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“The Language is Being Destroyed”: Terence Davies on A Quiet Passion

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion is a film of many firsts for Terence Davies: his first biopic, his first all-digital-feature, and — unexpectedly — his first work which, for a time, could pass for a comedy. Davies introduces Emily Dickinson as a young girl, spends the metaphorical first reel establishing her complicated personality — devout but doubting, jealously proud of her poetry yet scared to be recognized for it. In a startling sequence, he dollies in on Emily and her family members as they have their photos taken: during the track in, a very subtle dissolve ages them all into adults. The grown Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is followed through her seemingly idyllic family life, in which the relentlessly sharp and funny language generates a shocking number of laughs. It can’t last, of course, but Davies’ film is startling in its empathetic regard for a thorny figure who’s her own worst enemy. (I certainly can’t recall the last film I saw which seems like a very vehement advertisement for celibacy.) The film opens tomorrow in limited release.

Filmmaker: It seems like it might have been exhausting to write so much wall-to-wall-to-wall clever dialogue. Was that different for you?

Davies: Not at all. It’s the subject that decides how it wants to be written, really; you just listen to to the subject. I didn’t want it to be solemn — there’s nothing worse than films about famous people where all they do is walk around looking great and dull. I wanted it to be funny, alive and witty, and also intelligent. These women were very, very well educated, and so there would be, I thought, a high level of adult conversation.

Filmmaker: I’m barely old enough to remember life before the Internet, but for the vast majority of human history people really did rely on books and each other to amuse themselves. Is there something appealing to you about that kind of self-sufficiency?

Davies: When I was growing up in a large working class family, we only had a radio. People couldn’t afford televisions until the early ’60s, so all you had at home was just the radio, and obviously board games. But people talked and listened. If you wanted to go to the cinema, you had to go outside and go to the cinema. So I know what it was like in a large family when there aren’t many things to do. What you also notice is the silence, and it’s not filled with anything. If you wanted to get in touch with someone — again, we couldn’t afford a phone. You had to write to them, or you went round and knocked on their door.

Filmmaker: This question may not make sense to you, because I don’t think you think this way, but this is your first full digital film and it looks very digital. Did you do a lot of tests to get acclimated?

Davies: No, because on the previous film all of the interiors were on digital. But within the two years since then, digital has come leaps and bounds. I think it’s more flexible than film, because the problem with film is you do have to do tests, because the different stocks react differently to light. There wasn’t that at all with digital, and then you can concentrate on what is the look you’re looking for.

Filmmaker: But digital can also look hideous. Your film looks very good, and it doesn’t look like you’re trying to emulate 35mm. Is that hard for you to wrap your head around?

Davies: Not at all. One should know how it should look, then that’s what you do. The difference with digital is, it’s so cheap that it costs very little. You do a week of tests on film, it’s quite expensive, and you’ve got to wait for it. Digital is almost instantaneous.

Filmmaker: You shot at Dickinson’s house for a bit, and then you went to Belgium, where you recreated it.

Davies: We couldn’t shoot at her house, obviously, because you can’t remove walls and you can’t put heavy machinery in. So that wasn’t possible, but the whole house was rebuilt in Belgium. We came to Amherst for the exteriors, and I think there was one digital exterior. The only time we used CGI was to basically build a house behind them. We had to go out there to see what the house was actually like, and what’s lovely about it is that in both parlors there are lots of windows, so lots of light is coming in. And gradually throughout the film the light disappears. I think we shot in the house for three or four days. We shot all the interiors first.

Filmmaker: How about the transitions as they’re getting their photos taken, when they age?

