Of Time, Memory, and the Movies: Talking to Terence Davies
By Robert J. Cardullo
Terence Davies was born in the city of Liverpool in 1945 and raised in a working-class family. After leaving school at 16, he worked as a clerk until his mid-20s before attending Coventry Drama School and later the prestigious National School of Film and Television. He began his career as part of a generation of British Film Institute-sponsored directors who included Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter.
However, while his contemporaries have largely lapsed into self-indulgence, Davies is today regularly fêted as one of Britain's better living filmmakers. He first established himself with three celebrated shorts, known collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984; 'Children', 1976; 'Madonna and Child', 1980, and 'Death and Transfiguration', 1983), which was followed by the features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992).
At this stage of his career, Davies' work was highly autobiographical, focusing on his childhood in Liverpool, and drew acclaim for its meticulous attention to detail as well as its sensitive yet often harrowing portrayal of emotional hardship and endurance. Two literary adaptations set in America followed: John Kennedy Toole's The Neon Bible (1995) and Edith Wharton's The House Of Mirth (2000), which was Davies' biggest commercial success to date. Returning to autobiography with Of Time and the City (2008), a documentary about his beloved Liverpool, Davies switched back to adaptation in his last film, The Deep Blue Sea (2011), based on Terence Rattigan's 1952 play.
Despite worldwide acclaim and a number of awards, Davies has often struggled to finance his films, and his unwillingness to kowtow and compromise his art has left him with long periods of inactivity. The result is that he has produced only five features, one documentary, and three shorts in a career that spans three decades.
I met Terence Davies at the British Film Institute in London in late 2014 to discuss his work, his influences, and the struggles of being an independent filmmaker. At the time, he was working on Sunset Song (released in 2015), a rite-of-passage tale set just before the First World War that tells of an Aberdeenshire farm girl as she searches for her independence against the odds. This film was followed by A Quiet Passion (2016), the Emily Dickinson biopic to which Davies refers at the end of the following interview.
R. J. Cardullo: What did cinema mean to you as a child, and how did it influence your decision to become a filmmaker?
Terence Davies: I was taken to the movies by my father when I was seven. There were eight cinemas within walking distance of my house, and then eight in town — there were 16, so you were never lost for anything to see. What was important were the British comedies, which at that time were better than the American ones. We had fabulous people in them like Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford . . . the list was endless.
When you're a child, you're not aware of influences. You absorb the world. And I suppose I absorbed film language because I was seeing it and I thought it was true. I didn't understand what a cut was. I didn't understand what a dissolve was, or a close-up. I just looked at it and I felt. I thought it was real. You're not aware that what you're seeing was shot on a sound stage, but you are affected very deeply by it nonetheless. For me, it was magic. It really was magic.
A great influence on me came from poetry, not cinema. It was Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot. When we first got our television set in 1960, I watched Alec Guinness read them over four nights. I still read them now, once a month. I think that they're one of the greatest achievements of poetry in England. They're about the nature of memory and time, the nature of mortality — the terror and ecstasy of just being alive — and the nature of seeing. How by seeing something very small you can become changed by it, or perhaps it changes you. Eliot writes, "What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning."
Did the end precede the beginning or was the beginning always there before the end? That's such a wonderful description of the nature of time and experience and that particular passage always reminds me of that middle passage in the speech by Richard II when he says: "How sour sweet music is/When time is broke and no proportion kept./So it is in the music of men's lives/And here I have the daintiness of ear/To check time in a disordered string;/But for the concord of my state and time / Had not an ear to hear my true time broke./I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."
RJC: What did you learn at film school?
TD: I learned a lot at film school, particularly about structure — I made my first film at drama school in fact. I did it naturally, but I did it very clumsily because I'd never made a film before; I didn't know how you did it. There were certain things I did instinctively, and I didn't know why — I just felt it would be right. I didn't know whether it was right or not… I was never told it was right or wrong. I just trusted my instincts. I mean there are lots and lots of things wrong with the first part of the Trilogy. For example, it's far too long and far too slow… but you learn by doing, that's the only way. What was a revelation at film school was to be able to see a film on the screen and analyse it — actually breaking down a scene into its component parts.
