TERENCE DAVIES ON THE TRILOGY

Interview recorded on 6th May 2005

Andy Kimpton-Nye: BEFORE YOU MADE YOUR VERY FIRST SHORT FILM – 'CHILDREN' - WHAT HAD YOU BEEN DOING?

Terence Davies: Well I was acting in my spare time in Liverpool because I had to earn my living and I was in an accountant’s office – I was going to be an accountant! Oh, a real living death!… And I used to act in the evening and write. And I‘d done the first half of the script for The Trilogy… for 'Children' and I’d sent it all over England and everybody had turned it down. And anyway so I thought it can’t be any good. Anyway I applied for drama school, I couldn’t get into any of the London ones because I hated London. I got into one in the Midlands and it was there in the first year that I finished it, the script of 'Children' and sent it off again and everyone again turned it down. And I used to go home every three weeks then because I couldn’t bear being away from home longer than three weeks and there was a series on television called ‘Cinema Now’ and one week it was on the (British Film Institute's) Production Board. I sent off my script to the Production Board and later on in that year Mamoun Hussan asked me to come down to London and said ‘you have eight and a half thousand pounds, not a penny more, you will direct’. I was terrified.

SO BEFORE YOU MADE 'CHILDREN', HOW LONG HAD YOU WANTED TO BE A FILM MAKER?

I hadn’t wanted to be a film maker at all. I wanted to act. I went to the movies a lot because my sister took me or I went on my own. I went all the time. And it was mainly American musicals, what were called those days ‘a woman’s picture’, usually romantic and so that was what I was brought up on. I wanted to act because I’d seen in ’52, when I was just 8 or so, 8 or 9, the first cinemascope film ‘The Robe’ and I fell in love with the man who played Caligula because he was as camp as Christmas and had all the best lines and I remembered all his dialogue. So that’s when I decided I wanted to act and as I said I did lots of amateur stuff in Liverpool but it was only when Mamoun said you will direct and I thought ‘oh God’ you know... But the first time I looked down the camera, something happened. Some magic happened. I’d never done it before and the crew, apart from the cameraman Bill Diver, loathed the script, they loathed the way I directed it and they said so. We’d set up shots and they’d go ‘tut!’ and it was awful. It was shot over three weeks, it was misery. Bill would drive me home every night in tears and I’d say, you know, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, they hate it, they hate it’. And he said ‘you’ve got to do what you feel is right’. So I did but it was a baptism by fire.

WHEN I WATCH 'CHILDREN' AND OBVIOUSLY 'MADONNA AND CHILD' AND 'DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION', I SEE A LOT OF THE COMMON TERENCE DAVIES STYLES THAT I SEE IN THE FEATURE FILMS IN TERMS OF FRAGMENTED MEMORY, LOOSELY CONNECTED EPISODES BETWEEN PRESENT AND PAST AND FUTURE AS OPPOSED TO AN OBVIOUS NARRATIVE, OBVIOUSLY THE USE OF CERTAIN POPULAR MUSIC, THAT’S ALL THERE IN YOUR SHORT FILMS, SO WHERE DID THIS FILM MAKER COME FROM WHO HADN’T MADE HIS FIRST FILM BEFORE?

When you go to the movies a lot, you absorb it at a deep level. It’s completely sub-conscious. It’s like a child being exposed to a second language, you know, they just pick it up. And I just looked all the time and because I looked and remembered shots, I remembered dialogue…I did actually remember shots. I could tell a film, I’d see it twice and I could tell you most of the dialogue and most of the shots. I didn’t know that other people didn’t do that, I thought everybody watched films like that, I just did. So when I watched, somebody said to me recently, it was like a religious experience for you and I think actually it was because I was a devout Catholic up until I was 22. What a waste of time that was! But I think I did go like as if it were a religious experience. Because I was completely absorbed in what I looked at, I believed what I saw was real and true. I didn’t know that things were in studios, I didn’t know that. I thought that’s the way it was, you know. But the level in which I watched I think was very, very deep and so you absorb things that you don’t realise you’re absorbing. I think that’s where it started and it was only because Mamoun Hussan said ‘you will direct’. I had directed at drama school and I knew I could direct but I thought that might be something I could do perhaps later on but in the theatre. And I don’t think I’ve got a theatrical eye at all, but I think that’s where it came from, from being taken to the pictures by my sisters and going on my own.

SO THE IDEA FOR 'CHILDREN', WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? BECAUSE OK YOU DIDN’T WANT TO BE A FILM MAKER BUT YOU OBVIOUSLY WANTED TO WRITE A FILM SCRIPT SO WHERE DID THE IDEA COME FROM…?

