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Memory as Mise-en-scène: A Conversation with Terence Davies

An interview with the English auteur on his new film—his first fictional feature in eleven years—"The Deep Blue Sea".
Terence Davies

Photo by Liam Daniel.

"I don't want you

But I hate to lose you

You've got me inbetween

The devil and the deep blue sea." —Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

The idiom "between the devil and the deep blue sea" refers to a dilemma where one must choose between two undesirable situations.  In Terence Davies' filmic adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1952 play of the same name—The Deep Blue Sea (2011) was commissioned by the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust to commemorate the centenary of the playwright—it might be thought that Davies is playing with the idiom's unconfirmed nautical origins.  As a portrait of class structure in post-WWII England, Davies could be said to be borrowing from the reference that "between the devil and the deep blue sea" signifies how English Navy sailors were pressed unwillingly into service and then positioned beneath the upper deck (officer territory).  Or, perhaps more accurate to its romantic subtext, Davies is simply depicting the untenable situation of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) torn between her loyalty to an older husband, magistrate Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) and her unexpected passion for her lithe and virile young lover, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF fighter pilot, all at a time when women's autonomy to determine their own desires breached social decorum.  Under such social strictures, what can be the inevitable outcome of unrequited love and l'amour fou but shipwreck and a heart dashed on the rocks?

David Hudson has rounded up the early reviews from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival—where Dan Sallitt described The Deep Blue Sea as "a hieratic, religious recreation of a memory"—and Hudson followed up with a roundup of reviews from the film's theatrical run in Great Britain.


NOTEBOOK: I am particularly fascinated with your mise-en-scène and how it is contextualized by memory.  The images you've created in your films arise on the screen framed within your memories.  I'm hoping we can talk a little bit about that this afternoon; how you've technically achieved this effect by way of auteurial choices such as camera movement, costuming and set design.  Let's start with the rhythm of your camera movement.

TERENCE DAVIES: Well, it's largely instinctive.  When I was 16, we got our first television set.  Over four nights Alec Guinness read from memory the whole of The Four Quartets.  I was absolutely knocked out by them.  I didn't understand a word of them, but went right out and bought them.  In fact, I read them once a month and whenever I travel I take them with me.  They're about the nature of memory and time, about the nature of mortality, and the terror and ecstasy of being alive.

There's nothing wrong with a film being a linear narrative if that linear narrative is well-done.  A lot of films have been made with a linear narrative that are great films.  It's when the narrative is grinding it out and you know what the denouement is going to be that there's nothing interesting in it.  But if you take the attitude of being subjective toward what you're looking at or what you're feeling, then things arise—not by plot point or narrative point—but, they arrive according to what is emotionally right as the next thing.

The problem with film is that it's always in the eternal present.  When you cut, you always read it as "this is the next thing that happened."  What do you do if you actually dissolve?  Or you cut and then dissolve?  What does that mean?  It begins to change the nature of how we perceive time.  But it's closest, I think, to music.  You don't have to be a musician to follow a symphonic argument.  If you love the music, you'll follow it.  My great love is Anton Bruckner.  There's a wonderful moment in the 7th Symphony where there's a huge climax to this wonderful tune, and then there's a pause, and then the tune returns on first violins, like a long long echo of what we've just heard.  Your inner ear has been waiting for some kind of resolution, but it wasn't waiting for that.  It's devastating.  It's so moving and so beautiful and I think you can do that with film.  You can deny expectation, but you've always got to imply that expectations are going to be satisfied; but, not necessarily in the way that you were expecting it.  That's what makes things interesting.

For example, coming over on the plane, I can't watch films on the plane.  But I was sitting there and I got bored or I couldn't read and had no other form of escape.  This film was on about a young girl living in an apartment who loses her job and she doesn't get on with her next-door neighbor.  As soon as you see the next-door neighbor, he opens the door and he's just got jeans on and you see he's been to the gym and you just know exactly what the denouement's going to be.  You can start calling out the shots.  Why waste 98 minutes?  We know they're going to get together and they're going to fall in love and they're going to be happy ever after.  Nauseating!  Because there's no ambiguity, there's no drama, and you don't care.  You simply do not care.  What would have been interesting is if the next-door neighbor had been an ordinary bloke.

NOTEBOOK: Maybe even wearing a shirt?

