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Interview with A QUIET PASSION writer/director Terence Davies

May 18, 2017

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Was it pure coincidence that I sat down with writer/director Terence Davies during National Poetry Month last month? Maybe. Probably not though, considering his latest film “A Quiet Passion” focuses on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson. Very fitting indeed. Equally fitting was the quiet and meditative Chicago location where the interview took place one afternoon, The Poetry Foundation, while Davies was in town for a special screening of the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Our brief time together was a delight and I found myself observing and admiring how the English filmmaker’s (known for such work as  “Distant Voices, Still Lives” from 1988 and “The Long Day Closes”, released in 1992, “The House of Mirth” from 2000, as well as 2011’s “The Deep Blue Sea”) exuberance and passion for Dickinson and his film became more and more apparent during our time together. 

It turns out he was just as surprised as I was to see another film from him follow the release of last year’s beautiful “Sunset Song“.  I first saw “A Quiet Passion” last fall when it showed at the Chicago International Film Festival and have since it a couple times since and have become mesmerized and increasingly impressed by the film. It features a wonderful lead performance from Cynthia Nixon, who deftly handles the complexities of the poet and is accompanied by a fine supporting cast of women – Emma Bell plays Dickinson in her younger years, Jennifer Ehle plays Dickinson’s sister, Vinnie, and Annette Badland plays their outspoken Aunt Elizabeth. Catherine Bailey standouts in a supporting role as Vryling Buffam, Emily’s bold and confident good friend. We talked about all of these actors and their performances in our brief tea time together, which will most assuredly become one of the most memorable interviews of the year.

I will always remember how Davies passionately recited poetry during the interview transcribed below. Please enjoy…

 

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David J. Fowlie: I was amazed to learn that after watching “Sunset Song” last year, that we have another film from you so soon. Were you amazed too

Terence Davies: Yes. It wasn’t planned that way, I can assure you. What happened was, well we didn’t have enough money for “Sunset Song”. We really didn’t and the post-production period, you know, really did drag on for a long time. Because we kept on having to raise money and, I must say, the bond company had basically insured our film. They went out of their way to be so helpful. I mean, they were just heroic really. But, it dragged on for so long that I was able to shoot this and get it to the final print, because not a single thing went wrong on “A Quiet Passion”. Not one.

DJF: That’s crazy.

TD: It was absolute bliss from beginning to end.

DJF: Well, there goes one of my questions (both laugh). I heard that “A Quiet Passion” took about four years to make. Is that right?

TD: Four and a half.

DJF: And within that time you shot and finished “Sunset Song”?

TD: Yes.

DJF: Wow. So, tell me about those four years. What were the challenges in getting “A Quiet Passion” off the ground?

TD: Well, it’s always the same, really. I won’t cast people who are names. I cast people who I think are right. I don’t care whether they’re well known. There’s the immediate effect it has on the budget as well.  We can only raise a certain amount of money on this particular cast. So, I’ve always had small budgets. It’s just because I’m not part of the mainstream, I don’t cast big stars and all that. So, that makes it difficult and when we were talking about it, when we met in New York, Cynthia – and she was so moving, telling me, “You won’t get money if I’m starring in the film” and I said, “Yes, we will. We’ll find it.” And she was so loyal to us. She stuck with it for four and a half years.  Really loyal. She’s just fantastic. I told her, “I’m really tempted to say “I told you so”, but I’m not going to”.

DJF: Well, you’re spot on when you say she’s fantastic. I saw her not long ago in “James White” – I don’t know if you saw that movie….

TD: No, I have not.

 

 

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DJF: She’s amazing in it. She played the cancer-stricken mother of the title character and I was blown away at her portrayal. I thought to myself, I hope she continues to get substantial roles like this – and then I see she’s playing Emily Dickinson. I know that you’ve been a fan of Dickinson’s work, what did you see about her life that you felt would translate well to cinema?

