Director Terence Davies Talks Adapting Emily Dickinson, and Observation Over Adventure

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Director Terence Davies Talks Adapting Emily Dickinson, and Observation Over Adventure

Two years, two movies by the great English filmmaker Terence Davies: First 2015’s Sunset Song, and now A Quiet Passion, Davies’ screen biography of Emily Dickinson. Call the movie a biopic if you like, but if you do, you must distinguish it as an exemplary biopic, one that avoids the normal pitfalls of its genre by focusing not on the macro but on the micro.

A Quiet Passion is, as you might guess by its title, a hushed, muted movie, one where tensions and emotions tend to linger just beneath the surface of the characters, save for rare instances in which feeling boils over into action: Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon, turning in one of the greatest performances of her career) excoriates her younger brother when she catches him in the arms of his married lover, at one point, and at another she snaps at her family’s servants for fumbling a loaf of bread she’d been baking in the oven. But these moments are the exception to the film’s rule of observation. Dickinson, to Davies, was an observer, someone perhaps fated to watch others live and then to distill life into poetry.

The same can be said of Davies himself, a self-described observer. Paste Magazine had the great privilege of sitting down with him at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk about A Quiet Passion, where it fits into his career, why we’re getting two movies by him two years in a row, the true difficulties of adapting Dickinson’s story for film, and his fear of adventurousness, among many other subjects in between:

Paste: I feel lucky to talk to you, but also lucky that two years in a row, we have a new film from you. It feels like you’re experiencing a creative boom; there was a five year or so period between The Deep Blue Sea and Sunset Song, and now we have Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion, and that feels like quite a gift. Why the five year wait, and why are both of these films coming out so close together?
Terence Davies: It’s difficult to get money for the sorts of films I want to make. I’m not mainstream. I don’t see film in that way. I cast the people who are right. I don’t give a damn; if they’re right, they’re right. I will say, if you cast a name and they can’t give the performance, who are they going to blame? They’re going to blame me. If there’s a contest between the name and me, who gets sacked? Not the name. I don’t want to put myself in that position. I’d sooner not do anything.

But it was purely practical terms that two films have come out at the same time. Sunset Song was very difficult because we didn’t have enough money, and we had to constantly try and raise money during the post-production period. By the time we finished it, I’d finished A Quiet Passion, which had not one single hitch at all! It was extraordinary. So it wasn’t planned, honestly!

Paste: Sometimes things go best when they’re not planned.
Davies: Yes. But it was a strain, because when you’ve got no money, and you’ve been shooting all day, you come back and you say, “Do I need these scenes? Do I take them out?” And you just have to take the risk. And it was physically uncomfortable, because it rains in Scotland, and you’re on a farm, and these animals are defecating and urinating. This is not glamorous. This isn’t… it’s not Brigadoon! (laughs) Thank god!

Paste: Money was going to be my first guess. Money’s always the problem. But I’m surprised to hear that A Quiet Passion went off without a hitch. It seems like a very challenging movie to make, for a multitude of reasons; recreating an actual character, an actual historical figure, seems difficult. Did you find that aspect of it daunting—to, in a sense, resurrect her for the screen?
Davies: No. What was most difficult was, I read six biographies. And you reach a point where you say, “I can’t read anymore. I can’t take in anymore information.” And there are certain things you have got to leave out. She wrote three volumes of letters. She had this relationship with a correspondence, Judge Lord, she had letters to the master, and we don’t know who that is. So there are lots of things that had to be left out, because I was restricted to a two hour film—and it came in at one hour, fifty nine minutes, twenty seven seconds, because I’m Catholic.

What was difficult was absorbing all that. And some of the series have put forth that she was a lesbian. Well, I couldn’t care less if she was gay or not. I couldn’t care less if she was epileptic or not. She happens to be a genius. That’s all I cared about. (laughs) But when I was looking at her life, there were things that I responded to. One was her quest for an answer morally: If we have a soul and there is no God, what do we do? Her poetry, particularly the religious poetry, oscillates between those two positions. She never says, “No, there isn’t.” She never says, “Yes, there is.” There’s always a sort of “maybe,” and it’s not fudging the issue. She genuinely didn’t know, but hoped for the best, and that I find incredibly moving. I went through that kind of spiritual crisis myself. I was brought up a Catholic, and I was very devout! You were told those days that if you doubted, it was the devil’s work, so you had to fight against it.

