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I sat down with British filmmaker Terence Davies to talk about his new film Benediction, his experience filming it during the pandemic, and his 45-year-old career.
I never imagined that I would have the opportunity of interviewing Terence Davies, director of acclaimed films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The House of Mirth (2000) and Sunset Song (2015), amongst others. I must confess that I was nervous, especially due to a language limitation (English is not my first language). I was relieved when he jokingly said, “your English is better than my Spanish.”
I sat down with him via Zoom a couple of weeks ago, and he answered all my questions with contagious energy. This is a man who loves cinema, I could feel it in every answer. Although he has a low profile (he is not amongst the most awarded filmmakers nor he makes box office hits), Davies has earned the respect of his community and international film critics, considered by many as one of Great Britain’s greatest living filmmakers.
Last year, Benediction – his first film since 2016 – was one of the many productions affected by COVID-19. “We were just about to do some camera tests at Pinewood, three days before shooting,” he says. “The day of the camera tests my producer said, ‘we’ve got to postpone it.’ My heart did sink. It has taken six years to get this film to the screen, so I did feel pretty awful. The worry was that it would have actually been cancelled and we would not get the money.”
However, they managed to keep going with adjustments and new COVID-friendly measures, a challenge that he and the production team faced with courage and commitment. “Luckily, when it was time to start filming again everyone, especially the financiers, were very supportive,” he says. “We had to have everybody tested once a week: forty members of the crew and all the cast. That costs a lot of money and the two main financiers, BBC and BFI, put that extra money in. They were very generous.”
On the process of filming in the middle of a pandemic, he remembers being focused on his work, “During the shoot, it is not that I wasn’t conscious or worrying about it, I was directing and that takes over your life. While it was a worry [the pandemic], most of my time was spent getting the actors, getting the performances, coming out on time, not going out of budget. It was a great strain for the producers and people on the production team because if someone had come down with it, that would have been it. It would have just been stopped and not revived.” Fortunately, “not one person came down. Thank Heaven. Thank God,” he smiles.
Davies’s films are intimate, melancholic, and full of truth. The first one that I saw was A Quiet Passion (2016), the Emily Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon. I was impressed by its deep look at the human condition. Benediction will tell the story of English soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Both films are united by Davies’s love for poetry.
“I have always loved the poetry of Emily Dickinson. In fact, I think she is the greatest of the nineteenth century American poets. It was a life that was incredibly rich, and she wrote all the time despite the fact that she only had seven or eleven poems ever printed in her lifetime. That is what drew me to her. I thought it was so unfair that she was a truly great poet and no one else knew. I love the poetry and the richness of that life despite she never went anywhere.”
But Dickinson and Sassoon were different. While she lived a reclusive life, Sassoon “knew everybody in the 20th century”, Davies says as he gives me a history lesson. “We produced three great poets of the First World War: Ruppert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was the only one that survived that dreadful conflict.”
Davies remembers having his first approach to Sassoon by accident, when he applied and got into drama school, “you had to do a piece of Shakespeare and a piece of your own choice. The piece of my own choice was the only Sassoon that I had ever read, which is called Concert Interpretation, which is about the first performance in London of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky.” This event caused a riot one year earlier in Paris, with shouts, screams and booing from the audience. “It is one of the few poems by Sassoon that is really funny. He describes the whole of the concert hall and of course, the English do not riot, they clap politely. Its description is wonderful. The language is just ravishing English,” he says, as he starts reciting by memory his favourite part of the poem:
“And in the Gallery, cargoed to capacity
No tremor bodes eruptions and alarms.
They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity
As though it were by someone dead, – like Brahms.”
Beyond this, Davies knew nothing of Sassoon’s life. A few years ago, Ben Roberts from the BFI asked him if he wanted to make a film of the poet. That is when his research process began: “As I had to go through these huge biographies, I thought, ‘God, how on earth will I make any sense of this?’”
Davies always makes his films personal, finding similarities and differences between himself and his characters. “What were the things that I responded to when I was reading these biographies?” he asks to himself. “One was the fact that he was a great poet. The First World War made him a great poet. But also, he was gay, which I am. He did not marry, which a lot of gay men did in those days. He then converted to Catholicism, which really shocked me because I was brought up a Catholic and now, I am a born-again Atheist. I think it is a pernicious religion.” He has examined this topic before in The Long Day Closes (1992), film where he subtly explores the sexual identity of a young boy raised Catholic.
“The underlying feeling that I got about his life is that he was constantly looking for redemption. From other people, from marriage, from religion,” he says. “You cannot find that anywhere but within yourself. And he never found it. And, indeed, I have not found it either. So that was the reason I did the Sassoon.”
One thing that I love about Davies’s films is the performances he extracts from his artists. He has worked with high-profile actors, including Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Cynthia Nixon, Laura Linney and Gillian Anderson, as well as with little-known performers, such as model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn.
In 2016, he told The Guardian that he “doesn’t cast big names.” Now, he further explains, “I don’t cast big names because most of them are pretty dull, to be honest with you. There are certain people who are big names in this country, like Simon Russell Beale, he plays Robbie Ross [in Benediction], who was a great friend of Sassoon. I used him in The Deep Blue Sea, and he is a wonderful actor. There are people who you just know they can do it. When it is right, I feel it in my stomach. I think they are right, and they just are. And with some people you just meet them, and you just think they are right. I do not know how it happens. Whether they are well-known or not has never been of any importance to me.”