TD: Well, there were three things really. 1. She was so ill with homesickness that she was taken out of the seminary when she was seventeen and she never left home again. When I was in primary school, I had a very bad chest infection and I was sent from Liverpool to convalesce in North Wales. And I was the same. I was only away a month. It seemed like years. I waited and waited and waited to go home. I hated it. So, I know what she felt like. 2. More important, is her spiritual quest. I was brought up a Catholic and I was very devout, from fifteen to twenty-two. I fought doubt and sometimes prayed till my knees bled and I realized at twenty-two that it was just a lie. And I’m a profound atheist now, although I’ve got all that Catholicism still inside me. She had questioned “Is there a God or is there not?” We’ve got these things called “a soul”, which she fiercely got, but what if there isn’t a God? What then? What are those moral questions and ethical questions that spring up? And she never really comes down on either side – saying, yes there is or no there isn’t – she always implies hope, that there might be something.

There’s only one poem, I think that comes very very close to despair. Which is…


I reason, earth is short

And anguish absolute.
And many hurt;
But what of that?

I reason, we could die:
The best vitality
Cannot excel decay;
But what of that?

I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even,
Some new equation given
But what of that?
I wanted to be true to her. I think what she did was heroic, given all those things. And she was ill as well. You know and what she produced is actually extraordinary and three volumes of letters alone. I wanted to be that, but I wanted it to be not glum. There’s nothing worse than some film about someone great and they look miserable for 90 minutes. Well, there’s nothing interesting in that. She’s an ordinary woman, who happened to be a genius. She had allthe same questions that we all have. And she didn’t think she was good looking. In fact, in the film, she said, “I am a kangaroo among the beauties” and she’s got a lovely face. It’s a lovely face, but that’s not what was considered beautiful in Victorian times. I mean, ideas of beauty do change very quickly – look at the portraits of Tudor women, she was considered very beautiful and you think, “blimey”….DJF: Well done. I think to me what’s so profound about her work is that most of the subjects in her work are questions we all grapple with, but your film made me feel like it was almost as if she was born in the wrong time. She had so much going against her in that period: she wasn’t accepted being a woman writing poetry, the way she behaved or looked….even her spiritual struggles. It’s very relatable since we’re often perceived a certain way and we have similar internal struggles. Your film reminded me that, here’s a woman who has the same questions that so many of us have, man or woman. In writing the screenplay, obviously studying up on Emily, what were the challenges for you as a writer, knowing her and then wanting to present this character on the screen in a relatable manner. Were there challenges in what you wanted to present to the audience?

DJF: Well, look at the art from the Baroque and Rococco Period….

TD: Yes! Each era has an idea of beauty and in the Victorian period, it was round faces. But, I don’t know what it is. There was something heroic about her. Because she was shy and reticent. She certainly isn’t that in her verse, but what she does in her verse, which I think is so moving, she distills everything down to the bare essence and then speaks it with reticence – which makes it so powerful. It’s almost not to be taken seriously. But the one that always breaks my heart is when she says….
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’t you, it pierces your heart!

 

© A Quiet Passion/Hurricane Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films.

 

DJF: My first exposure to Dickinson was Because I Could Not Stop for Death, in high school and to read “Death stopped for me” and I wondered if she was a Gothic poet or along the lines of Edgar Allen Poe, but then I read more about her….it’s almost as it her works are catharsis for both the writer and the reader. We all think of the things she’s writing about – birth, death and struggles of life – but like you said, the way in which she wrote about it, it seems so simple and, at times, almost as it she’s knowingly winking at us. And I like the fact that your picture isn’t glum, there’s this joyous revelry of conversation.

Can you talk about the actors in the film – obviously Cynthia is perfect in the role – but also Jennifer Ehle and Catherine Bailey, who were also great. Can you talk about casting them and their dynamic?

TD: Well, I could tell as soon as I came into the room. We found her. I was doing as lot of casting in Los Angeles and seeing a lot of people and when Jennifer came in, I couldn’t tell her at the time, but I just knew it was her – I just had to hold my tongue – and Emma (Bell, you plays Young Emily Dickinson) the same. You know, because she told a story to one of the publicists when she was waiting to go to the toilet and there was a queue and I went the wrong way – or, I can’t remember – and I asked “Where are the toilets?” and she said, “They’re hear, but there’s a queue!” And then she came in to do the audition and said, “Oh God, I was really rude!” And I told her, “No, you weren’t. Don’t be silly.” You know, she said, “I’m so embarrassed.” I said to her, “There’s no need, since it looked as though I was jumping the queue. You’re quite right to be ticked off.” (laughs) And she gave a marvelous audition.