RJC: When you were making the Trilogy, were you trying to stay away from social realism?
TD: Not really, that wasn't conscious. I suppose in a way it is socially realistic to a degree because that is the tradition that had dominated British cinema since the late 1950s. But I knew I didn't want it to be realistic in the sense that "This happens, then that happens as a result, and then this happens…" That's not interesting. What I was more interested in was "What happens emotionally?" Which may not be the next thing. It might be a flashback or a flash-forward, but it doesn't matter; it had to be true to how I saw it. I didn't know why I saw it like that, and if somebody said, "Justify it," I couldn't. I could just say, "It felt right."
RJC: Time and memory are important themes in your work. What attracted you to these subjects and how did you develop them cinematically?
TD: Well, I think they developed emotionally within me, naturally. I then had to find a way of putting them in the order that felt right because memory is cyclical and not linear — that's what fascinates me about it.
There's nothing wrong, mind you, with a film's being a linear narrative if that linear narrative is well done. A lot of films have been made with a linear narrative that are great films. It's when the narrative is grinding it out, and you know what the dénouement is going to be, that there's nothing interesting happening. But if you take the attitude of being subjective toward what you're looking at or what you're feeling, then things arise — not as a result of plot point or narrative point, but they according to what is emotionally right as the next thing.
The problem with film is that it's always in the eternal present. When you cut, you always read it as "this is the next thing that happened." What do you do if you dissolve? Or if you cut and then dissolve? What does that mean? It begins to change the nature of how we perceive time. But film is closest, I think, to music. You don't have to be a musician to follow a symphonic argument; if you love the music, you'll follow it. My great musical love is Anton Bruckner. There's a wonderful moment in Seventh Symphony where there's a huge climax to this wonderful tune, and then there's a pause, and then the tune returns on first violins, like a long, long echo of what we've just heard. Your inner ear has been waiting for some kind of resolution, but it wasn't waiting for that. It's devastating. It's so moving and so beautiful, and I think you can do that with film. You can deny expectation, but you've always got to imply that expectations are going to be fulfilled — but not necessarily in the way that you were expecting it. That's what makes things interesting.
For example, I can't watch films on an airplane. But I was once sitting in one and I got bored or I couldn't read and had no other form of escape. This film was on about a young girl living in an apartment who loses her job and she doesn't get on with her next-door neighbour. As soon as you see the next-door neighbour — he opens the door and he's just got jeans on and you see he's been to the gym — you just know exactly what the dénouement's going to be. You can start calling out the shots. Why waste 98 minutes? We know they're going to get together and they're going to fall in love and they're going to be happy ever after. Nauseating! Because there's no ambiguity, there's no drama, and you don't care. You simply do not care. What would have been interesting is if the next-door neighbour had been an ordinary bloke. Just ordinary and they didn't particularly get on and they weren't particularly friendly.
We long to see somebody ordinary because these beautiful young actors all look the same. I can't tell the difference. The really depressing thing is you can then work out the story for yourself and you can actually call out the shots. There's nothing interesting in that. Why bother making such a film? What's it telling us? Nothing. Or what it's telling us is that the subtext is so shallow: only beautiful people get together and live happily ever after. They live in fabulous apartments. They don't seem to do any work at all. They eat junk food and yet she never puts weight on and his body is always gym-toned. Do you really expect audiences to swallow this? Presumably they do. Presumably the film made money. That depresses me because there's no feel for either a decent narrative and people you can believe in, or proper — not just pretty — images, which have meaning. You can shoot a film about a knife and fork, but if it's got subtextual meaning it could turn out to be beautiful. That seems to be becoming more and more rare. I want to try to get that feeling of what it's like when the curtains open and you see the opening credits and you see the first shot and you think, "I want to go on this journey." You've got to want to go on the journey!
RJC: Yet critics have said that your films have no storylines — interesting, unexpected, or otherwise. What are your thoughts on this?
TD: There are stories in my films, but the stories are very simple. They are not complicated. And there I suppose my template is Chekhov. What happens in Chekhov? Not a lot. He's talking about the human condition, which is interesting enough. And when you're talking about time and memory, that is fascinating in itself. So all you need is a very simple story, and all the best stories actually are. Is drama about lots of things happening? Well, actually it's not… Real drama is about something much more elemental — and gripping.
