Phil on Film Index

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Liverpool is completely alien to me now, I just don't know it anymore" - An interview with Terence Davies

Over the past thirty years, Terence Davies has only made six films – if you count his Trilogy as one feature – but that small collection has been enough to see him regarded as one of the greatest of all British filmmakers. His work is unlike anyone else's; the Trilogy, his masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes are all deeply personal films drawn from his own childhood experiences, and structured in a way that reflects the passage of time and the nature of memory rather than following any standard narrative rules. After making those films, Davies moved into the world of literary adaptations, and 1995's The Neon Bible was a disappointment, but as the director himself admitted, it paved the way for his spellbinding version of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth five years later. That film should have opened up more avenues for Davies, but instead he found himself out in the cold for eight years, until a commission to make a documentary about his native Liverpool brought him back into the spotlight. I met Davies last week to discuss Of Time and the City, his childhood memories, and the poor state of a film industry that can neglect one of its true artists for almost a decade.

This film is a very subjective story about your own memories of a particular time and place, and yet it has received a great reception at a number of festivals around the world. Why does this picture resonate?

Gosh, I honestly don't know, because it was made with the most modest of intentions, and a very modest budget I might add. Perhaps it's because I think people recognise truth. I've tried to be as truthful as possible, and I think that may prick their own memories, and make them remember their hometown. That's what it seems to do, but I don't know how that's achieved, because that certainly wasn't the intention, it really wasn't. It's odd things – like a lot of people pick up on the pomegranate, but it was exotic, because you only had fruit at Christmas as that was the only time you could afford it. We had one pomegranate that we cut and we ate it with a pin, as I recall. That seems to prick a lot of memories, but how that's achieved I have no idea, and I'm as bemused as anybody else [laughs].

Memory is a funny thing, and you can never tell what will spark something off in a person's mind.

No, but if you're true to it, people will respond, and – while I'm not saying I'm in their class – you don't have to be Russian to like Chekhov or German to like Schubert, because they're saying something which is universal. People have been kind enough to say this is saying something universal, but I never thought it would. I just tried to be as truthful as I could be, but it was subjective. Someone said at one of the early shows that we didn't show the Toxteth riots, but that didn't affect me. What people don't seem to realise is that when you grew up in a certain part of the city in the 50's, you very rarely left it. You know, you went to school, you went to church, if you were Catholic, you went to the movies – and there were eight within walking distance of my house, not counting the eight in town – and Toxteth was a long way away, so if you had no reason to go there you didn't go. All I was trying to do was to make an honest, subjective account of the time I lived there, from 1945 to 73, and that's all I ever said I wanted to do.

You mentioned you were fortunate enough to have eight cinemas within walking distance. What was it that cinema gave you in those years, was it an escape from your life? Was it a glimpse of another world?

It wasn't an escape, because even though I had grown up in a slum, in those days you weren't told you were deprived, and you didn't feel deprived. Everyone was in the same boat so you accepted that and everyone helped one another when they could. You never, ever thought of yourself as deprived. Actually, I didn't realise it until Mark Kermode said it to me, "You seemed to go to the cinema like you went to church", I was just mesmerised by it. My first film at seven was Singing' in the Rain, that was the very first thing I saw, and if that's not enough to mesmerise you for life I don't know what is. We were a lot less sophisticated then, so when I was eleven and one of my sisters took me to see Young at Heart – which was the first time I saw Doris Day, and fell absolutely in love with her – a lot of the street scenes were actually shot in the studio, but we didn't know that. We just though that's what America looked like. There was nothing like the information technology that there is today, and we believed that's what it was like – they all lived in these fabulous houses, they were all rich, they all had these wraparound teeth, and they all had big kitchens. Of course, when I went for the first time I was disabused of that! [laughs]

When you talk about going to the cinema like you went to church, do you mean that cinema filled the void when you lost your faith?

I didn't lose my faith until I was 22, so it wasn't as synchronous as that. I'd always loved films since I was introduced to them at seven, and I didn't lose my faith until 1967, which was a long time later. I had always fought against it because I had been told "That's the devil's work. If you have any doubt at all, it's the devil", and that was a long process, the seven years from 15-22 were awful and I never ever want to go through anything like that again. It was a great, huge doubt, wanting to be forgiven even though I hadn't done anything, and wanting to be made like everybody else. There was nothing. It was an awful period.

Do you still get the same thrill from cinema today?