DAVIES: [Chuckles]  Just ordinary and they didn't particularly get on and they weren't particularly friendly.  We long to see somebody ordinary because these beautiful young actors all look the same.  I can't tell the difference.  The really depressing thing is you can then work out the story for yourself and you can actually call out the shots.  There's nothing interesting in that.  Why bother making such a film?  What's it telling us?  Nothing.  Or what it's telling us is that the subtext is so shallow: only beautiful people get together and live happily ever after.  They live in fabulous apartments.  They don't seem to do any work at all.  They eat junk food and yet she never puts weight on and his body's always gym-toned.  Do you really expect audiences to swallow this?  Presumably they do.  Presumably the film made money.  That depresses me because there's no feel for either a decent narrative and people you can believe in, or proper—not just pretty—images, which have meaning.  Sometimes you can shoot a film on a knife and fork, but it's got subtextual meaning and it will be beautiful.  That seems to be becoming more and more rare.  I want to try to get that feeling of what it's like when the curtains open and you see the opening credits and you see the first shot and you think, "I want to go on the journey."  You've got to want to go on the journey!

NOTEBOOK: I am one of those who, inspired by memory, wants to take the journey.  Ever since I was a child, I have been a person of memory.  It has been an indispensible truth in my life, in the fact that I understand that memory is not merely the recounting of something past; memory is the process by which the past is constantly influencing the present and, thereby, the future.

DAVIES: Yes!  And memory is not a foreign country.  It's not.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the curtains opening and revealing the first sequence, I was struck by the pulsing rhythm of that sequence, which—as you said—seemed musical.  There was an image, then it faded out, then another image and that faded out, and then another image, all at the same measured tempo.  It felt dream-like, in league with those dream theorists who propose that at night while we sleep a dream arrives as a flash of image, which our minds then untangle into narrative.  As unfair as this question might be, how do you conceive that rhythm and decide, "This is the way I must use the camera to achieve this feeling?"

DAVIES: It's not so much about thinking about the feeling that the sequence might produce, it's more the feeling within me.  I do feel it, I feel movement, and I see images.  Originally, when that opening sequence was done, there was more of her voiceover from the letter.  It kept on coming in and out and it didn't work at all.  The shots of her preparing to die were just too long.  I said, "They should just be little pulses, that's all; but, in the correct linear order so you follow it."  I don't know what it was like in this country, but when someone in England died by gassing themselves in those days, you closed all the doors, closed the windows, you locked the door, you put a towel under the door and then switched the gas on: that's what you did.  Someone on our street did that.  There was a ritual; but, in my film, you just see little pulses of what she's doing.  Then she switches on the gas fire.

Once you've said—without it being truly linear and going through all those actions almost at length, almost at real time—this is not purely linear, so that when we drift into a memory because she's semi-conscious, you accept it.  Because also it's about the dissolve.  We always dissolve as time passes.  If you track right to left and then dissolve, it's time past.  If you track left to right and dissolve, it's time future.  It's dead simple.  That's how you read it and it had to be from her point of view.  It's a subjective thing.  What you then do—which is a very simple device—we see her and two other men and you realize there must be a relationship between them.  Then we slowly tell you what that relationship is.  It's a largely silent process.

NOTEBOOK: It's pure psychology.

DAVIES: But that's what she would have remembered.

NOTEBOOK: I read your interview with Graham Fuller for the March / April 2012 issue of Film Comment, wherein you said something I really liked and which plays into my current preoccupation with cinematic citation and how movies are made up out of each other and, at times, even made up out of the memories of each other.  You spoke with Fuller about how the Doris Day film Young At Heart (1954) had influenced The Deep Blue Sea, albeit unconsciously.  The way you explained it to Fuller: "That's the way influences should work.  When they come out, through you, they are refracted because they are unconscious, and that makes them more interesting."  That's a fascinating idea.  I suspect that's also what happens with memory: it refracts through the unconscious to inform and influence present experience.  It's as if memory does not recall experience, it continues experience.

Some of your critical detractors have complained that you've made another movie cut from the same cloth; but, truthfully, I love this cloth.  It bears a pattern and a texture that runs throughout your body of work.  There's a specific tonality to your mise-en-scène based on an applied palette.  Clearly, these artistic choices are being informed by your memories?

DAVIES: A very deep part of my memories.

NOTEBOOK: Can you speak to that?  How that practice of memory has revealed itself in such minute details as the wallpaper on the walls?  One image you have used again and again is that of the camera tracking down the hallway to the front door of an apartment.  That tracking movement pulls my heart down the hallway.  My heart wants to move out that front door.

DAVIES: [Laughs] Yes!  That has to do with when my family used to go to the pubs on Friday and Saturday nights.  Very often I was left on my own longing for them to come home.  Usually it was a wait of about four hours.  They would leave at 7:00 or 8:00 and come home at 10:00 or 10:30.  They would come down the street singing and I would just wait for that.  I'd be sitting on the front steps or sitting on the stairs looking out, or standing outside looking in.  I did that constantly.  I was actually quite a lonely child, although I never felt lonely; but, I was solitary and I looked all the time.

