An interview with director Terence Davies

| May 12, 2016

With his latest film Sunset Song, director Terence Davies examines the limits of human endurance, and the struggles in maintaining and supporting treasured traditions in the face of often harsh evolutions in modern society.

Based on the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the story takes place in rural Scotland at the turn of the 20th century. Chris (Agyness Deyn) is a young woman passionate about the land she comes from, wanting nothing more than to become a schoolteacher and build a life with her husband Ewan (Kevin Gutherie).

But as the First World War beckons from afar, the serene and promising setting they wished to call their home is thrown into turmoil as their emotions are pushed into dark and uncertain realms.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Terence Davies and ask him about the history of the production and his approach to filmmaking.

MV: From my understanding you were really taken with the Original 1971 BBC production of Sunset Song starring Vivien Heilbron. Was this your first introduction to the material, or had you read the novel before?

TD: No, I had never heard of it before, and at that time the BBC used to do a Sunday serial; various novels, some of them famous, some of them not. And they did that in 1971 and I loved it. I went out and bought the book and read it immediately. But you know, it’s actually part of a trilogy and quite difficult to read because of the way it’s written. And what was a lovely thing to have happened was when the film played at the London film festival there was a Q&A afterwards and this woman stood up and began to speak, and I said you’re Vivien Heilbron aren’t you? She said yes and I said I remember the voice. I have never forgotten your voice. That voice has not aged at all. It’s still got that lovely ring and purity about it. I said you don’t know the effect you’ve had on me, you really don’t. It was lovely to see her.

MV: And what about this material compelled you enough to want to adapt it?

TD: It came about over a long period of time. It took 18 years to bring it to the screen, and has been quite difficult. But, when stories are good you either respond to them or you don’t. The very first great novel I was conscious of reading was when I was 15 and picked up Jane Eyre. If you read it now, and I have read it recently, it’s actually not very well-written, but it’s a great story and makes you want to keep on reading. There are parts of it that are exquisitely written, and I have to add, there’s a moment when the character is speaking to Bessie and says, “She told me some of her lovelier songs and some of her lovelier stories, even for me life has its gleams of sunshine.” It just pierces your heart! It’s a great story, and it’s impossible not to get excited by a great story. And with Sunset Song, I think the story of this young girl, she’s only 14 when the story begins and only 21 when it finishes, is an enormous and compelling journey.

MV: Now, was using voice over to progress the narrative something you always knew you wanted to do?

TD: I always knew, but it had to be the poetic side. Everything that’s in the voiceover is in the book. I didn’t invent anything. I didn’t know where it would come in and out of, but it was very important to see this side of her. And you have to be very, very careful with voice over because it can seem as if you’re using it to save a narrative that doesn’t work. It’s got to be good voice over. The three great voice overs are George Sanders in All About Eve, William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, and Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets. There’s a wonderful line in Sunset Boulevard where William Holden goes to pick up his car at Jerry’s and says, “He never asked you how you were. He just looked at your heels and knew the score.” Oh, it’s wonderful! To have written that, I mean, it’s not fair is it?

MV: When preparing this adaptation, was there anything cut from the original 1971 production that you wanted to add back into your version?

TD: I didn’t re-watch the 1971 production prior to starting the project. It was sent to me but I thought no, I don’t want to see it, because I have to write it from a position of having forgotten the original but remembering Vivien Heilbron. It had to be what I saw. And there are things in the film that aren’t in the book, like when Chris holds Ewan’s clothes. I just knew that once he says I’ve come home, she’s got to forgive him. She’s got to understand why he did what he did, and how much she loves him. Just as in that previous scene he says I love her, give her the kiss that I’ll never be able to give her. The kissing and the clothes are not in the book.

MV: One of the most striking aspects of your films is the cinematography. As with your previous work, you have the uncanny ability to transform the environment into a character itself; allowing each wall and hilltop to breathe and respond to the emotions of the characters. What is your approach to the shooting of a project?

