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‘What Money Brings’: A Meeting with Terence Davies

January 4, 2011

In the summer of 2010, I interviewed esteemed British filmmaker, Terence Davies, on behalf of Scottish literary journal, The Drouth. The theme of the interview, and the entire edition of the journal, was “Licence”. Please visit www.thedrouth.org for more information – it was journal #37. My article as it was published is below…..

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Widely tagged as ‘Britain’s greatest living film director’, the enduring paradox of Terence Davies’ career has been his struggle to fashion a productive means of support from within the various bodies that constitute the ‘film industry’, versus the almost uniformly positive critical reception his body of work has garnered. Meeting Davies earlier this Spring, I was determined to gain a sense of how much it is the excruciating business of funding and developing films that has stymied his career, over his own obduracy and stringency in retaining direct artistic control over his work.

The tendency for critically-esteemed filmmakers with similarly frustrated career trajectories to Davies – Davies draws parallels to the forgotten man of Spanish cinema, Victor Erice – must be to place a retrospective spin on that thwarted narrative by equating their industrial woes with a form of moral superiority. Davies cleverly navigates such a simplistic dialectic with an explanation that is altogether more practical than it is self-righteous. Referring to the fact that at various junctures he could actually have forged a career as a ‘jobbing director’ – and that akin to many an arthouse filmmaker, he could have made a picture for the studios to fund the next ‘personal’ project for himself – it was not so much pre-ordained snobbery that hampered Davies’ employability and productiveness, as a wider irrevocable incompatibility with the commercial model of film production. With that commercial model comes money, though it is not money per se that is an element that unsettles Davies – in fact, as a former book keeper, he respects the financial realities of filmmaking, citing ‘a producer’s right to expect a return on their investment’ and his own pride in not being ‘a profligate filmmaker’. Rather it is what money brings in terms of divergent agendas and vested interests that is unconscionable to Davies’ filmmaking ethos, sullying elements of the developmental and creative process that he necessarily demands to be his sole domain. Casting is a key element of this, with Davies recalling a recent meeting with prospective investors, and having to tell them in no uncertain terms when demands on casting were made: ‘ok, I‘ll cast anyone you like, but the four financiers have got to come down on four separate days and direct these people in the first week of shooting. See how easy it is – not easy, especially when those people are wrong. Two things will happen – they will know they’re wrong, I will know they’re wrong, and within a week they will walk off the film.’

A more lighthearted, yet equally instructive, example of how Davies’ modus operandi is invariably problematic to film producers was during discussions over the final cut to Distant Voices, Still Lives. Even though Davies did generally receive decent executive support from Film Four, he still found himself having to justify his ‘unconventional’ use of film grammar to some of the more literal-minded of those suits. The brilliant opening to the film where Davies employs disembodied voices as an expressionistic device conveying the poignancy of memory, was lost on an executive (incidentally, not connected to Film Four) who took the effect literally and perceived it as some sort of hackneyed horror device, ‘he wondered if, as they speak, do you see the treads of the stairs, like the Invisible Man. I said “no you don’t”!’

A positive indicator of Davies’ artistic rigour, and genuine proof that he is motivated more by a literary zeal than by industrial parameters, was when conversation moved on to Davies’ Edith Wharton adaptation, The House of Mirth. Despite the film doing well commercially and receiving a raft of industry accolades (Davies and his cast earned recognition across a series of film festivals and award ceremonies), it was revealing to hear that the film’s rapturous reception by the Edith Wharton society in the US, was the prime tonic Davies took from the project. In particular, the glint in his eye when he revealed some of the Wharton academics could not tell the difference between dialogue lifted directly off the source novel, and dialogue written by Davies himself, speaks volumes for Davies’ true motivations and artistic sensibilities.

Davies’ equanimous and somewhat resigned take on his struggles with funding and production led to a far more scathing polemic, when I invited comment on the possibility that his genteel and stately sensibility is at odds with much of today’s contemporary cinematic and televisual culture. Sensing that I had lifted the lid on the true locus of Davies’s frustrations – an all pervasive air of cultural philistinism – Davies let loose with his seething distaste for what he decries as an era of ‘intellectual laziness’. Not that Davies is anti-American per se (after all he loves the classicism of old-school Hollywood, and has found great historic interest in the American Civil War while researching for a project on Emily Dickinson), but a particular regret of Davies’ is the saturation of American influence in British everyday life – ‘a problem is we a share a language with America, and that’s a real worry’. One concern is a regression in the English language, and that one senses is why Davies is keen to champion Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets with all its exquisite literariness, as superior comedy to anything the Americans can muster (bar the classics Some Like it Hot and All About Eve).