Those images in my films are instinctive: a subject standing at a window with light falling on them.  We only had one set of curtains and each Thursday my mother would take them to the public wash house.  That was really hard work.  I would come home on a Thursday from school and I couldn't go into the house; the windows looked so bare.  I could not bear them until the curtains were put back up again.  All that comes from a deep remembrance of what I felt like when I looked out windows.

When my sister got married, she stayed in one of the rooms at my grandmother's house and we slept in the back room where there were no windows.  There were just bricks and we pulled curtains over them.  The houses were very old.  All those things come out of those remembrances; but, it's almost as if you don't really remember the details.  It's an emotional recall.  What memory does is that you remember the intensity of the moment; but, you remember it sometimes in the wrong way and out of order.  But that doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter if the memory is out of order or not.  The fact is that it's the intensity of the moment that is remembered.  When it comes out consciously, instinctively when you're writing, that's something you can't control.  You can control technique.  For example, the revolving shots.

NOTEBOOK: Ah yes, speak about that scene where the lovers are in bed and the camera is somersaulting sensually.

DAVIES: Originally, that sequence involved three separate track-ins.  It was so boring, I can't tell you.  It was coma-inducing.  I thought, "We've got to get rid of that."  Even before they set up the tracks, I said, "Don't do it."  I thought, "What might be done?"  If once we're at the fire and we go left to right and we continue left to right the whole time and then we stop where we began, that's more interesting.  I hadn't realized technology had moved on a lot.  I thought, "Oh God, it's going to take forever."  When we filmed the sequence with Christ on the cross in Long Day Closes (1992), it took nine hours to set up and shoot because the camera was on a gyroscope and doing eight different things.

I thought we would never get it in Deep Blue Sea; but, my cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister said, "Oh, that's all right.  We just have to move the camera and you get a lens that revolves itself."  Bliss, I thought, utter bliss.  Then it was just a process of linking those shots by dissolves.  All it's about then is texture and flesh and the eroticism of their embrace.  Because I said, "The scenes in the bed, these are not to be explicit.  I don't want them to be explicit."  Because explicit sex tells you absolutely nothing.  Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston were real troopers.  They asked, "Do you want us to be naked?"  I said, "Yes, but I don't want it to be unseemly and that is something you've got to decide yourselves."  And they did.  They were very professional about it.  I wanted it to be erotic without it being unseemly because—if it were unseemly—it would make her undignified somehow.  I didn't want her to be undignified.  I didn't want any of the characters to be undignified.  But that sequence had to be about the memory of something sensual.

We're tactile animals.  We remember smells and textures of surfaces.  One of my sisters when she got married had this horrible room with all this old furniture with cheap grey marble.  I loathed going into that room.  The marble alone reminded me of death.  It was awful.  The fact is that I did look all the time and I was aware of texture, especially when I got new clothes at Christmas.  They always smelled a certain way.  You remember that and it comes back right away.  [Davies snaps his fingers]  But the execution of these things, the writing of these things, has to be felt as sensual and subjective, even as you bring a technique to it.

The Deep Blue Sea

NOTEBOOK: Let's discuss that technique, specifically its collaborative aspect.  You have found your way to shape your memories into a script but then you must rely on an ensemble of technicians—a set designer, a props master, a costumer, a cinematographer—to help you achieve the look of your memories.  In other words, your attention to manifesting your memories has created a specific and stylistically distinctive mise-en-scène.  Through your film, you have created the world of your memory, whether that world is the "real" world of England at that time or whether that world is the real world of authentic memory.  How do you work with your collaborators to create the mise-en-scène of this remembered world?

DAVIES: It's really very simple.  I have a meeting with the camera man, the production designer, the costumer, and the sound man and I tell them, "This is the look I want."  We do lots of tests (on film) and run them and I'll say, "That's the one I want."  We talked about the textures.  I told them, "I want lots of pools of light and relative darkness."  Because that's what it was like.  If you were lucky, you had electricity downstairs.  Upstairs there was no electricity at all.  You took up candles or just moved in the dark; but, there were pools of light.  Sometimes just light from a fire, which I've always loved.  Once you've discussed it with those four people and you see it on the tests, you say, "That's what we got to do."  Then you let them get on with it.  They're artists in their own right.