So from fifteen to twenty-two, I did my battle with the devil, until I realized that she was right: It’s just a lot of men in frocks, that’s all. But when you have something that’s been with you all those years, and it’s taken out of you, what do you do? I tried to fill it with knowledge, because I didn’t go to university. I felt very much that I knew what that spiritual confusion, that fight, was like. Also, obviously, I love the poetry. I just get so angry that she wasn’t well-known during her lifetime, because she deserved it, and that, I thought, was so unfair. And she only won second prize for her bread! And you think, “Couldn’t she have won first prize, just for once? Couldn’t she be at the head of the queue?”

Paste: Were you tempted to fudge that moment, to just say, “Okay, we’re making this movie, she wins first prize for the bread”?
Davies: (laughs) No, because I’m basically a misery! (laughs) But there were things that I had her say that I thought she might have felt. She may not have said them, but she might have felt them. She has a scene with the reverend that she has a little crush on, and she’s talking about posterity and all that, and the line is: “Ah, to be wracked by success.” And [Cynthia Nixon] says, [whispering] “Ah, to be wracked by success.” And it just pierces your heart. I said, “How on earth did you think of saying it like that?” Of course she wants to be better known. I’d like to be a household name, like Pampers, but I think I’ve left it too long. So I feel those things for her. And then I love the poetry.

Paste: Her poetry is fiery and exquisite, and I like that you used it as a way to transition us between scenes, from one moment to another. How did you decide which poems to use in which way throughout the movie?
Davies: Well, when you write it, and the poems come to you and say that they’re right here. And certainly they’re not in the order she wrote them. “This is My Letter to the World” is not a late poem. I think it’s from her middle period, but it doesn’t matter. That’s how it should end. But also “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was the first one I ever heard when I was 18. It was Claire Bloom reading it. It’s a wonderful poem. So when you’re writing the script, and you’re searching for how they will be used, well, they tell you. There’s only two functions, really, because they act as music: Something to counterpoint what you’re looking at, and something to merely to underline it, to shade it in.

The first poem, “For Each Ecstatic Instant,” we were shooting in this derelict castle—which is still owned by a German countess in Belgium—and the sun flooded in. So I said, “Let’s get it quickly. Let’s do it now.” So when she say, “For each ecstatic instant, we must an anguish pay,” that’s a moment of ecstasy, but she knows intrinsically that she’ll have to pay for that delight and that rapture. That’s using it as counterpoint, whereas “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is used in a wry way, and only because she said it like that. I’d always heard it as rather solemn, but she says it in this kind of wry way, as though it’s happening to someone else, and that gives it immense power.

Paste: I like what you’re talking about as far as the counterpoint between the ecstasy and the anguish, and how she’ll have to pay for that; I feel like that’s how the entire movie operates, alternating between the pleasures of the filmmaking and the pleasures of the performances. I think we Americans love period-set films with wordplay and banter, so there’s that, but then there’s the tragedy of not being successful, the tragedy of her personal life, the tragedy of her love life. I feel like the movie flips back and forth between these.
Davies: Yes, and she was in pain all the time! We don’t know what that’s like now. We can take painkillers for everything. Those days, you just lived with it, and it just exhausts you and takes years off your life! But what’s important, I think, is her courage. There must have been times when she said to herself, “What’s the point? What’s the bloody point?” But she carried on.

My great love is Anton Bruckner. He had one success, Symphony No. 7. But he was conducting the fourth Symphony in 1877, and the audience was streaming out. By the time he’d finished, there were more members in the orchestra than in the hall, and some of the orchestral musicians were laughing at it. He stood on the podium, and he was crying, and someone came up to him and said, “Dr. Bruckner, this is wonderful music,” and he said, “Yes, but nobody wants to hear it.” That makes me very angry, because he was a genius. For me, it’s the greatest symphonic cycle of all. Nothing can touch it. And I feel that way with her, that she was so ahead of her time. If you look at the poetry, they’re distilled down to the essence, but the reticence that’s behind them makes it even harder, in a way:

“The dying need but little, dear
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,

A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret…”

How can you not be so moved by that?

