British director Terence Davies is one of those filmmakers with a style so unique that his movies are instantly identifiable as his, no matter what the subject. Despite a resume that encompasses just six features and one documentary, Davies has been making movies for more than 30 years. He selects his material wisely, often drawing from his tumultuous, religiously stifled upbringing for inspiration.
It’s been 11 years since Davies’ last feature, the Edith Wharton adaptation “The House of Mirth.” His new film, “The Deep Blue Sea, “opening Friday across South Florida, represents the resurrection of another great writer from another time: Terence Rattigan, whose play of the same name premiered in London in 1952. Rachel Weisz plays Hester, who, like her famous literary namesake, is an adulteress: Stifled by a loveless marriage to a respectable High Court judge, she falls deeply in love with an R.A.F. pilot who openly views her as a transitory trinket.
The film is a plaintive and devastating study of the human condition, a ravishing experience characterized by the director’s immaculately composed, almost slow-motion approach to storytelling. The sense of visual poetry Davies injects to this familiar story of love and loss carries it toward its elliptical end, losing us in the sinuous smoke of cigarettes and the haunting melodies of barroom sing-a-longs, performed by people as if they were posing for paintings. The signature image is that of Weisz, her lips parted and her hair perfect, recalling the misty luminescence of her affair as a fireplace flickers on her repressed, tearful visage, an image so powerful no words are necessary.
That said, I spoke with Davies about the film last month, and he proved to be a fast-spoken fount of insight on everything from the classic Hollywood, modern technology, pop music, his exacting shooting style and much more.
When I walked out of the press screening for The Deep Blue Sea, the two people ahead of me told the representative that they hated the film, and I told her I thought it was ravishing, beautiful and impossible to forget. What do you think of the fact that your films receive polarized reactions like this?
It’s difficult, because I’m as vain as everybody else, and I obviously want the audience to like it. When people say that they don’t like it, I think they must be right. It must be absolutely awful. I tend to believe the worst, I’m afraid.
What attracts to you to these great writers of another time, such as Terence Rattigan and Edith Wharton?
The Rattigan project was brought to me. I was asked by the Rattigan Trust to do a film of one of the plays, because it was his centenary last year. As far as the Edith Wharton is concerned, I had discovered that novel many years ago, and eventually we got the money to make it. I think of all her work, “The House of Mirth” is her greatest novel. But ironically, she shares something with Rattigan. She couldn’t write about working-class people, because she had no idea how they behaved. It’s the same with Rattigan. His working-class characters just don’t ring true. He had never lived among them, because he was actually quite privileged.
You use a phrase in your documentary, “Of Time and the City,” that “Now I’m an alien in my own land.” Do you consider yourself a nostalgist – you would have preferred living in another era?
I don’t think I’m a nostalgist, because I know it’s gone. And when I look back to my childhood, it was anything but rosy. It was quite a difficult childhood. But what I do miss is what films used to have, and I don’t know if they have it anymore: the hope that something might be better. Sometimes it was fairy stories for adults. The first time I saw Doris Day was in “Young at Heart.” The story is preposterous, but you look at those interiors and think, mustn’t is be lovely to live in a house like that and never have to clean and wear wonderful dresses and never actually have to go work to go buy them. That was fairy tale for adults, and it’s very seductive.
I don’t like living in this era now, because when I was growing up, it was not nearly as egocentric as it is now. Everything revolves around the ego and “me” now, and I think that’s awful. It’s a sort of denial of the world and the people; it’s a kind of inhumanity, really. The world does not revolve around any of us. None of us are more or less important than anybody else. But it’s become that way. Certainly, British television, which was once reasonably good, now is all about making lots of money and being beautiful and making series that are poor imitations of American series. All that is a world I don’t like, and I don’t like this world of technology, because I’m not good at it, and I think it’s a kind of a denial of the world. And I think that, who would have thought it would have become so advanced that it’s almost inhuman? I’m not very good at the present day, and I’m not very good at the world, really – never have been.
Does that have something to do with why none of your films take place in modern times?
