The Story Behind Sally Potter’s Compassionate Drama About Dementia

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The Roads Not Taken Sally Potter interview
The Roads Not Taken, 2020(Film still)

Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney, The Roads Not Taken follows 24 hours in the life of a man with an increasingly declining mental state

“A lot of things only became clear with hindsight,” says Sally Potter, director of The Roads Not Taken. “He’d be struggling with certain things but I thought that was just the way he was. It was only when things got more extreme that we all began to realise that maybe something wasn’t quite right.” We’re talking about her brother, Nic Potter, who, in 2011, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. Unlike more common types of dementia, the condition is typically diagnosed in younger patients aged 45 to 65, and can result in language difficulties, memory loss, problems with cognition, planning, organisation and unexplained behaviour changes. Nic had fallen unexpectedly in the street and, sensing something wasn’t quite right, had admitted himself to A&E. Doctors conducted some preliminary tests and slowly, over time, began to piece together a possible explanation. “You think ‘No, no, no, my younger brother, my little brother’. I felt very protective of him, but also unsure, underinformed,” says Potter.

The director spent hours reading through article after article on the internet, taking in everything she possibly could. As her brother’s condition worsened, she questioned doctors and neurologists trying to find ways to help manage her brother’s health. Having spent time looking after a close friend who’d suffered with multiple-sclerosis, Potter had some experience navigating the medical system already, but this new proximity to hospitals and the care they provide for patients shocked her. “I learnt things all the time,” says the director, “about disabilities, how people who are perceived as disabled or ‘other’ or ‘different’ get slightly dehumanised.” She became acutely aware of the ways patients, particularly those with neurological conditions, are talked ‘about’ rather than ‘to’. “I became quite militant in my feelings about the right of somebody to be treated as a whole human being – with dignity, and not just as a bunch of symptoms.”

The Roads Not Taken is not a portrait of Potter’s brother or her relationship with him, but the director’s experiences have undoubtedly informed the empathy at the heart of her latest picture. “The struggles my brother had as he got a diagnosis became, if you like, a form of authentic research to make a story which I knew was true,” she says. “Not autobiographical, but true.” 

Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney, The Roads Not Taken follows 24 turbulent hours in the life of father and daughter Leo (Bardem) and Molly (Fanning) as Molly grapples with the challenges of dealing with her father’s declining mental state. As the pair weave their way around New York City, their ordinary but stressful day takes on a hallucinatory and epic quality. Leo’s consciousness flows in and out of two parallel lives – a passionate marriage with his childhood sweetheart Dolores (Hayek) in Mexico; and a life lived in solitude on a remote and beautiful Greek island.

“The film is about the condition in part, but it’s also about something that’s more universally applicable,” says Potter. “We all make choices in our lives and those choices have consequences. We experience crossroads moments – we could go one way, or we could go another. After the choice is made, the question is, does some other part of you take the second route?” The film weaves a rich, cinematic tapestry as Leo’s parallel lives – visible only to him – gradually unravel in moments of tragedy, happiness, regret and humour.

As she wrote the script, Potter’s focus on three interconnecting narratives provided distance between her experiences and those of her central characters. “I always like the metaphor of the sculptor who finds the form hidden inside the block of stone,” she says. “Things change and transform, it becomes something else with its own kind of rules. It may have been seeded in experiences that have been lived, but it goes through so many filters and transformations that it feels like something completely other.” Shooting the film in a tight 26 days, working in multiple locations around the world, left little room for any kind of catharsis. “You’re too busy,” says Potter. “There’s not time to be emotionally indulgent.” 

Prior to large-scale lockdowns, the director toured The Roads Not Taken at film festivals in Berlin and New York, its message of compassion resonating strongly with audiences. With the film’s release later this week, the director hopes her latest picture might teach viewers about the challenges and joys of caring for others. “A great many people come up to me, some of them crying, saying that it rang true for them,” she says. “It was often a grandfather, a grandmother, a parent, someone they’d lost. I think they were able to acknowledge that the love you feel for somebody when they’re suffering is very powerful.”

The Roads Not Taken screens in cinemas throughout the UK and Ireland from September 11, 2020.