The Roads Not Traveled is in theaters now, featuring dynamite performances from Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, and Laura Linney. I sat down with director Sally Potter, of Orlando and Ginger and Rosa, to talk about the dense literary inspirations for this film.
GPG: Leo spends much of The Roads Not Traveled on a journey through these various realities trying to get home. Can you talk about the Odyssey parallels in this film?
SP: The Odyssey, as the oldest recorded story in Western civilization, is often sort of behind everything…somebody goes very far away and eventually in effect comes home, and faces many obstacles along the way, that’s essentially the principle of the Odyssey. And I also felt that somebody who’s in a dementia-like state, for whom everyday difficulties like going to the dentist and having somebody put sharp instrument in your mouth, or going to the optometrist and having somebody be like a Cyclops shining a light in your eye, for them, these are great big events they’re having to navigate during that day. So I found it very useful to refer back to the Odyssey as a shape, as an experience, and as a metaphor for the going far away and coming home shape of some people’s lives.
GPG: Dementia is a major theme of this film; is there a connection to the material in your own life?
SP: My younger brother got early onset dementia, and I was caring for him over a period of time until his death, and I learnt so much from being with him, about the mind, and about how people treat people with a mental disability, and I felt very protective of him and of the fact that he was still a total human being, just different. So yes, it came out of a lot of direct observation of him, but also then talking to neurologists, carers, nurses, doctors, and learning what I could about the brain and about memory.
GPG: I thought the moments of laughter that the daughter has with Javier Bardem’s character were among the most realistic ways you depict dementia.
SP: I found it was one of the best ways to relate to my brother, and it was best for him, and for somebody else I was close to who had multiple sclerosis, these things that lead to a lot of quite humiliating experiences for the person, if you can turn it into a joke for both of you, it can be incredibly releasing, and then you find that the whole thing is a kind of comedy, you know, what the hell. And I think it’s very healing to do that for everyone concerned. And Elle Fanning, when I told her the stories about some of the things that I’ve witnessed or been through in that way, or seen my brother go through, she really took those on board and worked with them, as a sort of material that she could bring into the scenes, the quality of loving lightness that has a sadness behind it, but it has a lightness of tone, it doesn’t all have to be a tragedy, you know, some of this stuff is just funny human stuff.
GPG: My next question has to do with the women in this movie, because I often saw it as the Odyssey but from Penelope and the women he meets on the way, their point of view. What kind of significance did you find in these women doing so much work for him at every stage of his life?
SP: That’s what women do. That’s what women have done since…ever, is care for the humans in this world–thank God. That’s how we’re all here. We’ve had mothers, who have done their best. So whether it’s mothers for children, or adults for their own parents, when their parents become frail, or whatever, women have often carried what’s often thought of as the burden of care, but it’s been a burden willingly taken on, in many cases, because it’s a labor of love. Nevertheless, it’s unpaid work, so in this film I wanted to have the man at the center but it’s the women who define what he is, who he is and how he’s functioning, and making the world go ’round for him.
GPG: As far as Elle Fanning’s character, she kind of goes off on her own journey at the end, is that like a statement about the new generation being
SP: The new generation or any woman really who wants to love and do the right thing and care for people around them but at the same time wants a life, and wants to do their work and is in love with their work. We don’t have a solution for that yet, but at least it acknowledges the split, and how many women feel and experience themselves as split, split between caring for or pursuing their own trajectory, so that’s what that shows at the end. But also you know we’ve been watching in this man’s head his possible selves and possible choices coexisting in these kind of parallel lines, inside his head at least (maybe in reality, that’s a question left for the viewer to decide), but what we then see is her: one possible self is staying, looking after, and one possible self goes out the door and goes on with her life.
GPG: About the split reality, I noticed they were wearing the same clothes in one scene.
GPG: So she’s kind of her father’s heir as well as partially her mother’s heir as well?
SP: She’s mirroring what goes on.
GPG: I felt like in many ways Leo’s split was coming from the fact that he didn’t live life to the fullest in his relationships. Would you say she’s headed for a similar fate, or?