RJC: The simple stories in your films explore certain feelings — desire, misery, elation, self-pity — in a way that might be described as un-English, and yet repression, silence, and self-control are a component of them.
TD: Not only did I grow up in a time when "repression, silence, and self-control" were normal, but my mother was particularly stoic: "These are the cards I've been dealt, now I'll get on with it." And she did get on with it and that is, I think, rather heroic. Now everyone has to write a book or have a documentary made about his or her experience. Back then, those avenues were closed. There was a time when people did behave in a way that was considered seemly.
RJC: As you write your "seemly" scripts, how closely do you structure a movie?
TD: I write down everything as I hear and see it in my mind — every track, pan, dissolve, crane, piece of music. Everything is in the screenplay. I know every shot, but the order will change. So the script becomes an aide-mémoire, which is why I never do a storyboard. But content dictates form, so I'm not conscious of how or why I structure certain things in a certain way. Mahler said, "One does not compose, one is composed." And that's what happens with a film: it will tell its story in the way it wants to be told. And, you know, you want to tell it in the most succinct way, because that's always much more powerful. You learn how long to hold a shot, for instance — and how long not to hold one. There's a two-minute take with a static camera in my Trilogy, the boy's bus journey with his mother, which I always call my Angora-sweater shot, because by the time it's over you could have knitted one. There is a point, though, where a shot dies.
RJC: Do you decide ahead of shooting on a specific style for a film, an aesthetic?
TD: If there was an aesthetic, say, in Distant Voices, Still Lives, it was that I wanted to show life the way it was back then. It was much more gentle and polite. There was much more of a sense of community. England is very philistine today. Also, I wanted to show real people. The working classes of that time have always been used for comic turns, on the stage or in films like David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945). Noël Coward himself couldn't tell the difference between compassion and condescension. It's the same in Lean's This Happy Breed (1944) — chirpy cockneys, you know, with a chirpy cockney voice: "We've survived the war!" It's about as relevant and as real as the Man in the Moon.
And so I had a specific idea of how I wanted the cast to act. I didn't want them to act; I wanted them to be. And I said to all of them, you must see the Trilogy first and you must not act. You'll get the script a week before shooting. Just read it twice, once for sense and once for character, and then don't read it again. Learn the scenes we're going to shoot only the night before. We'll rehearse for 10 minutes before we start, and then we'll do it in under 10 takes. Because after 10 they get repetitive. And very often we got it in three.
RJC: Do you look at paintings for inspiration?
TD: I know nothing about art. I've never gone and looked at pictures in a museum. I have no vocabulary to discuss them. Obviously, there are painters I like. I like the French Impressionists and Seurat; I like Modigliani. I think Turner's paintings of Venice are stunning. But I don't like Picasso, for instance. I can't respond to some triangular woman with her tits on the side of her body. It may be great art, but it doesn't mean anything to me.
RJC: Do you shape the visual sequences to the music in your films, or vice versa?
TD: You never cut a picture to the music. That's the mistake I made with the two-minute shot in the Trilogy. If a scene is visually right, then you can use just a snatch of a song and it's enough.
My great passion in music is the symphonic tradition. I can't sing or play an instrument, but I can recognise a symphonic argument, particularly in Mahler, Bruckner, or Shostakovich. And so that really strong idea of how something should be organic, coupled with popular American music, which I was brought up with — that curious combination has been very, very helpful to me. Because the thing one has to steer clear of is sentimentality. You can get away with it in America, for the simple reason that Americans aren't the least bit embarrassed by sentimentality – that's because they're as hard as nails. The English are terribly embarrassed by it — because the British people are the most sentimental people in the world. Yet they think sentimentality is vulgar. Like passion, they think it's vulgar. What you do is find ways to use a song or music that negates the sentimentality.
RJC: Why is passion vulgar in England?
