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Of Time and the City: Terence Davies On His Lyrical, Melancholic Memory Piece, Of Time and the City

For Terence Davies, his youth — his early years in Liverpool, his relationship with his mother, and his feelings about being gay in that working-class town — have always provided the raw material for his filmmaking. His celebrated “Terence Davies Trilogy,” a collection of shorts, and later features like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes summon up for the viewer an interior life with a rare combination of lyricism and heartache.

These films cemented Davies’s international reputation, but after two more, non-autobiographical features (The House of Mirth and The Neon Bible), he became less active, a development that had more to due with shifting trends in British film financing than his own creativity. But now, almost ten years after his last feature, Davies is premiering an unexpected success, his first documentary about – what else? – his early years in Liverpool. Of Time and the City is a lushly realized memory piece, a symphony of images, archival footage, narration and classical music that transforms grey old Liverpool into a digitally-realized reverie that is beautiful, sometimes acerbic, and always tinged with melancholy.

Of Time and the City opens January 21 at New York’s Film Forum from Strand Releasing. I spoke with Davies this past fall at the Toronto Film Festival.


I’ve read a number of interviews you’ve done for this film, and I’ve also read the reviews. They’re all fantastic. What’s it like talking so much about a film that is itself a revisiting of your childhood?

TERENCE DAVIES: Well, I mean, it’s lovely because I’ve known what it’s like when people weren’t interested. After Neon Bible, no one was interested or wanted to talk to me. I’m as vain as anybody else, so it’s nice to have your ego massaged. I’m quite happy to do it because I never thought it would have this kind of reaction, I can assure you. It was made with the most modest of budgets, and the most modest of intentions.

FILMMAKER: Tell me a little bit about how this specific project came to be.

DAVIES: Well, it was by accident. Sol Papadopoulos, who was one of the producers, rang me up and said, “Do you remember me?” And I said, “Yes. You took some pictures of my mother about 20 years ago and they’re very beautiful. And I’ve still got them.” He said, “Well, I’m a producer now, and something called Digital Departures is coming to Liverpool, because it’s the European city of culture of this year. And they want to produce films for 250,000 pounds each, would you be interested?” And I said, “No. I don’t want to make any more fiction films about Liverpool. I’ve done that.” But then I said, “What might be interesting is to do a documentary about the Liverpool I grew up in, from 1945 onwards, and then contrast it with the new Liverpool, which is an alien city for me.” My template would be Humphrey Jennings’ [film] Listen to Britain, 1941, which is a great poem. It’s greater than a documentary — it’s a poem. He was trying to capture the nature of being British when we were about to be invaded, and it’s glorious. I just wanted to capture what it was to be Liverpudlian – something much more modest. And he said, “Yes, we’d like to do that.”

FILMMAKER: Was there any wrestling either on their part or your part with this notion of you, a fiction filmmaker, making a documentary?

No, because I’d written a sketch of what I wanted to do and we produced a six-minute trailer. I said, “Look, it is a personal essay. So if it’s not what you want, you better give the money to someone else, because it’s not going to be a straight documentary: this happened, that happened. I’m not interested in that.”

FILMMAKER: Once you went through that process was this a hard film in any way to make?

Well, the hardest thing was actually what to leave out, because there was so much of it and some of it was ravishingly beautiful. We said, “Oh, I wish I could put that sequence in but I can’t.” It had to reach its natural length. You can’t force it. I’d written a sort of story, and, of course, that went out of the window very early because all this material brought back other memories of other things which had happened and which made me say, “Look, can you find footage from that or from this?” Or, “Can you find footage that’s in color?” All sorts of things. Memory is like smell. As soon as it’s pricked, it begins to work, and things that have lain dormant in you start to emerge. And memory, of course, is nonlinear. It’s completely cyclical and it’s completely disparate and elliptical. What you remember most intensely can be the tiniest things but they’re powerful for you because they have a whole emotional meaning beyond their surface meaning. And so it was quite hard to actually disregard some of that material.

FILMMAKER: Well, that’s one of my questions. What was the ordering process for this movie? Not necessarily in the shaping, but in terms of finding the through lines and assembling all of these disparate things into a feature film.

DAVIES: It was a mixture of finding material and then writing the through line. But you very rarely get to the through line fast. That is discovered while you put [the film] together. It’s like the through line of a script, of a fiction script. You find that eventually. I usually get it by the second draft, and then I do a polish. But here the script was being written daily. There were times when I couldn’t see the line, and that was very worrying. It’s not like sitting in your own flat with a piece of paper and a script and saying, “No, this doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work?” You can walk around and shout at the walls, but you can’t do that in the cutting room. You just say, “Okay, it doesn’t feel right, does it?” And Liza [Ryan-Carter], who is a wonderful editor, says, “No.” But when something is right, you think, [snaps] “Yeah.” Or you say, in a sequence, “No. If we take that out and reverse those shots and begin there, it will work.” And it does. Sometimes you get it that easily, and sometimes it takes three, four days. But I did say to her, “We’ve got to cut it like fiction.” When there was music, we’d cut it mute and then put the music on and see where the cuts fall. And then you’d sort of say, “Tweak it.” You’d say, “No, this cut here really has to come on the beat.” Or on that word. But others fell beautifully. The through line emerges subconsciously, and when it does, then [the film] begins to sing. But it takes a long time sometimes to get to that.