What was thrilling about working with my production designer James Merifield was getting authentic wallpaper from the period.  Christopher Hobbs used to be my production designer (The Long Day Closes, The Neon Bible), but he's moved to France.  In our front room there used to be this pink paper with little flowers.  Merifield found this paper again.  I said, "God, I can't believe that you found it" and he said, "But what would really make it stand out is if I put a pale yellow wash over it."  It looks fabulous.  It's like going back to my parlor when I was a child.

My costumer Ruth Myers found wonderful clothes.  I told her the clothes had to look as if they'd been lived in but she said she wanted the character of Hester to have one good coat to take with her when she leaves her husband, and that was the wonderful claret-colored coat.  It was sumptuous.  You rarely saw primary color in England then.  It was very drab and so it looks sensual as well as making her look gorgeous.  It's all those things that they bring to it, you know?  Ruth said, "I'll put her in this" and I say, "I'm not so sure about green; it's a color I'm not keen on" and then Ruth put her in this green duster coat and you think, "Why did I ever doubt?"

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that you loved fire light and there was an image in The Deep Blue Sea that delighted me.  Hester is sitting in an armchair by the fire and the flickering light of the fire is dancing off the lamp post.  It's entrancing.

DAVIES: But that's accidental.

NOTEBOOK: Perhaps.  But then, you've placed the camera, you've positioned the furniture on set, and you've positioned the actress.  It was a lovely visual moment, whether intended or not.  But my favorite scene in the film by far is when Hester and Freddie are in the pub and everyone is singing "You Belong to Me."  Did people really sing together in pubs like that?

DAVIES: Constantly!  Folks would get to the pub about half past seven and by 9:00 they started to sing.  The main street I lived on was Kensington Street and on every street corner there was a pub.  I remember one Christmas walking up Kensington at 9:00 and at every single pub they were singing.  When I was finally allowed to go to a pub, slightly before I was old enough, the proprietress Ivy Walker said I could come provided I only had a shandy, which is lemonade and beer, very weak.  But that's what everyone did.  Everyone knew what a group song was and everyone had their individual songs and it was all commonplace.

NOTEBOOK: It's Rachel Weisz's performance in that particular scene that made me enamored with it.  As a whole, the scene was a visual statement about class.  Coming from an upper class, Hester seemed a bit bewildered but amused by this lower class pub activity.  She was enjoying it but somehow didn't really know how to participate.

DAVIES: I agree with you there, absolutely.  We obviously had to shoot that scene a lot of times and in every single take she looks as if she doesn't know the lines.  It's so moving.  She does this thing of looking around…

NOTEBOOK: And the way she looks at Freddie with so much love.

DAVIES: It's a wonderful piece of work.  I absolutely agree with you.  By the eighth take, of course you're going to know the lines but with Rachel every single take was fresh.

NOTEBOOK: Another image I loved—which in your interview with Graham Fuller you admitted was borrowed from Brief Encounter (1945)—was when Hester rushes to the subway station and you fear she's going to throw herself off the platform in front on an approaching train.  Again, that was an instance where she was saved by memory.

DAVIES: Yes!

NOTEBOOK: Her memories make her hesitate.  And then when she pulls out of them as the train is coursing past, you have that wonderful staccato effect of the lights playing on her startled face.  How did you achieve that?

DAVIES: It was dead simple.  We mounted a camera in front of her.  We had full reflectors that went very fast, a little wind machine, and then we added the sound of the train later.

NOTEBOOK: I love the magic of movies.

DAVIES: Absolutely!  And that does come directly from Brief Encounter because what Celia Johnson's character Laura says in Brief Encounter is, "I wish it was you and the children who stopped me, Fred, but it wasn't.  I just didn't have the courage."  I thought, Hester's determined to do it and then she remembers one night during the Blitz when these people were fighting for their lives, frightened, but trying to stop their fear by singing or dancing, which is what they used to do.  That simple moment would have been an instant [Davies snaps his fingers], that long; but, in my film, in her memory, that moment becomes elongated.

NOTEBOOK: Long enough to save her life.

DAVIES: Yes.

NOTEBOOK: Your filmic adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea was a commissioned piece to commemorate Sir Terence Rattigan's centenary.  My understanding is that you researched all of his plays and decided upon this one.  What was it that spoke to you out of this particular play?

DAVIES: At first, I struggled to find what the subtextual story was because the actual surface story is rather unremarkable.  It is.  But once I realized that the subtext was about love, I thought I would do it from her point of view.  It's also about a ménage à trios where they all wanted a love that the other person can't give.  None of them are villains.  They're all trying to do the honorable thing.  Once I knew the subtextual meaning, I knew I could do it.  That's what prompted me to adapt this play; but, it's also not just that.  I grew up in the days of the women's pictures where the central protagonists were always women and they were always strong.  There was that part of it as well.  Once I knew it was about love, which is the strangest of human emotions—it can be destructive, but it can be sublime—especially a true love via something very ordinary.  Her landlady tells her, "This is what it's like.  A lot of rubbish is talked about it.  But you wipe someone's arse and you keep their dignity so you can both go on.  Suicide?  No one's worth it."  And she's right.