I have no idea. I think what it was, I was trying to come to terms with….I’m the youngest of ten children and my father was extremely violent and died at home with cancer over two years, it was just awful. So that was very traumatic…my first seven years were traumatised by that because he was psychotic and then from seven to eleven those were years of ecstasy because I was really happy, from seven to eleven. And then I had to go up to secondary school where I was just beaten up all the time – I was beaten up every day for four years and it does scar you because it actually takes away your self-worth which once gone you never get back. Obviously the worst thing you could be was a sissy and I was, you know, because I didn’t like sport. I’m no good at it and I think it is one of the most pompous of all human activities….why does anyone want to run quicker than anybody else? And golf.. coma inducing….and football, I mean I just detest, I detest it and I was forced to play it and I was no good at it and it was ritual humiliation every Monday. So all of those things you sort of want to get it out of your system and I don’t know how it came about that I wrote it in a screenplay because I’d never written one before. But it came from a need to do so I suppose because you try, you try and make sense of suffering but of course there is not sense to it, it’s casual which is what makes it all the more cruel.

WHEN YOU WERE WRITING 'CHILDREN', DID YOU ALWAYS SEE IT AS THE FIRST PART OF THE TRILOGY?

When I wrote it, it was a one-off and then I thought there are other parts to this. And obviously at that time when I made it Bill Douglas’ Trilogy had just come out and was receiving, you know, incredible attention, as it deserved. And then I thought, well I think I could make one, I feel that there are other films there. Originally when we began shooting, 'Children' was actually budgeted for colour and I said ‘no, no I want it to be in black and white – may I have it in black and white?’ and they said ‘yes, of course you can’. But it was budgeted originally in colour and I just saw it in black and white. And again, I couldn’t tell you why but then I thought yes there are other parts of it. I know there are other parts of it and they’ll be only sort of half an hourish or so but it will be right. And in the event it took ten years to make and I learnt my craft…

YOUR NEXT FILM AFTER THAT IS 'MADONNA AND CHILD' AND YOU MAKE THAT AT FILM SCHOOL. HOW DID FILM SCHOOL HELP YOUR DEVELOPMENT AS A FILM MAKER?

I applied to film school and didn’t even get an interview and then I applied a second time and got in. And then I knew that I wanted to make 'Madonna and Child' as the second piece. And of course there we were allowed to watch films, we had, you know, Mamoun Hussan to do analysis on the Steenbeck, we had Alexander MacKendrick there….you know it was quite wonderful, you could actually learn about rhythm and timing and where a shot dies and all that. And that was an enormous leap forward because you could actually study your craft, you saw how other people did it. With 'Madonna and Child' I was tackling again the nature of time and memory because that fascinates me and how you can get from one thing to another and make a transition that’s not the obvious one but you still tell the story. And it was dealing with something that was very close to home, my relationship with my mother which was very, very close. But I started to learn about what not to do. And that’s an enormous thing because you don’t realise sometimes it’s best not to do things. I mean we had one shot in it which was a pan from Tucker to his mother over a long settee and it looked wonderful but it wasn’t right. And there was one shot which was very, very hard to drop…when he was coming back from work and we shot in places where I’d actually worked and there was a revolving iron bridge that he walked across at five o’clock… there was low sunlight – wonderful light – and the bridge turned and you weren’t sure whether the camera was moving or the bridge was. Gorgeous! But of course it was wrong. It was an extra beat too much, it was very hard to cut that shot but I learned a lot. That sometimes, even though it’s a lovely shot and you really, really love it, it has to go and that’s a very hard lesson to learn but it’s one that was important. Equally because what it also teaches you is when something is right and other people are saying cut, you say ‘no, it’s got to stay in – I’m sorry it’s got to stay’ and that’s what you learn.

I’M ASSUMING THAT YOU DIDN’T NECESSARILY HAVE THE SAME ACCESS TO THE SAME QUALITY OF ACTORS FOR 'CHILDREN' THAT YOU DID FOR 'MADONNA AND CHILD' – IS THAT FAIR?