Paste: And that was a stirring reading. That was wonderful. But that’s exactly right—so I guess the question for me is this: As I watched the movie, I was constantly in thrall of the, for lack of a better term, the failure. As talented as she is, she really can’t succeed as much as I feel she should. So I’m struck by that, but also infuriated that this is her fate. Of course, now we recognize her genius, but it’s aggravating to think that this was what happened to her. The movie tries, without preaching, to make the point that a lot of that has to do with patriarchy and misogyny. She talks to her father about getting published early in the film, and his answer is very condescending and patronizing, and the reply she gets from her father’s friend is the same. I feel like this is part of a cycle that we’re still stuck in today, and maybe we’re slowly getting out of it, but it strikes me that this is a movie about how women are under-appreciated, and how that remains true today.
Davies: She was also an ordinary person! She just happened to be a genius. She liked to bake, she liked to play the piano – she was very good at improvising on the piano—she did gardening, you know, she wrote three volumes of letters, for God’s sake! But those women were very well educated, better educated than they were in Europe for the time.

But also, I rediscovered, because I never saw them when they came out, but I saw them on television, films like A Letter to Three Wives. They were wonderfully witty. In England, when I was growing up anyway, if Thelma Ritter was in anything, you had to go see it. They were wonderfully sharp. Do you know the film?

Paste: I can’t say that I do.
Davies: It’s truly wonderful. It’s wonderful banter. We were brought up on that wonderful American wit, and it was there, and it was sharp. Lovely Celeste Holm in Gentleman’s Agreement, just so clever and adorable. So there was that as well, and that feeds into it. I was also brought up on the American musical. My first film at seven was Singin’ in the Rain, with a wonderful performance by Jean Hagen. It’s one of the great comic performances. The line I always wait for: “I make more money than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!”

Paste: I love wit that you can just chew into.
Davies: It’s delicious! It’s just such a joy! I was asked to go to Poland and take some films with me, so I took Kind Hearts and Coronets, because that is the greatest screen comedy—Joan Greenwood had that wonderful, sexy voice. She came on the screen, and before she said anything, there was this ripple of laughter. And she’d not said anything! “I’ve married the dullest man in London.” “In England!” “In Europe!” (laughs)

Laughter is very life-affirming. There aren’t very many laughs in my early films, I can tell you, but why should I be miserable? I want to spread the misery!

Paste: Misery does love company!
Davies: Well, someone said to me at a Q&A in London, or in the provinces, “Why are your films so bloody slow and depressing?” I said, “It’s a gift.” That went down like a lead balloon, I can tell you. [laughs]

Paste: Well, people don’t like things that make them feel and think uncomfortable things about themselves.
Davies: But film also captures the fleeting moment. On the stage, you wouldn’t see it. But someone just looking out of a window, or staring at the fire while reading, those things take on more power when you just simply show them. You don’t need to do anything. You shoot it in a long take, or a short take, but it says a lot. How did they entertain themselves? There’s the piano, they probably played cards, read, and talked. They were very well educated and very sharp, and when there is that hermetically sealed world, which is what it was like to a certain extent, all those emotions are heightened. So it’s very important what you say and what you mean, because otherwise there are huge schisms, like Austin’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd. She can’t believe that this person she’d taught could behave like that, and yet also her sister says, “Integrity if taken too far is equally ruthless,” because it is. I think she had an enormously high standard, and if people fell below that, she was quite merciless. But she was also merciless with herself when she felt she had fallen below it.

Paste: Was that what attracted you to the character, the person? That sense of being merciless to oneself?
Davies: Not so much that as, I’m the youngest of ten children, so I was conscious of looking at my family, just looking—because when you’re the youngest, they’re nice to you, but you just basically listen. I thought that’s what she would do. She would look at the world and, like me, wanted the family never to change, which of course all families do. They get married, they have children, they die. We all want to be in the Smith family in Meet Me in St. Louis. Some of us want to be Judy Garland! Because it’s so utterly perfect, but real life isn’t like that. It just isn’t. And how do you come to terms with the fact that people die, and they die in agony, and you’re going to die in agony? How do you come to terms with mortality and keep hope alive?

I don’t know how it’s done. But some people transcend that. We’re the only species that knows it’s going to die, but we have hope, which is extraordinary. In the face of absolute extinction, which I think it is, we can still hope. And that’s extraordinary! It’s just extraordinary.

Paste: It’s a great survival technique.
Davies: Yes! We probably need it.