“I cannot risk huge amounts of money on my name and the people that I choose to play on the films,” he adds. “I have always done it on relatively small amounts of money. The way I write is that I go into the film knowing every single shot from beginning to end. If you prepare, you can then improvise when the shot doesn’t work.”
On the way he directs his actors, Davies comments, “It is hearing in the actors’ voices something. Very often they do something different and that makes it even more wonderful because I didn’t think of that, they thought of it. That is really thrilling. There are times when you think ‘I don’t have to do anything today. They are really on the board’, and sometimes you think ‘they need help today.’ You have to feel that on a shot-by-shot basis. You’ve got to be sensitive to that. You have to know when not to direct. I just respond when I think someone is right. It is as vague as that.”
Davies has a particular understanding of the craft of acting, something that is evident when talking about his cast of Benediction, which includes Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi. Lowden stars as the young Sassoon. According to Davies, he instantly knew that Lowden was the perfect match for the role. “I saw Jack Lowden’s self-tape. Just one short scene, which he has with Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels). The line is ‘I do not know why I come here. It does no good.’ When he said it, his eyes just filled with tears. I thought ‘we found him.’”
About Capaldi, who plays old Sassoon, Davies says, “I have always loved Peter Capaldi. He has got the most wonderful, beautiful face. We got in touch, he said he wasn’t sure. He said, ‘I do not want to do it badly for you’, which touched me enormously. He is so moving. He doesn’t have to do anything. Nothing. He is just there. There is a moment where he is in a park on his own, he just sits down, and he looks ahead. He looks so desolate, and he hasn’t done anything, but of course he has done an enormous amount, just by being. That is the thing I always say about the actors, ‘I do not want you to act, I want you to be’, because if you are it is much more interesting because you do all sorts of things you would not have thought. Nothing worse than good British acting, it is really dull most of it. ‘Stop acting! It is all mannerism! Stop doing it!’ When people can feel it, it is desperately moving.”
As mentioned before, Davies maintains a discreet profile in the filmmaking business. Just last year he was invited to join the Academy, an invitation that took him by surprise, “The offer to join the Academy came out of the blue. It was terribly glamorous. Of course I got to say yes,” he says laughing.
On whether he considers that awards have been important motivations in his career, he says, “I have a double feeling about awards. I am as vain as anybody else. I like to win them like everybody else does. But there is also a part of me which seems to think that you cannot actually say ‘this film is better than that one.’ You can only say that you respond to something more than that. I do think that it has got to the point now that there are awards for everything, for every single profession. I am sure they even have them in funeral directors. I am sure you can get the best funeral director of the year. Now, it has got to the point where it is almost grotesque. Yes, you like to get one, but that is vanity and that doesn’t really lead you anywhere, because you look at some of the greatest films ever made and they didn’t win anything. They didn’t even do well at the box office.”
To make his point, he shares the example of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), based on the novella of the same name by Stefan Zweig. “It is the greatest story of unrequited love, and it is gorgeous black and white. It didn’t make any money. Joan Fontaine gave the best performance of her life. Her husband and she put money on it, and they lost it, and she said she didn’t like it. So, I have mixed feelings about it all”, he concludes.
Curiously, his next film will be an adaptation of The Post-Office Girl (1982), also written by Zweig, who came out of copyright about five years ago, “I bought Beware of Pity (1939) because that was said to be his greatest novel and I bought another one called The Post-Office Girl. I couldn’t get through Beware of Pity at all, it left me cold,” he says. “I read The Post-Office Girl, which was fantastic because he never actually finished it, and the ending is quite extraordinary. It is about this girl who is a post office official in the countryside in Austria. Her aunt who has married a Dutch man in America comes to Austria for a holiday and invites her to spend two weeks with them and her life is transformed. At the end of it, she has to go back to this life that she hates. That is the film I hope to do in 2022, The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig.”
Before concluding, I take the opportunity to ask him about the adaptation of Mother of Sorrows (2005), announced a few years ago. “We couldn’t get the money for it. Perhaps we could revive it, I don’t know. I would like to do it because I think it is a wonderful novel and a pretty good screenplay, too. But whether it will get made, it is in God’s hands, and as you know, he doesn’t exist.”
Our conversation inevitably leads to this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival. While we wait for the announcement of the Official Selection, at least we know that Benediction has been completed in time. “It is finished,” Davies confirms. “It was finished two weeks ago.” However, he does not say much about the film’s future: “I am just waiting to see what we do with it next. I do not know if it will be with film festivals. I have no idea. I am just grateful that it has been made and it got finished. So, what happens next, God knows.”
This interview has been edited and condensed to give more clarity.
Kenny Díaz nació un 28 de enero de 1996 en Carolina, Puerto Rico, en donde vive. Creció viendo telenovelas con su mamá y amando el pop romántico contemporáneo. Su amor por el cine vendría más tarde junto con el seguimiento a las premiaciones como los Globos de Oro y los Premios Óscar. Ama el cine de Terrence Davies y las historias centradas en personajes femeninos fuertes y complejos. Obtuvo su bachillerato en Historia de América en 2019 de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras. Actualmente cursa una Maestría en Estudios Culturales en la Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Recinto de Gurabo. Entre sus intereses de investigación están los movimientos sociales y prácticas de resistencia, la construcción de culturas de paz y el problema de la violencia en América Latina desde la producción cultural, con énfasis en el cine y la literatura. Aspira a ser guionista de cine en unos años, así como docente e investigador.