Filmmaker Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, The Deep Blue Sea) discusses his latest feature, Sunset Song, starring Agyness Dyne. The adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which this interview was conducted by Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: I know that when you adapt from pre-written material that you usually have an initial image in mind that propels you to make the work, but the novel Sunset Song is based on has been adapted already. How was the adaptation process?
Terence Davies: You have to get someone to write the script first, but once that script is written – and I only ever do three, with a polish on the third one – that’s when you extract it from the story, what you think is important. Over that period, you refine it – “I’ll add that” – by the fourth draft. Once we shoot, I never look at the script again, because there’s no point – it’s not the film, it’s only a template. When you put the first assembly in script order… it doesn’t work. And you think, “Why can’t it work just once?” That’s when the hard work begins, because you have to find the subtextual in it and how to be succinct without being too ambiguous. There are certain rules you have to obey: the first person that you see on screen, that is what the film is about. You have to gradually introduce people. I read a script once where fifteen characters were introduced in the first five pages – I said, no one will remember them, it’s too confusing. You have to bring them in gradually and make sure the audience knows that if it’s a young man and a young woman in a room, whether they’re married or whether they’re related. Those are just fundamental things and you’ve got to observe those. Once I’ve got the final draft, it’s the next stage to consider what it should look like, what [aspect] ratio it should be and then you start casting. It’s no more complicated than that, but it’s very tiring… [Laughs]
Did you find that you were visually influenced at all by the BBC Scotland version of the book from the ’70s?
No, I saw it when it was on television. I was not in the arts at all then. I didn’t want to see it [now], I wanted to remember it, because remembering something is much more interesting; you never remember it truly, you remember the intense moment. So no, I didn’t watch it, because if it’s really good, I’d be so depressed, I wouldn’t want to do it.
There are themes in this that resonate with your past work, but it’s also a lot of new territory. Was there anything you were excited to try out with this film that you haven’t touched on already? Landscapes, for instance, or Scottish culture.
The landscapes had to be good, because it’s a farming community, but it was nice to shoot it in 70mm – just the exteriors, which had been brought down to 4k. You do the tests and you decide the ratio and all that, I didn’t just want to make the landscape just pretty. We had to have summer, the barely ripening and summer is exquisite, it has a lovely yellow-beige colour. Also, it’s a part of the world that is cold, so there’s winter and that feeling, as well. But you have to make sure it’s not just a pretty picture, if it’s just a pretty picture, forget it. It’s got to have a meaning to it and if it does, it may not look beautiful, but it would be beautiful because of the meaning. I’m a stickler for that, I’m afraid.
Were there any paintings that influenced how you shot the film? In your other works there have sometimes been visual touchstones.
No, I don’t think it’s a specific touchstone, but I grew up in the ’50s when a lot of films were made with a heroine: All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. That had a huge influence on me, since my sisters took me to see them – I still think they’re fabulous, even some of them are rubbish. I just think, “Oh it’s Jennifer Jones, I like watching her.” All those things come through, but refracted, that’s what makes it interesting. If you just imitate, then there’s nothing interesting in that. If you remember it, digest it, forget about it, it will come back when it needs to and it will be changed by that wait.
There’s one shot I’m curious about, where you have a 360-degree pan and time passes during that pan. How did you achieve that shot?
I just sort of feel it and that’s how I wrote it, but there was one moment where I thought, “This seems dead pretentious, let’s take it out and see if it works.” No, it doesn’t, let’s put a bit of it in and then after humming and hawing I said, “No, put it back in. We’ve got to add a bit of voiceover for it, but I do think it’s rather good.” [Laughs]
It’s a kind of violent film for you, there’s more incidents of violence than your past work, which tend to have one or maybe two.
The thing is that when you watch it, you don’t see them. When he’s hit with a belt, of course he wasn’t hitting him, I just made sure the belt was disguised by the close-up. What I don’t like about violence, because I had a very violent father and I can’t watch it, is when it’s drooled over. As if it’s some kind of entertainment and you want to say, “Spend a day with a psychopathic father, it’s really not fine.” It’s not cool, it’s not entertaining, it’s vicious and you are in a permanent state of terror. When is he attack this time? But it can be almost banal and that’s why it’s frightening. If you suggest something and those two scenes only suggested, then I think it is more powerful because it’s not drooling over it. There are so many where they’re unpleasant about that and I don’t know why, it seems incomprehensible.
How did you arrive at the songs that were used in this film?
“Flowers of the Forest” is actually mentioned, so I thought I had to have that and I thought it would be lovely if she sang it at the wedding and then it’s reprised at the end, that would work. We found an 1800 folk song from America called “Wayfaring Stranger” and we had that re-arranged. Other little bits, we got a man called Gast Waltzing and I said it has to be sparse, no big themes. The reprise at the end I had done by a piper. The one that was always in the back of my mind, that I always loved… there was a group called the Glasgow Orpheus Choir that was founded in the late ’40s by a Glasgow undertaker [laughs] and their singing was just fabulous. I remember when I first heard this song that they made very famous in Britain called “All in the April Evening” When I was writing, I thought I’ve just got to put it in; it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. The refrain is: “All in the April Evening / and far from the Lamb of God.” The articulation is… God, it’s just fabulous. So I had to have that.
That moment is a great scene and you’ve shot a lot of church scenes, how did you approach that scene and the idea of the slow camera movement and how it’s staged?