Paste: Oh, absolutely, I would say so. I would say that’s what we need art for, to help us cope with that grim knowledge. Of course, she seems almost at ease with this idea throughout the film. Not that the film dwells on the concept of mortality, but it’s something that’s touched upon. I find that strangely, quietly kind of heroic.
Davies: People did die, and they died at home. They didn’t die in some funeral home somewhere, or offscreen somewhere, as it were. People died. When my father died, his body was in the house for ten days. That’s what happened! We were just a working class family. We couldn’t afford a chapel of repose, but those sorts of things were very rare anyways. So you were very aware of that, and I think they were too. They had to deal with it. And if you look at the photographs, they look infinitely older than they are. You look at the photographs of those people who just got into wagons and went West, and they were thirty and they look sixty. Their life was so hard. It was just so hard! You think, “God almighty, how on Earth did they cope? How?” But they did. We have it so cushy. Life’s so cushy now.

Paste: A little while ago, you’d talked about DIckinson looking at her family, being kind of an observer. Hearing you speak, thinking about that in context with the film, that seems like something you really wanted to bring out in the story, the concept of Emily as an observer.
Davies: Yes, that’s absolutely true. Because I am. I didn’t know that when I was a child, because you don’t. You just look. But as you get older, it becomes more difficult. I’m not a participant. I am an observer. I don’t do anything adventurous. I’m too afraid to take drugs, because I don’t want to put anything into my system that a doctor has not prescribed. I’m celibate because I don’t like being gay, and I live alone, and I long to do something adventurous—but I just can’t do it! People say that they went across India with five pounds in their pocket, and I think, “Oh god.” I know what I’d be thinking. “Where’s the lavatory?” I know what I’m like! I’m too afraid!

I wish I could be more adventurous. It would make for an interesting personal life. If they ever write a biography, it wouldn’t be a book. It would be a leaflet. I don’t do anything! I’m really boring! (laughs)

Paste: But you make great movies. That’s exciting!
Davies: But you’d like to think you could do something out of the ordinary. Occasionally I stay up late during the week. (laughs) No cocoa tonight! But that’s about as funky as it gets, I’m afraid.

Paste: I snowboard. That’s something my wife, who has been skiing since she was a kid, got me to do ages ago. That’s the bounds of my adventurousness.
Davies: But you see, if I were to do it, I would do it inside! And it’s not the same, is it? (laughs)

Paste: Not at all! There’s a very big difference between doing it on a mountain and doing it inside. But I actually empathize with you. Sometimes, it feels very nice to just stay inside and stay at home, and not risk breaking your kneecap on an ice slick. But I think that sensibility makes a person better at noticing. You don’t notice that you’re noticing, either. You don’t notice that you’re observing. And I feel like that’s something that you do, something that Emily Dickinson did with her poetry, and I think that’s rather remarkable.
Davies: The drawback with being an observer, I think, is that you see the world in a completely different way to people who are not observers, but who are participants. I’ve got no evidence for this at all, but I’m sure there must have been times when she was quite happy, and then a poem came that was anything but happy. I went to Istanbul once, and I said, “Could we have a day where we just go around, just to have a look at it?” Because I’d never been there before, and I said, “Could we go on the ferry?” Which is on the Bosphorous, you know, so you have on one side, there’s Europe, the other’s Asia. So the ferry came out into the Bosphorous, and from nowhere, I could hear my eldest brother, who’s dead now, singing, “We’re gonna float on a boat down the Mississippi, the man up in the moon is sure to think we’re dippy.”

I was just wretched for the rest of the day. That’s when it comes out of the blue and really makes it very difficult to do your work. Because you can’t be miserable. You’ve got to do your job. People have gone to great expense to get you there, and you’ve got to do it properly. But sometimes it’s difficult.

Paste: I can understand that. Is that something you’d say you admire about a poet like Dickinson?
Davies: Yes, and I felt a sympathy for her because of that. I have no evidence that Emily was an observer, but I think she was. The irony is, of course, that those poems would not be there if she had not been an observer. It’s not just anyone who could write, “For each ecstatic instant, we must an anguish pay.” That’s someone who feels deeply both ecstasy and despair, and weighs them equally. You have to. Because there’s nothing worse than taking life seriously. It’s the shortest route to disaster. People who take life seriously are humorless. They’re always pains in the neck. I’ve only had it twice in my career where I’ve had to say to an actor, “Look, I spent twelve years as a bookkeeper. I couldn’t ring my boss and say, ‘I feel a bit frail today,’ and stay at home.” If you were doing an ordinary job, you would have to do it. “But the moment is gone.” But you’re paid to recapture that moment! That is your job! We’ve got to do it seriously, as best we can, but it’s not curing cancer, it’s not mining coal. It’s pretend. And when they get all, “The moment is gone,” you think, “Oh, just breathe into this plastic bag, you won’t feel a thing.”

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.