Some films are theses, others are poems, others are content to be great drama. Terence Davies’ films, in their sweep, formal lyricism and great, euphoric magnitude, are songs, and so it’s both apt and something of an inevitability that his latest film would contain that very word in it’s title. Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel, Sunset Song stars model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, a farmer’s daughter from the Scottish Mearns in a story of both epic scope and strained intimacy. We observe Chris’ transformation from meek schoolgirl into embattled wife and mother as war eclipses Europe, losing her innocence and learning resilience from the land from which she rarely strays, captured by cinematographer Michael McDonough in a twilight glow as a symbol of feminine endurance at odds with masculine brutality. A pastoral melodrama told with a moving and refreshing earnestness, Sunset Song played at the Melbourne International Film Festival, attended by Davies as a festival guest. When I sat down to talk to him, I asked him about Melbourne: he called it “magnificent and Manhattanesque”. What followed was a wide-ranging conversation that covered filmmaking, Brexit, Emily Dickinson and selfies, and why you should watch The Red Shoes again with the sound turned down. (Hint: it’s the gestures.)
I admittedly hadn’t heard of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel before I read about your film going into production. When did you first encounter it, and when did you know that you wanted to pick it up and turn it into a film?
In the seventies the BBC would do a classic novel every Sunday [on the radio], and they did this particular novel. I’d never heard of it, because most people outside of Scotland haven’t and most Scottish people have read it. I just loved it. Every week for six weeks, because of course in those days you couldn’t record anything. But I just loved it. I fell in love with the story, and that was it. I mean, I was still working as a very lowly bookkeeper in an accountancy practice, and it was just something that I wanted to read. It was about eighteen years ago that I said to a friend of mine, “Do you think we can actually get it off the ground because it is a great story.” Anyway, we got somebody to write the script, and by that time we had finished the script the climate in Britain had changed. We’ve always had this wonderful BFI Production Board, which helped people get their first films made. The goal was never to make money, but to get people started. And Alan Parker set up the UK Film Council because he thought that idea was elitist. [Rolls eyes] Anyway, they knocked us around for six months and then just said, “It hasn’t got legs”, which was a disgraceful way to behave. I said to the man who did it, “If you didn’t like it, why didn’t you just say so, because you’ve made us jump through all these hoops for seven months, and you must have known in the October that you didn’t want to do it, and we wrote it until February.” I said, “It’s just disgraceful behaviour,” and he didn’t like that at all. I said to him, “If you behave like an asshole you can’t get upset when you’re called one.” That went down like a lead balloon I can tell you. Anyway, I just gave up, it’s just too difficult. And then a few years later I said to my producer, “Do you think we might be able to revive it?” And so we did—and we didn’t have enough money, and everything that could have gone wrong on that film went wrong. Every time the firm rang I just thought, “Oh God, what is it now?” It was just agony, and I’m amazed that we had anything worthwhile to cut together. It was a trauma. It was the worst experience I’ve had, in terms of practicality and not having enough money.
But what I also experienced—which is really quite wonderful—was not only the conviction of the cast and crew, but of everybody who’d been involved in it, including the bond people! I can’t tell you how incredibly supportive they were. Just incredible. They usually step in to stop a film getting made, because they see it’s going awry, but they didn’t do that; they were incredible. But it has taken eighteen years. There are times when you think, “What am I doing it for? What the hell am I doing it for? Silly old fool.”
Well, it certainly paid off.
[Laughs] Thank you.
I remember when it was announced that Baz Luhrmann was going to adapt The Great Gatsby for the screen, people were aghast that an Australian would dare touch it, because it’s considered the great American novel. Sunset Song is sort of a Scottish equivalent—this canonical work of Scottish literature, so I was wondering if you had any trepidation as an Englishman stepping into this relatively foreign material.
Well, that’s always true, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right. If you’re just going to use it as a job, then give it to someone else because you won’t do anything with it, and, in fact, you’ll betray the book. But I don’t think it matters so long as you love the story, and I did. I just loved it. I thought it was magnificent; one of those great stories that you never, never, never forget. As soon as you read it, you never forget it. The great works of literature do that. Even some that are not particularly well written. I mean, Jane Eyre is not very well written, but God, what a story.
Agyness Deyn gives a beautiful, stoic performance here as Chris Guthrie, and what’s perhaps most remarkable is that it’s her first major role. How did you find her?