SP: No. Not at all. I don’t think there’s any determinant factor there. But I think that many people arrive at a point in their life where they look back at crucial decisions they made back in their twenties or even younger, where they chose which subject to study at university or which job path to follow or which relationship to go with or which country to live in, and part of them thinks well, on the other hand if I’d emigrated at that point, or if I’d decided to do the thing I really wanted to do or if I’d stayed with that first love instead of moving on, what would my life have been? So people start to face the what-ifs, the consequences of the choices that they made, and that’s a human state, that sense of doubt, regret, or maybe disappointment, or the feeling of not having lived out a full potential. I would say none of us live out our full potential at this point, male or female, and women in general have had far less opportunities to live out certain potential, but maybe have lived out more of their human potential in terms of literally living out a kind of humanity. So it’s complicated, but I think a younger generation of women now are wanting to be able to insist on having more than one kind of life, but there’s still a lot of confusion around.
GPG: It seems like Leo in many ways fails at communication for much of his life; was the dementia meant partially as like a metaphor for that; a kind of distance in his relationships?
SP: Well, I’ve heard women joke in private that all men are autistic–I mean it’s not a great joke, right, but it’s like a socialized thing about men, they are trained as boys to get out of contact with how they feel. They are trained not to care, not to empathize. I don’t think it’s inherent, I don’t think it’s biological, I think it’s a socialized kind of training. And on the whole young women are trained in the opposite direction.
GPG: Would you say there’s a gendering of illness in there, like would Elle Fanning have a different form of dementia later in life?
SP: Well let’s hope Elle Fanning’s character never has dementia later in life, because I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. We know already that music helps and exercise helps, and keeping your mind active helps, and diet helps, avoiding air pollution helps, but there’s a lot that people don’t know about why some people do fall into these dementia-like states and others don’t. So there’s a great deal to learn about it that’s for sure. But what’s clear is that anybody who has any kind of mental illness or neurological disorder, it will be individual as well, according to the way they’ve lived or the kind of preoccupations they have. And then things can happen in unexpected ways. In my brother’s case, for example, he became softer, and more full of gratitude, he became calmer, but he lost some of his speech, he lost the ability to write–it’s so individual. If you work on the premise that the person is there, the person is more than their symptoms, they are there–how can one build a bridge and communicate? Then suddenly doors open instead of doors closing.
GPG: And I get the sense that Leo as a writer would be more scared by this than anything, like the breakdown of logic, the breakdown of being able to take care of yourself, or the illusion of it anyway.
SP: And also the story he’s writing in his other parallel self on the Greek island, is in part the story of the Odyssey, that he describes in other terms, he never calls it an Odyssey, but about whether he’s ever going to be able to get home, and whether anyone will be waiting for him if he does go home, so he’s blocked, he can’t complete his story, because he doesn’t know what the ending is, but we later discover what the ending for him is in that particular story; he’s in a way doomed by what he’s chasing–by the fact that he does not tie himself to the mast in his little boat.
GPG: Yeah, I get the fatal flaw vibes very strongly here. [both laugh] With the Day of the Dead ceremony that went on in the graveyard, it seemed like the point was that the dead are still here, and that we’re all at one with each other on a spiritual level–was that meant as a refutation of everything Leo believes about separation, ego, etc.?
SP: Well first of all, you’re really picking up on stuff that other people haven’t picked up on, so well done.
GPG, blushing: Thanks.
SP: In my mind not only is it based on the Odyssey but it’s also all happening on the Day of the Dead. So that was the instruction I gave to all the different departments–this is all about the spirits revisiting us on this one day, and the fact that the dead are with us, are living with us, including the people we feel we are losing in that very moment, because that’s how people talk about people with dementia, as if they’re already dead. I wanted to do something that was not Day of the Dead cliches, but it was based on my experiences of being in Mexico and going to some cemeteries and watching how people were, at ease with the concept of facing death and loss but also at ease with the idea that the dead are with us, or at least will visit us from time to time, and we can in a way converse with them, and the spirits live with us.
GPG: Western philosophy is so often built on these binaries of life/death, separation of ideas–
SP: Yes; here, there, gone, and all that. Whereas we know that the mind doesn’t deal with things in quite that way. That memory and imagination can be as vivid as so-called reality for some people, reading a book can be more real than walking down the street. So it questions all these definitions of what’s real and what’s not.
GPG: The wife is a very bitter Penelope, though she seems to have a reason for it. Let’s talk about her character.
SP: The Laura Linney character? Well she’s the ex-wife. So she’s the woman who, I’ve discussed it with Laura, the feeling that you have for people you’ve loved before–once you’ve loved somebody, you love them forever, but you’re no longer responsible for them, at a certain point when you finish the relationship, whereas a child is forever linked to the parent and the parent to the child.
[end of interview]