By Paul Risker.
While Sunset Song (2015) takes us on a journey into the world of Kinraddie, Scotland pre-World War I and during the ensuing war years, for British filmmaker Terence Davies it is the culmination of a journey. Perhaps it would be more apt to describe it as a struggle, because if things had have gone to plan then the adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gribbons’ novel would have preceded both The House Of Mirth (2000) and The Deep Blue Sea (2011). With a strange twist of irony, while Davies struggled on with a determined spirit to adapt Gribbons’ novel, two other female characters would come to occupy his attention: Gillian Anderson’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea.
Consequently Sunset Song appears as a natural extension of Davies’ oeuvre as Chris (Agyness Deyn) follows in the footsteps of her two tragic predecessors, adding to Davies’ enduring attraction to the fall of women, or rather woman as subjugated to the harsh and even cruel hardships inherent to modern culture. Chris’ journey, however, is less one of self-destruction compared to Collyer’s fate nor is as implicit as Bart in orchestrating her struggles. Thus Sunset Song is a powerful meditation on the influence of religion on the fate of a mother and war on her daughter’s future fate. Collectively The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea, and Sunset Song build to the emotional crescendo. And while for the time Sunset Song forges a trilogy of films with women as the central characters, this synchronicity with Davies’ earlier Trilogy (1983) will be disrupted by his upcoming Emily Dickinson biographical drama, A Quiet Passion (2016).
In conversation with Film International, Davies reflected on the struggle to bring Sunset Song to the screen, the nature of the filmmaking process as being centered upon a series of deaths and the intertwinement of the filmmaker with critics and audience. He also shared his thoughts on the cruel nature of the creative process for filmmakers and composers, seeking out the essence over the literal and accepting his perceived limitations.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
When I left school I went into an accounting practice as a trainee bookkeeper. I had to earn a living obviously, but I knew that was not for me. I worked with lovely people, but I just thought: I can’t spend my life in an office doing books, and I started to act with an amateur company at the weekend, and I began to write. I thought originally that I wanted to act and write, and when I got into drama school it was quite by accident. I had written the first part of the Trilogy (Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983)), and I’d sent it all over England, and everyone had turned it down. But then I sent it to the BFI production board and they said: “Come down and see me” and so I did. And the man who ran it said to me: “You have eight and a half thousand pounds, not a penny more and you will direct.” I said: “Well I have never directed before” and he said: ‘Now’s your chance.” So it happened quite by accident.
Over the course of your career how has your perspective of the filmmaking process changed?
Well it is a collaborative effort, but the main vision has to be the director’s – it can’t really be anyone else’s. I’ve been very lucky with the actors and the crews I’ve had that have liked the stories I’ve wanted to tell because it’s collaborative, and in the end we are all contributing to the finished film. Obviously the various things that change it are the directing and the people you cast; how they look. And then when it gets to the cutting stage it goes through yet another metamorphosis, as you are trying to find out what the real story is despite the fact that it might be linear. But you have to keep in your heart the voice and the eye with which you saw it when you first wanted to do the piece. This has to be protected and that can sometimes be very hard.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. As a writer/director, the latter of which involves you in the editing process, is this a perspective you would share?
Well it is not so much different versions as it’s three deaths really – the death of the idea when you put it on the page, the death of that idea when you’ve shot it, and the death of that idea when you cut it. But through that death you find the life of the new film and that’s the journey you go on. It’s all part of it and it’s not so much versions of things being reinterpreted.
You’ve been trying to make Sunset Song for a considerable number of years.
Can you offer a brief overview of how Sunset Song’s journey to the screen unfolded?
Well we managed to get some money in 2000 to write the screenplay, and then the climate in Britain changed because the British Film Institute (BFI) and the U.K. film Council which was then set up, were very hostile towards anything that they thought was elitist. I was one of the victims – one of many I can tell you. But I never stopped believing in it, even though I thought it would probably never get made. Then two or three years ago, Bob Last who was the original producer said: “Just think, we might get it made this time.” This time we had some money, but it wasn’t enough, which made the shooting and the cutting and all the rest of it very difficult. But it was something that we all took a chance on and we couldn’t have made it without the participation and support of the actors, the crew, the financiers and the bond company. They were really wonderful and it was a very hard shoot because it just wasn’t enough money, and I don’t want to go through that again. It’s the only time I’ve had that experience and I will not go through that again because it is too stressful. But somehow we seemed to have managed to make a film that’s not half bad.
“Not half bad” is underplaying the accomplishment of the film. Your cinema requires an investment from the audience, wherein you are building to a finish and the film cannot be judged until the film is over. It’s not so much about the individual steps of the journey, but about where those steps lead us. How would you respond to such an appraisal?
Well the problem is when the films are finished they don’t seem to have anything to do with me. Obviously I am delighted that people like it, but by the same token I’ve had some little vicious and personal attacks – that’s not pleasant. A critic is entirely right to say he doesn’t like it, but what they don’t have the right to do is to attack it personally – that’s very hard. But once the film is finished I don’t feel that it has anything to do with me… I just don’t, and I never see them again because I’ve seen them so often in the post production period. Once you have finished, then the last act if you like is the audience completing it by interpreting what they see. It’s wonderful if they like it, but if they don’t like it you’ve got to accept that too, and I think it is as basic and as simple as that.
Does this process of the audience completing the film translate as as a transfer of ownership? And is this the journey of any film or less specifically any piece of art?
Yes, because in the end that is ultimately what you are making it for – an audience to look at it and to hopefully like it. You can’t predict that, no one can. But it is not so much ownership because as it goes out into the world it has to either survive or die. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you care about what you do then when it dies that’s very hard to bear. But you have to do it because you have to say: I did my best and I didn’t do it well this time. But once it has been seen then it’s no longer yours. It just isn’t, and I never feel that I’ve had anything to do with these films at all – it’s as if another person has made them.