FILMMAKER: Was one particular element – the music, the narration, the archival footage, or simply your memories – more central than the others to the way you organized the material?

DAVIES: Well, I was writing the narration as I was cutting it. But we saw two films: one by Nick Broomfield, called Who Cares, and another called Morning in the Streets, the director of whom I’ve forgotten, ad I extracted things from them. I wanted to build up this idea of the street coming to life. Gradually the day begins. The children go to school. They play in the schoolyard. Their parents work hard. The school day ends. They come home. And again, I’ve no idea where it came from. I had heard on the BBC Radio 3, which is the classical music station in England, Angela Gheorghiu singing this Romanian folk song called “Watch and Pray.” As soon as I [heard it], I said, “That’s what we’ve got to have underneath it.” Don’t know where it came from. I have no idea. But that prompted all the reminiscing about Christmas, about going to war, Korea. (My eldest brother was in the army and had an accident and couldn’t go because he was injured very badly.) And then that led into the coronation — I had to get the coronation and have a go at the monarchy because they’re such parasites. [laughs] All that comes by searching – searching your own memory and looking at the material.

FILMMAKER: How resonant was it for you when you first saw the archival footage? Because it’s not your archival footage — it’s material that somebody else shot with an eye towards capturing history as opposed to personal moments. When you looked at this material did it take you back in time? Or did you have to work to allow your own memories to be triggered by it?

DAVIES: Well, [the archival footage worked] in different ways, really. I mean, I remember vaguely the elevated railway, which was the first elevated electric railway in the world. It ran the whole length of the docks, which is between eight and 10 miles. I remembered it and I said, “You can find me some footage.” And the footage that we found was like outtakes from Metropolis — they looked wonderful. But I was shocked at how awful the slums were, and I grew up in them! I never, never remembered them being as grim as they were. The sheer hard work just to keep them clean – just to keep your house clean, yourself clean, your children. That was a shock. It also brought memories back when the women used to go to the washhouse. My mother used to go on a Thursday. We only had one set of curtains, and they were washed every Thursday. And the house looked so bare without them. I hated Thursday, because I’d come home from school and there’d be no curtains on the windows and it looked so bleak.

FILMMAKER: Have you seen Guy Maddin’s film My Winnipeg?

DAVIES: No. I believe it’s very good, though.

Yeah, it’s very good. It’s about him cinematically remembering his hometown on the occasion of his move to Toronto. It’s a mixture of history and fiction, and a lot of the history feels like fiction. What was your take on historical truth versus the truth of memory in the film?

[pause] Well, I think I would rely more on memory truth, because that’s more emotional, and that’s something that I’m more concerned with. That, too, in its own way, is real.

There’s a lot of talk in the American independent world right now about the need for new ways to make, distribute and even view films. What are your thoughts on where cinema is now?

DAVIES: Well, I’m not sure. I haven’t worked since 2000, when I finished The House of Mirth, because The Neon Bible was before that. But the climate seems to be improving in England. The people at the U.K. Film Council now – like Lenny Crooks, especially – want to do films and they actually care about them. The previous regime did not do that. But what was wrong [previously] in England was the destruction of the production board of the BFI. It was an act of cultural vandalism to have actually got rid of it because it gave people their first chance to make a film, without any of this nonsense about, you know, “Well, it’s got a climax on page three,” or everyone’s got a back story, or all that nonsense – utter nonsense – that Robert McKee spouts. You had 25-year-olds telling you how to write a script. And when you said, “Well, how many have you written?” it all goes quiet. “Well, how many have you written?” “None.” “Oh, I see. So, you’ve written no scripts and you’re telling me how to write them and I’ve been writing them for 30 years? I think that’s a bit arrogant, don’t you?” And you shut the door. I hope, with things like Hunger – which I’ve not seen, but it was a very courageous film to be funded by Channel 4 – the climate has changed. There’s hope there. I’m glad that my film got funded, and I hope that provides some hope for other people. But once you get into the position that Britain is in – being a client nation of America, with all the indignity that goes with that – you’re in trouble. Because now, culturally, we look to America for validation when we should be looking either to ourselves or to Europe. Our future does not lie with America, and neither does our culture. Now, in England, if you want to celebrate anything about our culture, you’re dismissed as elitist, or middle class. It’s almost fascist now. It’s exactly like it was after the civil war, when you had to be politically and religiously correct. Hopefully that will go. It’s far too early, but I am cautiously optimistic.

FILMMAKER: What about new ways of viewing films, whether that be through the internet on your computer, or on a handheld device?

DAVIES: I’m a technophobe. I don’t understand all this new technology. I just simply don’t understand it. If we’ve got to make things on digital, I will do it, because I enjoyed it. I think digital will probably replace film, because it’s quicker and all the rest of it. But all that downloading things, I have no idea what it is. At the end of the day, if you’re going to make a film, in whatever format, the only real way to see it is on a large screen in a darkened room with other people. There’s no other experience like it. Watching it on DVD or an iPod is not the same. Watching it on television is not the same. It’s not like sitting in a full theater with a huge screen. Everyone responds to it collectively, yet everyone feels that the secret is only being told to them. Nothing replaces that.

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