?"

SP: In the case of the Philip Glass piece, it was a piece I was listening to while I was writing the script. I think maybe the rhythms of his music found their way into the text or there was some kind of mirroring process involved. I find the search for music for a film is like looking for a kind of secret key thatís going to unlock a part of the self that only music can reach. On all my films, Iíve written part of the score or co-written the score and this was no exception. I think the soundtrack is almost like a parallel film in a way. You can listen to it and itís music from the east and the west and then these interconnecting pieces as well.

Q: Do you think thereís something inherent within each of us that is poetic?

SP: I think weíre a secret poet, each and every one of us. If we just listen to whatís in there, we have this desire and instinct for playing with language and using this gift of language to say things with a nuance and subtlety and a beauty that the language offers us.

Joan Allen, "She"

Q: Whatís the hardest part of working with dialogue that rhymes?

JA: Well actually I think itís a matter of just understanding that itís about the emotional content rather than the rhyme and then to relax about the whole thing and just go Ďthis is how these people talk.í Then just make sure youíre communicating the truth of the moment with the other actor. The language will sort of go with you, you donít think about the language first. You think, hopefully, of the emotional things that are going on first and then the language just kind of comes out of that. I hadnít done Shakespeare or worked with verse previously, but it was so easy to memorize because it rhymed.

Q: Your character, ĎShe,í is the one in charge of the relationship. What did you think of the male/female roles being switched?

JA: It is interesting that there is a bit of a reversal in terms of He is, in some ways, a second class citizen in a city that he has sort of exiled himself to. He was a doctor in Beirut, but, as the immigrant experience often shows, once a person leaves their country of origin and moves to another country, even if theyíre extremely educated, they donít often get to practice what theyíve been educated to do. So heís kind of a cook in a restaurant in London. So, She has a fair amount of money and she is a professional sort of woman. When they meet each other, she pays the bills and says Ďletís go away for a weekend.í Sheís kind of the leader in that way. I think over time it becomes debilitating. It hurts his dignity that sheís the person who is doing those things that are considered the role of the man.

Q: In the cafť scene where He and She are basically kind of having sex in public, it was steamy and erotic, yet I didnít feel like a voyeur watching it. Why do you think that is?

JA: I think itís because itís somehow so in character. It so fit into the fabric of this story and the trajectory of this relationship that it doesnít feel gratuitous, it feels somehow organic in itís own way. I think the fact that they have a sense of humor about what just happened is a real saving grace. I remember, when Sally was shooting it, it was really important to her that it was an erotic, daring moment for them, for the couple. But after it culminates, Sally said "I think you should have a good laugh about it." I thought that was a really smart choice. I think, because itís taken that the characters find humor in what theyíve just done and are kind of surprised by it, it kind of places in a way that is very human in some way. For them, itís strange and overwhelming and all those different things.

Q: What is it like to work with Simon?

JA: He was amazing to work with. Heís an extraordinary person, heís had an incredible life and I just thought our sensibilities were very similar. We both come from, you know, an extensive theatre background, he has his own theatre company in Paris. So, I think, because weíve had that experience, it really sort of bonded us. Our approach to doing the work was quite similar even though we hadnít known each other before and we come from very different places.

Simon Abkarian, "He"

Q: You say making this film has changed your life? In what way?

SA: It demanded of me something in my craft that was not demanded before, it was not asked before. There are so many layers in these characters, ĎSheí and ĎHe,í so many layers, it made me question my identity, about what is my identity. Itís not that I didnít ask that myself before, but it was so concrete this time because the questions were asked in doing the work, so I had to formulate it. It changed my life and so did meeting Sally and Joan. I mean, working with Joan is now -- itís going to be difficult to top. You know, the level [of acting] was quite elevated. It will be hard to encounter such a great actress again.

Q: Talk about an identity crisis, He is exiled from his home country of Lebanon and finds himself in a relationship where the woman is in charge. What was that like to play?

SA: When you are in exile you lose your direction, your poles. This is one thing for him, he was a surgeon, but now he has to make a living out of his life, you know. What I found interesting were moments like when He is dancing for her, because, usually, She is dancing for He. I find it interesting that he is in demand, but itís a desperate need. To mix what the archetypes of masculine and feminine needs are -- in fact, there is no feminine and masculine in a relationship, there are needs. Needs have no, letís say, sexual identity, either feminine or masculine. I like that She pays, has a career, and is more settled. She has time to think, to organize her life. It doesnít mean that sheís not lost and she doesnít have needs. I like the desperation of him and his pride. I think the more desperate we are, pride is very important, dignity is all thatís left. If thereís no dignity, there is absolute death.

Q: What about working with script written in verse, was that difficult for you?

SA: It was never awkward to me, it was quite fun to do the rhymes. It was not problematic. On the contrary, it was a good tool to make things happen. I must say, what Joan brought in her work was very inspiring to me because sheís absolutely -- you donít hear the verses -- and we make this relationship turn into a discussion. Discussion in itself is an art because we listen to each other. But, the verses were good food.

Q: In America, a film with a love story and written so lyrically might be considered a "chick flick." Do you think "Yesí is a film men will enjoy as well?

SA: I hope men are going to see it because machismo has nothing to do with virility. Itís two different things. I feel Iím someone who is virile, but it doesnít take away the fact that you have to be intelligent. Intelligence is to read into a womanís needs. This film is also about this. Itís a big effort for him to overcome his culture, which is not the macho culture that we think -- you know, itís not only that, it is that but not only. We should be fairer towards that. But, He makes the effort to overcome that because there is love. As long as there is love, discretions are not asked, they are useless questions.

Q: Love in this midst of politics, is it more meaningful to you as an actor to be involved in a film that deals with real issues rather than, say, a broad comedy that might make more money?

SA: I think both are important because acting is like flying, whatever bird you are you have to land at some point. So you do a comedy, (LAUGHS) you know what I mean? And then you fly again, five years later you have a project like this. Weíre all looking for the sky, weíre all looking for a flight. But it would be snobbish and almost racist to say ĎI want to do only this and not that.í Everything is food for your craft to progress. But it is true that in some films you feel more useful. And this is the case with this film. I feel somehow useful because we present a reality that is never talked about, which is that it is possible to create a space of talk and intelligence in a relationship and forget the hatred clichťs that we have.

Copyright 2005 Mary McIntyre Brown.