Yes, that’s probably got something to do with it. I did write a comedy based on the fashion world, and it was set in the present day, but I couldn’t get the money for it.
Incidentally, do you still feel the same animosity toward the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll that you expressed in “Of Time and the City?”
Absolutely. With the rise of Elvis Presley, my interest in popular music stopped. I grew up on the Great American Songbook. In 1956, Cole Porter was still writing. Those songs from Irving Berlin and Gershwin right down to Cole Porter – I mean, the only exception since Porter is Stephen Sondheim, who is a genius – but that Great American Songbook, I don’t think anything can compare to it.
To stay on the theme of music … there’s no dialogue in the “The Deep Blue Sea” for a while, and I tend to think about this introduction is a kind of overture for a symphony. Do you think of your movies as you would compositions?
I certainly feel that if you’re going to make a body of work, it should be a progression like a composer writing symphonies, making a progression from one to the other. It’s much more difficult with film, because it’s other people’s money, and it costs a lot of money. Whereas, if you’re a composer, all you’ve got is the manuscript paper and you. Obviously, if no one performs that symphony, you never hear it, but you can be truer in a way if you’re a musician. It’s more difficult with film, but I don’t see why a body of work can’t, over a long period, evolve. Other people did it – Bergman, Kurosawa, Max Ophuls. Those are the sort of templates one looks up to. It’s pretty hard going, certainly for making films from England, because we don’t have a visual culture anymore.
You’re one of the few directors left who realizes that silence is as important as music. Music is never used as an emotional cue. One thing that really separates your films from the herd is that they never tell us what to think.
No, because when I grew up, even commercial films were beautifully crafted. You look at the opening two minutes of “All That Heaven Allows” – it’s beautifully crafted! I also grew up on the American musical, and what people don’t realize sometimes is that those were very abstract. In “On the Town,” for instance, there’s a shot where Gene Kelly leaves Lucy Schmieler on the stoop by her house, and he walks off-screen. And all you see onscreen is a playbill, a stoop and a dustbin. That’s about shape and color. It’s Mondrian! But because it’s in the context of a linear musical, you accept it. But it’s actually quite daring.
How did you end up choosing Rachel Weisz for the leading role?
Quite by accident. I was watching television one night, and there was a film already on. I saw this girl come on with these fabulous eyes. I thought, God, she’s terrific. So I waited until the end of the film for the credit, and it said “Rachel Weisz.” So I rang my manager and said, “Have you heard of someone named Rachel Weisz?” He said, “Terence, you’re the only one who hasn’t.” I said, “Will you send her the script?” She rang me, and I said, “If you say no, I don’t know who I will offer it to.” And she said, “Yes. I’ll do it."
One word I would not use to describe your films is “loose.” How rigorously do you plan out your shots?
All the shots are written beforehand, and I go onto the set knowing every shot. That’s not that constricting in a sense, because when a shot doesn’t work, you think, ah, well, this precedes it, that comes after … I know what to do; we’ll just drop that two-shot for a close-up. It gives you that flexibility, but also, it saves time and money. We only had 2.5 million pounds to make it, and we shot it in 25 days. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.
How do you feel about that fact that hardly any of your movies are in print on video in the United States?
That I didn’t know, because they have been issued in a box set in England, so you can get them. But I don’t keep a tally on other countries, because there’s no way of me knowing.
I saw this movie digitally projected … did you shoot it on film?
Yes we did, but we had to strike a print that was digital, because digital is going to take over from film in the next 10 years. It still doesn’t have that extra bit of subtlety that film has, but eventually, everything will be digital, and people might strike a film for the archive or something.
Are you OK with that?
If it’s got the look of film, and its depth and its subtlety, then that’s fine. But it’s going to come like sound or color. It will be refined. That’s what people will do. Also, it’s more stable. With color prints, for instance, the color gets lost over a period of time. The color fades. And if it’s black-and-white nitrate, it becomes unstable.
And of course it’s quick. The only drawback creatively is that you’ve got to fight for thinking time. Because you can do things so quickly now, you have to say, “No, I’ve got to think about that sequence for two days. I’m not going to make up my mind until the end of the week.”