Master director Terence Davies talks Emily Dickinson, Brando, and growing up on movies

May 5, 2017, 10:45 a.m.

“I’m very good at misery and death,” says Britain’s greatest working director in his soothing, musical rasp. “Just a bit short of the ol’ joie de vivre!”

Yet one look at “A Quiet Passion” (the latest masterwork from Terence Davies, his biopic on Emily Dickinson) and you must doubt that statement, however jesting and joshing. Davies’ early career (his bleakest work “The Terence Davies Trilogy” [1976-83], “Distant Voices, Still Lives” [1989], and “The Long Day Closes” [1992]) was a true Artist’s radically impassioned manifesto, sculpting and defining the rest of his career. Davies’ self-styled protagonists — Catholic working-class boys in 1950s Liverpool, abused by alcoholic fathers, raised by strong women, bullied at school, praying until their knees bled, realizing and struggling with the fact that they are gay — continue to move those of us who still question our place and direction in the world.

Until now, most everything after his magnum opus “The Long Day Closes” has been literary: adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s “The Neon Bible,” Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song.” (His 2008 film essay “Of Time and the City” was a stirring and uncompromisingly personal history of Liverpool, England through Davies’ eyes.) Refracted through Davies, these adaptations are of a rare sort, nailing the emotional spirit of the source material while resisting the look of stiff, upper-crust, point-and-shoots or a Wikipedia spew of facts and boring safety (viz., 2014’s forgettable double-feature, “The Imitation of Everything.”).

In a phone interview with Davies, the Stanford Daily talks with the legendary auteur about his artistic kinship with Dickinson, Marlon Brando, and the good movies he’s seen lately. (Hint: not many.) This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): This is the first biographical picture of yours. What’s it like to make a film like this as opposed to autobiography or a literary adaptation? 

Terence Davies (TD): Well really, I responded to three things in [Emily Dickinson’s] life. One, she was very ill with homesickness when she was at Mount Holyoke [Dickinson’s alma mater]. And really ill with it — that’s why she was brought back home. When I was in primary school, I was about ten; I had a really bad chest infection and I was sent from Liverpool to North Wales for a month to convalesce. And I hated it! I just hated it — a fairly long time. I felt that in common with her.

Also, I really felt a rapport with her spiritual quest. If you really look at her poetry, she guards her soul, but she’s not actually sure whether there’s a God or there isn’t. And she always manages to imply something beyond that. I was brought up a Catholic, and I was very, very devout. Between 15 and 22, I had a long struggle with doubt. And I felt, Actually, it was all a lie. That there was no God. I’m an atheist now, but I know what that’s like: Going through your conscience, constantly. Examining what your soul is and what its point is.

She also comes from a very close family. I’m the youngest of ten, with seven surviving, and our family was very close — and I wanted it to stay like that forever. And I think she did, too. The problem with that, of course, is that the family can’t stay like that. It will get older, it will go away, it will die. [For Emily,] having come back to this haven [her family home, where she stayed for nearly all her adult life], over time, that haven becomes a prison. And when she realizes that, of course, it’s too late to do anything about it.

TSD: It’s being called your most autobiographical film.

TD: Well, it was only after I’d finished it and my manager said, “It’s your most autobiographical film.” And the penny dropped, I felt: “God, he’s right!” At the time, I just wanted to make a good film about somebody whose poetry I loved, and who should have had a claim while she was alive — that’s the other thing that moves me very very deeply, that she never got acclaim during her lifetime, because I think she is the greatest of all the 19th century American poets.

So I didn’t realize that. When you’re writing something, shooting it, putting it together — those things are in your subconscious, and they come out in a sort of refracted way. Which is what they should do. So you don’t know what you’ve done ‘til you’ve finished it. If you were to start from the reverse position, I think you’d destroy any kind of subtext that would be there. You’d be wanting every single shot to carry all this dramatic and emotional weight. And you can’t do that. The script has got to be true to what you felt or what I thought about her life.

Obviously, it’s not a definitive life — it’s a subjective view of her life through my prism. By the very fact of that, though, I’ve drawn on things that were personal and autobiographical. But I didn’t do it consciously.

TSD: You get such rich and fresh performances from your actors. I wonder if you could elaborate on a piece of advice you often give your actors: that is, you tell them not to “act,” but to “be.”

TD: Mmm. It’s very difficult to be. It really is. The instant is, to start thinking it in terms of “How do I act this?” Which is never really interesting. If the actor has an idea on what the character is, obviously they’ve got to find that themselves. I can give them only so much help.

But of course, film captures the small things and the fleeting moments. And those things only happen when you’re not acting — when you’re really feeling it. It’s the same with music. You can play a symphony very accurately, and it can be dead. But what musicians have got to do, they’ve got to be able to play what’s between the notes. It’s the same with acting. The actors have got to get what they think the character is, keep an overall structure with that performance within the disjointed way you shoot a film. If it’s felt, then it’s unbearably true. When it’s “acted,” you’re just conscious of acting.

TSD: How much of this approach is a response to your growing up with Hollywood cinema and the naturalistic style of acting we see there? 

TD: It was the fact that they were musicals. My sisters took me to the cinema; they loved American musicals and of course so did I. At six and a half, I was taken to see “Singin’ in the Rain” [1952]. I mean, my God, what an introduction. And that acting style, I wasn’t aware of style at all; I was far too young. Just as I wasn’t aware of moving a camera with music that I was thrilled about, I had no idea why. But it’s not so much the naturalism of it, it’s — it’s trying to capture what is the essence of character without layers of business. Either emotional or physical business.

