Sally Potter, the director of The Roads Not Taken, shares the inspiration behind her latest film. Sally hopes people affected by dementia will recognise the experiences portrayed, and the film will help to challenge assumptions about the condition.
The story of The Roads Not Taken
What is the film The Roads Not Taken about?
The Roads Not Taken follows a day in the life of a man with early-onset dementia, played by Javier Bardem. His daughter, played by Elle Fanning, tries to deal with challenges the condition brings.
During the 24-hours that we follow the lead character, we learn what’s going on his mind. While he appears to have the symptoms of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), we discover his ability to visit other possible selves in his mind. These are the parallel lives he could have lived if he had made different choices earlier on in his life.
Is the film The Roads Not Taken based on a true story?
No, The Roads Not Taken is a fictional film. The director, Sally Potter, explains that she spoke with various neurologists and did a lot of objective research, as well as using references from her own life.
‘Although the film isn’t autobiographical, I made this authentic fictional world about a different figure based on my own experiences.’
- Sally Potter, director of The Roads Not Taken
Sally adds that she ‘already knew some of the effects dementia could have on a person and the people looking after them'.
Watch the official trailer for The Roads Not Taken. Read on to find out more from director Sally Potter, in her own words, about the influences behind the film.
Interview with director Sally Potter
Sally Potter OBE is a British director and screenwriter, born and raised in London. She has worked with many famous actors and is known for her bold themes.
Orlando (1992) was Sally Potter's adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel. It won her the audience prize for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.
My brother Nic and his dementia diagnosis
My younger brother Nic experienced early-onset dementia and was diagnosed with Pick’s disease (also known as FTD or frontal lobe dementia).
It wasn’t clear at all at first. Nic was a musician. Rock musicians are known to be a bit untidy, and don’t necessarily handle their finances very well, living a kind of ‘wild’ life. That always seemed normal to me.
‘I noticed Nic was struggling with some things in his daily life, like keeping the place tidy, and managing his finances. It was the practical things of life, and relationships.’
Eventually there was a tipping point where it became clear that some things were really hampering Nic’s ability to live the way he really wanted to live.
It was Nic who first alerted me to his symptoms around memory, and he kept saying “something’s not right”.
There are so many variations and so much individuality within the diagnosis of FTD, and so many different ways of handling it.
Addressing the less publicised aspects of dementia
The Roads Not Taken is a very different interpretation from the standard; it’s a different view of the dementia state.
I felt dementia was so often portrayed on television, on stage and in films as this terrible tragedy with a victim and just general all-round misery. Now, I’m not saying it’s not a difficult illness – of course it is.
I wanted to do something that addresses the thing that people kept saying but never gets publicised: there is so much unknown.
Dementia is not perceived in The Roads Not Taken as a tragedy, but as a mystery about what is going on in the mind, and about how we shouldn’t make assumptions.
‘A person with dementia isn’t just a cluster of symptoms. They are still there even if they appear to be far away; you can still wave and make contact.’
People with dementia deserve to be treated with complete dignity and respect all the way through.
Building on real experiences with the cast of The Roads Not Taken
I shared all the things I had learnt about dementia with the actors. I shared what it was like caring for somebody and what it would be like for the person themselves.
Javier Bardem went to a clinic in Spain specialising in FTD and talked with specialist there. He met people at various stages of dementia and came up with a lot of things that I hadn’t experienced. He had his own interpretation as well as the things that were in the script.
With Elle Fanning, I spoke a lot about split lives. Although she hasn’t directly experienced this, she could imagine how it might be. I think Elle portrays it beautifully. Her character loves and cares for her father and wants to protect him. But she has her own life to live and a job that she loves. It’s hard to be totally self-sacrificial; the daughter has to make some hard choices in order to maintain her own life, dignity and trajectory.
Understanding the difficulties facing primary carers of people with dementia
I have made this film firstly to honour carers. The amazing work and love and compassion and difficulty that many carers have about having a life, as well as living a life as a carer. How do you navigate that and keep a busy life going? The number of people who have effectively given up their lives to care for others is a complex and difficult topic.
With coronavirus, it must be treble the difficulty for people living with dementia and those who care for them. To be in a situation during the pandemic where people are isolated in care homes, without contact and feel forgotten – then for carers to feel isolated and unable to protect the people they love, I think that must be excruciatingly difficult. We become very protective when someone we love becomes so vulnerable. My heart goes out to all on both sides of it.
The subject of the film is about loving people who are ill and surviving it, having a life and remembering the importance of connections to the people who you love and are close to, whatever they are like and whatever they’re going through.
‘The timing of the film feels more relevant than ever, so I hope people will be able to relate to it from the perspective of the pandemic as well.’
I hope some people will recognise experiences that they’ve had and understand the perspective. People have come up to me already saying ‘This is exactly how it was for me’, and 'I finally feel like some of my experiences are up on the screen’. That’s all very rewarding.
But this is not a documentary giving new, helpful information to people. It’s just an interpretation about the mysteries of the mind, and about the consequences of choices we make in life.