Sally Potter’s ‘The Roads Not Taken’ Emotively Ventures Into the Memories of a Broken Mind

Sally Potter is constantly inspired by the world around her and the times we inhabit. An acclaimed director with a unique voice that spans nearly three decades of making feature films, Potter’s latest is an intimate drama that is still fueled by society and politics. “The Roads Not Taken” is not so much about a plot as it is about people. It’s a puzzle that may be daunting at first glance, but ponder the film after the end credits and it gains a richer whole. “It’s a kind of coming together of a very long term preoccupation on the one hand with the nature of the mind and whether cinema itself can be like a doorway into the mind and consciousness,” Potter recently explained while discussing her new film with Entertainment Voice. 

“The Roads Not Taken” is about the fragility of the mind and body. Leo (Javier Bardem) is a Mexican writer suffering from an early-onset dementia that has rendered him nearly comatose. He sits around his Brooklyn apartment barely able to do anything for himself. His self-appointed caretaker is his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), the result of a now defunct marriage with Rita (Laura Linney). Molly dearly loves Leo and is willing to put off work to take him to the doctor, the dentist and other essentials while trying to make sense of what her father rambles. His fractured sentences have clues that lead into flashbacks of his possible past. In Mexico we see him with another woman, Dolores (Salma Hayek), with whom he shares a painful loss which might have inspired his migration. The narrative then finds him wandering a Greek island as a writer seeking inspiration. It all begins to form a portrait of a life lived, choices made or not made and the shadow one person’s life can cast on others.

“What exists in our heads is much more complicated usually than any clear narrative,” said Potter. “A more recent preoccupation came from something very close to me which was that my younger brother developed early-onset dementia.” It was the condition of Potter’s brother, Nic, an artist and musician, including bassist for the band Van der Graaf Generator, that truly fueled the idea for the film. “I was responsible for his care and was very close to him through his last years. I learned a great deal and reevaluated what it meant to be normal and what is typical in this other state. When someone appears to be disappearing is generally how people think of it. Maybe their minds are going somewhere really interesting. After he had passed on I found myself thinking is there something I can do to honor what I learned about him? Not by making a portrait of him, I didn’t want to do that, but by transposing some of these experiences into a different subject and even a different language. Then I could explore that idea that someone is truly there even if they appear to be disappearing.” 

Potter has always made diverse casting choices which flow wonderfully with the themes of a film. From Tilda Swinton in the gender-defying Virginia Woolf adaptation “Orlando” to Joan Allen as one half of a white-Arab relationship in the linguistically experimental “Yes,” casting is always notable for its precision in a Potter film. Here it’s no exception. Bardem becomes an altered mind attempting to communicate and Elle Fanning has an endearing force as his daughter, who at times seems helpless yet full of love. “What I find is you end up with the people the film needs to be,” said the director, “when you finally settle on them you know this is it. I felt that way with Javier Bardem. Salma was also a natural choice…I’m a director who loves working with actors, loves it. The process of discovery, of bonding and spending time together, I love it. The key is preparation. By the time we get to the shoot we have to be able to move like Grease Lightning, we have to have a basis of trust, we have to know what we’re doing, the actors have to know who they are, what they are and why they’re doing it so they’re not just doing it because it says to do it in the script. So I spent a lot of time privately with people one on one. I did with that Javier in Spain. I went to Madrid where he lives and we worked a great deal. He came to London and so on, similarly with Salma and Elle. I tend to work with them individually because I can give them my full-on attention. On the shoot my attention is split in a thousand different directions but they’ve already banked in all that one on one attention.” 

“The Roads Not Taken” also continues a Potter tradition of dismissing artificial borders. The narrative jumps from Brooklyn to New York to Greece. The same is true of the characters and their interracial relationships and offspring. For Potter diversity is important to express in film and one can’t escape the times. In one scene where Leo has an incident at a store a customer yells an anti-immigrant slur at him, while in the background whether through chatter or TV noise the wider world always lingers. “The slogan has been around for a long time that the personal is political. You may start with a personal story but you’re going to set it in an environment and every environment has its dynamics about what’s going on. Like everyone else I’ve been following what’s been going on with the relationship between Mexico and America since Trump has been in power, and this great big symbolic wall and border. If you’re going to deal with someone who’s in a borderline state mentally there’s going to be a metaphorical border, so I thought why not double that emphasis by creating a setting where he’s also dealing with a place and a state where his very feeling of home is under threat. You also have the subject of a second generation that’s considered more American because they don’t have an accent and so on. So all those things are there. I was thinking about them, about the consequences of the stresses on the lives of immigrants which can also exasperate certain mental conditions.” 

Always crafting new stories or adaptations, Potter maintains a strict discipline as a writer. “The muse is irrelevant I’ve discovered. I write every day five days a week unless it’s getting towards the end of something, then it’s seven days a week. I know from bitter experience from the beginning of my writing life many decades ago that relying on inspiration or how you feel that day is a non-starter. You have to have a regular routine. I also did research into my favorite writers to find out what their routine was so I could learn something from it. I learned the vast majority of them worked in the morning and put some kind of specific time limit. Hemingway would say he’d put his pen down even if he’s in the middle of a sentence after he’d done the number of hours he set for himself, so that he can’t wait to get there the next morning to carry on.”

While “The Roads Not Taken” has more of a personal touch, with the tone of a drama looking into a man’s private experiences and thoughts, Potter is continuing to plan work attuned to the times. “I’m doing a political comedy. I’ve already written it. I’m looking forward to working with laughter again.”

The Roads Not Taken” opens March 13 in select theaters.