An Interview with Terence Davies
By Michael Koresky
Few movies are as movie-besotted as those of Terence Davies, Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Not only do many of his most personal works feature scenes of characters watching movies—no more centrally than in his aching, abstract portrayal of his childhood in Liverpool, The Long Day Closes (1992)—they are veritable love letters to the medium, full of references and echoes to earlier films that helped establish his artistic vision. His films are about the act of looking—not just at movies but also at the confounding and beautiful and violent world surrounding us. In this interview, Davies talks about his experiences as a watcher, from childhood to today.
We also discussed his newly prolific career. The seventy-year-old director has two films just this year: the marvelous Lewis Grassic Gibbon adaptation Sunset Song, which opens in May, and A Quiet Passion, a film about Emily Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon that premiered to great acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival this February. If you’re aware of the difficulties Davies has had getting films financed over the course of his forty years directing movies, you’ll know what a gift this is.
Michael Koresky: Could you talk about the first moviegoing experience you remember from childhood?
Terence Davies: Well, my father died when I was six and a half. When I was seven, my oldest sister took me to my first picture. In those days, we had eight cinemas in walking distance of the house, and there were another eight in town, if you can believe it. And it was the Odeon, and it was to see Singin’ in the Rain. I mean, what a way to introduce yourself to film! It’s still my favorite film. I can remember where we sat. I just loved it. I just loved it. Obviously, I was too small to appreciate the wonderful Jean Hagen, but the more you see it the more she is so glorious. How lovely when she says, “If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’!”
MK: Can you describe the experience of seeing it in that theater?
TD: It was a thirties Odeon, and the Odeons in this country had a very special style, fretted wood walls and things like that. Not as glorious as some of the cinemas in America, but it had a lovely atmosphere. And I remember crying all the way through the scene where he did the “Singin’ in the Rain” number. And my sister said, “What are you crying for?” and I said, “Well, he just seems so happy.” Then when I heard it had taken three days to shoot and they had to mix milk with water in order for the rain to photograph, and you actually look at it and it’s only from eight camera positions! [gasps] Hard to believe. Only eight camera positions. There’s nine cuts, but it cuts back to one of the previous camera positions. But, in eight positions! I still want to cry at the end of it when that extra is being given the umbrella, and you think, I wonder who he was. I often wonder what happened to him. That’s heartbreaking somehow. You wonder what he thought when he saw it: “There I am with Gene Kelly.”
MK: Do you remember subsequent screenings as vividly?
TD: Well, as I said, there were sixteen cinemas. The films that made the greatest impact on me I can remember not only the route I took but also where I sat. It’s that vivid. One of my other sisters in 1956 took me to a “town picture”—“town pictures” were expensive. One and ninepence, which was terribly, terribly expensive. It was on a Sunday. And we went to an early matinee of Young at Heart. That’s when I fell in love with Doris Day. I can remember every single thing about that day. Every single thing. It’s still as fresh now as it was then, and I can’t see it without thinking about where we went, and that when we came out the sun was still shining, and my sister felt a little faint. I remember her leaning down on the floor. It will be with me for the rest of my life.
MK: Is the architecture itself of the theaters as vivid in your mind as the movies?
TD: Yes, because they were all different. One of the eight near our home was originally a theater, so you could see all the boxes that obviously were never used. And they had the balcony, which was right over the top, and which they called in this country “The Gods.” And you had to walk up an endless number of stairs to get there, but it was cheap. I remember being taken to see a very bad, late Powell and Pressburger called The Battle of the River Plate (1956). It’s really not good, it’s towards the end of their career, and it’s like Ill Met by Moonlight (1957)—it’s not that good. But it wasn’t that film that I actually remember. It was the short that was on with it. It was The Red Balloon. And I wept! I wept and wept at the end of that. It’s the greatest short ever made. It’s just fabulous. So glorious!
MK: Do you remember the first time you went to the movies outside Liverpool?
TD: I think it may have been Oberhausen, which was one of the first festivals I went to with the Trilogy. I think it was a Russian film, translated on the screen with French subtitles. I had no idea what was going on! You could sort of follow the story.
MK: What was it like to see your own film projected on the big screen for the first time?
TD: Oh, it’s terrifying. If someone moves, you think they’re bored; if they move again, you think they’re really bored; they do it again and you want to kill them! I thought, I can’t go through this, it’s misery! It’s awful, sitting through your own film with other people. It’s utter agony. But it’s very peculiar, because you see a different film. You really do. And that was a surprise.
MK: Does it get any easier the more films you make?
TD: I don’t do it anymore. Well, I had to do it with the Emily Dickinson [A Quiet Passion]. And I was petrified. But they laughed a lot, thank God! So it wasn’t as terrifying as it normally is. But there have been times where it’s real agony.
People do walk out, even when they like it. And they bang their seat. I think the worst experience I had was many years later, when someone in London was trying to start a festival, and asked would I show Distant Voices, Still Lives. I said, of course I will. Anyway, when I got there, there’s no one there to pick me up from the station, and I had no idea where I was, because it was on the outskirts of London. I waited and waited, and eventually someone came and took me to the place, where they were showing it. There were five people in the audience. And the man who introduced it said to do the Q&A first. So we did that, and I really did feel very low. And then they left, and the film was shown to a completely empty cinema.
MK: When you were a child you had all these wonderful experiences as a watcher. When you make a movie, are you aware of the audience watching it in the theater?
