- An interview with Terence Davies
“When I look at the films that I love, mine just seem inferior,” says Terence Davies, regarded by many as Britain’s greatest living director. “How can I compete with Singin’ in the Rain? 56 years later and people still go and watch it. And you come out with the most wonderful glow. You don’t come out of my films with a wonderful glow.”
Yes, there is misery aplenty in Davies’ work. He began with The Trilogy (1984): an hour and a half in the company of a depressive, self-loathing homosexual. The bleakest film in his canon, it’s gruelling and confrontational, with a surprisingly graphic treatment of sexual degradation. It culminates in Davies’ alter-ego coughing himself to death, alone. “The Trilogy was written at a time when I had reached an absolute low spiritually,” he says. “I hate being gay. It’s ruined my life. I will never come to terms with it and I don’t like it. There are times when you need to be that frank.”
And yet in all Davies’ movies there are moments of such transcendent joy that the gloom simply evaporates. Take the umbrellas sequence of Distant Voices, Still Lives, scored by ‘Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing’. Or the ‘Tammy’ segment from The Long Day Closes. Or indeed, the Trilogy’s own concession to that wonderful glow – a funeral sequence featuring the most inspired, plaintive use of Doris Day’s wholesome voice that cinema has seen. The action may be upsetting, but the treatment is exalting.
The Trilogy, comprising the short films Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), follows a Liverpool man from cradle to grave. For a film that’s often bracingly autobiographical, it seems strange that Davies’ siblings – so much a part of his next project – don’t feature in the Trilogy. “I don’t know why that is,” he says. “I hadn’t really thought of it. They all got married and moved out, so I felt like an only child, even though I was one of 10, seven surviving. Also, the Trilogy was my apprenticeship, so I wanted to concentrate on just the one child. I couldn’t deal with other characters – I was inexperienced."
His next picture - and his first feature proper - was Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), voted the best British film of the previous 25 years in a 2002 Sight & Sound poll. The film is like a family photo-album brought to life, with all the misery slung back in. It shows Davies’ eldest siblings united by group sing-alongs but terrorised by their abusive father. A savage memoir of domestic violence, the film evokes an uneasy nostalgia, reinforced by snippets of archive song. A spellbinding opening sequence sets the tone.
“All the music, every track[ing shot] and every dissolve – everything – goes into the script,” Davies says. “I wrote the opening of Distant Voices, Still Lives and I knew there was something wrong. The shipping forecast was in there, and my mother’s song, ‘I Get the Blues’, because she always sang that song. But there was something missing.
“I was listening to the radio and on Radio 3 one lunchtime the concert finished early and they played Jessye Norman singing ‘There’s a Man Goin’ Round Takin’ Names’ and I knew that was the missing element. That part of filmmaking has got to be instinctive. Sometimes you hear something and think: ‘Yes, that’s what it needs.’”
And what of Distant Voices’ status as a staple in many critics’ and filmgoers all-time lists? “I’m always surprised, because all my films were made with modest intentions and budgets,” he says, sounding pleased.
An informal sequel, The Long Day Closes (1992), followed four years later. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it received a ten-minute standing ovation. The film chronicles the end of the period in Davies' life, aged seven to 11, when he was “just ecstatically happy”. That blissful parade of family get-togethers, daydreams and trips to the pictures was punctured by the intrusion of adulthood and the shame he felt at his sexual awakening.
“The Long Day Closes was about the emergence of my sexuality, which was frightening and mysterious,” he says, then pauses. “I think the film largely succeeds in capturing the feelings that I had then.”
It has the structure of memory, its vivid vignettes flowing one into the next, linked by theme, not time, and scored by films and songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
In the film’s most arresting sequence, Davies’ 11-year-old alter ego, Bud, wrestling with guilt and tormented by loneliness, walks along his grey, deserted street. Leaning over a stairwell, he lifts his arms and begins to swing from a bar. The lush strings of Debbie Reynolds’ ‘Tammy’ start to soar, as the camera moves slowly, majestically, over the boy and, next, the rooms that rule his life: school, church and cinema.
