There comes a moment in The Roads Not Taken, the ninth feature from Sally Potter, when the hitherto saintly, soft-spoken Molly (played by Elle Fanning) becomes exasperated by repeated efforts to dehumanise her dementia-diagnosed dad, Leo (Javier Bardem).
“Why does everyone always refer to Dad as if he’s not here?” Molly asks her mother and Leo’s ex-wife (Laura Linney).
“Is he?” comes the response.
That question forms a classic demi-sci-fi “what if” at the heart of The Roads Not Taken. As Molly struggles to bring Leo around New York for scheduled appointments with the dentist and optician, Leo is disappearing into parallel lives. In one version, his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) appears. In another he strikes up a conversation with a much younger woman on a Greek island, where he has decamped in the hope of finishing his novel.
“Yes, in a way like science fiction but without anything other than what is absolutely real,” says Potter via a Zoom link. “The idea was just to make everything as if it absolutely is. That it exists. He is seamlessly somehow moving from one world to the other, without that being explained. But if one thinks about how one thought moves down a neuron to another thought, you know, associative thought. Think of an orange. Where does that word take you? Does it take you to an apple? Or to the tree? The mind goes leap, leap, jump, jump. It’s fluid and fast moving.
“The brain may be a thing, but the mind is not necessarily exactly the same thing as the brain. The premise of the story was somebody appears to be disappearing. That’s what people say right? Disappearing. Maybe they’re going somewhere really interesting. Maybe they’re visiting in parallel the lives they could have lived, maybe they’re seeing things that we’re not able to see. So I wanted to explore that kind of fluidity without necessarily naming it as science fiction.”
Personal history inspired Potter, who nursed her younger brother, Nic Potter, the former bassist with Van der Graaf Generator, for his final two years as he battled early onset dementia. Nic had been diagnosed with Pick's disease. It's a point made well by the drama: dementia is not synonymous with Alzhiemer's. To this end, Potter consulted a neurologist to ensure her script was clinically correct. Bardem, meanwhile, visited a clinic specialising in his character's diagnosis.
“Leo has frontotemporal dementia and that is very different from Alzhiemer’s,” says Potter. “It doesn’t even necessarily involve memory loss. It’s more cognitive. In fact, there is no one way of having any form of dementia, it seems to be as individual as the individual person. There is a kind of cluster of symptoms that may or may not develop, and may or may not develop rapidly. It’s certainly not one thing and there’s no one way of interpreting it either.
“There are many, many ways of interpreting what’s going on with somebody in that condition. But one thing is clear. A person is more than the condition. A person is still a full human being even if they can’t fully communicate their full humanity at all times, or it appears odd to others or limited. That was certainly the premise of this anyway, that inside the mind, the mind, even when injured, remains an incredibly complex and mysterious place.”
I left school at 16. I was not part of the network. I just got out there with a little borrowed camera and I rummaged through dustbins in Soho to find out-of-date film stock
Potter’s production company is called Adventure Pictures and no wonder. The daughter of a poet and a music teacher, she began making films at 14 on an 8mm camera. She was 16 when she left home to work as a researcher at the BBC while making experimental shorts at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op.
“I had no delusions,” she recalls. “There was nobody giving me a hand. There was no book. I left school at 16. I was not part of the network. I just got out there with a little borrowed camera and I rummaged through dustbins in Soho to find out-of-date film stock. And the projects just gradually got bigger.
“So I kind of feel that I pulled myself up by the sweat of my brow out of sheer longing to do it. Not because I was encouraged particularly. Although I had one or two individual people in my life who did absolutely encourage me. But the culture as a whole was one of discouragement.”
Potter pauses for a moment as she considers what advice she might give to her younger self, that precocious teenager fishing for film outside west London’s production houses.
“I knew this really, but I think I might warn myself: you know, girl, you’re gonna need a lot of stamina and you’re gonna need to endure a lot of knocks,” she says. “The knocks took me by surprise early on. I got some very, very vicious reviews. Things that had nothing to do with the content of the film. They were to do with me. They were personal attacks.
“Funnily enough, now, in the age of Twitter and so on, people have got more used to personal attacks. But, at the beginning, I was really taken aback. It was very strange. But then at the same time, I got a kind of cult status. So I realised, you know, it’s not going to be an even path ever. You just have to keep going.”
During the 1970s, Potter became an award-winning dancer, choreographer, theatre director and musician with the Feminist Improvising Group and the Film Music Orchestra before returning to movie-making. Her debut feature, The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, was made with an all-female cast and crew in 1983.
“I did my bit at that point,” says Potter. “In the unions, you know, there were different grades. There had been no, as far as I recall, no female sparks or electricians in that grade. So with the unions, we had to make a whole bunch of different deals and opened a lot of doors. It was not easy. The film was received with a lot of derision. It’s tough when you’re kind of going first through those gates. But it was good to do. The process of change is a long and slow one.
“It’s good to remember that in the early days of silent cinema there were a lot of female directors. It was considered a good job for a woman because women were good with detail and good with people. And then that job got taken over. Things can change in strange ways.”
I was kind of this weird outsider hanging around...And then suddenly I'm being accepted and having something that's really, really liked on a big, big mass scale; it was quite disorienting
Potter's second feature was Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel starring a then-unknown Tilda Swinton as the gender-switching immortal of the title and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I. The film made an unprecedented splash. It was nominated for two Oscars and continues to make cultural ripples; Orlando was the inspiration for both the 2020 spring exhibition of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 2020 Met Gala.
Impressive for a film Potter was told was “unmakable, impossible, far too expensive and anyway not interesting” by industry professionals.
“It was weird,” recalls the writer-director. “I was kind of this weird outsider hanging around in the mud and the margins and being in opposition to just about everything. And then suddenly I’m being accepted and having something that’s really, really liked on a big, big mass scale; it was quite disorienting. It was kind of wonderful too. Amazing, actually.”
Potter might have forged a Hollywood career on the back of Orlando. But while stars continue to queue up to work with her – Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in The Man Who Cried (2000), Cillian Murphy and Kristen Scott Thomas in The Party (2017) – her films remain idiosyncratic and fiercely independent. She played herself in the 1997 romantic drama The Tango Lesson. Yes (2005), which starred Joan Allen as a scientist who has a love affair with a Lebanese cook, was written entirely in iambic pentameter. Rage (2009), a mystery starring Judi Dench and Jude Law, was one of the first features purportedly shot on a mobile phone.
“I love reading or watching stuff that’s formally interesting,” says Potter of her playful oeuvre. “Or looking at people’s work where they’re really pushing the form into new ways or using new devices from the syntax of the medium. It feels like there’s so much to be discovered there.
“I always thought, why bother to be just straightforwardly linear? Having said that, with The Party, I sort of thought I’d experiment with being linear and telling a story in real time. Playfulness is a very nice way of putting it. It’s a form of play, in which one can discover different ways of thinking, and experiencing.”
The current, larger conversations about gender parity and female representation behind the camera haven’t made it any easier to get daring films made. There has, however, been a shift since the 1980s, says Potter.
"What I can say that's different is that when I started out, there were almost no other female film-makers around," she says. "There were some in France and some in the States; they were only a handful. I remember around about the time of The Piano, people kept mistaking me for Jane Campion. And Jane said the same thing happened to her.
“Now I can name a lot of directors who happen to be female. The numbers aren’t very good, but there’s a lot more than there were when I started out.”
The Roads Not Taken is on limited release from September 11th