With A Quiet Passion coming out in theaters this weekend, Terence Davies, one of the greatest living filmmakers, finds himself prolific all of sudden, having two films back to back (with last year's Sunset Song). The film is about Emily Dickinson, a 19th century American poet. It's an exceptionally well-written and acted film, even by Davies' standards. I got a chance once again to talk to him about the poet and his love of poetry.
Screen Anarchy: Was A QUIET PASSION your passion project? How did it come about?
It was sort of four and a half years in the making, really. But I discovered her [Emily Dickinson] when I was 18. About 12 years ago, I started rereading her. Then I wanted to know a little more about her. And I read six biographies. [Chuckles.] And it was…I felt that things in her life I could really respond to. Oh, she didn’t go anywhere but her life was very rich. These were very intelligent people and in her life, she was I think, a little afraid of the world.
But someone said, 'Why make a movie about someone who didn’t go anywhere?' I thought, but that’s great power if you think of it in terms of string quartet, it’s a chamber piece: simple things become very very powerful. Even little trivial things become very powerful because you got this enclosed world.
And all the things that go on in that very close family. and an idea of how to behave morally and ethically and if you fall below that there is huge rouse. So it wasn’t, it didn’t seem like a dull life to me because she had this rich inner life. But she also, you know, was an ordinary person. She baked, she gardened, played piano. She wrote three volumes of letters and over 17,000 poems as well and she was ill. I mean, my god if that wasn’t rich, I don’t know what is.
In our previous conversation that you said making SUNSET SONG was very difficult but the process of A QUIET PASSION was really a pleasure from beginning to end. What was the difference?
We didn’t have enough money to shoot Sunset Song. We really didn’t. It was the most difficult thing I think I've ever done. Every time when the phone rang, I thought, 'O god,what’s gone wrong now?' Even going out to New Zealand, hoping to have some hot weather and they give you a good tax break.
And we get there and have the worst weather there in 50 years. I thought, I could have stayed home and got this weather for free!
Anyway the weather broke and we got those scenes. But there wasn’t just enough money. The post-production dragged on for a long time and we had to keep on raising money to finish it. And by the time that happened, A Quiet Passion was already shot and ready to go. [Chuckles.]
Sheer accident. And it was a joy. I loved working with actors and my crew on Sunset Song but it was hard for all of us. And it was physically unpleasant. Being on a Scottish farm and it's pouring with rain and there was mud everywhere and it stank. Where is the glamour, where is the glamour in this? I asked. But this was a complete joy from beginning to end. Nothing went wrong.
I’m very glad to hear everything went smoothly. How long was the shoot?
Actually, I can’t even remember. I think it was eight weeks.
Only eight weeks?
Eight or nine weeks. What I always say is 'can we have a five-day working week?' The crew got to have two days off, they got to. Otherwise they will be exhausted. So we got a longer period but it was probably the same amount as the shooting for every independent film. But they got to have two days off.
That’s very nice of you.
Well, their hours are so long.
The thing is … I mean there are always showstoppers in your films, like visually striking moments, but this showstopper came in early in this movie for me. It was the portraitures of the Dickinson family morphing from younger selves to older, in the beginning of the film. I thought it was very beautifully done in a pure Terence Davies fashion. I thought, oh my god, there is another one!
It’s the same director of photography you always work with, no? The German cinematographer, Florian…
Florian Hoffmeister. It’s either Florian or Michael McDonough, who shot Sunset Song.
It's because I think they are really, really gifted. But I was gifted with a wonderful crew, anyway. They do work so hard. Most of the crew in Sunset Song were in Luxembourg and A Quiet Passion in Belgium because we built the replica of the Dickenson house there, obviously we could't shoot in the original house where they lived in.
But no, I had wonderful, wonderful people. They don’t do their job, they feel it. You know what I mean? Florian puts on the lens…I can never tell you what lens it is. I just it’s the right one. But Florian is a wonderful man and a great artist.
I know it was shot on digital but I really couldn’t tell. It’s beautifully done.
Yeah. Especially in the beginning where young Emily is standing against the window and all the light coming through the window. I really couldn’t tell. So I doesn’t make much difference to you.
I think digital is really fantastic now. Sunset Song was shot on 65mm because digital really wasn’t up to it. But that’s two, three years ago. Coming of digital is like coming of sound. It would change everything 'cause the things that they can do. It’s breathtaking.
For some of the scenes in Sunset Song, the teams of horses needed to be led by a leader. Because the actors aren’t used to plowing. So I said, 'What do we do?' And the manager of all the digital management says, 'We will take them out'. I said, 'How do you take someone out?' I was completely bewildered. As long as they can do it, I don’t even wanna know.
This film however, is beautifully written. How much of Emily Dickinson’s dialog is based on her actual writing?
I invented most of it. I used some of her dialog but not a lot. The reason I did it like this was because 19th century American English was very formal 'cause they were trying to imitate England. We were still the dominant power and now it’s the totally the other way around.