TD: You have to make the film for yourself. You can never gainsay an audience. I don’t know what audiences like. I just don’t know. I feel from about 1940 to very late 1950s, early 1960s, there was a glow about films, even bad ones. There was just a glow about them, which I don’t think cinema has anymore. We just don’t have it. But you can’t predict what they will like or not. And that’s the only argument from the people who fund it: they say the audience will think this or that. Then I do get angry. Because you don’t know. You only know that after the fact. You therefore can’t cut a film on the basis of something you only know after they’ve seen it.
I do hope that viewers respond to it with their hearts, because I make it with my heart. It has to be true to your inner voice and inner eye. And I hope that’s not as conceited as it sounds, because you can only be true to yourself. You can’t fulfill everybody’s expectations; you’d have no film at all. It would be completely bland. But you have to stand by the film, especially when it’s a failure. Like The Neon Bible was a complete failure. And I think it got the notices it deserved. People just walked out in droves. Because it’s just not a good film. And you have to accept that. You just do. You think, I’ll try to avoid this a second time. I’m as vain as anybody else. I would like everyone to like what I do. I would like to be a household name—like Pampers. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.
MK: I like The Neon Bible very much, but from your point of view, it’s a failure. But I’m curious, how do you go about avoiding problems you perceive in such a film?
TD: Ideally, I would want always to edit it as rigorously as possible. In the cutting room of The Neon Bible, I just wasn’t. There were plenty of times when we should have cut the shot short. I always say: keep it as long as we can when it works; cut it when it’s too long. But even then the people who don’t like my work—and there are a lot of them—still think they’re boring. So there’s nothing you can do about that. But you can make yourself be much more rigorous in terms of what you feel is right. And sometimes it’s very hard to cut. It really, really is. There were things in A Quiet Passion, two scenes that I dearly loved; oh, I did like them so much, because they were funny. It was very hard to cut them. But once they were taken out, you think, yes it’s better without them.
MK: I’m glad you didn’t cut short the shot of Peter Mullan lighting the pipe in Sunset Song. You just stay on him and then he gets up and walks out.
TD: Well, my father was like that. He would never respond. And it makes it all the worse. He doesn’t respond at all. Instead, he does something trivial. And therefore he trivializes his son. I was rather pleased with that, I must say.
MK: Do you go to the movies these days?
TD: No, not really anymore. I can’t suspend my disbelief. The last film I saw and thought, gosh, we’re in capable hands, was Laissez-passer [Safe Conduct] by Bertrand Tavernier. But I am aware of camera, and particularly aware of bad music. But the worst thing is the language: long shot, mid shot, close-up, close-up, over-the-shoulder, over-the-shoulder, back to mid, back to wide. It’s a dead language. You can call the shots out even before they come. And unfortunately in England we’ve got the same people in everything giving the same dull performances. How do they get away it?
MK: Is it also the experience of going to the movies today that makes you not want to go?
TD: Every single cinema was different back then. You can’t get the same feeling sitting in an oblong room, with no curtains on the screen. That’s not an event. At least have curtains to give it some sense of style! But all that’s gone now. And what’s awful is people talking during the movie. That really makes me angry. Because they think they’re in their own living room. You’re not, you’re in a collective room with other people, shut up. Last time it happened, this girl wouldn’t stop talking. I just poked her head and said, “I came for the other performance.”
MK: I know that you’re shooting digitally now. Have you accepted the industry’s changeover? A Quiet Passion was all digital; Sunset Song was half.
TD: Yes, the exteriors of Sunset Song were shot in 65mm, reduced to 4K. But now, digital is just as good as film. It just is. You get the feel that film once had. It’s as important as the coming of sound. It’s brilliant what they can do with digital. It’s just astonishing. And you can make it look as good as film. As it develops it will just get better and better.
MK: Why the decision to shoot partly in 65mm for Sunset Song?
TD: At that time you still could tell the difference. And it was important that those exteriors should look as pristine as possible. It’s also very nice to have a 65mm camera—with prime lenses, could you believe?!
MK: The interiors of Sunset Song are just as gorgeous, and that’s perhaps the real revelation.
TD: The man who did the production design was Andy Harris, and he asked me if I’d heard of a Danish painter called Hammershøi. And I said no. He was active around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. And they are like Vermeer, but with a smudged northern light; very often just doors open, windows open, and empty rooms. And if there is a subject it’s always a woman with her back to the viewer. They are wonderful. I said, we’ve got to make it look like that!
MK: So now you can’t tell a difference when you look at a film versus a digital image?
TD: You could maybe five years ago, but not now. It’s a real revolution. What these young people can do with digital is just breathtaking! I find it so exciting. They’re always so thrilled by doing it, that’s what’s so lovely. You see that they’re passionate about it. I love to see people love what they’re doing. There’s nothing worse than doing a job that you hate. I should know, I worked as a bookkeeper for twelve years.
As always with these things, there’s a drawback in the postproduction—because you can do it so quickly. And because you can do a series of dissolves in, like, half an hour, where once it took days in a laboratory, and keep all those different cuts in front of you, that’s the difficulty. Because you have to be able to separate what you feel works from what doesn’t. And because it’s oh so easily changed, that’s an extra pressure.
MK: And do you attribute your newfound prolificness to digital filmmaking, because it’s faster and more affordable?
TD: Oh, no, it’s still difficult to raise money for such films as I want to make!
MK: But what do you make of the fact that you had these two films in quick succession? It usually takes a long time between your films, as much as eight years in one case.
TD: It’s sheer luck. I’m not questioning it, I’m just glad it’s come at my age. I mean, I’m older than God—but without any of the influence.
Michael Koresky is the Director of Publications and Marketing at Metrograph, as well as the author of the book Terence Davies for University of Illinois Press. He is also a founding editor of Reverse Shot, a publication of Museum of the Moving Image; a contributing writer to the Criterion Collection; and a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, The American Interest, and elsewhere.