The Roads Not Taken
by writer/director Sally Potter
Dear cinemagoer, dear lover of movies, dear reader of this letter,
As a cinematic storyteller, conscious of an infinity of possible subjects and infinite ways of exploring them, the choices that I make sometimes bring with them a vertiginous feeling of risk. Will my love of the subject withstand the long haul of the writing, directing and editing? Will the final film land in the hearts and minds of others—you, for example—in a way that echoes how my own heart and mind has wrestled with its evolution?
It is in the context of these unknowns that I decided to embark on The Roads Not Taken, an idea based on close observation of two loved ones who gradually lost the ability to communicate. One was a dear friend and ex-lover, a marvellous musician, who found she had multiple sclerosis (every musician’s dread) and over a twenty-year period became unable to speak. I helped to organise her care and was eventually the only person able to ‘read her mind’. The other was my younger brother, also a musician, who was diagnosed with a rare form of young onset dementia. I became responsible for his care, too, and, during the same year, accompanied both of them through their last days and hours.
Being so close to them made me question a lot of assumptions. When someone seems to gradually ‘disappear’, are they no longer there? If they are there—as it definitively seemed to me—then where are they going? Was it possible, I asked myself, as I gazed at my brother’s face and listened to his fractured speech patterns, that he was seeing things I could not see and was trying to tell me about them?
In the years following the sad loss of these beloveds and the lives they could have lived, I began to explore how some of the states I had born witness to might become the basis of a film, transforming their possible states of mind into images that posed universal questions about the mind and many standard definitions of the ‘self’.
The first premise would be that a person is not just an illness, however extreme the symptoms may be. The second would be that we all have thoughts of roads we have not travelled and carry the ghosts of those potentialities within. The third would be that tenderness, compassion and care for those we love are essential qualities, under threat in an increasingly cruel, compassion-averse climate.
And so, the basis for a film script started to form. My challenge was how to take this subject, at first sight telling of challenges that many of us do not wish to contemplate—and find luminosity and release within it. The cinematic pleasures of image, sound design, music, and performance bring their own joys, but the key, it seemed to me, would be the same key as in life, a quality of love that comes when people are deeply connected in the face of difficulty.
I decided to write the screenplay in a physical setting, exploring a set of relationships that was clearly not autobiographical. I had learnt a lot from those close to me but did not want to make anything resembling a portrait. I would limit the story to one 24-hour day, in which a young adult daughter looks after her father in New York City; an ordinary day that becomes an odyssey for both of them. Like many such family carers, she is also pursuing a busy working life.
‘Care’ is a light word for what can become the most challenging role someone can face, exacerbated by the fact that most of it is invisible to others; it tends to take place in a private, intimate sphere. Within the family, it is mostly carried out by women, and whilst hard and unpaid work, is also usually a labour of love.
Susan Sontag said that “everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the well”. Immigrants also live in two lands: the one they came from and the one they are in now, neither of which always feel like ‘home’. The stresses they face every day are reflected in health statistics.
So, to double the sense of split—someone with several possible identities and a history of tough choices about where to live and with whom—I decided to have the father in the emerging story be an immigrant from Mexico who had married an American woman. His daughter, therefore, born and raised in the U.S., is the one who speaks more fluently and can more easily navigate the system when things go wrong. Whilst this background information is not the primary focus of the story, it links physical illness with a wider sickness—fear of the ‘other’ and the consequences of de-humanisation of anyone different.
Javier Bardem took on the role of Leo with courage, for he plays neither a hero nor a villain but instead embodies the delicately nuanced world of a vulnerable man. Elle Fanning entered seamlessly into the emotional space of a daughter, Molly, who loves her father but also loves her work and realises she is facing some hard choices as a young, independent woman. Salma Hayek relished the idea of playing Dolores, the woman Leo could have stayed with in Mexico in one of his ‘lives not lived’, and Laura Linney, Molly’s mother, Rita, is the successful woman who divorced Leo and resists becoming responsible for him when he falls ill. The crucial presence of these women in Leo’s life, whether in his mind or in ‘reality’, emphasises the fact that the land of care is mostly populated by women.
Finding a cinematic shape in which to hold these characters, the web of their overlapping, contradictory experiences, and the differing realities they seem to occupy, proved to be challenging at every stage of the lengthy writing process, the speedy shoot (26 days) and the long edit. Much of it rested on the hidden architecture of ‘point of view’. How could we be both in Leo’s head, seeing what he was seeing, and in ‘reality’, seeing what Molly was seeing? How would people know that the lives not lived we were following were all happening in parallel, in Leo’s mind? Did it matter, or would each member of the audience navigate these realities according to their own perception, born of their experience?
The solution was to think of the story like a river, flowing as our minds do, moving mercurially and associatively from one place or space to another. The logic behind the jigsaw of interlocking pieces in Leo’s mind (the ‘roads not taken’) would gradually reveal itself in the luminous power of his daughter’s attention.
The camera, in turn, would be intimate, never looking ‘objectively’ but hovering, scrutinising, gazing at the protagonists as one does with the people one loves.
And it is in this spirit that I offer this film to you, the unknown viewer, for whom I work.