“Experience Life Itself, Good and Bad:” Terence Davies on Sunset Song, A Quiet Passion and How He Works

Terence Davies is hardly the most prolific of directors.

In the 40 years since he began his cinematic career, he has made eight features and the three shorts that make up the Terence Davies Trilogy, and sometimes gone eight years between output (the time between 2000’s The House of Mirth and 2008’s documentary Of Time and the City).

It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that this decade has already seen three films from the British auteur: post-WWII romance The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston; Sunset Song, an adaptation of a Lewis Grassic Gibson 1932 novel, with Agyness Deyn as sympathetic early 20th-century Scottish farmgirl Chris; and A Quiet Passion, an Emily Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, which premiered earlier this year in Berlin.

With Sunset Song opening this week in the U.S., we spoke to Davies about that film’s typically evocative cinematography (by DP Michael McDonough), which represents for Davies a transition from shooting film to shooting digital—a welcome change, he says. He also discussed working with Nixon on A Quiet Passion, and his moviemaking methods on the whole.

On the visual inspiration behind Sunset Song:

“Andy Harris, the production designer on Sunset Song, said to me, ‘Have you seen any paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi?’ He was a Danish painter at the beginning of the 20th century. His paintings are like Vermeer but with a Northern, smudged light. Very often it’s just empty rooms with doors or windows open. It’s usually a woman with a back to the viewer.

After I saw them, I said, ‘We’ve got to make all the interiors look like Hammershøi!’ You have to be completely open to all suggestions, then hopefully decide which you like.”

Agyness Deyn plays Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song

Agyness Deyn plays Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song

On his preference for digital:

“When we shot Sunset Song we did it on 65mm for the exteriors, and digital inside. Because at that time digital still wasn’t quite as good as film. Now it’s not only as good as film, it’s actually better.

I probably will not shoot on film again. Because eventually the labs will go out of business, and you don’t have to wait three days for all your dissolves to be done—you can do them straight away. Digital is like the coming of sound, I think. I think that [filmmakers who insist on shooting film] are a little self-indulgent, if I may be honest.”

On writing:

“The most satisfying part of moviemaking is writing, because when you write you get all the performances on the first try, you get all the CGI on the first try, and the world does exactly as it’s told. When you actually go to shoot it is when you realize the practicalities of what you’ve written.

My method is always the same: I know I can do a subject if a sequence comes [to me]. It could be for any part of the film, but the sequence comes first. Then it’s a question of reading about the subject. If it’s about someone, like Emily Dickinson, you read as much as you can about them and then you make notes for six or seven months. Then you start the base of the first script. I do three scripts and then a polish on the third script, and that’s the one we shoot.

You get a little bit of information from something—a tiny detail—but it will become an important thing. There’s a bit in the Emily Dickinson movie where she liked to bake, and she put her bread into this competition for the local county fair, but she only won second prize. And it’s just so sad. You think, ‘Oh, why couldn’t she have won first prize? Why couldn’t she have been the head of the queue just once?’ So I had to include that because it’s so poignant.”

On on-set serendipity:

“What is exciting is when you’ve written a certain scene, but you can’t find either the way to shoot it, and you’ve got to alter the shots. You have to do that on a shot-by-shot basis. In my Emily Dickinson film, there’s a scene when she goes to one of her friend’s weddings. It was set in a beautiful church—the interior had the Episcopalian starkness that some American churches have, with those box pews—really lovely. The scene was written for them to be inside the church and then come out. But when we came outside, everything was modern. We didn’t have enough money to change the outside, so I said, ‘Well, we’ll just do it all inside. We’ll do close-ups on Vinnie [Lavinia Dickinson, Emily’s sister] and Emily and then we’ll cut to the wedding.’ Anyway we set up the shot at the back of the church, and somebody had forgotten to put the brake on the camera on rails, on tracks, and it slipped down.

I thought, ‘That’s the shot. We got it in one.’ Because it’s much better in just one shot. That’s real luck, but you have to be aware of that.

When people come up with something different that I haven’t thought of, I find that thrilling. Sometimes this line has to be said in one way, but other times—there was a wonderful moment where Cynthia Nixon, as Emily Dickinson, played one line in a way that I’d never thought of. And every time I saw it during the cutting and correcting, it gave me such a thrill. It gives me such a thrill just thinking about it.”

Terence Davies

Terence Davies

On his favorites of his own films:

“Oh, lord. That really is difficult, because once they’re finished they don’t have anything to do with me. I think if I was forced to, I’d probably say Of Time and the City, because a lot of that material was previously shot and was very beautiful.

I like bits of my films; I’ll think, ‘Well, that’s rather good,’ but as I never watch them again it’s difficult to say. I can’t sit through them. When you’ve seen it all in the cutting room—there’s the dubbing and then there’s the grading—you think, ‘I never want to sit through this bloody thing again.’ I can run them in my own mind because I know them so well, but I can’t watch them anymore. No.”

On criticism:

“I used to pay attention to criticism, but because critics can be quite savage, the last two or three films I thought, ‘I don’t want to see any reviews, good or bad.’ Because of the nature of my personality, I just remember the bad ones. There’s always one who will disguise a personal attack as criticism. I can’t deal with that anymore.”

On essential experience filmmakers should have:

“Experience life itself. Good and bad. All of it.” MM

Sunset Song opens in theaters May 13, 2016, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Read MovieMaker‘s upcoming Summer 2016 issue for more from Davies.

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