Over the last four decades, the English filmmaker Terence Davies has produced a deeply personal body of films that explore the longing inspired by movie fantasy and the intermingling of memory and history, marked by a distinct cinematic style. Well known for his aversion to stories set in present day, his period pieces include ‘The House of Mirth’, ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, and ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’. His recurring themes of emotional (and sometimes physical) endurance and the influence of memory on everyday life are beloved by audiences young and old alike. Davies’ latest film, ‘Sunset Song’, follows suit with his go-to thematic agenda and is an intimate epic of hope, tragedy, and love at the dawning of the Great War. The film spans a young woman’s endurance against the hardships of rural Scottish life, based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Ahead of his screening at NeueHouse Madison Square, the dogmatic filmmaker sat down with us to discuss relationships, his biggest regret, and the difficulties of living in the modern world.
NeueJournal: A great deal of your work explores your childhood. Have you found catharsis in this? What is the biggest challenge in facing your life for art?
Terence Davies: Well, it’s not cathartic. I thought that would happen, but it never did. It throws into relief both joy and sorrow, and you wonder what they’re for. That’s been the biggest thing. The greatest thing that I regret, and in fact could have changed if I would have, was that I was brought up a Roman Catholic and I was very devout until I was 22. When I discovered that I was gay there was no turning back, and in England, it was of course against the law. That’s my biggest regret; I wish I’d not been through that because it made my teenage years very, very miserable. If I were able to change it I would be straight, very good looking, with a very good body, but very stupid, because that is an unconquerable combination.
NJ: Ignorance is bliss.
TD: Being stupid, especially (laughs).
NJ: You gravitate towards period pieces. What is it about different eras that appeal to you so strongly?
TD: The stories are always what I respond to, and they happen to be period pieces. That’s all. The problem with modern movies is that I can not use all this equipment. I have a mobile phone with one number on it, and if it rings and it’s not the number I have saved in my phone, I switch it off and chuck it. I’m so terrified of modern technology. I’m terrified of the modern world because I don’t understand it. I can’t interpret it, I don’t know what one does with all this information and why it’s needed. I think it’s almost a denial of the world, and I find that repellent. But the world has changed in a way I don’t understand.
NJ: It’s refreshing you haven’t played into this technological future.
TD: But if I was your age I would have to. What I think is shocking is children are being bullied at school because they don’t have the right phone. Bullying is iniquitous, but not to have the right phone?! Isn’t it awful? It’s a piece of technology – what does it matter?!
NJ: Absolutely. Would you ever consider creating a film set in a modern age?
TD: Well if I liked the story…I mean, I’ve written one, which we’re probably doing sometime next year, based on a lovely book by Richard McCann called Mother of Sorrows, but that only goes up to about 1980. That’s sort of about as modern as I get, I think. As I said, I just don’t perceive the modern world in the same way, and because I don’t understand it I can’t make anything from it. It would be like saying, “Make a film about a family of Eskimos.” Well, I don’t know anything about Eskimo culture or infrastructure or the way their families work. Maybe one day I shall, but something tells me I probably won’t (laughs).
NJ: Your films have all been widely received with praise, however, what has been your proudest accomplishment so far?
TD: Oh gosh, that’s hard. I don’t see them as accomplishments. I never watch them after they’re finished. There are bits of them I like, and I think, “Oh, that’s rather good.” But I suppose what gives me enormous pleasure – and it’s not an accomplishment, really – is working with such lovely and talented people who’ve made life infinitely richer. These people are artists in their own right and you can’t make a film without them, and that’s been lovely – to see people who are very talented and who have given so much of themselves, of their souls. I find that very moving. If you give up yourself, there’s no greater present.
NJ: Your work investigates relationships. How would you define love?
TD: I think love is when you want the best for the other person, even if it means they’re not with you. You care for them at a very deep level. You have moments when you’re with the person you love, moments when you’re not, and the moments when you’re apart are very hard because you wish to be with them. There’s an English poet, called Philip Larkin, who wrote a poem about a medieval tomb, called An Arundel Tomb. The man and the woman were nobility and they have effigies above their tombs, and he just talks about this tomb and says wonderful lines, like, “Snow fell, undated.” The last line is, “What will survive of us is love,” and I think that is selflessness. Or, as Bette Davis says in All About Eve, “You look across the room and they’re there, and you think, ‘He’s there.'”
NJ: What film, or films, inspired your choice to become a filmmaker?
TD: I became a filmmaker by accident, so they didn’t directly inspire me, but all the films I saw that I loved, especially when I was growing up, were huge influences. The American musicals I adored because my sisters adored them, and all the big commercial movies of the mid-fifties that were about women: All About Eve, which was slightly earlier, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, All that Heaven Allows, and Magnificent Obsession. The main people were women, and I grew up with my sisters. I loved my brothers, but being gay, I warmed to my sisters, so all those films influenced me.
Also, what we had in Britain then, was a cast of people who were wonderful in comedy, and they were a huge influence as well, particularly that language. I do love language; when it’s well done it’s just thrilling, and there certain films that I treasure, not just because they’re wonderful films, but because of the voice-over. There’s Sunset Boulevard, and there are wonderful things in that. When Joey goes to get his car and says, “He never asked how you were doing, he just looked at your heels and knew the score.” Isn’t that a fabulous piece of dialogue?
NJ: What is the last film you watched?
TD: I don’t go that often now, but the last one I saw that I think is a very good film, very underrated, was a film by Bertrand Tavernier called Laissez-Passer, or Safe Conduct in English. It’s based on real events and real people, about a Paris film studio during the occupation, and how these people are gradually made to collaborate inch-by-inch. It’s wonderful.
NJ: What do you consider the lowest depth of misery?
TD: I think despair. When you lose hope, that’s the hardest of all. Despair is worse than any pain. I’ve had it on a number of occasions, especially when my mother died. She was the love of my life, and it was unbearable, but you have to try and cope with it. Despair is awful. It’s awful.
NJ: What does happiness look like to you?
TD: Well, a lack of despair (laughs)! But small things give me joy. You listen to a lovely piece of music that reminds you of when you first heard it or the way the sun falls on the rain… All those things are the great pleasures for me. The symphonic cycles of Bruckner and Sibelius, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the sonnets of Shakespeare…they give me utter joy.
NJ: How would you describe the current state of the world?
TD: Road pee. To see the people in power behave the way they do, you think, “How on Earth have we avoided war for all this time?” I do think that huge blocks of countries getting together and meeting and presenting, while the other blocks aren’t is an implied threat. I think that’s awful. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and it shouldn’t be about money, but unfortunately nowadays everything is driven by money, by power, and, worst of all, by narcissism. That’s the most repellent, and I really can’t bear it.
Photography: Tyler Nevitt for NeueJournal