I always got the actors that I felt were right even though…..there were tiny wages... we could only pay expenses and that was true of the last part as well. No, I always made sure that I felt that I got the right people. Again that was instinctive, I mean I know when someone’s right, you just can tell. Sometimes they don’t have to say anything, you just look at them and you think they’re right, I know they can do it. And you know, people did it because they… I don’t know why they did it sometimes… because the woman who played the mother in Madonna and Child actually read the script and said ‘I think it’s sordid’. And I said ‘well I don’t think it is’ and she said ‘but I will do it because I think it’s good’. That was tremendous I thought to say that and she was quite honest about it but she did it and she did it very beautifully I thought. So you’ve got things like that and the man who’s very big and tattooed and had done a lot of film school stuff and didn’t like film schools and he said ‘this is like being on a proper film’, which was a great compliment you know when people say that spontaneously. But I felt that I was beginning to get better.

FOR YOUR FINAL FILM 'DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION', HOW DID YOU GET FUNDING FOR THAT? YOU’D ALREADY HAD TWO SUCCESSFUL SHORT FILMS BUT WAS IT EASY OR DIFFICULT TO GET FUNDING FOR YOUR THIRD AND FINAL FILM IN THE TRILOGY?

Part one you know, won a prize at the Chicago Film Festival and Part Two won a prize at Cork entirely due to Derek Jarman, that’s how I came to know him. I went round for tea to say thank you it’s so kind of you, in his tiny flat above Phoenix House. It was very moderate and it took three years to get the money together for 'Death and Transfiguration'. I got some money from Greater London Arts and then I got finishing costs from the BFI (British Film Institute), because they initially turned it down. So it was quite hard and when it was finished it had taken ten years to make. Again I knew Wilfred Bramble…. I didn’t think he’d do it because I’d said ‘look I can only pay you £10 a day, that’s all I can pay’. And he said ‘yes I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’ He was just lovely and we became friends before he died. But I remember the very first shot we did with him was the shot when he was dying and that’s the first take.

THE ONE WITH THE DIFFICULT BREATHING…

Yes, and that’s the first take. And I said to everybody, look, this is going to be very hard, the breathing is very difficult, it’s a very long track so between takes I want you to say nothing. We just go to the end and say cut, we go back to the first positions and start again. I don’t want anyone to say anything. Fine and we did the take and the first take which we eventually used and as we were pulling the track back in complete silence, this voice came from the bed. He said ‘there was a young lady called Alice, who pissed in the Vatican palace, it was not dire need which provoked this foul deed but sheer Presbyterian malice!’. And between every take he’d come up with another…..even filthier than the one before. My favourite was ‘The Duchess of Bude and a whore, said darling this is such a bore, I’m covered in sweat and you haven’t come yet and look it’s a quarter to four!’ And he made it very funny.

YOU USED AS I SAID POPULAR MUSIC BUT YOU USED MUSIC SPARINGLY. WAS THAT TO DO WITH COPYRIGHT COSTS OR WAS IT BECAUSE THAT’S HOW YOU WANTED IT…?

Partially, but it was also money… I never thought we’d get Doris Day. I thought they’d just say it’s far too expensive and Nita Bird who worked for Mamoun at the BFI said ‘I’ll do my best’ and it cost £3000 which seemed a huge amount of money but I knew it was right. I just knew it was right because a) it’s a wonderful song and she sings it so beautifully because she’s only accompanied by a piano and what it’s saying is of course he does depend on her when his mother’s gone, that’s it - there’s no one else to depend on, which was very much how I felt about my mum. Even though she lived till ninety and there were ten of us, it’s still hard to lose her. And I love Doris Day, I really do love Doris Day.

THERE’S THAT LOVELY…I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND ME CALLING IT A TERENCE DAVIES SHOT, WHERE WILFRED BRAMBLE IS SITTING IN THE WHEELCHAIR IN THE CORRIDOR AND YOU GO UP TO THE WINDOW, IT’S RAINING OUTSIDE AND YOU HOLD IT THERE FOR A WHILE AND THEN YOU COME BACK AND THE YOUNGER ROBERT TUCKER WHO’S BEEN TO SEE HIS MUM WHO’S VERY ILL IS THERE. SO YOU’VE GONE FORWARD IN TIME AND BACKWARDS IN TIME LITERALLY……BY GOING LEFT TO RIGHT AND THEN RIGHT TO LEFT. AND IT’S ALL DONE IN ONE MOVEMENT SO IT ENCAPSULATES TIME AND THERE’S A CONNECTION BETWEEN THE CHARACTERS. WAS THAT ENTIRELY YOUR SHOT OR WAS THAT CO-DESIGNED WITH THE DOP?

