Terence Davies turned his gaze inward at the beginning of the career. His early shorts and features, like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, were autobiographical efforts featuring a large working class Catholic family very much like his own. (He was the youngest of ten children.) Stateside audiences know the 66-year-old director best for his brutally unflinching 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, which depicted turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century New York high society as a den of vipers. Gillian Anderson's fall from grace in that production is still, for this reporter, the stuff of nightmares.
Davies' latest film, The Deep Blue Sea, brings playwright Terence Rattigan's 1952 play to the screen with the meticulous attention to period detail and languorous pace his admirers have come to expect from him. (It is not to be confused, naturally, with the shark movie Deep Blue Sea, in which Samuel L. Jackson is eaten by ultra-fast, genetically altered sharks.) Rachel Weisz stars as the clingy and suicidal Hester Collyer, who leaves her husband William, a High Court judge played by venerable stage actor Simon Russell Beale, for the younger Freddie, a dashing – and troubled – Royal Air Force pilot played by Thor's Tom Hiddleston. Hester's suffocating devotion, her neglectful lover's mercurial personality, and her mama's boy of a husband's passive-aggressive bid to reunite form a perfect triangle of emotional disconnect. The play was inspired by the suicide of an actor with whom Rattigan had been romantically involved, a fact not lost on Davies, whose queer sensibility is palpable in all his work.
Miamiartzine sat down with Davies earlier this month at the Standard Hotel in Miami Beach during his first South Florida visit to attend the screening of The Deep Blue Sea at the 29th Miami International Film Festival. The film reportedly received a standing ovation following its festival showing at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Please note that this interview contains minor spoilers you may not want to know before going to see The Deep Blue Sea.
MIAMIARTZINE: So, what's your first impression of Miami Beach and what you've seen so far?
TERENCE DAVIES: It's exotic, because you come in and the air's so warm. It's freezing in London. Everything seems wide and big. [The Standard reminds me of] the des Bains Hotel in Death in Venice but without the cholera, thank God. (laughs)
MAZ: I saw The Deep Blue Sea last week, and I just couldn't put my finger on what the visuals reminded me of. And then, of course, I started thinking about Douglas Sirk. Was he at all an influence when you were conceiving what the film should look like?
TD: Not really, although when I was growing up I was taken to see films like Magnificent Obsession or All That Heaven Allows. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing as well. They were all big pictures and they were all in color. After [World War II], Great Britain was bankrupt, and everything was faded and old. There were very few primary colors. Very few. You saw them in school, but you didn't see them very often outside of it. When [Hester] is putting on that claret cloak it looks ravishing, because it's one of the only primary colors we actually see. The biggest influences [on The Deep Blue Sea] were, in fact, black and white films [like] Letter from an Unknown Woman and Brief Encounter.
MAZ: Yeah, I was thinking Brief Encounter as directed by Douglas Sirk. (Davies laughs) You mentioned World War II, and I feel that's a big elephant in the room throughout the entire film. I almost felt like the characters were representing the state England was in after the war. Did that factor in when you were doing the adaptation?
TD: It was not conscious, but you must remember: What did Britain get out of the war? Not a lot. We were even refused the Marshall Plan, and we owed the United States so much money. Two years ago, we'd only just paid off the debt. It was very constrictive, but what is peculiar about it is that after the war it was thought that Britain would go back to exactly the way it was in terms of class structure [but] the war had shattered that. And here we have the most radical government in 150 years. But people still kept their old values, of behaving properly, of behaving honorably. Even working class people had a sense of how to behave and how not to behave. You did not, for instance, have an argument in public. That was considered absolutely outrageous. And a woman never, ever went into a pub to get her man out. All these things which are gone now, but I know what they were like. It adds to the raw passion of the time. [Hester] is someone who is extremely conventional doing the most unconventional thing, which is that she leaves her husband for a younger man and experiences sex at 40.
