Director Sally Potter: ‘I’ve seen the grief Covid-19 causes’ | Movie


Sally Potter fell in poor health as quickly as she reached France. It was March and, by now, individuals knew the implications of a fever. The director may have caught coronavirus in any variety of methods. In February, her newest movie, The Roads Not Taken, premiered on the Berlin movie competition. Then she flew to New York, selling the US launch as the town lurched into panic. She re-crossed the Atlantic to London, earlier than leaving once more for the distant Auvergne, west of Lyon. Her temperature rocketed. “I spent a lot of time future-gazing. You lie there wondering where you’re going to end up.”

Potter remains to be in France. Her illness was the type they name delicate – grim weeks, a gradual restoration. Somebody near her died from Covid in that first part of the pandemic, she says. “So I’ve seen the grief it causes.”

She smiles sadly, framed by Zoom. Her lengthy hair is silver blond towards the white partitions of the writers’ hut she sits in, behind her home. Right here, nearly a decade in the past, Potter began work on The Roads Not Taken. What adopted has been difficult. The virus and its penalties – the movie is barely now popping out in Britain – are simply essentially the most dramatic chapters in a narrative of disaster and soul-searching. Inventive journeys are hardly ever easy. This one has seen bumps.

In a drizzly London early in 2019, I visited the set of the movie. Then Potter was mobbed by individuals, a crew and forged led by Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning. “It’s always relentless at that stage. Decisions. People management.” Now, she is alone. A pioneer amongst feminine film-makers and arthouse independents, 70, wry and candid, Potter is aware of the routine.

The backstory to The Roads Not Taken begins in 2010. Then, her youthful brother, Nic, was identified with Choose’s illness, a uncommon early onset dementia inflicting the impression of withdrawal. Potter grew to become his carer till his dying in January 2013. The expertise was arduous. She questioned her understanding of psychological well being. “I wondered: ‘What if the mind that appears shut down has actually gone elsewhere? If the person is living out what they could have been or done?’”

Parallel lives have Potter way back to Orlando, her 1992 Oscar-nominated fantasy with Tilda Swinton as an Elizabethan nobleman, leaping time and genders. Now, she imagined a middle-aged man with dementia, cared for by his daughter, misplaced in visions of exes by no means left, deserted callings pursued.

Quentin Crisp and Tilda Swinton in Orlando

Quentin Crisp and Tilda Swinton in Sally Potters 1992 movie Orlando. {Photograph}: Allstar Image Library Ltd./Alamy

Nonetheless processing her brother’s dying, she tried to keep away from autobiography or rabbit holes of analysis. “Invent first,” she says. “Verify later.” Immediately there have been a number of drafts. Months spent writing grew to become “mere years”. Finally, in script kind, she had it. Across the central story, grounded in actuality, variations of the identical character would reside different lives, crossing borders of countries and sexuality, all of it like a jigsaw.

Then she received the cash to make one other movie completely. Referred to as The Social gathering, it was an acidly humorous chamber piece about middle-class London. The movie was shot in two weeks on a micro price range, the forged together with Cillian Murphy and Patricia Clarkson. The timing was excellent, a British comedy of fractious individuals, arriving within the wake of the Brexit referendum. It premiered at Berlin in 2017. Potter watched amongst 2,000 others, the laughter uproarious. “I thought ‘How strange. How nice.” After a profession of stressed experimentation, the film was a hit.

Potter denies figuring out it, however The Social gathering raised business expectations for her subsequent venture. Her story of parallel lives had been greenlit. It now had a star, Bardem. At his home in Madrid, he and Potter cemented his character – Leo, Mexican-born, dwelling in Brooklyn. His daughter could be performed by Fanning; a former lover by Salma Hayek. The price range was tight, however allowed filming in New York and southern Spain, doubling as Mexico and a Greek island. The shoot concluded in Bow, east London. There, previous derelict workplace blocks lining the A12, you attain three Mills Studios, a cobbled hive of soundstages. MasterChef is filmed right here, however Potter principally had the place to herself. Bardem wandered by in pyjamas, wrapped up in his work.

Inside, a studio was dotted with props – two large metal cages, an MRI machine. Within the centre of the room was a plywood dice, inside {that a} full-size duplicate of a dingy Brooklyn condominium. With “Action” known as, Bardem was now in character, Fanning tending to him. “I was going but I changed my mind,” he mumbled. “OK, this ain’t working,” Potter stated. “Would anyone like an espresso?” She was on her sixth. She conferred with the actors, tweaking and sculpting – Bardem’s posture adjusted, a watch saved on Fanning’s tears. “Let’s try again,” she stated. After half a dozen takes, Potter was happy. “Okey-dokey!”