“The idea was very, very simple,” Davies says. “I wanted to encapsulate his entire world – which was my entire world – the house, the street, the movies, the school and the church. I thought: ‘If I do it that way, then I can bring them all together.’
“It just seemed right – binding that whole world in what is essentially an incredibly romantic song, in a Liverpool that was anything but romantic. You remember things and then you combine them, because you feel instinctively that they go together. They complement by their contradiction.”
The song also represents a last hurrah of happiness, one – Davies says – stained with the realisation that Bud can never understand or experience the emotions that Reynolds’ heroine is singing about. “It’s about the impossibility and the strangeness of romantic love – certainly because I’ve never found it,” he says. “When you’re a child, you don’t understand what love is. Even if you are attracted to someone and you feel very profoundly towards them - in this case, my love for my family - it’s something you still don’t understand.”
That collision of escapist fantasy and cruel reality, infused with a reverence for old Hollywood, typifies Davies’ work: peppered with passages of sweet lyricism, but driven by pain and torment.
“I see life as a struggle and I see moments of happiness,” he says. “But the reality is that my years of ecstasy between seven and 11 – that will never return. It can’t come back.”
He told one interviewer he made films to come to terms with suffering in his own life. Have they helped? “Oh they don’t at all. I thought it would be a catharsis but they just...” He tails off. “All that suffering, and for what? All that suffering has no meaning. So it doesn’t help you come to terms with it, it just... it throws it into...” He tails off a second time. “The point is, it hasn’t.”
Another of The Long Day Closes' unforgettable passages has a daydreaming Bud drenched by waves as he listens in his classroom to ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, the signature song of tragic British contralto Kathleen Ferrier. “Her voice has got a very special place in British music,” says Davies. “It’s one of the very, very great voices. As a child, occasionally we were allowed at primary school to hear radio from the BBC. I can see it being switched on and we would be sitting at our desks and the announcer would say, ‘Miss Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’,’ and it’s just very potent, very, very potent. The salt sea and imagining seeing the ship, and all that, is my invention. But that – that song, that voice, oh goodness.”
Davies’ first venture away from autobiography was The Neon Bible (1995), a stunning take on John Kennedy Toole’s book, set in 1940s Louisiana. The film is fanciful, dreamlike and virtuosic, with an intensely moving death scene that ranks among cinema’s greatest. The imagery is remarkable. And, as ever, there are flashes of euphoria.
One sequence shows a clear white sheet billowing on a washing line, before segueing into the Stars and Stripes, to the strains of Gone With the Wind’s ‘Tara’ theme. “Those things came out of my imagination,” Davies says. “A lot of it is my interpretation of the book, and all the films that I saw growing up about the South. Those were coming through my consciousness refracted. They were prompted by the book, but were inspired more by things that I remembered, like the flames outside the tent from Elmer Gantry. But The Neon Bible is not a successful film. It’s a transitional work.”
Even so, while the film may appear something of a departure, its symmetrical frames and familiar subject matter link it stylistically and thematically to Davies’ other work. The House of Mirth (2000) offered something entirely new. Greeted with rapturous reviews upon release, Davies’ fifth film was a meticulous, surprisingly conventional adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel of manners, wealth and revenge.
And, curiously, Davies’ most atypical film is also his favourite. “The House of Mirth is the film I’m most proud of, because that’s my most mature film,” he says. “I think it’s technically probably the best, and though the autobiographical films are awfully close to my heart, it’s very difficult to have aesthetic distance when you're writing autobiography, because you’re emotionally involved."