MAZ: You've said you were a devout Catholic until you turned 22. What happened?
TD: You were taught to believe that here was the one true religion. Also, what was pernicious was, if you had any kind of doubts about your faith, this was the work of the devil and you must fight it. And that's what I did for seven long years. I prayed until my knees bled, and no succor came. The last time I went to mass, after the offertory I remember thinking, “It's all a lie, these men in frocks.” And I got up and walked out.
MAZ: You've been quoted that you feel pretty miserable being gay in several interviews. Has that changed at all over the years?
TD: It's utterly ruined my life. It would be different if I'd been good looking and people thought I was the most gorgeous thing on two legs, but I am not good looking, I don't have a good body, and I am not that good in bed. And also, coming from a large working class background, that kind of thing was considered beyond the pale. My mother, one of my sisters and one of my brothers were very, very kind and supportive, but the others were shocked. [They told me], “it's all in the mind, you don't know what you are talking about,” and you think, 'well, there's no point in arguing.' But it has been a canker in my soul, for a long, long time, which is why I'm celibate.
MAZ: Still, huh?
TD: Someone said that you shouldn't indulge in sex, drugs and rock and roll. Well, I don't do sex, I don't do drugs, and I don't like rock and roll. What's left is furnishings, which I'm not terribly excited about.
MAZ: Would this suggest that you identify with the judge in the movie?
TD: No, I identify with Hester.
MAZ: But she has a sexual awakening in the film.
TD: Yes, she does, but she also wants to do the honorable thing, and by doing the honorable thing and being true to herself, she hurts William. But of course, Freddie hurts her because he can't give her what she wants. None of them can get the kind of love [that they want] from each other. That's why it's tragic, because love, of all human emotions, is the strangest and the most powerful. Because of what it can do destructively and what it can do creatively.
MAZ: The character of William's mother. Did you draw upon personal experience, any women in your life, to write that particular character?
TD: I did, actually. Before I moved to London, I stayed in someone's house, because I'd never been to Hampton Court. [This is the royal palace King Henry VIII had originally built for Cardinal Wolsey circa 1514.] No matter what I did, everything I did was wrong. When I offered to wash up, I used too much washing liquid. I used up too much bathwater. It was awful. And no matter how much I tried to appease them, it was wrong. And I thought it would be interesting to see [William's] relationship with his mother, which is not in the play at all. He's a grown man and still calls her “Mum.” That's very common in the upper class in England. They still do it, which I find it extraordinary that grown people call their parents “Mommy” and “Daddy.” You do that when you're 12, but not when you're 52.
MAZ: Oh, in Latin culture – I'm Puerto Rican – we call them “Mami” and “Papi” until the day we die.
MAZ: Yeah, that's something we have in common.
TD: There's something unpleasant about it. For heaven's sake, grow up! (laughs)
MAZ: Let's talk about the camerawork. I was enthralled about what Florian [Hoffmeister] was able to accomplish.
TD: Gorgeous. It's gorgeous.
MAZ: Not just the slow [camera] pans you're known for, but also that overhead shot [of Weisz and Hiddleston having sex as the camera rotates above them]. How did you collaborate with him?
TD: I write every shot that's in the film, and I've always done that simply because I've always had very small amounts of money, and that's a way to husband your resources. It cost $2.5 million when we shot it, in 25 days. So you've got to know what you're doing. You give [crew members] references, like showing them photographs of people in the Underground during the Blitz, with these small pools of light. All of us spoke in terms of color as metaphor, which was very, very exciting, and they got the look [of the film] very quickly.
MAZ: It doesn't look like a modestly budgeted film at all. It's quite extraordinary. So, let's talk about the piece of classical music that you use at several intervals throughout the film. How did you come to choose it?