Expanding the idea of a film dying to a piece of music, there are those memorable pieces of classical works composed by for example a revered composer such as Ludwig Van Beethoven that were once lost in the shadows and yet were resurrected. Art has a way of enduring even amongst hostility and there is always an opportunity for it to be resurrected and rediscovered to moderate appreciation or great acclaim. I’d argue that for a film encountering a death, it is not necessarily a definitive one as rebirth is a possibility.
Yes, and I think that’s true. But what is also true are the minor composers or the minor filmmakers that made their films or composed their music with as much passion as everybody else, and that makes it sad when – particularly with classical music which I love – you hear some music by someone you don’t know; a [Erik] Satie or someone like that. And then you realise why you don’t hear it very often is because it is not that memorable. I find that very sad because I am sure Satie felt just as much passion as anybody else when he was writing those pieces. That’s the corollary of it because very little floats the cod, it really, really does, and for all those people who it doesn’t float to the top for then that’s not very nice for them is it?
While to create can be rewarding, so it can be equally a painful and cruel process, and so as critics we should try to keep this in mind and try be fair and respectful in our honesty.
Yes it can, and when it’s directed in a malign way I don’t think that it is justifiable because it’s not just unkind, it’s uncivilised. But there are always exceptions to that. The pithy dismissal of a film can sometimes be really quite memorable because the writer had wit. For I am A Camera (1955), the review said: “I am a camera, me not Leica.”
Music has a prominent role not only in Sunset Song, but throughout your cinema. How do you perceive the role music plays in shaping the final film as well as creating a specific sense of feeling?
I grew up on the American musical and the great musicals were made in the fifties, and that is nothing but colour and music and sound in a way. So I grew up with that and you sort of imbibe that into you like a language. I didn’t know that, but I think that’s what it was. The worst sort of use of music in a film is when it is trying to create a drama that just isn’t there, because then it becomes just noise. It’s far better to just use silence because when you get the right piece of music with the moving image, you know it’s right. Look at the opening sequence of The Big Country (1958), which is not a good film. But it has a great opening sequence and it’s a great score, especially as the film is not as good as that [laughs]. And look at Psycho (1960). Without that score by Bernard Herrmann there really would not be a film. Great music does not tell you what to feel; it merely prepares you for it, and that’s what’s really difficult. And when that is done, it’s just magic. At the beginning of Psycho there’s Saul Bass’ wonderful graphics to Bernard Herrmann’s score, and by the end of that opening credit sequence you are on edge all the time because it is so disconcerting. And Saul Bass did the opening sequence for The Big Country as well, and with a fabulous tune. But when it’s right you know it’s right, and when’s it’s wrong it’s just tiresome, and it just gets on your nerves or it does mine anyway [laughs].
The way in which you have adapted Sunset Song it feels as if the soul of the book intertwines with the soul of the film. Was this an intentional sense of feeling you were trying to provoke?
No, I just had to be truthful to the end of the book which is transcendent and so I wanted to try and get over how that transcendence is achieved. In the book the whole of Kinraddie go up to the standing stones and there is a sermon by a minister about forgiveness. But what we shot was just not interesting – it was flat grey light and terribly high winds. As we’d only seen the people from Kinraddie in the dinner scene and at the wedding, it was interesting to make that ending domestic – to let the sun come up on her parlour first and then the kitchen, which is inaccurate because the sun comes up at the same time, not at different times – that was a poetic licence. And then to have him say: “I’ve come home Chris, I’ve come home” it becomes domestic. Then we see her against the sky, against the standing stones, against the mountains and then we see the piper and that closing voiceover is taken directly from the book, and I think I caught the essence of it without being literal.
The dialogue like prose compelled me to question how books allow us to contemplate, while film has a forward momentum. As readers we are in control over the literary experience, but as spectators of a film we lack that level of control.
Well I think you are very right in that we have control when we read a book, but we don’t have control when we are watching images in front of us. It is trying to capture the essence, but not literally that which it is. If you capture a feeling then that can be more powerful because cinema captures the small things, the fleeting moments, as well as the important moments. If she’s just sitting in a chair in a room that’s all she is, but it becomes transformed by what we juxtapose it with because that changes it. It is not just a woman sitting in a chair, it becomes something more than that. But it comes back to trying to get the essence of what that part of the story was telling you. But you have got to make a filmic version of it and not a literal version because that’s what’s wrong with a lot of television – television demonstrates; real film reveals.
Having adapted both plays and novels, is there a difference in the adaptation process or is it similar?
Well you are dealing with a set text, which on the one hand is helpful because you know what the story is and so you don’t have to contrive the end. But the difficulty is trying to keep to the essence of the book and knowing what you have to leave out and what the story is. And that through story has to remain uninterrupted unless the film is about an interrupted journey, which is something quite different. But you have that set text and then the problem is how do I make it in terms of images and not turning a page, because those two actions are completely different. And that’s the template really, how do I tell it cinematically while keeping true to the novel or the play? It is as simple as that really and it’s just hard.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Meanwhile French filmmaker Abner Pastoll suggested that the change is connected to the audiences perspective of the filmmaker. Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I can’t answer that because I don’t see myself in those terms, and when I compare myself to other directors I always feel like the inferior one. I just do and that’s the truth; it’s not false modesty. I think: Oh look, they’ve done wonderful things, lots of money and a great success. But I can’t do that. I’d like to be able to, but I must confess that I can’t do what the mainstream does; I just can’t do it. I wish I was able to, but I can’t.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.