Eleven years passed between Terence Davies’ previous dramatic feature, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000), and his latest, a film version of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is screening at American theaters in 2012. During that time, Davies directed the documentary, Of Time and the City (2008), a Liverpool remembrance that could be paired with Kieran Evans’ and Paul Kelly’s 2003 London film Finisterre. In a recent interview at San Francisco’s Prescott Hotel, Davies discussed his approach to adapting works for the cinema and the role of music in his films.
Keyframe: You’ve adapted your writing, Edith Wharton’s and now Terence Rattigan’s. How has your approach to adapting works changed over time?
Terence Davies: The same thing applies to all adaptations. You’ve got to be true to the spirit and the tone of the work. If it’s got to be cinema, then you have to rethink it as cinema. Things change—you may take a tiny moment and expand it, or a big moment and cut it down. But you have to be able to capture the tone.
That way, if you have to write new scenes, which was the case with the Edith Wharton and [The Deep Blue Sea], you have to write with the same ear. And I’ve got an imitative ear. I think, ‘If this scene was in the play, how would he write it?’ or ‘If this scene was in the book, how would she write it?’ The story is relative. Rattigan has a tone, Edith Wharton has a tone.
That’s what’s wrong with a lot of adaptations of Dickens right now in Britain. They don’t have the actors, and they don’t capture the tone. There have been several adaptations of Great Expectations, and the David Lean is the best one. Francis L. Sullivan just is Mr. Jaggers. Martita Hunt is the Miss Havisham.
Keyframe: Are you still running into obstacles securing funds for feature film productions?
Davies: The thing that’s difficult about England is that it’s become obsessed both culturally and politically with the American society. The first thing I’m asked is ‘Who is in it?’ and I say ‘The people who are right for the role.’
What isn’t in the play of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ but is in the movie is when Hester visits William’s mother. I once stayed at this woman’s house where no matter what I’d do, to her mother it was wrong. It was the most miserable two days of my life.
During my eight-year period when no one would give me anything, I’d say ‘I’ll cast anyone you like, but there’s a caveat: For the first two days, you direct them.’ That idea wasn’t taken up—funny, that.
There’s always the business of money. Also, Britain is a televisual culture. In Britain, they don’t know the difference between television and cinema, and there is a difference.
Keyframe: Music is pivotal to your films, and I want to ask about the use of Samuel Barber and the different musical passages in The Deep Blue Sea.
Davies: I’ve known the Barber [Violin Concerto, 2nd Movement] for a long time, I think it’s one of the great violin concertos. When I was writing [the screenplay] I thought, ‘It’s got to be the Barber.’ I was obviously influenced by [David Lean’s 1945] Brief Encounter, which has [Sergei] Rachmaninoff in it, so there was a template. I love the music so much. You hear it full on. If you look at All That Heaven Allows, [Douglas Sirk] does exactly the same, I’m not doing anything different. I just knew it was right.
Other things were more autobiographical. With [Jo Stafford’s] ‘You Belong to Me,’ when I was growing up in the ’50s, there used to be a program on Sunday from noon to 1:30 called Two Way Family Favorites, and it was for all the military in the empire. People in the military and their relatives would write [to request songs]. I remember one Sunday morning my mum switched on the program, and I drifted out into the street and everyone’s doors were open and they were all listening. I’ve always found it incredibly romantic and exotic. It has a double meaning.
Where ‘Molly Malone’ came from I don’t know. I learned it in primary school and I’ve always loved it, it’s such a sad Irish folk song. It’s instinctive.
Keyframe: Your early films were based on your writing. Do you think there’s an autobiographical element to all of your work?
Davies: There is to an extent. Within stories like The House of Mirth and [The Deep Blue Sea], I recollect things I went through. What isn’t in the play of The Deep Blue Sea but is in [the movie] is when [Hester] visits William’s mother. I once stayed at this woman’s house where no matter what I’d do, to her mother it was wrong. It was the most miserable two days of my life. Awful, because the more you try, the worse you become. I remembered that feeling of being in the wrong. Clearly, the mother thinks that William could have done a lot better.
It was a pleasure to write and Barbara Jefford is wonderful as the mother. But I was under a lot of pressure during the editing to take those two scenes out, and I had to fight for them. I love it when she says, ‘Oh, you’ve put the milk in first.’ As though it matters!
Keyframe: What do you think of Hester [in The Deep Blue Sea] and Lily [in The House of Mirth] in relation to each other? Hester’s fate is more ambiguous.
Davies: It’s certainly implied in the end, but at least she’s decided to live, whereas the society that Lily moves in destroys her, because she thinks she can play the game, and she can’t. You’ve got to be really clever and Machiavellian, like Bertha Dorset, to play that game. She’s not, she’s really quite naive.
In [The Deep Blue Sea], someone who is bourgeois would be expected to do the conventional thing, but doesn’t. Hester’s story is more modest, the irony being that she’s a middle-class woman.
Keyframe: Of Time and the City was your first documentary. It draws from the British tradition of documentary but you also impart your own stamp, especially in the ways you weave music and image together.
I did say it’s got to be a personal history. Obviously I was influenced by [Humphrey Jennings’ 1942] Listen to Britain, which is marvelous. It captures the essence of what it was to be British, because in that year, we thought were going to be invaded and occupied. It has this sense of ‘This is what we’re going to lose, forever.’
Getting the documentary really saved my career. I’m enormously grateful to the people who approached me for Of Time and the City, and I’m enormously grateful to Sean [O’Connor] who came by and the Rattigan Trust. It’s revitalized my career. I thought it was over. The response to both has been quite extraordinary.