It was a Friday, and the temper felt like a leaving occasion. After in the present day, Fanning – buoyant, smiley – was wrapped, returning to the US. Earlier than then, she would cross paths with Hayek, glamorously magnetic, whose scenes had been shot however, dwelling in London, visited to document promotional materials.

If The Social gathering was a snapshot of Brexit Britain, this felt like a movie about psychological well being, the US and Mexico. Leo confronted racism in addition to dementia. For Bardem and Hayek, it was a uncommon likelihood to talk Spanish in a film launched within the US. “I personally feel identity should be chucked away as soon as possible,” Potter stated on set. “I tend to think of myself as a crowd.” A 12 months and a half later, I quote this again to her. “Well, I agree with myself.” However there are caveats. “It also feels clear that being able to chuck away your identity is a privilege.”

I went again to three Mills the following Monday. With Fanning and Hayek gone, Bardem had new co-stars. Now Leo was a drummer, in a relationship with a creative director, performed by Chris Rock. His hair bleached, Rock was guarded. On this “life”, his and Bardem’s characters had been rehearsing with a dancer, performed by the faucet artist Savion Glover. Inside one big cage, Bardem pounded out a beat. Within the different, Glover improvised. They labored on the scene with Rock earlier than the cameras arrived, rehearsing a rehearsal. The vitality had modified since Friday. Time felt shorter. A foul chilly was sweeping the crew. “Nothing is more exciting than doing something slightly harder than you’re capable of,” Potter smiled. Later, for a second, she appeared exhausted.

The movie was edited that spring. Leo’s lives had been meant to dovetail visually, scenes bookended with connections – Mexican solar then Brooklyn streetlights, say. The outcome was unveiled at a London check screening organized by Potter. Beforehand, she requested the viewers to be sincere. “Then I sat at the back,” she says. “And took note of where I felt sincerely embarrassed.”

The movie was considered one of highly effective moments. The forged had been wonderful. It additionally felt muffled – disconnected. As requested, the viewers had been sincere. Potter was alarmed to search out her primary premise – one thoughts, many lives – failing to register. “People were just confused.” Festivals had been pencilled in. Potter knew she wanted extra time. Weeks had been spent re-editing, clarifying. Lastly, she confirmed the movie to a trusted inside circle, relieved to have fastened the issue.

“And I thought: ‘Oh fuck.’”

Even now, confusion reigned. Reeling, Potter began from scratch. Trying on the movie anew, she noticed the answer with bleak readability. The part with Rock and Glover – hanging by itself phrases – felt unfastened from the remainder of the story. If the film was a jigsaw, these had been items from one other puzzle. Her choice had the brutal logic with which film-making is full. It made it no simpler. Potter lower the entire sequence.

Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning in The Road Not Taken

Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning in The Highway Not Taken

She sighs and tells me she needs to be clear. Each Rock and Glover had been good, she says, on and off digital camera. “The fault was with my structure. And it was heartbreaking, because I loved what we did.” She wrote to every of them, explaining. Did a correspondence comply with? “A small one.”

Her simplified lower confronted not one of the points that dogged the movie earlier than. As soon as-baffled buddies had been now moved. At Berlin in February, responses had been emotional, too. Viewers members left in tears. “You want to touch people,” she says. “It’s also strange, bringing out these melancholias.” However critics weren’t form. Some Berlin opinions had been gleefully scathing. “Never easy,” Potter says. “I put so much into the work.” Then she laughs, roughly. “But if I’m not prepared for critics by now, I’d be a bit slow on the uptake.”

Potter flew to New York as the town recorded its first instances of coronavirus. When she left, the cinemas had been closing. Driving out fevers within the French countryside, she got here to see her movie as an omen. “Look where we are. Racism exhaustingly evident. Even more invisible carers. More people dealing with mental illness. Realising we are vulnerable bodies.”

The Roads Not Taken is devoted to Nic Potter. His sister is now engaged on new concepts. Such is the inventive course of, the one ending starting once more. “It’s funny,” Potter says. “You watch your films back and think: ‘You know, if I started this tomorrow, I’d know exactly how to make it.’”

The Roads Not Taken is launched in cinemas within the UK and Eire on 11 September

For details about dementia and assist, go to or, within the UK, name the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Join assist line on 0333 150 3456

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