EXCLUSIVE | “I always feel misjudged” – Sally Potter on The Roads Not Taken & being a female filmmaker

Sally Potter talks about her new film, working with Elle Fanning again – and takes aim at reviewers who troll her


BERLIN – The fourth and final of our expansive interviews surrounding the release of The Roads Not Taken, it’s now time to speak to the writer/director herself, Sally Potter. She talks in length about the challenges in making this film, but how wonderful it was to collaborate yet again with her friend Elle Fanning. She also talks about toxic masculinity, and on that note – gets onto the subject of a review of her movie, one she wasn’t particularly pleased with…

Sally Potter
Potter at the Berlinale press conference

So this story is obviously a very personal one to you and I just wondering if it’s been a story that’s you’ve wanted to tell for quite a while and how it was sort of putting so much of yourself into a story?

Sally Potter: I think I always put a lot myself into a story, every writer does, but in the process of writing, it actually gets further away from the source, it turns into something else, it turns into a story. So although it started through my direct experience of observation and caring for a younger brother who had, not this illness, but something similar, and also a close friend who had multiple sclerosis and couldn’t speak anymore, I learned a lot through those experiences, but this film is not a portrait of that experience nor of my role in caring for them and loving them, but I think it helps when you’re writing a story to know first-hand what it feels like or what it looks like. So that’s how it was, but in that relationship with illness and caring, and with male vulnerability – in this case and father daughter relationship  that’s the kind of the structure, but this is holding a more in a way metaphysical exploration of what choices in life that we’ve made, the roads not taken. And this apparent illness that the man is allowing him to explore these parallel universes of the roads he did not take.

Salma said she was pissed off with the reviews, talking about your film as a therapy. She felt had it been made by a man, it would be lauded as a personal piece.  Do you agree?

Sally Potter: I always feel misjudged, from the very beginning and I don’t think that’s just paranoia. You know, when I look back to my very first film, the things that one or two critics said about it at the time, would now be considered you could take them to court. But at the time, it was considered to just be this guy’s opinion. So it’s not completely paranoia. But at the same time, I think this is maybe a difficult film for some people if they don’t want to have uncomfortable feelings. For people who are open to the feelings that come up, is it for them, the audience I’m talking about, not me, it can be quite cathartic. A lot of people told me that after the screening last night, a lot of people were crying and a lot of people came up to me to tell me their story about the people they had looked after, their mother, their father, their sibling, whatever. So that’s great. If for the audience, it can be cathartic, great. It’s not my role to be cathartic. My role is to make a film. I’m there being a director. So whoever wrote that about therapy, they’re just totally wrong. After my brother died, I did actual therapy to grieve. Actual therapy, many, many hours, so that I could be clear also, so that when I came to write a story, I was in a place of some detachment, you know, it wasn’t the lack of feeling, but I wasn’t using the film as a therapy. You know, Jesus filmmaking is such hard work, you don’t hang around having it as a therapeutic experience. Very expensive, and very inefficient therapy, because you’re very, very busy. You don’t have time for anything. You don’t even have time to have lunch, let alone have a feeling.

salma hayek
Javier Bardem and Salma Hayek

You mentioned the the responses you had from some people, and I was just wondering as you were here three years ago with The Party and I remember just being in the screening for that in the Palast, and it got such a great response with everyone laughing. I just wonder if there’s a different thrill for you when you make people laugh, or when people say your film moved them?

Sally Potter: Remember in Singin’ in the Rain they say, ‘make ’em, laugh ’em cry’, that’s your job as an entertainer in part, but like, honestly, it’s much easier making them laugh. So my next film is definitely a political comedy. But sometimes subjects are sad, and people need to cry as well and we need to deal with difficult subjects like illness and suffering, and regret and disappointment and humiliation, and all these uncomfortable subjects. They’re also worthy of exploration. I try not to read really bad reviews I get my publicist to tell me what what are people saying, but I try not to go into much into the detail of reading it because I can still remember word for word bad reviews from 20 years ago. I don’t remember a word of the good reviews, and I’ve had plenty of good reviews, but they go in one ear, straight out the other. But there’s something about people who really kind of get at you in a certain way, in a review. It’s extremely hurtful. When you’ve given four years of my life to a film, night and day, I’ve been in a cutting room for a year. I’ve never worked so hard on something. And I didn’t even get paid for this film. And then some shit reads watches the film goes out spent half an hour writing a review and says, I’d used as therapy for my brother, that for me is low. That is really low. It’s trolling. Critics are like official trolls when they do that kind of thing. I mean, a good critic is great, and one has to be able to deal with criticism also. But it’s not when it gets personal, there’s something else going on.

People now come out of a screening and they tweet reviews instantly, not having had the time for it to settle. Is the culture wrong?

Sally Potter: It makes me think, you know what reviewer, come and spend a year next to my shoulder, and I’ll tell you what, working on something in-depth is like, will you even tolerate a day of working for eight hours on a scene? If you can only spend half an hour on a review? It’s really a definition of work, that’s completely different. I don’t want to spend too much time on reviewers, but we’re in a kind of trolling culture that’s very distressing.

Elle Fanning
Fanning turns in a mature performance as Bardem’s daughter

We’ve been talking a lot about mental health, and in Europe, we have universal health care, but they don’t have it in the States. So I wanted to know, if you were trying to also make a statement on the migrations of the refugees and migrants and on the healthcare system in the States?