In this country, when we first saw something like “On the Waterfront” [1954, starring Marlon Brando], it was revelatory. We always saw America as all-colorful, everyone was perfect. Then we saw “Waterfront” and saw that it looks cold all the time. That was why it was so breathtaking. It was made in the same year as “Young at Heart” [one of Davies’ favorite films, a musical starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra], which is scarcely hard to believe now. But like all great innovations, it’s now become simply ossified and it’s descended into mannerism. You can’t watch that kind of performance anymore because you think it’s just sub-Brando — and even he became awful, even Brando became sub-Brando towards the end of his career.

So it’s not so much that — how they acted — what was more important to me, as a child, was that it was musical, it was in Technicolor, the camera moved — I thought it was just magical. I could remember going to see “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” And at the end of “Lonesome Polecat,” the snow falls, and I thought, How did they get the snow to fall on [Howard] Keel? Of course, now I know — it’s inside of a studio — but at the time, I was eleven and I just thought, God, isn’t that magical!

TSD: In interviews, you often mention William Wyler’s “The Heiress,” with the great Olivia de Havilland, in relation to “A Quiet Passion” — what is it about the film that stirs you?

TD: Well! A) it’s gorgeous to look at, even if it’s in black-and-white. Absolutely gorgeous. But B) the formality of the language! People don’t understand that American English in the 19th century was very, very formal because we were the dominant power and you were imitating us. And [“The Heiress”] is beautifully written and delivered, as well as being a marvelous story about a woman being changed into something that she wasn’t. I think it was David Thomson who described Ralph Richardson’s performance [playing Olivia de Havilland’s domineering father] as “a study in hushed tyranny” — isn’t that a wonderful phrase? He’s such a swine, he’s so cruel.

But it’s also the way the emotions are played. The only time she [Olivia de Havilland] has one, big outburst — it’s when Morris [the suitor, played by Montgomery Clift] doesn’t come, on that night. And you can see her change into something much harder — not becoming cynical, but realizing the truth of the world. And it’s a wonderful story. Just so powerful.

Equally powerful, though, is “Letter from an Unknown Woman” [1948, directed by Max Ophuls, starring Joan Fontaine]. It has the same formality and gorgeous black-and-white — but a formality not only in the way they speak but also in the way in which it’s shot and cut. They’re both just so exquisite. I love that restrained emotion — I love that much more than everyone crying all over the place.

Master director Terence Davies talks Emily Dickinson, Brando, and growing up on movies
Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (1948), starring Joan Fontaine — a seminal film for Davies. Courtesy of Jerry Murbach.

TSD: There’s a slightly fatalistic Ophulsian touch in that stunning 360-degree pan around the Dickinson living room. Everyone’s in their zone, it starts with Emily, then returns to her with this pained and scared expression on your [sic] face. Could you talk to me about that shot? It blew me away when I first saw it.

Mmm. Well, I come from a large family. We only had the radio, which wasn’t on all the time. You only switched it on for special programmes. So very often, I would often watch my sisters and my brothers and my mother doing ordinary things, doing nothing, just looking at the fire. And I wanted to show that. This is [Emily’s] little haven, this is what encompasses her world. I said to Emma [Bell, who plays young Emily Dickinson]: “At the end of the camera, when it comes back to you, something has died in you.” And that something is: Even at the peak of happiness and ecstasy, you know that it is already going.

TSD: In terms of modern cinema, are there any new films that you’ve enjoyed, that you’ve been shocked by how good they were, or—?

TD: No, I don’t actually go to the cinema anymore, because the best way to destroy something for you is to do it as a job. And I can’t watch films with fresh eyes. I find it very difficult to suspend my disbelief now. I’m conscious of no acting, music everywhere.

But two films which I actually saw on television which I did enjoy were “Foxcatcher” and “Beyond the Candelabra.” I thought they were very well made, very well done. And it was a real joy to actually watch someone make a film and you clearly know that you’re in good hands. They know what they’re doing. That is so rare. Before that — it must be ten or twelve years ago — it would be Bertrand Tavernier’s “Laissez-Passer” [“Safe Conduct,” 2002], which I liked very much.

TSD: “A Quiet Passion” is a glorious contradiction — by which I mean it is quite melancholic and glum, yes, but out of this comes an affirmation of life so strong it leaves you in soaring joy — crying and singing at the same time. Almost like a Hollywood musical.

TD: Oh what a lovely thing to say! But I didn’t want it to be glum! There’s nothing worse than someone going around glum for ninety minutes. What’s interesting in that? Nothing at all. For instance, Miss Vryling Buffam [Emily’s wildly vibrant best friend in “A Quiet Passion”] was Vinny’s [Emily’s sister’s] friend, not Emily’s.

When, on the Fridays when my sisters’ friends would come ‘round to do their makeup and go out to the dance, those friends were like Vryling! Wonderfully funny, wonderful to be around. And I thought, she’s my amalgamation of my sisters’ friends who radiated those evenings. So I wanted her to be irreverent because that’s much fun.

TSD: I see. Yeah, maybe “glum” was not quite the right word for it—

TD: (laughs heartily) No, no! I’m very good at misery and death. Just a bit short on the ol’ joie de vivre!


Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’

Carlos Valladares is a senior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food— and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

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