Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is the director's first narrative feature since The House of Mirth over a decade ago, and it is a welcome reminder of the gifts that have made him one of this country's finest filmmakers. This story of a woman who abandons her marriage for a passionate but self-destructive affair is an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, and it proves to be a perfect fit for Davies, allowing him to once again travel back to the 1950's where he feels most at home. It's a beautiful, brilliantly performed film and I had the opportunity to talk to Terence Davies about it shortly before the film's UK premiere at the London Film Festival.
When we last spoke in 2008 you mentioned some projects you were working on but The Deep Blue Sea wasn't one of them. How did this come to be your next film after Of Time and the City?
Well, it came about by accident. Sean O'Connor, one of the co-producers, got in touch with me and asked if I would like to do a play of Rattigan's because his centenary was going to fall this year. I had never seen the plays staged, and the only ones I knew were the 1952 version of The Browning Version, which I love, and the late-1950's version of Separate Tables, which I also think is very good. I said I couldn't do them because I think those films are good and it would be very difficult to rethink a play. Anyway, I read the entire canon and I said I might be able to do something with The Deep Blue Sea. I had been taken to see it by my mother and all I could remember was one scene with Kenneth More coming down these stairs, so I didn't really know it, and I thought I could do something with that. So that's how it came about.
How did you go about adapting the play? You have adapted novels in the past, but was this a very different process?
At first I was a little worried because I had never done a play before. What I found from reading the entire canon is that Rattigan likes to put all of the exposition in the first act, and I don't particularly like that. It's telling me what went on before the curtain went up and it's not that interesting, I don't think. I felt that it had to be told from Hester's point of view, which means a lot of that exposition can go, simply because we can't know about it if she's not privy to it. That made it much easier, if I did it from her point of view, but of course it meant restructuring it, and I thought, "Where they're talking about the past, I want to see the past," so it was very much the subjective point of view of Hester's that then determined how it was written. The first draft was very, very tentative, because I was a bit worried and didn't think I could pull it off, but Alan Brodie of the Terence Rattigan Trust was absolutely wonderful and he just said, "Be radical with it," so I did. I always work in the same way – first draft, notes, second draft, notes, polish, and that's what we shoot – and that's what happened here. But I had to get the sub-textural meaning, not just what the story is, and in that tentative first draft I didn't really know what the subtext was. By stint of reading the play again and again and again, I realised what it was about. The subtext is about love, three forms of love, and a love that each person cannot get from the other, it cannot be reciprocated. Once I knew that, it made it relatively easy to adapt the rest of the play.
It's true what you say about the three forms of love at the heart of the film, because while the film is essentially Hester's story, all three characters find themselves placed in a difficult situation and dealing with emotions that they are ill-prepared for.
Yes, exactly. When Hester married William Colyer, she was probably like a lot of men and women who didn't know a lot about love and sex. He was obviously a very cultured man and they shared cultural things together. Perhaps he didn't have much of a libido, but that was part of the package and you didn't question it – well, certainly in the 50's you didn't, especially if you were a middle-class woman – but she discovers sex through this ex-flyer and that changes her completely. In a way she wants them both, she wants the culture that William brings and the eroticism Freddie brings, but he likes popular culture, he just doesn't respond to art or the highbrow, and while she gets that from William there's very little sex life there. They all want that different kind of love and they can't give it. William wants things back the way they were but she can't do it, even though she does love William in a way, she wants this intense physical relationship – all intense, all the time – but Freddie can't give her the cultural comfort she desires. Freddie, really, has been destroyed by war. When you're 18-20, as those fighter pilots were, you survive and you come back to a bankrupt, shoddy Britain, what do you do? Life seems to be crushingly dull. So it's about the nature of that ménage à trois, really.
You mentioned having to cut the exposition from Rattigan's play and one of the most striking aspects of your film is the way you open it, with an incredibly intense sequence scored to Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. How did that come about?
It was always written like that because what I wanted to do, in mirroring the shot at the end that moves away from the house, is to say that in the whole of London you have this little house and this little tragedy. You have to introduce the people who are in the tragedy with succinctness so you know who they are. That's just a practical thing, but what I wanted to do with the Barber was to give that sense of, whenever you're going through whatever traumas you're going through, they're huge in your life. They might not be huge outside or to other people, but they're huge in your life. I wanted to make it succinct and say, this is a potent story about a woman who's driven to do this, and she's driven to it by love and erotic love. That concerto I've known for many years and I think it's one of the great concertos, the slow movement is so wonderful, and I just knew it was right. It wasn't originally written to accompany the first nine minutes, because that's how long the slow movement lasts, but I thought as we cut it that we could get rid of the voiceover – in fact we got rid of all of the voiceover, except over the credits, which really works – and just set the whole of that nine minutes to music. We show her trying to kill herself and we show her dilemma, why she's doing it. That evolved as we cut it.
In recreating 1950's Britain, how much of it was drawn from your own memories of that time?
The thing that is really important – and this is something that they often get wrong when they do the 50's in this country – is that while I know how it looked I also know how it felt, and that's a huge difference. I can remember everything being broken and shabby, because you couldn't buy on HP, that came later, so you had to make do with what you had. There was still rationing, for God's sake, and everything was down at heel, because the country was bankrupt. The cinematographer, the man who designed it for me and the woman who costumed it for me; the three of them talked about colour as a metaphor, and I've never heard anyone talk like that. That was thrilling because I thought, "I've got the right people, they know what they're doing." We had long discussions, I always do a lot of tests for the stock and the look of the film, and when you have three people talking about colour as a metaphor you know you're onto a good thing.