TD: Because we're a very odd nation. There is this innate reserve. There is this intrinsic feeling that you have to have some kind of restraint. As we've discussed, I grew up in a world where the British were known for their restraint. Passion was disdained and it still is now because everyone wants to be cool, as though they feel nothing about anything. I was talking about this to a friend, and she said something I think is true: that the reason we're such a philistine country now, and a lot of the people are so horrible and the place is so dirty, is that we're no longer a colonial power and we've turned our colonialism in on ourselves.
We befoul our own nest because we've got nowhere else to do it. I think, too, that the British think passion is a badge of insincerity, that it's something only "they" do, the "dagos" abroad. It's the same as the 18th-century ideal of the "gifted amateur." To be professional is really rather vulgar. And our disdain for passion is exacerbated by our caste system, which is as rigid as anything in India or Japan.
RJC: It sounds as if America is the place for you.
TD: Well, you get welcomed in America, whatever class you come from. I remember when the Trilogy was going to be shown at the New York Film Festival, a young woman asked me when I was coming over. I told her, and she said, "Come and stay in my flat; I'll be away then." And it was No. 1, Fifth Avenue, and there were real Matisse's on the wall. Extraordinary hospitality.
But the thing I don't like about America is that in Britain you can fail, and fail honorably, but you can't over there. There's a cruel, competitive edge. I remember the first time I went to Chicago, I was in a restaurant sitting in one of those half-moon open booths. And I overheard the people in the next booth, who were talking loudly, and I thought they were planning a murder. I was literally on the verge of saying to the waiter, "Look, I think you'd better call the police." By the time my food came, it transpired that they were opening a graphics office in the next state. I find the cutthroat attitude quite awful.
RJC: What films have influenced you?
TD: I can't say that particular films have influenced me. There are films that I've been absolutely knocked out by. When I was eighteen, I saw De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). And then there was Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960). Of course they were revelatory at age eighteen — one had never seen anything like them. And then I discovered Bergman and Kurosawa and Ozu, Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows (1959), and things like that. But I can't really say, "Oh, well, I saw Donald O'Connor in Francis the Talking Mule and it changed my life." [Laughs.]
I love American musicals, though I don't know how much they influence me. They once gave me the most enormous pleasure I've ever had. When I play the soundtracks now, I can remember where I saw the pictures. And seeing them again re-creates my childhood. Every time I watch Singin' in the Rain (1952), I cry. Because I remember being taken to see it as a child and seeing this perfect world. Because that's what the Hollywood musical created. When you grew up in a Liverpool slum and you saw these films, that's what you thought America was like. Everyone was rich. Everyone was beautiful. There was no want, no poverty; it was always summer. That's very potent. It's as potent as religion. In fact, for me it's very much become a religion.
RJC: Are you part of the British cinema tradition?
TD: Well, I don't feel part of a British tradition, because I don't think there is one. I think every once in a while we produce good films in spite of our lack of film tradition, like those of Powell and Pressburger or the Ealing comedies or Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing (1980). But one problem is, we share a common language with the Americans, and they've always made films better than we have. They see film as film; they see the way it works. Our culture is centred on the spoken word, and the theatre has always had more prestige here. We've produced great theatre actors, but we cannot produce good cinema actors. The same with writers. What you get, when your writers come from theater and television, is a record of the spoken event. And that's not cinema.
RJC: How do you feel about films, about your films, as works of art?
TD: Look, at the end of the day most people don't give a toss whether a movie is a beautifully made piece of cinema. They don't care. So you can pour your soul into something, and yes, some people care, but most people don't. It'd be very nice just to be doing Rambo 27, because then you'd make a lot of money and materially you'd have a very nice life. But (a), I haven't got the talent, and (b), I haven't got the inclination. I'm very puritanical. I want my films to be good films, cinematically. But, again, at the end of the day does anyone really care? I remember reading an article about the scherzo in Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which is a miracle of the sonata form. But think of all the people in the world who've never heard of Mahler and don't even want to.
You know, I was constantly asked at film school, "What is your audience?" I said, "I don't know." I make my films because I need to make them. I know that what I want from film is what I want from music: to be emotionally moved and intellectually stimulated. And I think all great art does that. Which is why one constantly returns to the late string quartets of Shostakovich, the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, to Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). You go back and you rediscover something every time. And that's a joy.
