‘I look at someone else’s film, and I immediately feel that my films are inferior’

Terence Davies on his films, his aversion to pop culture, and being gay as a residual Catholic

Terence Davies: ‘I look at someone else’s film and immediately feel that mine are inferior’. Photograph: David Azia/The New York Times

Terence Davies: ‘I look at someone else’s film and immediately feel that mine are inferior’. Photograph: David Azia/The New York Times

 

Terence Davies is widely hailed as Britain’s greatest living director. Jean-Luc Godard, seldom a fan of British cinema, hailed Davies’s work as “magnificent”. His oeuvre, while unique, is versatile enough to include adaptations from the stage (Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea) and from the American literary canon (John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth). He has also directed the Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, and poetic recreations of the terraced streets of Merseyside where he grew up.

The literary adaptation perennial Jane Austen, however, is not for Davies.

“I’ve been sent some odd projects,” he says. “I got one many years ago about the underworld. I said: ‘Look, if I film a car crash it would be two cars going very slowly. Where drugs are concerned, the strongest thing I’ve taken is junior aspirin.

“And another one is Jane Austen. I don’t like her writing. I’ve never been able to read her. The scripts always begin the same. We begin with a servant coming down with a jug of water and dropping the drop of water. What she’d be bringing down would be the chamber pots. And the producers said: ‘You can’t have that.’ I said, ‘What? Did they not go to the toilet? What did they do? Did they just implode?’”

My Liverpool is a figment of my imagination and my emotions. Because my Liverpool, my world, was very restrictive

Various films by Davies are found on “greatest film” compilations, including the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, wherein Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives was listed as the ninth-best film of the previous 25 years.

One might never guess as much talking to Davies, who will be a special guest at Longford’s Still Voices film festival. “I look at someone else’s film, and I immediately feel that my films are inferior,” he says. “I’m conscious of their faults. I think: should have done that. No, that shot was a little too wide. I haven’t made vast amounts of money, the box office. I’m always astounded to get any audience. Because I’ve been to places where, you know, three people have turned up.”

Davies left Liverpool in 1973; Liverpool, however, had other plans. Born into a working-class Catholic family, Davies is the youngest of seven surviving children from 10. His largely autobiographical early films – The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and The Long Day Closes (1992) – are simultaneously nostalgic and anti-nostalgic: the longing for the sense of community, bustling pavement life and wonderful sing-songs of old is offset by recollections a traumatic childhood and an abusive father.

“We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it,” he says of postwar Liverpool in the wonderfully moving collage, Of Time and the City (2008).

“Last time I went it wasn’t the Liverpool that I grew up in,” says Davies. “My Liverpool is a figment of my imagination and my emotions. Because my Liverpool, my world, was very restrictive. But I loved it. It was family, the home, the street, school, the movies and the church. Somehow, something rich came from those restrictions. Isn’t that awful? I don’t feel safe anymore.

“Everything’s changing so fast. That sense of safety and certainty is gone. Society has changed so much. When my mother got married in 1929, it was a Catholic ceremony, and divorce wasn’t a possibility. And the attitude was, if you had a bad husband, like, Oh, that’s awful. My father really was psychotic. And I was hugely influenced by my mother, my sister, my brothers. Like a lot of gay men, you feel at ease with women and girls. Women are funny. They’ve got a great sense of humour.”

My mother used to sing Kevin Barry, of course. I can just hear her beautiful voice! It really opened my heart. Her father was from Louth. I think there’s something in the Irish

Davies, in common with his work, doesn’t nestle snugly within contemporary culture. Unlike most Liverpudlians, he has little interest in football although, growing up, he did enjoy listening to the results on Saturdays as “...it was kind of a wonderful mantra; like the shipping forecast”. Similarly, Liszt, Mahler and Brahms – not The Beatles or Frankie Goes to Hollywood – dominate his Liverpool soundscape.

“I don’t understand the modern world,” says Davies. “When I was growing up popular culture was Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook. The Great American Songbook is one of the great gifts. I can’t say that about modern pop music. You can never hear what the lyrics are anymore. And there’s such a level of ugliness. I’m shocked that people can listen to something like Guns N’ Roses. It’s savage. It’s almost diabolical. There’s no compassion.”