I can’t take the credit for it, I’m afraid. My casting director said, “We’ll start on Monday. We’ve got this girl called Agyness Deyn coming in.” And someone else said she was a model, and I said “I don’t know anything about popular culture—I just don’t know, it will depend entirely on whether she gives a good audition or not.” First thing Monday morning we went in, she came in and gave an audition, and I just said, “We’ve found her.” It’s literally as vague as that. I couldn’t tell when she came into the room; usually you can. But as soon as she started the audition I knew we had found her. She asked, “Who’s going to play the younger version of me?” I said, “You are.” [Chuckles.]
And Peter Mullan, who’s a veteran performer, is really quite terrifying here in this tyrannical father role. I was wondering if there was any marked difference in your direction of actors when you’re dealing with newcomers and extremely experienced, set-in-stone professionals, on both ends of the scale.
Yes, that can be difficult. Some actors who are well known are apparently not to be given line readings. Well, that’s a load of nonsense. It is utter nonsense. He is one of the really great film actors Britain has produced, one of the few. There aren’t many, and he’s one. But no, he couldn’t have been more receptive to direction. But also, he did things that I hadn’t thought of. He uses the lower register of his voice, which is actually quite caressive, so in the early scenes he actually seems very tender. And then when he turns it’s all the more shocking because you’ve been led to believe that he’s this tender man who is essentially a decent bloke. That was due to him. What you have to do when you’re directing anybody—whether they’re well-known or whether they’re not — is to tell them, “Don’t act. I don’t want you to act.” That’s just superficial, all that. But if you just be, film has the ability to capture the fleeting moment, as well as the important moments.
[Note: the forthcoming paragraph contains a major spoiler.]
Like when Chris finds out that Ewan’s been executed, she says, “It’s a lie.” That’s all she says. In the script she says it twice, but Agyness kept on saying it. Of course you’ve got to use that. You’ve got to. I told her, ‘You’re insensible from grief’, and it became like a mantra—she kept saying it. Of course I’m going to use that!
You can’t plan that.
You can’t plan that. No, you can’t. And when people do things that you can’t plan or hadn’t thought of, that’s when it becomes really exciting, because you think, “I would never have thought of that. I would never have thought of that.” In the execution scene [in which Ewan, hours from being executed, and another deserter talk quietly in their quarters before embracing], they wanted to come together earlier, and I said, “No, please, don’t come together until Ewan has said his final line, then come together.” They both said, “Yeah, you were right”, but we got those in two takes apiece. In fact, the opening shot we got in one take. It wasn’t planned, believe me. I thought decades would pass and empires would fall before we got it, but we got it. Someone said to me, ages ago, he said, “I think what happens on a crew is that when you do the first take you’re not tense, because you think, ‘Well, we’ve got all day’, and that’s usually the one that you choose.” It’s wonderful to see it being choreographed and working. You think to yourself, “Wow, this is grown up filmmaking.”
In a way, Sunset Song is also a beautiful film of and about landscapes, and how landscape informs identity. You shot the film in New Zealand?
Only the summer sequences, because you can’t rely on summer in Scotland, believe me, you can’t. It rains all the time. But yes, we were just outside Christchurch.
The exteriors are stunning, particularly the light. There’s a word that you’ve used to describe a specific time of day that’s meaning has thus far eluded me: gloaming.
It’s a very odd word, because people usually translate it as twilight, but it’s not twilight. There’s just a moment between twilight and before the dark comes: that’s gloaming. It’s fantastic, wonderfully soft, coral-like light. And it’s just so wonderful. The Germans call it abendrot, literally ‘red evening’, but gloaming is very special. And the scene where we did actually get proper gloaming is when she’s coming in through the fields and the help [John, played by Niall Greig Fulton] is carrying her child; the preceding shot. It’s just cows on a field, and it’s misty and they just begin to move, just before the light goes. That’s gloaming.
That must feel wonderful, when you finally get it.
It is, because it’s so beautiful. We couldn’t wait around for magic hour; we didn’t have the money. But it’s so, so quintessentially Scottish, and twilight doesn’t describe it.
Some would scramble to call this a feminist film. Would you agree with that sentiment?
I’m just interested in the story—it just happens to be a woman in it. I suppose it informs my worldview unconsciously. You know, I’m from a large family but I grew up really with my sisters and my mother, and I was very, very close to them. Especially northern British women because they’re funny, they’re really, really funny, and they’re wonderful to be with, and mercifully don’t like sport. That’s part of you, but you don’t consciously use it. When I was growing up, all the big, commercial successes from Hollywood were about women: All That Heaven Allows, Love is a Many Splendoured Thing, Magnificent Obsession, they were all about women. So I grew up with that. I’m drawn mostly to the story.
