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When an American woman (Joan Allen) leaves her politician husband (Sam Neill) and embarks on a passionate love affair with a Middle-Eastern man (Simon Abkarian), their journey from London and Belfast to Beirut and Havana sees them confront some of the greatest conflicts of our generation—religious, political and sexual. Co-starring Sheila Hancock as a beloved aunt and Shirley Henderson as the philosophical cleaner who witnesses the trail of dirt and heartbreak the lovers leave behind them. Written and directed by Sally Potter (The Tango Lesson, Orlando).


Every film you make has the ghost of the film you didn’t make hovering around it. The scenes cut, the locations not used, the experiences behind the camera sometimes as telling and potent as the material which ends up in the finished film. These experiences go unrecorded, in any organized or formal way—even ‘making of’ documentaries tend to concentrate on life on the film set, by which time there have already been countless untold stories. However, there are usually some traces: photographs, notes in a diary, perhaps some video footage: more often just the memories.

Here are some fragments and traces from the evolution of Yes.

(Click on the thumbnail to see bigger picture and caption)

Yes started life as a five minute short—which in the end turned out to be a ‘pilot’—stimulated initially by an invitation to participate in a project called Paris, je t’aime, in which twenty directors were invited to produce a film in each of the twenty arrondissements (districts) of Paris. I chose the sixth, as it is where I usually stay (in the small, shabby, legendary, Hotel Louisiane—the hotel where Simone de Beauvoir once lived, and where Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote Nausea, it must be the only hotel left in a major city which does not have television in its rooms—a blessed absence).

I invited cinematographer Alexei Rodionov to join me for the first time since we worked together on Orlando. I missed his unique presence and was eager to work with him again. Jean-Paul Mugel (the remarkable sound recordist I have worked with on three films now) and Carlos Conti, designer extraordinaire, would make up the tiny production team.

I was obsessed by the idea of looking at the protagonists’ feet as they pounded the Paris streets, the gutters flowing with water, though the film was to be filled with text; we were to hear their thoughts as well as their spoken words in a continuous overlapping stream. The two characters were to walk towards a rendezvous (in the Jardins de Luxembourg) each holding an imaginary argument with the other in their heads; a bitter conflict of misunderstanding. I had started writing the text on September 12, 2001, in direct response to the terrible events of the previous day; but these two characters, a woman from the West and a man from the Middle East, though locked in conflict, were to be lovers, and the film would end in the triumph of love over hate. And it was written in verse. It was winter, and the obsession with feet, and with the ground, led to Alexei lying on the Paris pavements in icy conditions.

Some months later, after casting the charismatic, extraordinary Simon Abkarian as the male lead, I had used the five-minute film as a springboard for a feature-length script. On one of our casting and financing trips (the film was proving tricky to fund) Simon came with me to L.A. We stayed at the Chateau Marmont. The night we arrived he went out with some of his Armenian friends and indulged in some heavy drinking. The next day I took some photos of his lovely hungover ragged face.

Yet more months later, in New York, Simon and the luminous, magnificent Joan Allen met and read together for the first time and the chemistry between them was immediately obvious.

A few months later we travelled to Beirut to look for locations. I was struck by the scars of the war evident on so many buildings, but also by the apparent integration of so many religious and ethnic groups. The blazing white sunlight hovered over the city as we careered at terrifyingly high speeds on the highways through the city. Lara, our driver, had the interesting habit of driving hands-free, talking into her mobile, smoking, and turning around to talk to us in the back all at the same time. But we survived, nonetheless.

By the time we came to shoot the film, it was impossible to use our Beirut locations. We had become un-insurable as the invasion of Iraq had just begun: so we had to shoot ‘Beirut’ in Havana, one of the other locations in the story. But then we couldn’t take Joan, a U.S. citizen, to Cuba, due to recently legislated restrictions, so we filmed her ‘Cuban’ scenes in the Dominican Republic. In the finished film even I sometimes forget these behind the scenes gymnastics. The footage edited together seamlessly and the problems with the logistics and the locations even inspired some new ways of shooting and cutting. But I regretted some of the Cuban locations I had planned for Joan that we could not use; in particular, a beach club preserved from the ’50s and ’60s.

Perhaps the ghost-traces of the film not made is like a parallel reality; a life guessed at but not lived, a ‘could have been’ universe; or one which in some platonic and absolute sense exists, at least in the imagination. When making a film you hold it for so long in your head before it finally manifests, that you feel you are simply making something visible for others that is, in reality, already there. Of course, once it materialises, it looks and sounds a little different than the one you have been watching for months or years in the secret projection room in your mind. Which can be a lovely surprise, like meeting a stranger who is somehow familiar. An old friend, re-discovered. Yes.