No, I always write every shot in the films. Every shot is written down so I know every shot when I go onto the set because then if it has to change then you can change it because you know what the shots are. No that was already designed. But we’d been influenced you see by the Four Quartets, by Elliott, because I remember when we first got our first television in 1961, about two years later he read over four nights the whole of the Four Quartets from memory – there were no autocues then. I didn’t understand it but I just loved the poetry and I bought it. I read it, I think, once a month now. But I’m fascinated by the nature of time and memory and how you make one transition to something else but you can always know where you are. If you dissolve you know that time has passed. Nobody has told us that but we just know intuitively what happened next. So it’s lovely to play around with that idea, you know of where does memory begin and end and where does the present reality start or not start. And there’s one wonderful phrase at the beginning of The Four Quartets….’for the roses had the look of flowers that are looked at’. That’s so wonderful that idea because one knows what it means emotionally but not intellectually. And I love that idea of where are you in time, without being confused, but where are you because memory is fluid, you can move anywhere. Because when you do it in your own mind, you have all the back story. It’s much more difficult in a film because you don’t have that back story, but that’s always fascinated me. I’m really fascinated by the nature of time and how we perceive time.

DID YOU THEN HAVE ANY PROBLEMS WITH THE CAMERAMAN ABOUT DOING THAT SHOT. DID HE OR SHE NOT GET WHAT YOU WERE GETTING AT?

No. They did understand what I wanted because you know you say to everyone working on the film what you want it to be, the reasons why you’ve done it, the look of the film and once you’ve done that, then you get on with it and you do it. I still do that now. And that’s the only way to do it really but it has to come from you, you have to see it, because if you don’t see it, then it won’t be true. I mean even if people don’t like what you do and a lot of people don’t like what I do, they think it’s, you know, ponderous. An American journalist , when he saw the entire Trilogy in America, said ‘this film’s making Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis’. A lot of people think I’m very ponderous indeed. But I usually have them killed!

GOING BACK TO THE BEGINNING THEN AND THINKING ABOUT A FEW GENERAL QUESTIONS... HOW IMPORTANT WERE THE SHORTS AND MAKING THE SHORTS FOR YOUR DEVELOPMENT AS A FILM MAKER?

Huge. I learned my craft over ten years. It’s invaluable, it was just invaluable to make them. And we made them then, and not just me but everybody, made them because we were encouraged to make the films that we wanted to make in the way that we wanted to make them. We did not make them as a calling card for television or Hollywood or anywhere else, we just made them because we felt that’s the way they should be made. I’m not knocking making films first as calling cards but the problem with that is you can learn a craft only superficially that way and you have to learn it deeply. You do, otherwise, what’s the point, it becomes, in a way, shoddy. And again, it’s my generation, if you were asked to do something, you did it as well as you could regardless of whether you felt like doing it or not, regardless of whether you were paid for it. You just did it because that is what you were supposed to do and you were supposed to do it properly. I think that idea has gone now out of society – it’s just gone. You can make it slick but slick isn’t the same as doing it properly, it’s just slick.

AND FINALLY THEN, FOR YOUNG SHORT-FILM MAKERS, WHAT’S THE KEY THING TO BEAR IN MIND….IS IT FINDING THE MONEY, IS IT HAVING THE IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE, IS IT HAVING THE COURAGE TO STRIDE OUT ON THE SET ON THE FIRST DAY……WHAT ARE THE KEY THINGS THAT A YOUNG FILM MAKER APPROACHING HIS/HER FIRST SHORT NEEDS TO BE AWARE OF?

You can’t control the money or how you get it, that’s beyond your control. Whether other people are prepared to do it with you is beyond your control. The only thing you can do is, if you do write the script as well as direct it, it has to be completely true to what you feel. It’s not what you think, it’s what you feel but you have to be your own fiercest critic because other people will be and you’ve got to do that first. So that if you’ve done your absolute best and you’ve been rigorous with yourself, …even if everybody says it’s awful, you can at least say, even if it failed, I did my best. If you don’t do that then in a way you deserve to fail. I remember when The Trilogy first came out, a woman said to me ‘I loathe every frame of your movie’. That really hurt but…and I’ve not forgotten that…but I thought and I remember saying ‘well obviously I’m upset about that but what I did, I did truthfully’. And if you do that, then that makes it bearable because that’s what makes life bearable. But it also depends on what your ambitions are. If you want to be rich and famous and makes lots of money and make huge films with huge budgets, then you have to have a different sort of perception of the world. It’s not my perception, I’m not knocking it, it’s just not my perception. I do think though, at the end of the day, two things. It’s the truth, it’s got to be true and the other thing to remember is what Rouben Mamoulian said, who’s another Hollywood director, he said ‘the best critic is time’ and I think he’s right.

400Blows Productions, May 2005.


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