RJC: You are not an explicitly political director, but…
TD: I am an intense republican, and I see the British monarchy as callously living off the people's money. The Catholic Church itself did me a great deal of damage. For somebody like me, who discovered at puberty that he was gay (it was then a criminal offence in Britain), the church offered no succour. I felt then that if I prayed and was really good, God would make me like everybody else. Those years when I prayed until my knees bled were awful. I finally realised that religion was a con, a lie, and that priests were just men in frocks, and I dropped the church when I was 22. I was so angry. I'm still very angry about it, because it wasted a lot of my emotional time. It left a deep emotional hole in me — a sense of chaos.
RJC: Was this just an emotional rejection? Or do you think Catholicism is logically and intellectually flawed as well?
TD: Well, for me it's flawed because it starts from the premise that we're all sinners. I don't accept that. I think original sin is a monstrous idea. I don't believe most people are evil, though some undoubtedly are. The majority of people are basically good; they don't go around killing six million people. But it's all a question of belief or disbelief. If you look at it quite dispassionately, Catholicism is as remote, as unmeaning, as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It's that remote to me now, and it's as exotic, as theatrical. The Catholic Church, if nothing else, has a great sense of theater. In a sense it's like watching a film. After two minutes — if you believe, then that's fine. If you don't believe, forget it. No matter how good it might be.
RJC: Your Catholic background seems to have left one mark on Distant Voices, Still Lives: its two parts are structured like altarpieces. Why is the movie in two separate parts?
TD: Well, I feel they complement one another. All of my terrible family history is packed into Distant Voices, which is about the nature of time and memory. But in Part 2 — Still Lives — life has reached an even keel. I wanted to make something interesting out of our lives as stasis. The first part throws the second part into relief. And in Part 2 we see the chains that bind this family together beginning to loosen and the family drifting apart. Imperceptibly: they don't realise it. And that's why at the end, one by one, they go into the dark, which is a kind of metaphorical death.
RJC: How does The Long Day Closes fit into this scheme?
TD: The Long Day Closes makes my story, as chronicled in the Trilogy and Distant Voices, Still Lives, come full circle. It's more about the children who've not been explored, my younger brothers and sisters. It takes place during the three years between the time my father died and when I left primary school. Those three years were just ecstatically happy.
RJC: It might be presumed that such autobiographical or personal stories would have difficulty finding a universal appeal. Do you think that's the case or does one lead to the other?
TD: I think if it's done properly then one thing leads to the other because those things that are specific are usually universal. Chekhov, again, is universal but he's specific to Russia. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), one of the great films that have been made in the U.K., couldn't have been made anywhere but in England; it's got a universal truth to it yet it could have been made nowhere but here. Just as The Last Picture Show (1971) couldn't have been made anywhere other than America but look how universal it is. Of all American films it's the most Chekhovian, yet it's so specific to Texas. And that doesn't matter.
RJC: Do you have a constant struggle with financing your projects and scripts?
TD: Yes, that's why I didn't work for eight years, between The House of Mirth in 2000 and Of Time and the City in 2008. It is really difficult if you are not in the mainstream as represented by Hollywood. We British are really enthralled with America, and not just politically but culturally. Why make films that they do better, anyway? What's worst of all is that you get 25-year-olds who know nothing, saying, "You've got to have a climax on page 60." Well, who said so? Who made the story consultant or screenwriting instructor God? Or they'll say, "Every character has got to have a background story." That would make the film four hours long! Are you going to fund a film that is four hours long? Silence. In Singin' in the Rain, for example, what background story has Debbie Reynolds' character got? She's actually got none. And we are still watching it over 60 years later. Funny that! And they show you the door.
And the worst of all is this idea that there is no difference between television and cinema. There is! And it is a very simple one. In cinema you go on a journey. In television they tell you where you are going before you leave. That's the difference. A lot of people in the film industry simply do not know the difference, and that's what's really shocking.
RJC: A lot of money does seem to get wasted on British films that try to copy the Hollywood formula.
