Interview with Terence Davies

Kyle Cubr: What was your relationship with Emily Dickinson, both her body of work and her personal life, before A Quiet Passion?

Terence Davies: I discovered her when I was eighteen. Claire Bloom was reading some of her poetry. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” was the first poem I had heard, so I bought a little anthology and read them. It wasn’t until fifteen years ago that I started rereading her and then I started reading some biographies with extraordinary love and richness behind them. I thought I’d love to do a film about her, but it’s a chamber piece. You can have a chamber piece that can be symphonic in its own way. I thought it was an extraordinary achievement what she produced considering she was ill most of the time. 

KC: Do you have a favorite poem of hers?

TD: Yes, “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” I reason because its short and absolute. “This Is My Letter To The World” is the saddest. Those probably are my favorites, but I go back to a lot of her work.

KC: In the past decade, you’ve seen your output ramp up a bit, especially in the last two years with two films. What would you attribute your increase to?

TD: It was by sheer accident. It wasn’t planned I can assure you. SUNSET SONG, everything that could go wrong on a film, did go wrong, and it dragged on long after it should have finished. We kept on having to get extra bits of money for the post production. In the meantime, it dragged on for long that I wrote and directed the Emily Dickinson. But it was an absolutely sheer accident. 

KC: How do you feel about the difference between digital film production and shooting on celluloid? 

TD: [Digital] is as important as the coming of sound. Two, maybe three, years ago you couldn’t do the shots that you can get with digital today. It’s extraordinary. What these people can do digitally is breathtaking. When we were doing SUNSET SONG, the actors weren’t used to plowing with horses so we had a man on a tether leading. My team told me, “Don’t worry. We can take him out.” I wondered to myself how can you take a man out whose tethered to the horse? It was just brilliant. I don’t understand it at all but I think it’s fabulous.

KC: Do you have any projects you plan to shoot on film?

TD: No, it’ll all be digital from here on out. 

KC: What films or filmmakers have influenced you?

TD: Any American musical of the 50’s. I love American musicals. The oddest part is I find myself influenced by small films that aren’t particularly interesting in any large way but I still draw something from them. All influences kind of come out of you in a refracted form so I can’t say I’m influenced by “this” director or “that” movie. I just know that I’m influenced by the films that I’ve seen and that I love and still love. There are a few where I’ve thought oh I should have made that myself but it’s too late now.

KC: A Quiet Passion seems to hold no religious conviction. How would you say your religious upbringing and subsequent shift to atheism factor in?

TD: I think it’s not about religious conviction. Rather, it’s about something more important and that is the nature of the soul. One of her quests was if there’s no God, then what does the soul mean? She never comes down and says no there’s no God or yes there is. She always manages to imply that there might be a ‘Third Event’ as she calls it. That in itself is a kind of suffering because it calls into question how do you live your life. If there is just extinction, why should we be moral or ethical at all. But of course you have to be because life would be unbearable. Also, I think what heightens the sense of what the soul is and how do you guard it because she never received any recognition during her lifetime. It’s the same with the music of Anton Bruckner. They are the greatest cycle of symphonies for me and are deeply spiritual. He was a firm believer in Catholicism. He believed that there was a God and a heaven. There’s one point in the 9th Symphony, which was unfinished, that there’s a huge discordant climax. It’s massive. For a moment, he thinks, “Perhaps it’s a lie?” and then he says his goodbye to God. For her, I think it’s the same. There will come a point where we all have to face dying and how will we go about it shows our conscience. Her dying alleviated her suffering but I’m sure during her bought of lucidity that it must have crossed her mind. 

KC: What’s next for you? 

TD: Two things. I can’t believe it either. An American film called “Mother of Sorrows” which is being written by Richard McCann. Well, that part is already finished I should say. Now we’re raising money to cast it. The other is I’m writing a film about Siegfried Sassoon one of the greatest British war poets during World War I. He got along with Rupert Brooke (another English poet of the time) who ended up dying, but Siegfried survived. He was gay and married like a gay man did during those days. Then he converted to Catholicism of all things. I can’t believe it. It’s fascinating stuff though.