This film is out of place, I think, in modern cinema, in that it’s very earnest and compassionate and, in a way, innocent. There’s no rushing to be ironic or overly clever. There’s a classicism to it, and in more than just a superficial way it reminded me of two other great pastoral melodramas: John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! Are there film and cultural influences that are informing this style?
Well actually, the real ones are the American musicals, because that’s what I was brought up on. My sisters loved the American musicals and I was taken to the pictures when I was seven for the first time and it was Singin’ in the Rain. My big influences were musicals, because I loved them and still do, and it’s that period between 1940 and Meet Me in St. Louis down to the late fifties—that’s the golden period for musicals. That was a huge influence. Other things have an elliptical influence. There’s a Robert Hamer film, from Ealing Studios, called It Always Rains on Sunday, and that’s a big influence too, especially the interiors, although our interiors were based on a Danish painter called Hammershoi. But those almost claustrophobic interiors, especially from It Always Rains on Sunday: huge flowers on this flock wallpaper. It’s suffocating! You can’t breathe! So those interiors had to had the feel that they’ve lived in those places for a long time.
You’re influenced by everything you see. I can’t really say there’s one particular person. I can say that there are films by some filmmakers that I really couldn’t live without, like Letter from an Unknown Woman by Ophuls, or The Red Shoes, because of the wonderful use of colour and a wonderful performance by Anton Walbrook, who is just sensational in it. The next time you watch it, watch it with the sound down and just watch his gestures. They are so beautiful. They’re really beautiful. And there’s a bit in it that I love because it’s unintentionally comic, when Lady So-and-So [Irene Brown’s Lady Neston] says, “My daughter will dance for you now”, and he says “No, I can’t have the ballet cheapened like this”, and storms out, and it cuts back to her and she says, “Attractive brute!” [Laughs.] Wonderful.
I wanted to ask about your editing process, because although the film is a melodrama, it doesn’t have these gargantuan narrative peaks and valleys—it’s got a gentle, song-like flow to it. How do you find that?
The problem with film is—and it’s always a shock, no matter how many you make—is that you put it together and it doesn’t work, and you think, “Christ, I’ve got to work really hard now.” Because you’ve got to find the subtext—what is the film saying?—and that’s just hard work. There are certain scenes where I can just say, “Put them together”, and I know they’ll work. The church scene, for example, I knew that was going would work, and it was just a matter of the length of the shots. Others you have to work really hard for. And you’re not sure. I’ve found with films that if there’s a problem it’s not at the point where you think it is, it’s either before or after that point, and finding those points before and after is really hard, especially when you’ve seen it two hundred times and you think, “I can’t sit through it again”. But something always happens at the end of five or six weeks where I say, “I’ve got to have a break from it. I’m so bored with it, I just can’t watch it again.” Two or three days later you come back into the editing suite and you’ve got through your boredom and look at it with fresh eyes, and you just know: “Move that, take that out, take that out.” And then the editor will come up with some ideas. And then you find it, and it’s usually in the last week or so. It is very hard, because you do see it an awful lot.
You can change a scene with the simplest thing. In The House of Mirth she goes to Lawrence’s apartment and then she goes down the stairs. The way it’s written is she says, “The best of luck at Bellomont”, and closes the doors from the outside. The editor said, “What would happen if we left the doors open?” And what it does is it leaves the implication that they still might actually come together, and that’s by simply leaving the doors open. Something as simple as that. But of course that’s what makes it marvellous; finding those moments.
You’re still writing the film.
That’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re re-writing it in a way.
A cursory Google of your name brings up some very bold superlatives, Greatest Living British Filmmaker being one of them. And yet despite this you’ve still had a very hard time getting films produced. You’ve spent more time in development limbo than most filmmakers of your stature. What do you make of your legacy and how it squares with the current film production landscape.
Well I don’t go to the cinema anymore. I can’t suspend my disbelief. Occasionally you see something where you think, “Ah, this is a proper film.” Like Foxcatcher, that is a proper film. Wonderfully written, wonderfully performed and wonderfully directed. But that is rare. Most of the time you think, after the first two minutes, “Oh God, another ninety-eight to get through.” I’m conscious of camera movement. I’m conscious of bad acting. I’m conscious of music everywhere. Switch the bloody stuff off. I just—I can’t be innocent anymore. As I said, Foxcatcher was the recent exception where I was held right throughout. I think it’s a marvellous film. A wonderful performance from Channing Tatum. A quite extraordinary performance.