TD: You could have the worst script imaginable, but put in a big star and it'll make 25 million [dollars]. If you have a good script and you're not relatively well known, they're not interested. "We'd like to see this film, but not with my money" — that's the attitude. And it perpetuates with re-makes instead of something original, and they'll put the same old faces in because people will go. That does nothing for me, and it does nothing for an indigenous British cinema or any other national cinema — in fact, it does it a great deal of damage.
RJC: Speaking of Hollywood influence, you once described your first American-based film, The Neon Bible (1996) — based on John Kennedy Toole's early novel, set in 1940s Georgia — as "a film that doesn't work." Can you elaborate on this?
TD: It's holding onto images for far too long and not covering them properly. Like all transitional works it has got good things in it but it doesn't work as a whole. I was glad to have made it and made those mistakes, because I wouldn't make them again. I will not make them again! [Laughs.] And I couldn't have made the subsequent House of Mirth without having made that.
RJC: I consider The House of Mirth — also American-based, of course — almost your most "experimental" film because it's different from your other pictures: it's so classical. You worked on it with some well-known actors such as Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney, and Gillian Anderson. What attracted you to the material?
TD: Well I love the book, you see. I was influenced by classic Hollywood films such as Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Heiress (1949), and things like that. It was daunting — I mean some of those American directors have made more movies than I've had hot dinners. It was wonderful trying to realise a book that I really loved, and I think it is Edith Wharton's best novel, although I also loved The Age of Innocence. The House of Mirth is about the discovery of having moral integrity in a society that doesn't have any… and God knows that is relevant today, because that's the kind of society we've got now.
RJC: What prompted you, after The House of Mirth, to make a documentary film for the first time — namely, Of Time and the City?
TD: I had waited a long time to work again. My previous film, The House of Mirth, was made eight years before, as I've noted. What happened was that there was a contest to make a documentary designed to mark Liverpool's brief period as European Capital of Culture. A lot of people applied for that money — 157 to be exact — and I thought, "Why would they give money to someone like me who's never done a documentary before?" But they gave me the modest sum of £250,000 to make the film. I didn't have great expectations, so when it took off, it came as a surprise. Now eighty-seven film festivals want it! I also felt I'd completed making fictional films about Liverpool, and I didn't want to retread the same ground. So the documentary form would provide the opportunity for a fresh look at the past. But I insisted on making, not a strict documentary, but one based on my emotional memories — a subjective essay, which I discovered after completion was my farewell to Liverpool. My template for the film was Humphrey Jennings' nineteen-minute-long Listen to Britain (1942).
RJC: Given that your portrait of Liverpool is a subjective and poetic one, are you wary that you may have distorted the nature of the city in some way?
TD: The Liverpool I knew has disappeared. I've re-created a city that is no longer there. The last cinema in my old neighbourhood, the Odeon, has been torn down. The city is now a mythical city for me, because memory is myth. I love the city of Liverpool, but have no illusions that there isn't a great deal wrong with it.
RJC: The passage of time plays a profound role in the film.
TD: We are at the mercy of time, but it's also an abstract idea. In my film I try to create a sense of the randomness of time by depicting it as moving from emotional moment to emotional moment, instead of in a linear fashion, by recording in sequence what literally happened over time.
RJC: Do you see Liverpool as a world you had to escape?
TD: The environment I grew up in was tiny. It consisted of house, church, street, and the movies. I felt I had to leave. I wanted a creative life, and I got one — through the movies.
RJC: Your most recent film, an adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea, was a commissioned piece to commemorate Terence Rattigan's centenary. What was it that spoke to you in this particular play?
TD: At first, I struggled to find what the subtextual story was because the actual surface story is rather unremarkable. It is. But once I realised that the subtext was about love, I thought I would do it from the point of view of the female character, Hester Collyer. The play is also about a ménage à trois where they all wanted a love that the other person couldn't give. None of them are villains; they're all trying to do the honorable thing. Once I knew the subtextual meaning, I knew I could do it. Once I knew it was about love, which is the strangest of human emotions — it can be destructive, but it can be sublime — especially the true love of someone who is otherwise very ordinary. Hester's landlady tells her, "This is what it's like. A lot of rubbish is talked about it. But you wipe someone's arse and you keep their dignity so you can both go on. Suicide? No one's worth it." And she's right.