TD: Well, each film needs to have a look. The look of Sunset Song was largely due to production designer Andy Harris. He said are you familiar with any of the works of Hammershoi? I said no, and he said he’s a Danish painter who was active at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and I said can I see some of his works, and it’s like Vermeer but with a northern, smudge glide. Most of them are empty spaces; doors open, windows open, a corridor, nothing in them. Not as great as Vermeer, but still very, very fine. If there’s a subject it’s usually a woman with her back to the viewer. But they contain the most extraordinary stillness, and the implication of the people who used to be in those rooms. And I said well the interiors have to look like that. There’s no reason that ordinary interiors for ordinary people shouldn’t look just as ravishing. The main thing is it has to be true. The texture has to be right. With clothes, they have to look as if they wear them.  I don’t want people looking pristine all the time as if they just walked out of hair and makeup. They’ve got to look real. That’s something I’ve always felt about period films, because we always get it wrong in Britain. We just do. They all look pristine and everything’s over lit and you’re thinking oh no, not another bloody Jane Austen.

MV: And what was the casting process like? Did you have anyone in mind when you began the project?

TD: Since the project had been in development for 18 years I didn’t have any actors in mind, but the first day when I went up the stairs I saw Agyness Deyn sitting outside the audition room and I thought oh no, she looks eleven. But she came in and had the most wonderful audition and I said to my producer we’ve found her. First day, Monday, we found her. And that was thrilling. Often times you have to go through a lot of people, and that’s exhausting. Because if the actors are given half an hour, you have to give them half an hour, and I try to get a performance from them because I would hate for them to think they weren’t given a fair chance. Other people say that’s cruel, but I think I couldn’t do what some people do and say you’re wrong and it’s over in moments. I just can’t do that. Try, and get a performance.

MV: You once said, “For the family contains all our greatest ecstasies and all our cherished terrors.” I find this to be a pretty accurate statement, and it seems you have a knack for picking subject matter that simultaneously showcases the most extreme wonders and devastations of existence. I’m curious what a piece of material needs to possess in order for you to be drawn to it?

TD: It’s the story. These happen to take place within families, but then Greek tragedy is all about family really. And what had an enormous effect on me the first time I saw it on television, because you couldn’t get old films shown in Liverpool, was Meet Me In St. Louis. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a part of that family? I want to be a part of that family! But the way in which it is exquisitely done, and Vincent Minelli ends it before the family starts to disintegrate and that’s what makes it all the more poignant because you long for them to be happy ever after.

MV: You tend to write all of your scripts, but would you ever be open to directing someone else’s screenplay?

TD: I’ve never come across one, even though I have massive amounts sent to me. I read them and I just can’t see them. And if I can’t see them then I don’t know what to do. One time I got a gangster script and I thought, what do I know about gangsters? If I wanted to do an action film it would be two cars going slowly. That’s not very foot-tapping is it? Or a drug film. What do I know about drugs? I’m too terrified to take drugs. Why would you send it to me? If someone wanted me to do Mad Max I’d say well, can’t we make him irritated Max instead? We could do it really cheap.

MV: What ultimately gives you passion in life, and inspires you to keep moving forward?

TD: Poetry and music. I couldn’t live without Bruckner or the Four Quartets or the sonnets. They really are my bedrock. They really revive my soul. Even when I’m really despaired, I think not even Bruckner can do it. But then I think no, he carried on against a lot of indifference. People thought his music was unplayable, but I listen to it and it gives me so much joy. And John Betjeman who charts the upper class and does it with such charm. It’s just delightful and his love of humanity. There’s a poem of his called A Subaltern’s Love Song in which he says, “Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J Hunter Dunn, Furnish’d and Burnish’d by the Aldershot sun, What strenuous singles we played after tea, We in the tournament, you against me!” I mean, that’s what life’s about! The beauty of it all.

Sunset Song is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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