Nostalgia Without Sentimentality

June 25, 2016   •   By Steve Erickson

Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

TERENCE DAVIES’S FIRST TWO FEATURES, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), announced a revolutionary new voice in British cinema. Davies took his childhood memories from his working-class Liverpool home — particularly his love of Classical Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley — and reimagined them through abstraction. Since then, Davies has dwelt in the past, usually adapting classic works of literature. There’s something conservative about his sensibility, while his works also demonstrate politically progressivism in their complex form, their sympathy for women, and their depiction of explicitly gay children, like in The Long Day Closes. While Davies’s Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, his previous film, Sunset Song, has recently received an American release. Based on a landmark Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, it depicts the difficult life of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) approximately 100 years ago. Raised by an abusive father (Peter Mullan), she finds an escape by marrying Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), but he, too, turns brutish after his return from World War I.


STEVE ERICKSON: Sunset Song was shot in Scotland, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. Did you have a hard time integrating footage from all these locations?

TERENCE DAVIES: Not really, because the main reason we went to New Zealand was we needed some sun. They’d had their worst storms in 50 years. I thought, “Oh God, why didn’t we stay at home!” The weather broke, and then we had wonderful weather. We did all the interiors in Luxembourg because they gave us a lot of tax breaks. We did some shooting in Scotland for the end of the film. That was practical and economic.

Are any of the actors from Luxembourg?

In some of the small roles. The problem with the actors from Luxembourg is that the small number of actors they’ve got have a heavy accent. They were supposed to be Scottish. We got three actors, and ironically they were Irish people living in Luxembourg! So they weren’t native Luxembourgers after all. They were lovely, but it seemed odd that there were three Irish actors in the middle of Luxembourg.

What attracts you to female characters, particularly women who are victimized by men?

It’s not so much that they’re victims. It’s the story that I love. It’s one of the elements, but the main one is about forgiveness of all suffering — not only your own but the world’s. Also, people don’t often know this, but women were very restricted in what they could do, but so were men. There were so many things men couldn’t do. I come from a working-class background, and men were not supposed to cry in public when people died. That kind of hierarchy isn’t important. What’s really important is that she [Chris] survives that and doesn’t become bitter.

I saw a documentary on R. W. Fassbinder recently in which he said that women make more interesting characters because they’re allowed to show emotion openly.

It’s different when you’re gay. You have a peculiar relationship with women because there’s no sexual agenda. I feel very close to my mother and sisters. It’s that which is interesting. Men are interesting for what they can’t do. They may be strong in a completely different way. I think the restrictions apply, but the ways in which men and women solve them are different.

In Sunset Song, the men tend to deal with their emotions in a very negative way, through violence and often violence against women. What do you think happens to Ewan in battle that turns him from a nice guy to an abusive husband?

In the novel, he just goes for training, comes back and he’s changed. It’s not explained. Kevin, who’s playing the role, said, “What do you think it is?” and I said, “He’s seen the casualty lists, which are terrifying.” The Battle of the Somme, which was the first great offensive of the British army, killed off or injured 52,000 men in an hour. He’s absolutely terrified, and the way he copes with it is drinking and going with prostitutes. I think it’s explained at the very end when he’s genuinely sorry for what he’s done, because he genuinely loved his wife and she forgives him. All she has is his suit of clothes. I think he’s redeemed, although some people who watch the film disagree because of that act of rape. At the end, he’s truly repentant, although he doesn’t say it.

I had never heard of the novel until I saw your film. Is it considered a classic in the UK, or in Scotland?

Only in Scotland. Most Scots have read it, because they’ve studied it in school. Also, it’s written in the Doric accent, which is the accent of Aberdeenshire and quite difficult to read. I saw it televised on the BBC in 1971. I went out and bought the book, never thinking that all those years later I’d make a film out of it.

Do you ever select pieces of music that you know you’ll use before making a film?

Yes. The reason for that is that you’ve got to get it cleared for copyright, and if you can’t clear it, you’ve got to find something else. When I was growing up and started listening to classical music, there was a program on BBC radio called Your 100 Best Tunes. It was all classical pieces, but all popular ones, like New World Symphony. They played this song called “All In The April Evening.” It was sung by an amateur choir from Glasgow. The choir had been formed by an undertaker. It’s one of the great recordings. When I was writing the script, I thought, “I’ve just got to use that.” It’s just so beautiful. If you don’t get copyright clearance, you can run out of time.

Your love of music is evident. Does it influence you in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, such as editing or camera movement?

A lot of the time I move with a piece of music I need. It comes to you as you write it. At the end of the film I just finished on Emily Dickinson, I used Charles Ives’s “Decoration Day.” Sometimes you’ve got to make a new recording. I heard a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And it would’ve cost us 40,000 pounds. We rerecorded it with the Belgian Philharmonic, simply because it was cheaper.

You’ve made very few films set in the present. Do you feel nostalgic for your youth, because you also depict it as fairly harsh?

I don’t do films about the modern world because I don’t understand it. I’m a technophobe. I don’t use any of this technology. I’ve got a mobile phone with one number on it. If someone leaves a message, I switch it off and shout at it. Because it’s gotten so technological, it seems to me a denial of real life. And I’m rather repelled by it. I can’t bear the level of narcissism in popular culture. I don’t know any modern stories that I would do. Nostalgia implies sentimentality, which I don’t like, but there’s something about those [older] stories that makes me want to do them.

The exteriors in Sunset Song were shot in 70mm and the interiors in video. What effect were you going for, particularly since the film will be distributed in a Digital Cinema Package (DCP)?

The difference there was that digital wasn’t quite as good as film, so I wanted the exteriors to look as good as they possibly could. By the time I came to make my film on Emily Dickinson, digital superseded film. It’s just as good now and arguably better. It was purely for that reason.

Some of the cinematography in Sunset Song is quite painterly and some looks like natural light. Was any of it shot that way? 

Yes. My production designer, Andy Harris, asked me, “Have you heard of a Danish painter, Hammershøi?” I said, “No.” He was active at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. His paintings are like Vermeer with a smudged light and open windows and corridors, with no one there. When there is a subject, it’s usually a woman with her back to the viewer. They are exquisite. I said, “the interiors have got to look like that.” I think the interiors were shot with natural light, but they sometimes needed a little boost.

Do you find it difficult to keep adapting British literature set in the past and avoiding the Merchant-Ivory approach to period pieces?

The problem with period films is that they just look pretty. Well, that’s not interesting. I want it to look as though these people live in these spaces and wear these clothes. When we did the Emily Dickinson film in Belgium, there’s a shot where she turns around to wave goodbye to her friend. You see the edge of her dress, and it’s slightly frayed. That’s wonderful, because it’s her best dress. It’s got to be true to the period, but it’s got to have texture. Often you don’t have texture. In the Belle Époque, you didn’t have a lot of natural light and there was a lot of stuff in the room suffocating it.

Looking over your filmography, there are some unfortunate gaps where it seems like you had a hard time getting financing. How were you able to make Sunset Song and the Emily Dickinson film back to back so soon?

It was eight to 10 years that I couldn’t get work. The atmosphere in Great Britain was very hostile to anything that was not mainstream. I’d written the script for Sunset Song in 2003. We just couldn’t get money for it. Later, the climate changed. We got money to shoot it, but it wasn’t enough, because money buys time. Anything that could go wrong on a film went wrong. It was very wearying. The cast, crew, financiers, and even the bond company were helpful. It’s very hard to feel upbeat when you’re on a farm in Scotland, it’s raining all the time, and you feel frozen. It was so unglamorous. The budget was two million dollars.


Steve Erickson is a writer who lives in New York.