No, it's gone. I've lost my ability to suspend my disbelief. Now I'm conscious of syntax, and if it's wrong, if I feel the tracks or cranes are used wrong, I just get into such a fury I can't concentrate on the film. I just think, "Why are you tracking, for no reason? Why are we looking down like this? Whose point of view is it?" I get very angry about that. I get angry about sloppiness as well, and I can't abide sentimentality. I mean, it's so easy to make people cry, it's much more difficult to move them, and just before a person cries we usually hear the same music on the piano and we think, "Here we go again". Can't I be moved because I feel moved, and not because you're telling me to? And there's very little now that I feel is cinematic. Certainly, a lot of cinema language has been absolutely destroyed by television, because they use syntax all over the place, and that has demeaned it and cheapened it, so it's very difficult to see something cinematic now. The charm has gone, the magic has gone, I wish it hadn't but it has.

I was reading about the way Of Time and the City was funded, and over 150 parties applied for this commission. After the trouble you've had getting anything made over the past decade, how confident were you during this process?
I just assumed we wouldn't get it, and then I couldn't have been disappointed. [laughs] I just thought, why would they give money for a documentary to someone who's never made one before? They did, I'm very glad to say, because it was the first work in eight years, which is a long time, but I never really believed we would get it, if I'm being absolutely honest.

As you had never made a documentary before, how did you approach this film? It feels to me like a film very much of a piece with your fictional work; you could easily stand this film alongside Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Thank you, that's a compliment. I just tried to be true. Looking at material which is not your own is very liberating, because you didn't shoot it, and it's not your eye. I was astonished at how beautiful a lot of it was, really astonished, both black and white and colour. I said, "These are the areas I want to deal with", and then new material came in, and that pricked new ideas, which was fantastic. In a way, I was writing the film and the narration as we were cutting it. The problem was to make the sequences work. The first sequence that came to me was The Folks Who Live on the Hill, I was in the car at the time and I was about to ring Sol Papadopoulos (the producer) and say, "I can't do it, I've got cold feet". Then that sequence came to me and Sol rang me and I said, "We've got a film". I've always been fascinated with memory and the nature of time, ever since I heard The Four Quartets read aloud, on television, over four nights, from memory, by Alec Guinness in '62.

You wouldn't get that on TV these days.

You certainly wouldn't! And no autocues, he actually memorised them. It was a fabulous reading. The only other reading that came close to it, and possibly equals it, was about two years ago when Paul Scofield did the whole of The Wasteland and The Four Quartets, on radio, and he was as good. It was such a revelation. But I am obsessed with the nature of time and memory, and what gets me angry about films which are supposed to be about memory is that they're always linear. Well, memory isn't linear, it's cyclical and associative, it doesn't go in a straight line, and that's what makes it fascinating. And how do we perceive time in reality and in film, where the cut always implies the next thing that happens? What if you subvert that? What if you dissolve, and then use a series of cuts to subvert that, and begin cutting again? Which time are we in? Are we in parallel time, are we in time gone by, are we in time future – where is time? That really does fascinate me. If you dissolve, people know time has passed, and nobody has told them, they just know. How do you get over that sense of time passing, while sometimes making time feel suspended? Because as a child, you're not aware of time passing, it's as if you're living in the same continuum all the time, so how do you get over that? I love that, I think I'll always experiment with time and memory because it's eternally fascinating.

That style of putting films together to reflect the cyclic nature of memory sets your films apart from any others. What are your influences? Do they come from film or is it more from other art forms?

I've drawn more from other art forms, particularly poetry and music. If you listen to a symphony you don't have to be a musician to follow it, you can follow with your inner ear and your emotions. I was influenced in roundabout way by musicals because that's what my sisters loved, and it's what I loved because I was taken to them all the time, and the melodramas of the 50's like All the Heaven Allows. We didn't know what directors did, so nobody could have given a toss who Douglas Dirk was, we just went because Jane Wyman was in it and she wore a wonderful frock, because it was Technicolor, and because you cried at the end, that's why we went. In those days, you had what was called the big picture, and the supporting picture. The big picture was always American, except when it was a comedy, because British comedies were better. And everyone went, literally everyone went; and people like Margaret Rutherford, Alistair Sim, Joyce Grenfell – they were loved. You could feel this love for them as they came on the screen, it was real love, and they were intrinsically funny. Very often they didn't say anything, but they were funny, and as soon as you saw them you were primed to laugh. So there were those influences too, and also listening to northern women, who are funny. I was brought up by my mother, my sisters, and their friends, and I love listening to women talk, particularly northern women, because they're so funny. It's all of those little things which combine to come through your refracted psyche and your eye.

Speaking of the influence of music, it is such an important element in the construction of your films. How does that work; do you know the songs you want to us before you start, or are they inspired when you see the footage being put together, or does it happen more instantaneously than that?