Sally Potter: Yes, not so much a statement, but at least to evoke it. We all know about it right. We’ve all seen the pictures of the borders of Mexico. We know what Trump’s doing with trying to throw immigrants out, making every Latino feel insecure that any minute they can go, and the UK it’s happening now. And so if you’ve got somebody who’s in a mental state, internal borders are unclear between reality and unreality or one life and another life, then to have that physical manifestation in the country about this border. This wall, and which side of it you’re on and where your home is where you belong – I thought that would create a context of anxiety for the story as a whole, that might enrich it. And, by the way, in the figures, there’s many more Latinos and African Americans with dementia than there are white people, because of the excessive levels of stress for those populations. And it seems that some kinds of dementia are stress related. So that seems like yet another thing.

What effect did making this film have on you?

Sally Potter: Well, halfway through I made a comedy in The Party as I’m always working a parallel on two things, partly I think so you don’t drown too much in one subject. But it was very challenging. This was very difficult structurally. So I kept editing it and re-editing it and re-editing it again to try and find the formula that would serve the fact that you’ve got all these parallel stories happening at the same time, how to move fluidly from one to the next, like a river. And that was that was really challenging. I think it just reminded me of how much stamina and persistence you need when you’re working with something over a very long period of time. I must have watched the film in its totality, so many hundreds of times along the way, and it’s different manifestations – but you can always go deeper and find more.

Javier Bardem
Bardem is great – as always.

Both Javier and Salma told us they did improv when they performed so I wanted to know how much they added to your screenplay? 

Sally Potter: In the end it is very, very close to the script. But they’re two actors who like to play around, to find their feet. But it was always based on a room scene. So sometimes it was just a little variation, but because they were speaking in Spanish as well and because I wrote the script in English, the first thing to do was I got it translated into Spanish and then they corrected the Spanish and made it more Mexican or more colloquial. And so I think that sometimes what they needed to do was just loosen it up a little bit, for it to feel more like natural speaking in Mexico. So then I translated it all back, everything they did back into English, kind of transcribed it. And so in the cartoon, because I do speak a little bit of Spanish, but I’m not a fluent speaker, but often, funnily enough, it went back to how it originally been written. So while a process that they needed to go through, it didn’t really end up that much in the final film.

We just spent some time with Elle, and she spoke about your relationship with her and how you have this incredibly close bond. I just wondering – when you first met, how quickly did that come to be? What is it about your your relationship that is so special?

Sally Potter: About five minutes! When I first met her and she was 12, and she came to audition for this role Ginger and Rosa, to play a 16 year old and thought there’s no way a 12 year old is going to be able to do this, but she walked in and she did the most amazing audition. I just was so blown away and sort of gave her looked at her gave her like a hug or something and felt this funny mixture of being protective of her as a child of 12, wanting to give her a hug, but then I put her over there and she’s a fully formed professional with whom I can work as a peer, as equals. And that mixture has kind of continued. She’s a young woman now and a total professional, in the best sense of the word. In other words, very self disciplined, turns up on time, always knows the lines, takes direction very well, you know, the whole thing, all that kind of stuff that makes life easier for everybody. At the same time, very, very receptive emotionally. She’s also a lovely person to be with. And I think, for me, the relationships that I build with actors, this colleague-ship is a very deep kind of love because you’re both giving yourselves to something that’s bigger than both of you. And you’re aware of that together, you know, that you’re striving for something together, and it’s a very deep sort of bonding and it’s something I value very, very much and she responds to that.

Elle Fanning
Fanning has worked with Potter before, in Ginger & Rosa

You mentioned male vulnerability early on in the interview, and we were speaking to Javier about it – he grew up with a sister and a mother, and in a culture that may be more allowing to expressing emotions, whereas in England there is still a bit of a taboo with men expressing emotions and showing vulnerabilities. I just wondering about the importance in showing that in your movie because he loses his dignity, the character has to completely depend on people around him and in this instance a young girl. How important you think it is a movies like this and characters like this exist?

Sally Potter: Very important. If you look at the figures for mental illness with men, it’s something like, twice as many men kill themselves as women, and it’s partly because there’s no outlet for their expression of the difficulties that they face. And this is a major issue. And I think if the images of men that are presented are all either toxic, horrible, or heroic and fabulous, you know, there’s not much in between those two, really, there’s not much humanity left. So to create a space in which there’s more humanity gives a much more hopeful possibility that relations between the sexes and between men and women will improve the more space for a fully rounded human being there, including being vulnerable, the better it is for everybody. Javier may come from a more expressive culture, but he also comes from a more macho culture. So it was a big challenge for him. To come and play somebody so vulnerable, it’s quite something. A lot of courage I think.

I’ve been thinking about the movie a lot and keep thinking about different aspects of it. But now settling on the idea that it’s a film about compassion, that core relationship Javier and Elle is an unconditional and unique type of love. Then also, when he goes to that taxi rank, and that guy helps him, it feels like there’s a lot of people trying to do the right thing. I’m just wondering if that’s a very important part of this movie and having a film in this current climate that really promotes compassion?

Sally Potter: Yes, the word compassion is very important to me, the kindness of strangers,  we’re living in a world where that as a value is increasingly diminished. So anything one can do to sort of remember that inherently we do have that empathetic compassion for others is a good thing to remind ourselves of.


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