The themes of The House of Mirth intrigued him, he says. “Though it’s set in early 20th century New York, it’s not just about that epoch. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, so to examine from the outside what’s really a hermetically sealed world – where there are lots and lots of rules – seemed fascinating. And if you transcend those rules and break them, the retribution is swift and deadly. It’s a metaphor for what it seems to be like in Hollywood. I didn’t move in that world. I’m both fascinated and appalled by it, because when you see that vengeance, then you see its essential cruelty.”
But although he is fond of The House of Mirth, Davies says he never watches his films. “I can’t watch them. I had to see Distant Voices, Still Lives and the Trilogy, because of putting them out on DVD, but no, I don’t watch them. Well, I can run them through in my mind because I know them so well.”
Last year, he said that seven years of trying, unsuccessfully, to secure funding for new projects had left him bitter. A film of the Scottish book Sunset Song had fallen through. He was touting a romantic comedy script, Mad About the Boy, without success. “There’s an audience for my work," he said. "It’s not a huge one, but I don’t think therefore that I should be dismissed as elitist and not allowed to make films, or left in the hands of some 25-year-old woman from television who doesn’t know anything.”
Going further, he said the success of his first five films was irrelevant – he had no interest in leaving a legacy. “Oh bugger posterity. I’m sick of being constantly in debt. Those successes don’t matter now. They don’t compensate. I still need to work. I’m sick of not working and having no money.”
“Work is my raison d’etre,” he continued, “and if that’s taken away from me I don’t have a reason to be alive.”
Happily, Davies’ long absence from the screen should soon be over. In February he received a commission from the Digital Departures scheme to make a new £250,000 documentary, Of Time and the City, which will be shot in Liverpool this year. Yes, our homegrown genius, the Humphrey Jennings of his generation, is returning. Not that he will acknowledge such platitudes.
“I have no genius,” he says. “Genius is Bergman. It’s Dreyer. Hitchcock. Ophüls. Oh, Ophüls! Letter from an Unknown Woman is the most wonderful film. I look at things like Singin’ in the Rain and I think: 'Oh to have made that, or The Happiest Days of Your Life or It Always Rains on Sunday.' ”
“I love sharp dialogue,” he continues, improbably. I cast my mind back to his freeform, dialogue-light hymns to the past, and can barely remember a standout line.
“I was watching Clash by Night, by Fritz Lang, with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan. There’s a wonderful bit where he says: ‘Will you have a drink?’ and she says: ‘Keep your money, hard times are coming.’ Wonderful dialogue. I love that.
“I love the dialogue in The Man Who Came to Dinner. The wonderful, wonderful dialogue in Kind Hearts and Coronets. And I don’t think I can match them, because I suppose I think that the great days of cinema have gone.”
But he must like some bits of his films? He thinks. “I like ‘Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing’ in Distant Voices, Still Lives, I like Christ on the cross in Long Day Closes and I like the transition from New York to Monte Carlo in House of Mirth. Yes, I do like those.”
I take him back to the Trilogy, where he pioneered that unique meshing of head-in-the-clouds fantasy and nose-in-the-dirt realism. Is he proud of that formative triumvirate? He sounds uncomfortable. “Well, I’m glad I made them,” he says, faltering. “I learned a lot, and I suppose I’m proud of bits of them. But,” he continues, returning to a favourite theme, “when I compare them to the films I love, mine do seem a bit wanting. I would love to have made Young at Heart, On the Town, or Gypsy.”
Davies’ films could barely be further in tone or style to those fast-moving, carefree excursions. “Well, I think you have to make the film that’s inside you,” he says. “You have to be true to that vision.”
He considers this for a moment. “Obviously every filmmaker wants an audience. I would like my films to be seen by all those people who went to see Four Weddings and a Hysterectomy, or Truly Madly Boringly, but I haven’t got the talent. That’s not what I do, that’s not how I see cinema. But I’ve tried to be truthful to what I’ve either experienced or felt.”
And has he managed it?
“Yes. If it doesn’t sound arrogant, I think I have."
This article was written by Rick Burin and published by MovieMail in May 2008.