Because I was brought up a Catholic and Catholic churches are very specific, they’re Gothic Revival basically. They don’t have the simplicity of churches in Scotland or non-conformist religions and we were looking around lots and lots and lots. I came up to look at Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s [the author of Sunset Song] grave and it looked like it had just been white-washed, so it looked very modern. So I thought we’d shoot it there, but the cinematographer said it would look like a plain wall, so I said let’s do it there because we couldn’t find anywhere else, so we had to do it there.
In an interview you compared the film to a song and in the past I’ve read you compare your work to symphonies or that the filmmaker is a symphonist that has to arrange the material in a particular way. Did you find the structure of this film different than your others?
Other people have said that the works are symphonic and my template was the cycles by Bruckner and Sibelius, to follow that thread right through to the end of those cycles, they’re just wonderful. I don’t see why one can’t do that in film. You try to do something different each time whilst building on those things you feel deeply about. I’ve shot some people at windows because there’s something mesmeric about light falling on an object or a person through the window. It’s when you’re writing that it tells you what to do, all the other influences of all the things you’ve seen, that’s partially there, too. For instance, farmers would not have walked through a field, they don’t do it. I said, “Yes, I know, but… this is poetic license.” They just go to church to be told about God and love, and they’re going to be told to shoot people, that’s why it’s so horrible. It’s got to have that feeling that all these people are just drifting toward it. But if you were a farmer you know you’d be appalled, they’d say no, but I don’t care. [Laughs]
I wanted to talk about the role of time in this film, it’s something that comes up in the narration. What is it like having a narrator talking about this subject more explicitly than your other films, where it’s more felt with techniques like dissolves and tracking shots that link scenes together?
Sometimes you need it as counterpoint, I don’t think you can rely on it all the time, because there are really only two great voiceovers: Dennis Price’s in Kind Hearts and Coronets and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard I mean, they’re fabulous, nothing else… It’s got to be that good. If you’re just using it as part of an orchestral palette, you just do it every now and then just to remind you, but not too much. So I kept the voiceover down to the minimum. Sometimes it can explain, it can explain the obvious, but not be obvious and I tried to go for that.
It’s Chris’ inner thoughts, but she’s also speaking outside her own experience, as well. I’m curious about her line about how “time forgets” and the idea that time itself forgetting or remembering and I’m wondering if you could talk about her speaking for herself, as well as to something larger.
She doesn’t know it, but I think she is a poet and sees the world in quite a different way from anybody else. Therefore, that gives you one less layer. The poetry of her life and the way she perceives life is poetic and that had to be there. An awful lot of the time it’s because I think it feels right, which is very vague. [Laughs]
It’s interesting you mention ‘perceiving’ because there are a lot of shots that are her reactions. How important was it to find an actor that simply through a facial reaction could convey what you just articulated?
Once they read the script and I cast them, I believe in them, absolute trust. Sometimes all you have to say is, “Look, no, you’re acting now.” When you think of someone, what do you do? You actually sit and you think about them. You don’t walk around, get up and down, use the lavatory. You don’t, you just do that. It’s a very simple act, but it’s very beautiful because it’s internal and it has a poetry of its own, so why not let us watch it. When the mother’s died, children don’t know about death, they don’t know what it is – they just look. When my father died, I was seven and the body was in the house for ten days, we couldn’t afford a truck to remove him. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that there was this ghastly smell because they put this stuff out to kill the smell of decay. It’s really disgusting. I didn’t know what it was, I was just relieved that he died because he was psychotic. When you’re that small you don’t understand it, you just look at it. And I thought, I don’t want [in the funeral scene]… not that they asked, they were two lovely little lads and they just looked, they had no idea what it’s about. I tried to keep it truthful, but I also tried to keep it simple, because the very complicated things are complicated and interesting because they’re simple. Not because they’re complicated. [Laughs]
The original text’s story seems like it was simplified for the film, especially the characters, in a way that makes them seem more real – to me, at least – by removing some of the symbolism, which seems more overt in the novel. How much did you change or refine?
Well certainly I couldn’t have them speaking in Doric because you can’t understand it…
It’s from Aberdeen, right?
Yes and it’s very thick. It comes back to what I said before about the content tells you what to do. If you don’t listen to the material, then you can’t respond to it really, and listening to it with your emotions, as well. The nature of time, I’ve always been interested in, simply when I was eighteen, we got our first television set. Over four nights, Alec Guinness read from memory [T.S. Eliot’s] The Four Quartets. It was absolutely knockout, I went out and bought them. I had no idea what they meant and ever since I’ve read them at least once a month. That was a huge influence, as well. The problem with time in film is a cut always implies “this is what happened next.” But what do you do if you dissolve, have a series of cuts and dissolve back again. Where’s the time now? Is it present? Is it future? Is it past? Is it both? I love that. It will never ever cease to thrill me, the way people use time and the way we perceive time, because we perceive it as moving when, in fact, it doesn’t. A lot of our lives are very abstract. I’m not a great sports person – I do like to watch tennis – but the presence of a scoreboard, these are abstract numbers. The fact that someone got seven points and the other five, we accept that, somehow it is made manifest, but these are abstractions. They don’t exist in real life and I think it’s the same with time. People think it passes, but it only passes because of our perception of it. In fact, it is non-moving, but moving as well. It’s an abstract concept that we don’t understand. Money has become the same thing. You can’t imagine, someone earns $3 trillion, I can’t imagine that amount of money in a room, can you? And credit cards make it even more abstract.
I really love The Four Quartets and I know it’s something that’s obviously affected you throughout your career. What resonates with you the most now, has that changed?
Now I’m just relieved, I’m just relieved. [Laughs]