As well as evoking a period of British history, it feels like The Deep Blue Sea is also evoking a particular era of cinema. As I watched it I felt the influence of directors like Douglas Sirk, David Lean and Max Ophüls. Did you have any specific films or directors in mind as you shot it?
[Laughs] Well, that's very complimentary. They were sort of half there because you can't see Letter From an Unknown Woman and forget it, you can't see The Heiress and forget it, and of course you can't see Brief Encounter and forget it - you just can't. They were there subliminally. In fact, when she stops short of killing herself on the tube, that was a direct lift from The Passionate Friends, and when she's in the chair at the very beginning in front of the fire and she looks at her husband, I've stolen that from Brief Encounter. [Laughs] I suppose we don't say stolen, we say homage, don't we?
As long as you're stealing from the best you're doing OK.
Yes, it's not bad is it? [Laughs]
Another thing that reminded me of that bygone era of cinema is the supporting characters who pop up in the film from time to time. The no-nonsense landlady and the man who acts as doctor for Hester felt like they could have appeared in a David Lean or Michael Powell film.
Well, when Ann Mitchell came in to read for Mrs Elton it leapt off the page. I mean, she had known these women and had been brought up with these women, so she just inhabited this role. I had always wanted Karl Johnson to do Mr Miller and I said, "I don't want you to audition, I want you to do it. I don't know who to ask if you say no" and he said of course he'd do it. He's so wonderfully crunchy and irritable, he was just a joy, they both were. In fact they all were a joy, I had a wonderful cast. They don't do any "character acting," they just are. That's what I said to all of the cast, I said, "don't act it, feel it" because the camera captures truth but it also captures falsity. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it.
The other thing I liked about Mrs Elton is that you give us a glimpse into her home life with her ailing husband, and that goes back to what you said about everyone having their own tragedies behind closed doors.
What Ann loved about that particular scene was that we gave a working-class character the role of telling Hester about love. She tells her that love isn't all the rubbish that's spoken about it, love is about wiping someone's arse. That's what you do, you go on and you do it in a way that they can carry on and keep their dignity, that's what real love is. I think at the end, Hester does find true love, because without overtly saying it she can say, "If you're happier without me, you can go, Freddie." God knows, her future is bleak, she's not trained to do anything, but she has found a strength by letting him go. That's true love, I think.
Rachel Weisz is extraordinary in this film and while I have admired many of her performances in the past I think she's working at another level here. Was she always your Hester?
No, not at all. I saw her when I was watching television one night. I don't watch a lot of television but I switched it on and there was a film on, I think I had missed the first ten minutes, and then this fabulous girl came on. It was Beeban Kidron's Swept From the Sea and I waited for the end credits. Then I rang my manager and said, "Have you heard of someone called Rachel Weisz?" and he said, "Terence, you're the only person who hasn't" [Laughs] I just thought she would be wonderful as Hester. We sent her the script, she rang me, we talked and I said, "If you say no, I have no idea who I'll ask," and she said she'd do it. The same with Simon Russell Beale, they just said they'd do it.
And Simon Russell Beale is somebody who doesn't do a lot of cinema.
No, and he should! He's wonderful on camera and he gets the tempo very, very quickly. I've told him that he has to do more. It's just tragic that he's not doing film.
It has been over a decade since The House of Mirth so you must have experienced such a thrill being on set and working with actors again.
It always is a thrill. That's my raison d'être, it really is. I'm very proud of it because we only had a small budget of £2.5 million and we shot it in 25 days.
That's amazing, it looks great for such a small budget.
When you know what you want you can husband your resources, you really can, if you know the meaning of the scene and you know the number of shots that it needs. Very often on set you'll think, "Oh, that's a bit dull, I can improve that by doing it another way," and I'm pretty good at thinking on my feet. On two occasions the camera broke down and we lost half a day each time, but I wasn't worried because I knew what the shots were and I knew we'd get them, and we did. We did it because everybody pulled together and everybody, I mean literally everybody, was so committed to the film. It was the most wonderful display of commitment from everybody, from the people who financed it right down to the actors. It was quite marvellous.
All of your films have been set in the past. Can you imagine ever making a contemporary movie?
Well, I did write a contemporary comedy but I couldn't get the money for it. Whether it will ever happen or not I don't know, your guess is as good as mine. I would have liked to have done it because I thought it was a good and funny script. You never know. Maybe one day.
One of the projects you mentioned the last time we spoke was the novel Sunset Song. I've since read it and I think it's an extraordinary book that I'd love to see adapted for the screen. Is that likely to happen?
Oh, I really want to do it. I've actually got four projects. There's Sunset Song, which is written. I've just got to do a polish on a script about Emily Dickinson, because I love Emily Dickinson. There's an adaptation of an American novel by Richard McCann called Mother of Sorrows, and I've already finished an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel. So there are four, potentially.
That's great, so much to look forward to.
Well, I hope so. It's just as long as I get the production money. If not I suppose it's back to the old Labour Exchange. [Laughs]