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Symphonies and Singin’ In the Rain: Terence Davies on Sunset Song

Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song

A long-in-the-works passion project, Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song follows Chris (Agyness Deyn), a Scottish farmer’s daughter whose marriage to Ewen Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie) collides straight into the early days of World War I. There are familiar Davies visual and thematic motifs throughout — the film’s first part tracks Chris’ hellish family life under the tyrannical reign of another bad father (Peter Mullan), a wedding sequence has group sing-alongs, and a sweeping crane shot of a muddy WWI battlefield is a textbook example of his penchant for camera movement as primary narrative propellant. In the days before the film’s release (his subsequent Emily Dickinson film, A Quiet Passion, has yet to play in the States), Davies spoke about integrating camera movements into his scripts, learning from All That Heaven Allows, and how a body of films like a symphony cycle. 

Filmmaker: You’ve talked about how when you write a screenplay, you include the camera movements and set-ups, everything you need to pre-visualize the film. I would imagine that isn’t possible the first time you write a draft.

Davies: No, it’s written simultaneously. I write it as I see it. I only ever do three drafts, then a polish and that’s it. There’s a practical reason for that. If there’s any copyrighted material, especially if it’s [involved] in timing a shot, then it has to be cleared before we start shooting. Because I don’t have big budgets, you can say, “On this day I need a crane, on this day we track, on this day we need 25 extras,” and you can do all that because that’s where you husband the money. I never did it originally, because I wasn’t experienced enough, but it just makes sense to me.

It’s only happened to me twice, where I couldn’t find a frame, and if you can’t find a frame, you know it’s wrong. Once was in Deep Blue Sea, where Esther goes into Mrs. Elton’s room with her husband. Originally it was written that he falls out of bed, and they go in and pick him up. Anyway, we did the rehearsal and I said, “This is not good.” I could tell immediately. I was sitting in the room with my script supervisor, saying “I really don’t know what to do.” She said, “Is the action true?” It’s the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever been given. I said “You’re right. He doesn’t need to fall out of bed, he just lies there.” What was the other one? I can’t remember now, it was so long ago, but I just thought “Right, let’s forget it and do something else.” Because on a small budget, you cannot try and try again. You know it’s wrong — don’t do it. Some things, you know once you’ve shot it, you think “This is a very, very bad shot. Why did I write it?” There’s one bit at the end of Sunset Song, where she had to throw dirt on her father’s grave, and the only way we could get her to do it was to have three people holding onto her left arm. Someone said to me, “That’s the weakest shot in the film,” and I said “Yeah, it’s not going to go in the film.” You knew straight away.

Filmmaker: So what do you do on those three passes on the script? How is each one different?

Davies: Over about eight months, I just make notes. Sometimes whole sequences come, sometimes bits of dialogue, sometimes an idea for something: “Oh, look at that line in the biography or play that might be interesting.” That accumulates over about eight months, and then I sit down and write the first screenplay. Then it’s changing because of notes. Obviously, because people are putting money in, they have to read those drafts and give you notes. Sometimes, those notes are practical: “This seems anomalous. You’ve said this in one scene, but she’s said something quite different [in another scene].” Then you think “Oh yeah, then I better drop one or the other,” or “No, that ambiguity was supposed to be there.” By the time I get to the third draft, that’s the only time I take notes, and that is put into the polish, and that is what we shoot. After the polish, I say, “No more shoots, that’s what we’re going to shoot.”

Filmmaker: The level of detail you’re putting into the script in terms of equipment, extras and so on means you’re producing it as you write it.

Davies: Well, if you’ve not got a lot of money, that’s what you’ve got to do. There isn’t time to say, “Let’s wait for the light.” And sometimes you do get pissed off: “Can’t we wait for a bit of sun?” And you think, “No, we can’t. If we do, we’ll be two shots behind on the schedule. We can’t afford it.” That is annoying, but there’s nothing you can do about it. We can’t come back tomorrow when the sun’s out. So you have to make do with that. But in the end, it’s not about that. It’s about getting the truth on the screen. It would have been nice if there was blazing sunshine in that shot, but there isn’t, so that adds something different to it. And sometimes it’s only afterwards that you think “Ah yes, I’m glad it was overcast that day.” Because the way the film is now cut, it adds to that subtextual meaning.

Filmmaker: Can you discuss the opening shot? It begins with an abstract, blown-out light, then you pull out to clarify that as grass, then you crane up until you locate Agyness Deyn’s character, then you pivot around to look down the hill she’s lying on, establishing the entire landscape.

Davies: What I wanted before I wrote it was that she’s of the land, so she should appear to come out of it. So I thought, “I wonder how I could do that.” There’s something very charming about, in the middle of the day, hearing the schoolbell, which reminds me of the primary school that I went to. It’s mysterious, it’s about the land. We come around, we hear the bell, and then we go into school. She’s gone on her lunchtime, probably, just to lie in the field. It doesn’t matter whether you get that or not, it’s a way of telling you something subtextually, without saying “I’m of the land.” Film reveals; it’s only television that demonstrates.