It's a mixture of all three, really. The big thing that happened in the late 50's in most northern towns was that the slums were cleared, and these estates were built which we thought would be the new Jerusalem. I thought of The Folks Who Live on the Hill because I'd known it since I was a child, and that was absolutely instantaneous. When I was at drama school in 73, I used to go and borrow records from the library, because I couldn't afford records and I was only on a grant. I discovered the Bacarisse Guitar Concertino, which I've loved ever since, particularly the slow movement, and when that sequence was written I had that piece in mind. At other times the sequence came first and the music after, and sometimes the music came first, but it's always instinctive, and I know when to say "Stop it now". I said to Liza (Ryan-Carter) who cut it, "When we do cut these sequences, cut it mute, and then put the music on, and see where the cuts fall". That's always very exciting, because sometimes they fall in exactly the right place, or sometimes we have to tidy it up a bit to ensure that when we fall on a certain phrase we start on new image.

Where did you find all of that footage?

Literally all over the place, the source was huge. I lost track of where it came from to be honest with you, there were so many sources.

Some of the footage is incredible, and I guess for someone like me who's of a younger generation, the shocking thing is that these slums were still being inhabited within the last 30-40 years. It's quite recent history.
It was startling to me too, because I grew up in one and didn't realise how bad they were, it was awful. When you grow up in one that's your only world and you have nothing to compare it with, but even I was horrified by them. It was just awful.

And one particularly pointed sequence you include juxtaposes the Royal Family celebrating the coronation in 1948 with the terrible conditions the Queen's subjects were living in.

It just shows what a parasitic institution the monarchy is. She's always going on about doing her duty, which is just nauseating nonsense. If she had done her duty, she would have said "Right, I'm going to go around that kingdom now, see how people live, come back to parliament and say "Do something about it"". That's what she should have done, but of course they never do.

I think you've blown your chance of a Knighthood now, Terence.

[Laughs] Well, they might make it a Damehood, which would be very tempting.

You left Liverpool over thirty years ago, does it still feel like home?

18 Kensington Street is my home, and that'll never change, because that's where I was happiest. Well, for four years anyway, between the death of my father in 52 to the moment I went to secondary school in 56, those were wonderful years. That's my spiritual home, but it's long gone and it's in a Liverpool that doesn't exist anymore, other than in my imagination. Liverpool is completely alien to me now, I just don't know it anymore.

During the past eight years when you've been away from cinema, how close were you to getting films made?
Some things were commissioned for a small amount of money, and then you'd spend literally years waiting until people finally came back to you and said no. It was pretty awful, but what was shocking was the level of ignorance. 25 year-olds who know nothing telling me how to write a script, and that is really hard to take. You just want turn around and say "How many scripts have you written? How many films have you directed?" They've done some tedious media degree or else that Robert McKee crap, and then they think they have the right to tell you how to write a script. That's the hardest thing of all, the level of ignorance, especially when it's allied to arrogance, it's awful. It's little Britain trying to do Hollywood on the cheap and we can't do it, Rank lost a fortune trying to do it in the late 40's. Why don't we have the courage to look at our country, to look at stories that arise naturally from these islands? We've always got to be validated by America – why? We're like the 51st state, with all the indignity that implies. If we're not careful, within the next twenty years whatever culture we have will disappear, and we will just be like Hawaii but with lousy weather.

I saw your appearance on Newsnight Review recently when you said "For one Brideshead Revisited you could make three real films", and that must have been the most frustrating thing for you, seeing these films getting made and thinking about what you could do with a fraction of the budget.

Not so much me, but others. I mean, where does a young filmmaker go now? I have no idea how they get their first film off the ground. That could have helped talented youngsters, that's what's depressing, and it is so formulaic. Given the fact that it is about the privileged classes, do you really care about someone floating around Oxford with a teddy bear? I can't get worked up about that. Now, had they told it from the point of view of the teddy bear I might have been interested [laughs]. Each time they kept cutting to the liner I was hoping it would be the Titanic, but alas, no such luck [laughs].

Have you been given any indication that the success Of Time and the City is having might reopen some doors for you?

I've written three scripts in the last eight years, and we were very close to getting the closing finance on the first one, which is a romantic comedy. You come back to England and what do you get? "Oh, I really want to see the script, please send the script", and then they say they've used up all their money, so you wonder why did they ask to see the script, and you're back down to earth with a bump. It's the same old nonsense.

After doing such a marvellous job adapting The House of Mirth, are there any other works of literature you have a particular desire to do?
Yes, there's a Scottish novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, which everyone in Scotland knows but it's considered one of the great unknown novels. They did it on BBC1 on Sunday nights in 1971, and I lived for Sunday nights, it was wonderful. I've done an adaptation of that and I'd like to do that, because it's a great work. I'm also in the process of adapting an Ed McBain novel called He Who Hesitates.

Is that one of the 87th Precinct novels?
It is, and it's the only one which is told from the point of view of the murderer. I think it will be very interesting indeed.