Another ex-model. He was a stripper as well, actually.
Well, perhaps we should go into modelling. [Laughs.] Oh, no, I’ve left it too late.
You’ve spoken before about the insidiousness of American cultural influence in Britain, especially in the sixties and seventies. All of a sudden your country has been plunged into isolation with this recent Brexit referendum. I’m sorry to get political toward the end of an interview, but do you think it’s going to have any long-term cultural effect, good or bad?
We’ve sounded our own death knell, that’s what we’ve done. The country is stupid. I voted to stay in. God knows what’s going to happen now. Britain has been imploding for an awfully long time. It just has. This pathetic idea that we’re important in the world? Of course we’re not. We’re a silly little island off the coast of Europe. That’s what we are. As for the special relationship with America, well, you could have that with a lapdog, which is what we’ve become. Gore Vidal said of Britain, “it’s not a country, it’s an American aircraft carrier.” And he’s right. And everything—the culture, everything—is just suffocating. I say it all the time: if we don’t guard our cultural heritage, and for our size it’s a pretty good one, in a few years we’ll be like Hawaii but with lousy weather.
You’ve finished another film, A Quiet Passion, which unfortunately isn’t playing MIFF. Cynthia Nixon is playing Emily Dickinson.
Yes. When I was in my teens, the local television station used to do these little fifteen-minute documentaries about people. In fact, one was about the very young Tom Jones. One was about Emily Dickinson, and it had Claire Bloom reading the poetry. I can still remember the first one: “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me…” I didn’t know anything about her life until years later, I just knew the poems. And then I realised what an extraordinary life she had. Basically, she withdrew from the world, and wanted her family to stay together forever, which of course is impossible. Families, by their nature, disintegrate. She was way ahead of her time. I think she was the greatest of the 19th century American poets, but the only way you could get your work published in those days was if you wrote sentimental verse, and a lot of writers, especially women, made a very good living out of it. But she was a genius, and her poems are very avant-garde. Only seven or eleven were ever published, and they altered her punctuation, which is really awful. And then she died of a combination of Bright’s disease, which is a disease of the kidneys, and congenital heart failure, and it was only after she died that her poems began to get published. But that’s cold comfort to her. She should have been recognised while she was alive!
And the film covers this later part of her life?
Well, the only time she left home, she went to a seminary. America was very avant-garde in terms of education—there were all these seminaries all over the place, where you went and had a very good education. There were only two or three drawbacks. They were very evangelical, and the people who taught them had been pupils there themselves. As soon as they got married their tenure was stopped and they weren’t allowed to teach anymore. But they had a very good education. That was the only time she left home and she was literally ill with homesickness. When I was a child I was sent away to Wales twice because I had some breathing problems and it was only for a month but, oh, I ached. I was really, really homesick. Even now when I go away, after four days I just want to go home, because I really do miss home. And so I knew what she felt like. And then she came back to her house and she never leaves home again. And there’s a big schism in the family. Her brother, who is married with children, has had an affair with a married woman and because she basically adored him, it causes a huge rift. The arguments between them are ferocious, because when someone in your family who you adore lets you down, you really go for them. It happened to me with my older sister. You really go for them, because you feel betrayed. And those arguments are—they really go for one another. But I also didn’t want to make her solemn. She was fun, she liked to bake and she played the piano very well. She improvised on the piano. Oh, but even the baking. She put her bread into the local fair and she only won second prize. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!
All of your films have either been period adaptations or memory pieces. Would you ever consider making a film set in the present?
I don’t think so, and the reason is because I’m a technophobe. I can’t use any of this. I just can’t. I’ve got three numbers on my mobile phone. If anyone rings I just switch it off and I shout at it. I am terrified. They’ve got lives of their own. And I think the more technological life becomes, it’s almost a denial of real life, and I don’t understand it, and I’ve got to say, I’m repelled by it. Especially the narcissism. That really is shocking. Why would you want to take photographs of yourself all the time?! I don’t get it at all. I don’t think I’ll ever make one. One of the films that’s coming up goes up until the 1980s, but that’s about as modern as I get, and then after that I’m back to 1918. It’s sad really. [Laughs.]
Sunset Song screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival before a limited national release on September 1.