I remember someone in my family tried to commit suicide in a sort of half-hearted way and one of my brothers-in-law (who is dead now) was a very blunt man and I can remember him standing at the bed saying, "No one's worth it."  I thought, "Yeah, you're right.  No one is.  No one."  But to be driven to that state must be dreadful.  Even in my worst despair, I've never wanted to kill myself.  I couldn't do it.  Suicide is an act of bravery.  But true love is an admixture of all the things you've seen and one's own subjective idea of love.  There's a wonderful quote from The Four Quartets: "Love is most nearly itself when the here and now cease to matter."  That's fabulous.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of quotations, the line I love in the film is when "Mummy" says that—rather than passion—she would rather have a cautious or guarded enthusiasm in her life.  Is that from Rattigan's play?  Or is that one of yours?  I seem to recall you saying the same thing when you were in attendance at the Pacific Film Archive some years back.

DAVIES: Mummy isn't in the play at all.  I wrote that.  At one point the financiers wanted me to take her two scenes out and I said, "No, they've got to stay in.  I know they're right."  I know they're not in the play, but those scenes tell you a lot about Hester's husband.  He's a 50-year-old man calling his mother "Mummy."  That tells you a lot in England.  Whenever you hear that, you know they've come from a well-heeled background.  From my background, you wouldn't dream of calling your mother "Mummy" when you're thirtysome.  You call her "Ma" or "Mazzie" or "Mum" but never, never Mummy, never.  Of course, he is intimidated by her.  She's one of those women who have confused strength with hardness.  She's hard.  Obviously, no one's ever going to be good enough for her son, least of all the vicar's daughter.

NOTEBOOK: The Deep Blue Sea is a narrative of love as—to a certain extent—all your films are narratives of love.  And you've spoken earlier how many contemporary films frequently flaunt predicatable and false happy endings.  What then is the responsibility of the filmmaker in presenting love to an audience?  I ask because, as you know, false images of love presented in the cinema can be damaging.  I speak from experience.  I grew up a young boy who believed that the love I had to have in my life was meant to be a cinematic love and that was a belief that brought me much unhappiness and which ultimately failed me.  I had to unlearn those desires.

DAVIES: I took part in a documentary about Doris Day, whom I absolutely adore [LegendsDoris Day: Virgin Territory, 2007].  I thought life was like Young at Heart when I was 11.  I thought, "That's the way grown-up people behave and then they live happily ever after."  That's very seductive, particularly that period from about 1941 to 1959.  All the films from that period, even the minor ones, have a glow about them; but, they give you a false, almost pernicious, attitude that you'll meet Miss or Mr. Right, have a few problems, but then you'll live happily ever after.  Trying to actually unpick that emotionally from yourself is very hard.  I think as a filmmaker you have to be true to two things: your voice and the subtextual tone of any material you are adapting.  You can't second guess the audience.  You simply can't.  If you do, then the film will be false.

I've just written a script about Emily Dickinson, who is your greatest poet, I think.  She was lucky.  She could afford retirement because her father was a senator.  But even then she only had seven poems in her life published and then they altered the punctuation.  One man who published her says to her in my screenplay, "But I've published you" and she says, "Yes, for which I'm grateful, but you altered my punctuation."  He says, "Oh, what's a colon here or a semi-colon there?"  She says, "To the reader, nothing.  To the artist, it's an attack."

I love this wonderful man. I was not enthusiastic about most of TDBS after one viewing, aside from the punctum of the memory, quoted I think from BRIEF ENCOUNTER; nonetheless, this interview makes me want to revisit it soon. Thanks for this lovely and substantial encounter, Michael….head and shoulders better than almost every other interview or feature I’ve yet read on Davies.
Pardon, and re: BRIEF ENCOUNTER, you say as much…odd that I must have accidentally scrolled past that reference the first time.
Thanks for stopping by to comment, grasprelease. I appreciate your kind words.
Wow, what a great interview! Davies gets drawn out and his ideas are unpacked in whatever space they need, no rushing down a checklist of questions, leads are folowed up on, but it is also a genuine conversation, and the ideas flowing both directions are lively and rich and on point. You must have a real affinity for his work, Michael. A great modeling, too, of sympathetic conception and reception and how they can feed back into each other. Huge thank you!

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