DJF: Was there something different that you wanted to present with a young Emily Dickinson as portrayed by Bell, compared to Nixon’s Dickinson, who we spend the most time with?

TD: Well, the important thing is to lay down what the story is about.  The first thing is, it’s about religion. She will not be told what to do, even though in the second close-up, after she’s being berated by Miss Lyons, she actually looks frightened and she swallows and her eyes almost fill with tears. And you look at her and she’s thinking, “What if she’s right? What if Miss Lyons is right?” And as Miss Lyons goes on and we cut back to her, we know she’s not right at all and “I’m not going to budge an inch”. Also, little bits of comedy and introducing Aunt Elizabeth (wonderfully played by Annette Badland), it just gives you the template for the rest of the film, but it needed that to show that she was a very vibrant young girl, a very intelligent one. But, where her soul is concerned, no one tells her what to do and that’s really really important – and that she was clever and that they all were. Aunt Elizabeth is an amalgamation of two aunts, because one of the aunts was twenty-six when she became an aunt and didn’t like it at all and was very hard going when she visited. I thought, no, I’ll make it into two aunts, but slightly older and make her sort of an American Lady Bracknell (from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest), she says exactly what she thinks and she thinks everything she says is right.

DJF: I love that scene. I loved her character (Annette Badland’s Aunt Elizabeth) and I loved her scene where we get to know how the family responds to the aunt. I think it was just splendid. It was wonderful. Can you talk about Catherine Bailey’s character as well? Was she an amalgam as well or was she based on an actual person?

TD: No, what happened was Vryling Buffam was actually Vinnie’s  (Jennifer Ehle’s character) friend and I thought with a name like that, she’s got to be fun….

DJF: So, there was actually a person named Vryling Buffam?

TD: (laughs) Yes, indeed there was and she did marry Mr. Wilder, who was the professor of mathematics and I saw a photograoph of her when she was about forty and she looks like side board and completely humorless – and I thought, “This is going to be poetic license – with a name like that – and she encourages the rebel in Emily, but says, “Don’t go too far. There’s certain things that you don’t do.” But, she’s honest. At one point, Emily says, “That’s hurtful.” And she says, “Yes, but it’s honest”. And that’s, I think they loved one another in a way that we don’t know. In the 19th Century, men and women had very deep relationships with other men or other women and it was not sexual. They were just sort of soul mates. And when she loses her, it’s like the end because she finds it extremely difficult to make friends. And so Vryling has got to represent all the people that probably died or went away or got married and she says to her, in the very beginning, “If you ever go, I’ll miss you. Your honesty is sublime.” To which she says, “Honesty isn’t the best policy.”

 

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DJF: Yeah, I love that response. Do you feel like after those important figures left Emily’s life that she started to become more of a recluse?

TD: You see, I don’t think she was a recluse. I think she came back from the seminary, ecstatic that she was back home. This was a haven that would always be warm and loving. Unfortunately, family’s grow up and die and go away. And when the time comes for you to realize that the haven has become a prison, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s too late. And I think that’s what happened.

DJF: And because she wasn’t naturally an extrovert, she withdrew to her passion.

TD: Yes.

DJF: What’s next for you and can we expect you to keep up this pace of releasing a a film ever year?

TD: (laughs) Oh dear. Yes, I think I’m in danger of becoming prolific (both laugh). Well, I was sent a lovely novel by an American called Richard McCann, it’s called Mother of Sorrows. That’s already written, we’re casting it and we’re trying to raise the money now. And I’m writing at the moment, a film about Siegfried Sassoon, one of the three great war poets from England, during the first World War – Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen killed, of course, but Sassoon survived and like a lot of gay men he got married and then converted to Catholicism, of all things. And he’s the complete reverse of Emily. He went everywhere. He knew everybody. There isn’t a single person in the 20th Century that he didn’t meet. He probably even met Jack the Ripper for all I know (both laugh).

DJF: Sounds great. I look forward to your future work and I really appreciate your time today and meeting you.

TD: You’re more than welcome. Thank you.

 

© A Quiet Passion/Hurricane Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films.

 

“A Quiet Passion” receives a limited theatrical release on May 19th here in the States and will play locally at the gorgeous Music Box Theatre.

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