Filmmaker: Did you have a bunch of wind machines?

Davies: No, that’s natural wind. We couldn’t afford a wind machine, it was as simple as that. When we got to Scotland, we had a wind machine, and we got these arthritic winds when we didn’t need it.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me how involved you are with making the schedule? It must have been tricky on this film, because of the location-hopping [the film was shot in Scotland, New Zealand and Luxembourg] and also switching between digital [for interiors] and 70mm [for exteriors].

Davies: The schedule is done, and then I go through the script and count the number of camera positions, and time them by an average of five takes. Then I go through and say, “We need two extra days.” We couldn’t do it on this, because we didn’t have enough money to begin with, but on A Quiet Passion, I said, “We need an extra four days,” and we got them. We got most of the performances in this and the Emily Dickinson film in less than five takes. A lot of it was just in one take: when she’s raped by her husband, I said, “We’re only doing this once. I’m not putting you through this a second time.” I just couldn’t. And it’s other things which you warn people about. When they go to bed after being married, I said, “You know what’s going to be difficult? [Blowing out] the candle.” Inanimate objects take out on a life of their own. [blowing air] It wouldn’t go out! I said, “I warned you it wouldn’t go out!”

Filmmaker: What’s your rehearsal process like? Do you insist on a certain amount of time for people to get together and do read-throughs?

Davies: What happens is, we get on the set with the entire crew, we run through the scene and I say what the positions are. They go out, they get their make-up and their wigs and all that stuff, then come down and run through it for a short amount of time. Then we shoot it and keep it under five takes. Because that way there’s a real spontaneity, and it’s not repetitive. And after seven takes I lose interest anyway. They’ve come on the set, they’ve done a great deal of work themselves, but it’s the excitement of when you say “Let’s go now” — that is very exciting to watch. You can usually tell what take is going to be right. I don’t know why, but you just can tell.

Filmmaker: Do you have any sentimentality about celluloid being phased out?

Davies: No, not at all. I think digital is like the coming of sound, it’s really important. The only drawback to it is that because you can get cuts very, very quickly, what will happen is that in post-production, that time will be nibbled away, and you’ve got to fight for thinking time. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “I don’t care whether you can cobble together the last six shots, I want to think about it for two days.”

Filmmaker: You have a big shot at the end of Sunset Song, with the camera panning over the battlefield. It’s muddy and there’s rain. How do you prepare for something like that?

Davies: It’s practical things that always stand in the way. We could only have a very, very small field. Because if you churn up a field, it’s infertile for five years. Well, I’m not a farmer, so I didn’t know that. So the plot was about as big as this [gestures around the fairly small conference room]. So you could have that. And we didn’t have enough rain machines, so halfway through the rain peters out. Halfway through, as we were tracking, the sun came out. But that’s serendipity, that’s sheer luck.

Filmmaker: The films that you generally watch are generally from your past than the present. At the same time, as in the end sequence of The Long Day Closes, you tend to go abstract. I’m wondering where that tendency comes from in your viewing background, because to some extent those are not classical storytelling techniques.

Davies: The problem is when you move out of a non-linear narrative, you risk the audience saying, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be thinking, and therefore I’m not involved.” You just take that risk, and you’ve got to be prepared for someone to say “I was bored stiff.” Take it! Or, “I thought it was wonderful.” It’s nice when they say it’s wonderful. And if they’re bored stiff, you are really rather depressed. But you’ve got to take that as the drawback.

When I was growing up, I think I absorbed visuals like you do language. I didn’t know I was absorbing them, but I could remember whole scenes and lots of dialogue. What was always thrilling was when the camera moved and there was music to it. It’s not a very good film, but there’s one shot — I think it’s when they go into Blanco Canyon — in The Big Country. It’s a rising shot, it’s just thrilling. And that fabulous score! It’s thrilling, especially if the movement is elegant and you’re not aware of it. You look at Singin’ in the Rain, which I first saw when I was seven. The song, there’s only nine cuts from eight positions. Eight positions! It’s just utterly immaculate. Like Meet Me in St. Louis, when she sees the boy next door. When she drops the curtain, that’s so elegant and beautiful. Two forward shots, two in two out — it’s so elegantly done that you’re not aware of it. It’s got to be like music. When you believe and you love what you hear, you go on that journey.

I am ravished by when the music truly is counterpoint to what you’re watching, and it deepens what you’re looking at. The greatest example of that, of course, is Bernard Hermann’s [score for] Psycho. You are disquieted from the moment it begins, and it’s a moto perpetuo is all it is. When Arbogast goes in, it’s just strings with their mutes on, and it’s chilling. Those things give me enormous pleasure.

Filmmaker: When did you stop being a contemporary viewer? What year did you check out?

