Terence Davies interview: Acclaimed Liverpool-born filmmaker
A lifetime of shunning the mainstream means Terence Davies faces an uphill funding battle on most of his projects, yet the Liverpool-born filmmaker continues undeterred.
The acclaimed director’s latest offering, ‘A Quiet Passion’, charting the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, was years in the making but is finally on course to hit uk cinemas in early April.
Your Move caught up with Terence to discuss his inspirations, casting choices and the role his home city has played in shaping his distinguished career.
Interview by Mark Langshaw
What inspired you to make a film about Emily Dickinson’s life?
When I was in my teens Granada used to do these 15-minute films on people each Sunday. They did one on her and it was Claire Bloom reading ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. I had never heard of her before but that programme inspired me to run out and buy a little anthology of her work.
About eight or 10 years ago I revisited that book and wanted to know more about her, so I read about six biographies and realised Emily’s story was fascinating. She never moved out of her house, just withdrew into the family and wrote these extraordinary poems which were not well known in her lifetime.
That really drew me to her because when there are people like Emily who didn’t make it in their own lifetime, I have a great feeling for them because, in her case especially, she should have been much more well known.
I think she’s the greatest 19th Century poet because in her day she was so modern, and that’s the reason I wanted to do the film. I love her poetry but her story is absolutely extraordinary – she withdrew from the world yet had such a rich inner life.
By all accounts she led a relatively low-key life. Was that challenging to turn into something audiences would engage with?
All you can do is write it in a way you feel does justice to the person. You don’t know what an audience will think until they’ve seen it and by then it’s too late unfortunately.
If the film makes people go and read Emily’s work that would be wonderful because she is a great, great poet. But at the same time, I realised when I was shooting the film that she was an ordinary person as well.
She liked to dance, play the piano and do all kinds of things ordinary people enjoy – she just also happened to be a genius.
Cynthia Nixon plays Emily in the film. What is it about her that was a good fit for the part?
I met Cynthia many years ago working on one of my films which never came off and I’d never forgotten her. As I was researching Emily Dickinson I realised there was only one photograph of her in existence, taken when she was 17. The film’s producer Sol Papadopoulos is a former stills photographer and he superimposed Cynthia’s face on the 17-year-old Emily and they looked exactly the same.
When I was writing the film I kept seeing Cynthia in my head and knew she was absolutely right for the role. Once the script was finished I contacted her and she confirmed she would do it, but touchingly said ‘you won’t make any money from something I’m starring in’. We did, though mostly thanks to Roy Boulter and Sol at Liverpool production company Hurricane Films.
Cynthia asked me whether I wanted her to read for the part but I said no. Sometimes you just know a person is right for a role. She even knew Emily’s work and can actually read poetry wonderfully well – a lot of Americans can’t.
You’re a critically acclaimed filmmaker so why do you find it so difficult to get a movie made?
It’s difficult for several reasons. Firstly, the things I’m interested in are not considered commercial – if I was to pitch a film about a woman who writes poetry and then dies to a mainstream producer I would quickly be shown the door.
Also, I cast because I think a person is right for the role. I don’t give a damn about whether they are famous or not. You’re always pressured to use big names but if they come on board and can’t deliver it’s always me who gets the blame. I’m not prepared to take that risk.
Another reason it’s difficult for me to get films made is because a lot of people don’t like what I do and they’ve told me. I see things visually in a very specific way and that’s not up everybody’s street. Some people hate it – they think it’s slow, pompous, self-important and all that.
I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. I’m very much an acquired taste and unfortunately that makes it difficult to raise money because film is very expensive. It’s getting less so because of the rise of digital but nobody is going to give me vast amounts of money. You can’t live on good reviews.
“I love the Liverpool of the past, the place where I was born. It will always have a special place in my heart.”
As you’ve already mentioned, you often resist casting big name actors. Is there anybody in the industry you would break that rule for?
The problem with big names is that they come onto the scene and the audience immediately thinks ‘oh it’s so and so pretending to be so and so’. Big names have done too many films already and we can’t afford their fees – I don’t think any actor or actress is worth £20 million, I don’t care who they are.
You don’t get a performance out of a big name actor. What you get is a series of mannerisms and that’s not interesting to me, which is why I’m very stringent about who I cast. I don’t tell my cast members to act, I tell them to feel it – this is subtler and more difficult to draw out of somebody.
How much of an influence has the city of Liverpool had on you creatively?
It’s had an enormous effect because obviously it’s where I grew up. The only drawback about the city for me is that it’s no longer the place I once knew. So much has been knocked down since then and that upsets me because many of the buildings I was fond of are gone.
When I was growing up in Liverpool, people like me from a large working class family didn’t go into the movies, they just didn’t. It was a very upper class occupation. I ended up getting into directing by accident because I originally wanted to write and act.
I love the Liverpool of the past, the place where I was born. It will always have a special place in my heart. I don’t recognise the Liverpool I see when I go home now but perhaps that happens to all people when they grow old.
Can you reveal what your next cinematic project is going to be?
I’ve already completed a script based on a wonderful American novel called ‘Mother of Sorrows’. I’m trying to raise the money for that and cast it. I’m also writing a film about Siegfried Sassoon who’s one of the great First World War poets – hopefully we’ll have that finished to come out in 2018 to commemorate 100 years since the end of the First World War.