TD: I've known the [Samuel] Barber Violin Concerto for a long time. It's one of the great violin concertos of the Twentieth Century. When he wrote it originally [in 1939] it was only two movements, and the violinist for whom he wrote it said, “No, no, you've got to have a third movement because I've got to show off my technique.” So the third movement is a little weak. But I've always wanted to use it, and when I started doing the adaptation of the play, I thought, “That's the one!”
MAZ: You got Tom Hiddleston to play this role [Freddie], and I think the most devastating moment in the film, the one that still stays with me, is that pause when he's about to close the suitcase. Do you remember that?
TD: Yes. (smiles)
MAZ: Was that something that was very deliberate? Was it something that he actually did (of his own accord)?
TD: You know what the overall pace is, and you let the actors breathe. I think it says on the text, “he closes the suitcase,” but what you don't realize is that [the suitcase] has got these mechanic clips on it, and the sound is huge because of the silence. I do know about silence, because I come from a large working class family, and if there were arguments, and they all subsided, I could not bear those silences. They're unbearable, so that every sound becomes amplified, like the cleaning of [Freddie's] shoes, which don't need cleaning, because they already shine. They do what I asked them to do: “I don't want you to act. I want you to feel it.” And then wonderful things happen, like when Freddie gets his hat [in that scene]. He doesn't get it the first time; he gets it the third time. That's a wonderful bit of serendipity.
MAZ: You use tunes from the period throughout the film, like “Molly Malone” during the Blitz [flashback], and [because the characters onscreen are singing them], they almost make the movie feel at times like a musical. Is that a genre that you'd like to explore down the line?
TD: I grew up on the American musical when it was at the height of its power. Unfortunately, the one I'd love to do, Follies, the copyright is split between Stephen Sondheim and the other people [involved in the musical, even though] I actually met [Sondheim] and he said, “I'd love you to do it.” But no one's writing them anymore.
MAZ: I don't know if you're aware of it, but in the U.S., they're making a comeback, though mostly on television.
TD: In Britain, it's onstage. Singin' in the Rain on the stage. You heart just sinks. Why bother? Everything else is written by Andrew Rice Pudding. Boring, boring, boring!
MAZ: But wasn't Mamma Mia! the biggest hit in England's film history?
TD: The songs are so banal.
MAZ: (sheepishly) Well, it's ABBA.
TD: And when you look at the great musicals, even the ones that are minor, they've got lovely songs, lovely lyrics, they're clever, they're witty. I just don't hear that now. I just hear rhyme, I just hear doggery, and that's not interesting. Look at, say, something like – brush up your Shakespeare – Kiss Me Kate. Full of wit: “She'll think your behavior is heinous, Kick her right in the Coriolanus.” I can't think of anyone writing that now. No one would do it, because is as clever or as sophisticated. Its day has gone. Its day peaked and then died, like every genre does. It will never, ever be the same, because the studios were geared to produce musicals. Now it's a sausage machine, and with a sausage machine, you only produce sausages.
MAZ: I still think there's room in this world for Terence Davies' Follies. I'd like to see that.
TD: Follies is just fabulous.
MAZ: What was the one they did about the killers. Um...
TD. That's too dark. That's almost--
MAZ: You can handle it.
MAZ: You made The House of Mirth! Do you know how depressed I was after I saw that? For, like, an entire week. It was excellent, terrific but, man, I wanted to slash my wrists! One more question: You shot The Deep Blue Sea in 35 millimeter?
MAZ: That's a dying art. You realize more and more people are going the digital route.
TD: Yes, and it will take over. It will. What it still just hasn't got is that extra bit of subtlety. Because we did a lot of tests [on several formats]. We ran all the tests together, and Florian asked me, “Which one do you like?” And I said, “That one.” And he said, “35 mill.” One day [the digital format] will be so good. The real drawback is not even what it will look like, it's because it's so quick to do a cut, you have to fight to keep [every shot] in. All the way through the cutting period, two of the people who put money [in the film] wanted the scenes with [William's] mother dropped. I said, “No, you're wrong.” It was a real struggle.