Davies: When I’d written the script, I thought, “We’ve got to have that 10, 15 minutes, however long it goes, to introduce all these people, but also to lay down the template of the film, the nature of her relationship to religion and her family.” But it couldn’t have been a long, gradual “they grow up and get old” — it would have taken too long and we simply didn’t have the money, it was as simple as that. So what is the simplest way of doing it? When I looked at the photographs, the simplest way to do it was track in on them as they aged. It was succinct — and it was cheap. There were just two tracks, one when they were young and one when they were old. When we did it, we told the actors, “You mustn’t blink.” We did Cynthia last, and she said, “Sorry, I’m a blinker.” I said, “Well, try your best.” And at the end of the track on her, she just half-blinked.

Filmmaker: Was writing in an American idiom intimidating? I’m assuming that the fact that it was period language helped.

Davies: No. The problem is that people don’t think that American English was anything other than the way it is now. It was extremely formal in the 19th century, because you were imitating the dominant power, which was Britain. Now it’s the other way around. So their speech was formal, and you take from what they literally said and had written. If you look at the Gettysburg Address, it’s not a sentimental talk — it’s pure poetry. So it was very much trying to capture what it sounded like, but my template was something like The Heiress, which is also very formal. They speak very formal and lovely English. Whereas now the language is being destroyed.

Filmmaker: Well, yeah. But was it difficult for the actors to wrap their heads around the formality of the language and make it sound like their own?

Davies: No, because the actors do an awful lot of work on their own. I said, “Do look at The Heiress, because it’ll give you a lot of pointers.” The more important thing for me was that I didn’t want them to act, I want them to be, which is actually much more difficult.

Filmmaker: How did you approach the Civil War montage? Chronologically, I knew it had to be included.

Davies: What people don’t understand is that it’s a vast country. These battles would have taken place far away. The only way you knew about them was from the newspaper, but these battles were going on miles from anywhere. Obviously you saw it if you were around that district, but it would have been like the English Civil War — we’re a much smaller country, but there were a lot of places that wouldn’t have seen any battles at all, and you’d only find out two or three weeks later what the outcome of that was. There were two important things about it: one, it took place, so you can’t ignore it. However you deal with it, you can’t actually ignore it, because it’s a big event, and it was probably the first industrial war and, along with the Crimean War, was very well documented in photographs. But there wasn’t enough money to do anything other than something that was short, and it wouldn’t have been right to have seen it anyway, because there’s only two ways of making a narrative: either you do it from the point of view of the person, in which case you cannot have in it anything to which she is not privy, or the camera is an omniscient narrator and you can go anywhere. She would only have heard of it, so it was paying homage to it but keeping it quite short. And also, quite frankly, for money — we simply couldn’t have afforded to have done anything more elaborate.

Filmmaker: I know you’re also working on a film about Siegfried Sassoon. Were you thinking of shooting combat sequences for that?

Davies: No. It’s far too expensive. If you were recreating the conditions in the trenches, which were awful, you’d have to make the uniforms very dirty, and then the company refuses to take them back, and you have to pay for every single uniform. Also, we have wonderful footage of the first World War, so I’m using that.

In a way, he’s the complete reverse of Emily. He knew everybody — in the 20th century, there isn’t a single person you can name that he didn’t meet, and it’s quite extraordinary. He’s the same in the sense that he’s rather passive; things happen to him. The only thing he did which was of his own accord was, after he was wounded the second time and awarded the MC, he decided he wouldn’t fight anymore and wrote his commanding officer. In that situation, you always got court-martialed and could be shot. He had very influential friends, who said, “No, you can’t take that risk,” and they made him go in front of the medical board, and they sent him to Craiglockhart, a hospital just outside Edinburgh, which was run by Dr. Willows, who was doing a sort of Freudian treatment. He went out all the time, he knew all these people, but what I think is strange about him is that there’s this passiveness to him that’s really strange.

Filmmaker: Are you drawn to his story in part because of the period it’s set in, or just because of his story?