Davies: I can’t tell you an exact year. Once you start making them, you — I can’t suspend my disbelief anymore. You’re aware of visual syntax, of bad acting — the awful language of wide, mid-, close-up, close-up, mid-, wide, it’s a dead language. It’s got nothing expressive to say, it’s just boring. And when you can call out the shots, you think, “What’s the point of my being here?” The audience is supposed to finish the act by interpreting what it looks at, especially the ambiguities that arise between the cast. But if you’re told everything, why bother? There’s no interest in that. I don’t like to see people acting. British actors are the worst, they act all over the place. I think, “Oh, stop it! Just stop it, it’s boring! Just feel it for once.” There used to be a time when we did that; in Victim, there’s a beautiful performance by Dirk Bogarde. Now, everyone is being Judi Dench or whoever, and it’s just so dull. It might be just because I’m getting older and more miserable, it might be that too.

Look at the opening of All That Heaven Allows. Wide shot: church, little town. We know we’re in midtown America. Crane down, we pick up this car, we go with the car, it stops, we stop. Agnes Moorhead gets out, walks up the lawn; Rock Hudson moves across the frame. We go to the exterior of the house; Jane Wyman turns around and says, “Are you staying to lunch?” She says, “No, I can’t.” “Oh.” It’s told you a great deal in less than two minutes. That is very, very skillful. You know exactly where you are, you know exactly who it’s about, and you’ve seen the three most important people in the persona drama. That’s very skillful! If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be thinking — that opening sequence tells you all the information you need, and no one has spoken.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about your reading habits?

Davies: I read a lot of poetry. I read a lot of history, because I like both. I play a lot of music, particularly Bruckner and Sibelius. Don’t watch that much film anymore — I go back to the films I love instead. And some of them are rubbish, but I don’t care. I like a good cry. Of the films that I adore, they’re special: Doris Day in Young at Heart. There’s nothing more wonderful than sitting down; it’s raining outside, you light the fire, you don’t put the lights on, and you put Young at Heart on. That’s just joy.

Filmmaker: Were you ever in the habit of watching a lot of television?

Davies: When we first got a television, yeah. We used to watch it all the time. But now, hardly anything. I watch documentaries and historical programs, because history was my best subject at school. For two days straight, David Starkey is without compare. Horrible right-winger, but he’s a great historian.

Filmmaker: There are a few recurring motifs that people expect from your films: communal sing-alongs and bad fathers. Does that make you self-conscious when you revisit these elements?

Davies: It doesn’t bother me, because all of that is part of what I do. People either like it, or they don’t. There’s nothing you can do about that. But I do believe — this is going to sound dreadfully pretentious — that a body of work should be like a cycle of symphonies. Hopefully you get better, but there are certain things in it that will always recur throughout that symphonic cycle. With Bruckner, it’s huge rolling crescendi. It’s always three; he was obsessed with three. Sibelius is much more clean and cool, but passionate, and when you listen to the entire seven symphonies, and the seventh ends on that sustained chord, you just think “Yeah, you’re sorted now, don’t need to do another eight.” And I don’t think you can control those things.

I would like to make people laugh more, and I do try to put a joke in here or there. When people have said that A Quiet Passion is funny, I think, “Thank God.” I do misery and death really well, but I would like to do a bit of comedy.

Filmmaker: In your period between The House of Mirth and Of Time and the City, you talked in interviews about unsuccessfully trying to get projects off the ground. Has something changed for you since that gap in terms of how you work on a film or support it over its lifespan?

Davies: Not really, because I thought it was over after House of Mirth. I didn’t work for 10 years, and I thought, “Well, it’s over, and if it’s over, then House of Mirth isn’t half bad.” I still don’t understand it myself: I changed in those ten years, and I can’t explain it. It’s as vague as that, and I do feel profoundly different. Perhaps it’s getting older; you think, all you can be is truthful and honest. You can’t do anything else. And if it’s truthful and honest, even if people don’t like it, then you can say to yourself, “Well, I did my best.” Vaughan Williams — who was not a great symphonist — said of the Fourth Symphony, “I don’t if I like it, but it’s what I meant.” I do understand that quote now, in a way I didn’t before. You just have to say, “There it is. It’s up to you now to decide whether you like it or not.”

Filmmaker: When Of Time and the City came out, a lot of reviews focused on your dislike of The Beatles. Were you surprised by that?

Davies: I remember when I wrote that line, people were saying “You’ll get a lot of flak about this.” I said, “That’s the risk I have to take.” I thought they were completely devoid of talent, I still they’re completely devoid of talent. How on earth they’re lauded is utterly beyond me. Awful, just awful. There’s one man in England who said, “They changed the world.” I said, “Don’t be so silly. Of course they didn’t change the world.” Bruckner and Eliot changed my world, not them. It’s nonsense. They didn’t change the world. No one does, no matter how great an artist they are, they don’t change the world. They don’t. But I was also prepared to take flak about the Catholic church. On the 12th of July, the Orange Marches take place. They used to take place in England, now they’ve disappeared but they still take place in northern Ireland. One night, I had gone to the pictures and I was going out. It was the evening of the 12th, and these young lads were walking in front of me, who were clearly Protestants, and shouted “Fuck the Pope!” I put that in, and people were horrified and said “You can’t put that in,” but that’s what they said!

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