I remember that someone in my family tried to commit suicide in a sort of half-hearted way and one of my brothers-in-law (who is dead now) was a very blunt man, and I can remember him standing at the bed saying, "No one's worth it." I thought, "Yeah, you're right. No one is. No one." But to be driven to that state must be dreadful. Even in my worst despair, I've never wanted to kill myself. I couldn't do it. Suicide is an act of bravery. But true love is an admixture of all the things you've seen in life and one's own subjective idea of love. There's a wonderful quote from Four Quartets on this point: "Love is most nearly itself when the here and now cease to matter." That's fabulous.
Anyway, that's what prompted me to adapt this play; but it's also not just that. I grew up in the days of the women's pictures where the central protagonists were always women and they were always strong. I grew up when Douglas Sirk was at his height — with All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Magnificent Obsession (1954), for instance — and then I discovered on television Max Ophüls's Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). I also grew up with later work of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, but then I discovered their earlier stuff. They were both very powerful in one way or another. So it seemed completely natural to me to make a women's picture, but what I didn't want was that the woman in it should be a villain, because none of the characters in women's pictures are.
RJC: How familiar were you with Terence Rattigan's work before this film?
TD: I'd never seen the plays on stage, and I'd never even seen the 1955 film version of The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More. But I had seen, on television many years ago, the 1952 Anthony Asquith film of The Browning Version, which I think is the best because it's got that wonderful performance by Michael Redgrave. And I remembered going to see Separate Tables (1958), with Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth, which I think is really good. So I said I couldn't do either of those because I've seen the films and they would inhibit me. I said, "What I'll do is read the entire canon and see which I think I can do the best." And The Deep Blue Sea was the one I responded to the most.
I hadn't adapted a play before and was very worried about it, I can tell you. They told me my first draft was tentative and I said, "I know it is, because I'm very frightened of the material — i.e., can I do it from Hester's point of view?" In all his plays, Rattigan makes the first act about exposition — what happened before the curtain went up — and that's not terribly interesting: if you can show something, you don't need someone to tell you about it. Once I knew I could write the script from Hester's point of view, I knew I could get rid of a lot of the exposition by opening up her consciousness and letting her drift in and out memory as she waits for Freddie to come home. Basically, then, the first act is collapsed into 10 minutes with Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. You see two men and this woman and there must be some sort of relationship among the three. And then you explore what that relationship is and how she came to be where she is and what decisions she made. It's a very simple structure, really.
RJC: The Deep Blue Sea is a narrative of love as — to a certain extent — all your films are narratives of love. And you spoke earlier about how many contemporary movies flaunt predictable and false happy endings. What then is the responsibility of the filmmaker in presenting love to an audience? I ask because, as you know, false images of love as embodied in the cinema can be damaging. I speak from experience. I grew up as a boy who believed that the love I had to have in my life was meant to be a cinematic love, and this belief brought me much unhappiness and ultimately failed me. I had to unlearn such a desire.
TD: All the films from the period 1941 to 1959 give you a false, almost pernicious, attitude that you'll eventually meet Miss or Mr. Right, marry, have a few problems, and live happily ever after. Trying to actually unpick that emotionality from yourself is very hard.
RJC: Looking back on your career, you well know that you've received many critical plaudits. Do you feel that these have vindicated you as a filmmaker?
TD: Because of my personality, I get worried when I get a lot of praise. I become frightened. I'm an atheist now, but as soon as I start to think, "This is lovely," the Catholic in me says, "Beware the sin of pride." I get frightened. I mean, I read one bad review and I'll think they're right. I'm completely neurotic — that's all I can say! [Laughs.]
RJC: Do you have any projects that you are working on now?
TD: I've just written a script about Emily Dickinson, who is your greatest poet, I think. She was lucky. She could afford retirement because her father was a senator. But even then she had sonly even poems published in her lifetime, and then they altered the punctuation in them. One man who published her says to her in my screenplay, "But I've published you," and she says, "Yes, for which I'm grateful, but you altered my punctuation." He says, "Oh, what's a colon here or a semi-colon there?" She says, "To the reader, nothing. To the artist, it's an attack."
Children (1976, short)