Davies: Oh no, it’s because it happens to fall in that period. He was born in 1886 and lived until the late ’60s. What draws me to it is that, because he was like a lot of gay men in that period — which, as you know, was a criminal offense until 1967 — there was a great deal of very sharp wit, and cruel wit. Especially from people like Ivor Novello, who was a big star at the time. Their affair was obviously extremely unpleasant, because Sassoon ripped out the pages dealing with that from his diary. Clearly Novello was a very unpleasant man. It’s not about any of the prose, because I don’t think that’s as interesting as the great war poems. So it’s about that, the fact that he was gay, and then got married like a lot of people did then, and then at the end of his life converted to Catholicism, of all things.

Filmmaker: You keep talking about making creative decisions based on practical considerations about money.

Davies: I always knew from the word go that I was not Hollywood material. I knew no one was going to whisk me out and give me $60 million. It’s a practical thing, and it’s a moral thing as well: this is other people’s money, and you cannot waste it. That’s why I write the scripts the way I do: every track, pan, dissolve, every bit of music, every bit of copyright is in there, so I can say — as I’ve just said after writing the first draft of the Siegfried Sassoon film — “Look, the opening and the closing sequences, which will stay as they are, they’re going to be expensive, so you have to know that now.” I’ve been given a measure of success, and I’ve had a chance to have a second career after not working for ten years. She didn’t even get the initial one, and that’s one of the other things that draws me to her — not only because I love the poetry, but I just wish she had been at the head of the queue, because she deserved it.

Filmmaker: She says in the film that recognition in posterity is only for people who were not interesting enough to be recognized during their lives. She wants that recognition but isn’t willing to voice that openly.

Davies: Anybody who creates anything, there’s a measure of vanity in us all. And of course she wanted her poetry to be read. But the problem is, if you’re like her — those poems are really avant-garde, because they distill a feeling down to the very essence, and then what makes them modern is the reticence with which they’re written. When you see other people doing the right thing to do commercially — there were many women who were very famous for writing sentimental Victorian poetry, but she wasn’t one of them, and I’m sure it must have hurt her.

Filmmaker: Could you ever conceive of making a film set in the present day?

Davies: Well, I’m doing a film based on a novel by Richard McCann, an American writer, called Mother of Sorrows. That goes up to 1980. I think that’s about as modern as I’ll ever get. I’m a technophobe — I’ve always felt like an outsider, but this makes you feel like even more of an outsider, because I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. It’s the same as when I was a child: if I wasn’t interested in something, I couldn’t learn it. Things like chemistry were just agony. I never gave a toss about the periodic table. Having said that, it’s because I don’t understand the modern world.

Filmmaker: Was there a period when you did, or has it always been like this?

Davies: No, I don’t think I ever did. When I was a child, I was an observer, I was not a participant of life. And you don’t know that as a child, but then you get older and it’s too late. You can’t do anything about it. I long to be like other people, who seem to participate in the present world, but I don’t know how they do it. I am frightened of the world.

Filmmaker: The last time we talked, you gave me some incredibly precise technical breakdowns of some of your favorite scenes. Did anyone train you in that kind of shot analysis?

Davies: You just in some way absorb it, like a language. I was completely unaware of it, but I went all the time, and because I went all the time, those things are within you, and you can’t forget them. With my very favorite films, I not only know where I saw it, I know where I sat, I know the route I took to get to it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but someone said to me many years later, “You obviously went as if it were religion.” I said “Yeah, you’re right,” because I was a devout Catholic until I was 22, and then I realized it was a complete waste of time, but the way I watched films was with great intensity. I actually believed that what I saw was real. I did actually believe that, because I was too young and didn’t know. The first time I saw Doris Day in Young at Heart, I fell in love with her straightaway. All the exterior shots, most of them, are on a soundstage. I didn’t know that, because I knew nothing about film. It just made everything seem utterly perfect. The interiors in that house are just exquisite. I know the techniques now, and I can see that when they’re on the beach they’re clearly in front of a backdrop, and some bathers in the background are clearly freezing cold, around this lovely warm fire without any [visible] breeze on them at all, but that’s part of the magic.

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