But also things like The Heiress, which has wonderful dialog, you know. And I wanted it to be good. These were very intelligent people. So I wanted it to be good and funny and shocking and unpleasant. So I constructed it around the idea of American English back then. It was more formal. I used some of her dialog, the dialog of the looming man. It’s almost all hers. I added a sentence, I think. But that is all hers. I read that on the footnote of Seawall’s biography of her.
Once you see the characters, you got to speak in their voices. Sometimes you think, 'No, she wouldn’t say that. I think she’d say like this or like that.' I wanted it to be good in terms of dialog and I wanted it to be funny.
I think Cynthia Nixon really deserves an Oscar for this. You said something about Nixon becoming Emily Dickinson, that she is Emily Dickinson in this film. How did you decide on her to play the role?
Well, I met her from the film that didn’t come off about four, five years ago. And I never forgot her. When we found a little deguerrotype of Emily Dickinson taken when she was 17, one of my producers, who used to be a still photographer, superimposed Cynthia’s face on her’s and she looks like an older version of Emily.
I just knew she’d be right. And when we were talking, she said she had grown up with listening to the disc of Julie Harris reading her poetry. She knew her poetry and more importantly, she could read poetry as well. I just knew she was right. It’s as vague as that. And god bless her! She stayed there for four and a half years. I don’t know what I would have done if she said no. I’d have no idea who to cast.
You cast always perfectly, though, especially female characters in your films.
It’s nip and tuck, though, I mean we hadn’t cast Miss Boffam, five days away from shooting.
We were really worried, I couldn’t tell you. The casting company in Britain told me, we will send you another three. But when Catherine Bailey came on, I said we found her at last. That was it.
Bailey is wonderful, she’s so funny in this.
But it was nip and tuck, I tell you.
How did Keith Carradine come on board?
We were in Los Angeles, auditioning. One of my producers said, 'Listen, Keith Carradine isn’t coming in. He won’t read'. I said, 'Fine, I don’t understand why, but fine'. Then he comes in.
So I asked, 'But Mister Carradine, we were told by your agent that you don't read'. 'No i don’t because I’m a terrible reader. All the jobs I’ve gotten, if I read at the auditions, I wouldn't have gotten the job'. I said, 'Would you mind?' He said, 'No'. And he read. And I said 'Would you do it?' And he said, 'Again?' I said, 'No, the movie'. His agent was very grand. 'My client doesn’t read.' Such nonsense.
Carradine is a lovely, lovely man. He has the most beautiful voice. He’s a singer as well. But the thing that always touches me, even when I think it in my head, after he has told Austin that he can’t go to the war -- that close up he does at the end of that scene -- what a wonderful piece of playing. It leaves me speechless.
Unlike many fathers in your films who are portrayed as brutish, abusive men, Edward Dickinson is a gentle, supportive man. A little bit of a discinplanarian but, nevertheless, a very warm father. I haven’t seen that kind of father figure in your films.
Yes, he is the traditional head of the family and so his words are to be obeyed. But I wanted him to be tender as well. He does answer beautifully to Emilly when she goes, 'But it is your house father'.' And he says, 'But it is your home, Emily.' I mean, you hear such love in his voice. and I wanted that. But he can be very determined. He says, 'No, you are not going'.
Emily Dickinson deals with death and immortality a lot. Do you deal with death and immortality as an artist?
I’m afraid I do. When I was between five and six, my father, who was very violent, died. He died at home and his body was in the house for ten days. It was awful. I’ve seen very early on what really horrible deaths are like. It must’ve put in me that nothing is stable.
That’s why in primary school I wanted my family to stay together forever. They were the most wonderful family. They were just like the one in Meet Me in St. Louis. I never wanted to change. But then as you grow older, you realize that’s a myth. They get married, have children and die.
When I was 18 or 19, I discovered The Four Quartets [by T.S. Eliot] read by Alec Guiness. He read it from memory. I was absolutely knocked out by it. I had no idea what they meant. I read them and they are my template now. I read them at least once a month. It’s some of the most fabulous poetry written in English. He writes in this rather melancholic way about the nature of being and the nature of time. In Prufrock, he’s much more terrified. He is really frightened of just being.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And when it’s repeated, it’s just terror.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Yes, you may not know but Michelangelo, you usually feel inferior and his terrror of coming down the stairs… that is also true. I could respond to that. Because… I live alone and I do things alone and sometimes having to go to places where people I don’t know, it’s so terrifying. I’ve just got no small talk. I just haven’t. I find that very very hard.
But the nature of time in film anyway is always in the eternal present. Where you cut from and to, it’s the next thing which happens but what’s more interesting is cutting to the next emotional thing that matter and leaving out the middle because that’s not really interesting.
I’ve always been obsessed about that and I always will be. Perhaps I will reconcile with The Four Quartets as much as I love. I still find very difficult,
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Beautiful. I think that about wraps it up.
A Quiet Passions opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, April 14.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com