Indeed, frequently during our conversation, Davies cut the figure of a man defiantly set adrift from the tide of modern populist sensibility. Most of his film referents (Victor Erice, Gene Kelly, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Robert Hamer) were artists synonymous with works at least thirty years previous, and when positing himself against key popular music progenitors like The Beatles (note his famously caustic put-downs in Of Time and the City) and Elvis Presley (he recalls ‘cringeing’ when taken to see Jailhouse Rock in the late Fifties), his classicism is laid bare.

This idea of classicism and literacy is a key central tenet of Davies’ cinematic philosophy. Though naturally equating to ‘quality literate dialogue’, to Davies it also stands for the visual sensibility of a film. As vanguard for a cinema that is about ‘looking, not just seeing’, Davies lambasts the influence of television where audiences have been ‘spoon fed’ and are reliant on demonstrative musical scores and edits ‘every two seconds’. One of Davies’ persistent mantras is in making the audience ‘work hard’ – again, a guard against cultural laziness – and he reserves particular barb for the recently retired and amusingly lamented ITV soap opera The Bill. Davies savages it as featuring ‘some of the worst acting and some of the worst direction you will ever see….How has it run for twenty five years? Can’t people see how bad it is?’ The general dumbing-down and increasing prosaicness of writing extends to feature film screenplays, and presumably speaking from first-hand experience, Davies decries producers who have imbibed the Robert McKee template: ‘McKee’s a complete charlatan and should be exposed for it. He bases his theories on Casablanca, which was being written while it was shot, so it makes a mockery of those theories’.

Davies also chastistes Martin McDonagh’s generally well-received hitman comedy In Bruges. This is a more salient target than The Bill or McKee, because McDonagh is actually a critically-acclaimed playwright and it could be argued there is an ironic playfulness in McDonagh’s ear for the profane and his riff on gangster genre conventions that Davies’ loftiness overlooks. Essentially a matter of taste, more interesting about Davies’ admonishment of In Bruges is what it reveals about his aesthete sensibility, because his films feature themes equally as licentious as many controversial mainstream pictures. The crucial difference being that modern cinema’s prevailing trend is to emblazen its narratives with copious levels of sex, violence and profanity, which in Davies’ opinion thus neuters their end rhetorical effect. Davies’ dramas deliberately refine and make poetic their scandalous or emotive elements – take for example The House of Mirth whose documentation of the downfall of Lily Bart has to be one of the ‘quietest’ and most poignant treatments of social descent ever made.

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It is no surprise then that Davies’ latest pet projects – adaptations of novels by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Ed McBain, a script based on the life of Emily Dickinson, and most prominently of all, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea – are all works of esteemed literature, (in the case of the Dickinson piece, concerned with the art of writing itself). Again suggestive of a clearly chosen artistic path by Davies, one prevalent offshoot is Davies’ complete lack of interest in the potentiality of present-day narratives. Davies argues that one of the problems with fashioning a contemporary screenplay would be in unpicking modern speech ‘which is so bad’, and crafting the dialogue so it becomes suitably memorable and worthy of the cinematic medium. It is not pure bookishness however that has drawn Davies to these stories, but a recurring trend that indicates trips into the past and the re-treading of memories are the true nexus of his artistic and philosophic interest. For one thing, period narratives offer Davies the opportunity to exercise his controlled cinematic hallmark of gorgeous mise en scene (costume and décor are always indelible elements of a Davies’ picture), stately cinematography, graceful edits and a choice soundtrack. More importantly though, history also sates Davies’ more poignant, personal enquiry into the nature of the past, as evident in the strong autobiographical edge and sense of yearning in many of his films.

And it is those same themes and perfectionist streak which are driving Davies on again, citing the urgency in finalising funding for his Rattigan project (The Deep Blue Sea), based on Rattigan’s centenary falling next year, and that a September shoot is a necessity, with that month’s specific light and autumnal hues. Though Davies opines that pursuing these projects is fostered as much by his fiscal woes, one senses there is a greater element in his calling than the merely pragmatic. For hearing Davies brimming with fervour over the swathe of potential productions he is juggling, and considering that he survived the hinterland he was in for almost a decade between The House of Mirth and Of Time and the City, to still be in the cinematic game in his sixties, not disheartened by a business that he despises as much as he loves, testifies to the indefatigability of his artistic leanings and his unswerving desire to put more of his visions on the big screen. (October 2010)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 9:25 pm

    As a follow up – Davies did eventually manage to finalise funding for The Deep Blue Sea (despite the demise of the UK Film Council), and he shot it in November 2010. It’s scheduled for release, I believe, in late 2011, and has got a decent cast including Rachel Weisz and Simon Russell Beale.

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