Interviewers are frequently as keen to acknowledge the film-maker’s presumed repression and annoyance, as they are to assess his remarkable body of work. “Unfiltered and bitter”, ran a headline over a 2006 New York Times profile; “Terence Davies is angry, make no mistake”, is the opening gambit in a 2006 interview for the Guardian; “Being gay has ruined my life”, he told the Irish Times in 2011.

In person – or at least over Zoom – Davies is far more witty, charming and warm than many accounts allow for. His enthusiasm for such marvellous, eclectic things as Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl (which he one day hopes to adapt for the screen), Stephen Sondheim musical Mildred Pierce and Anna Manahan’s role in the late 1960s sitcom, Me Mammy, are infectious. He loves such Hibernian English as “sleeveen” (his mother’s word) and “banjaxed” (a favourite of his manager John).

He speaks about his family, very movingly, as if they were in the next room.

“My mother, my two older sisters, and brother had really good voices,” he says. “I was only thinking about that the other day. My mother used to sing Kevin Barry, of course. I can just hear her beautiful voice! It really opened my heart. Her father was from Louth. I think there’s something in the Irish. Rather like the Jewish music. The whole of these islands, for our size, we really do punch above our weight. But there’s that special lovely melancholy in Ireland.”

His early, semi-autobiographical films – The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984),3 Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and The Long Day Closes (1992) – are as lovely and painful as psycho-geography can be. His milieu frequently revolves around stoical women. The women who dominated his youth, both real and fictional, were fabulous, he says.

“The women were full of life. And the costumes for women were gorgeous. They were very strong. The problem now is that, particularly with female actresses, they confuse hardness with strength. And it’s not the same. My mother was incredibly strong, but never, never hard.”

I’ve fought tooth and nail because I was taught: This is the devil’s work. And I prayed on one occasion until my knees bled. When I was becoming aware of being gay, it was a criminal offence in this country

Davies realised he was gay while young and suffered terrible internal torment due to the conflict between his sexuality and his Catholicism.

“I didn’t talk myself out of it”, he recalls. “I was very fervid. From 15 to 22. There were grave doubts. I’ve fought tooth and nail because I was taught: This is the devil’s work. And I prayed on one occasion until my knees bled. When I was becoming aware of being gay, it was a criminal offence in this country. It was when I was 22. I went to evening mass, and asked myself: where was God when they bombed Plymouth? I realised it was a lie. But it has left a lot of damage. I’m still full of dos and don’ts.

“I cannot lie. I’m terrified of pride. I hate any kind of arrogance. And I’m as vain as anybody else. I examine my conscience everyday. And I can still feel guilty for the fact that I told my mother 40 years ago to shut up. I’m a residual Catholic.”

Aged 16, Davies became a shipping office clerk and, later, an accountant, a post he retained for more than a decade.

“I wanted to be an actor but I had to earn a living and trying to get into drama school was very difficult, because there is only the big four in London, and I hated London. Dreadful place. But 12 years on I thought, I can’t waste my life like this. I saw people become embittered because they couldn’t do anything else. I eventually got into drama school in Coventry. It wasn’t a prestigious drama school but it got me out of book-keeping, and whilst I was there, I wrote the first part of the trilogy and I sent it off to the BFI [British Film Institute]. And Mamoun Hassan asked me to go down and see them. I can still remember them saying: you have £8,500, not a penny more, not a penny less. And that changed my life.”

There are obvious parallels between Davies and the subject of his ninth feature, Benediction, which just premiered in Toronto. The film is based on Siegfried Sassoon, the decorated first World War hero, who went on to oppose the conflict, before a life defined by restlessness, loneliness and unsatisfied yearnings.

“About six years ago, Ben Roberts, who now runs the BFI asked if I would be interested in doing something about Siegfried Sassoon. So I went back to research and [discovered] he did everything. He met everybody in the 20th century. It took three years to write the script. He wrote ravishing lyrics. And he was constantly trying to find redemption. But, of course, you can’t find it in other people or institutions.”

Benediction, says Davies, is the best production of his career. They haven’t all gone so smoothly.

“Oh, I can’t tell you,” he says. “It makes it all the harder when you finish shooting. Everybody gave not just 100 per cent of themselves to the last film. The worst was House of Mirth because Gillian Anderson made my life miserable. Six weeks of awful misery. The rest of the cast was lovely, very supportive. But I couldn’t go through that again.”

Terence Davies is a special guest of the Still Voices Film Festival, Ballymahon, Longford, from November 4th-7th

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