Premiering at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival to rave reviews (including our own), Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion tackles the life and work of America’s premier lady of letters, Emily Dickinson. Starring Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, the drama pulsates with repressed creativity and bridled vitality, textured by Davies’s painterly, atmospheric touches that capture those aspects as well as the distinct domesticity of the Dickinson household. At last year’s New York Film Festival, I was able to sit down with highly esteemed British filmmaker and discuss what drew him to Emily Dickinson, the cruelty of talent being unrecognized within their lifetimes, and films that inspired him: William Wyler’s The Heiress and Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman. With the film now opening in limited release this Friday, read our full conversation below.
The Film Stage: What drew you to making this, not typical, biopic of Emily Dickinson’s life? Why her as a subject?
Terence Davies: I discovered her when I was 18. Claire Bloom was reading her work on television. And the first one was “Because I could not stop for Death.” So I bought the anthology and I didn’t really know about her life because it had just a little preface about when she lived and when she died and all about that. It was about five or six years ago that I really started to re-read her. And I thought, “I’ve got to do what her life was like” and found this extraordinary life. Reminding me more and more of the Brontës. They didn’t go anywhere and look at what they produced, and she was the same. I thought this inner life was very, very rich.
There’s an English composer that doesn’t get played now called Michael Tippett. In every interview, he always said, “You’ve got to have an original life. You’ve got to feed that soul.” So even when if we die, the soul disappears. Without it, what do you do. And it doesn’t have to be rich in the sense of the arts. If you get a great deal of pleasure by watching sport, then fine, and if you know everything about a particular sport, as long as your inner life is fed. What I was moved by was her spiritual quest because I went on one of my own. I was a very devout Catholic until I was 22. For seven years, from 15 to 22, I really did fight because I was taught that these doubts about the religion, these are the work of the devil and you’ve got to fight it. And at the end of seven years, I just thought, “Well, it’s all a lie anyway. Why have I been so slow in realizing it?” But once that goes out of your life, what do you fill it with? Because it had been a very important part of my life, but then movies had been an even more important part. I said goodbye to God and said hello to Gene Kelly. Another thing that I was very moved by was that she wasn’t recognized in her own lifetime. That I do think is heartbreaking. Even her bread, she only won second prize. You think couldn’t she have got first prize just once.
What liberties did you take in dramatizing Emily Dickinson’s life story?
One of the liberties was that she did not meet Mabel Loomis Todd. But I mean, you go outside and you ask about Mabel Loomis Todd and they don’t know who you’re talking about. The lovely people at Amherst said that at this time, Mabel Loomis Todd was five years old, so she couldn’t meet anybody. It’s not a documentary. It’s only my version of the truth and in my Emily, it’s not anybody else’s, because content dictates form — it will tell you how do we give information. Stories are all about information and how you give it so it’s not confusing. As I said the other day, you don’t know in the first two shots, only at the end of the third shot do you know it’s about her. We see a group of women. Who is it about? And then we all ask that without knowing it, who it’s about, who are they. Oh, it’s about her. It’s a very simple device, but on a deeper level, it just tells you the information that you have taken from the biographies has then got to come out refracted and new. And the things you leave out are the things that you need to leave out. It’s like if I could just extrapolate… when you do a cut — I was told this at film school and it’s just fantastic — you do a cut and you think it needs this and it needs this. The person in the editing said, “Go home and tonight, before you go to bed, write down the shots.” So I did. And I got back and he looked at them. “You’ve left one out.” And I said, “Yes.” That’s the one you don’t need, and he was right.
So with that in my mind, thinking what do we do. You have to do that anyway when you’re shooting. You have to do it more so when you’re editing, but it tells you what to do. Dramatic truth isn’t real truth. It’s not, but it has its own logic. For instance, if we had started on her behind the doors when they played Nacht der Tonhalle, and panned reverse, left to right and around, left to right, what would it have meant? It would have implied that she sort of is aware he might flirt with this woman, but of course doing it the other way around, you don’t know what she’s thinking, which is precisely what it should be. It’s things like that that have to be… because you go through a series of deaths, really. You go through the deaths — the death of the idea when you write the script, you go through the death of the script when you shoot it, and you go through the death of the idea once you get to the actual final cut. But each time you lose something and you gain something by saying we don’t really need that. And other times, it’s sheer luck.
When we were doing Miss Vyrling Buffam’s wedding, it was originally written for inside the church. They come inside the church and say goodbye to her. We found this lovely Episcopalian church, but outside it was all modern. We didn’t have the money to dress it, so we confined it to the interior. We set up the wide and somebody hadn’t put the break on the camera, so it slid down a little. I said that’s the shot. Have it come down as she sits up, we don’t need any close-ups or action shots. But that’s luck. You have to be aware of the moment. You have to grab that moment. Just as the actors will do things, especially when they’re not acting and none of them did, they will do things instinctively and that’s what’s thrilling. When she has the first attack of Branson’s Disease, she could have sat down and been in pain and all that, but what she does is go to hold that dresser and all of that glass shakes, but it’s glorious. You can’t direct that. That’s glorious.
Cynthia Nixon captures that certain moment where she’s in great pain, but also the three servants walk in and, rather than revealing the source of her pain, she lashes out at them and then later attempts to make amends for that behavior.
She would have done that because she had great sense of consciousness, and that’s why I have her say, “Have I been forgiven? Keep the money, it will ease my conscious.” Because she’s genuinely upset that she has done such a thing, because she very rarely loses her temper. And she would be deeply upset that she had taken advantage of those servants, because those servants were loved. It was not true of lots of servants, especially in New York, they got three dollars a week… as [Mr. Dickinson] says to her, “They’re not servants; they’re employees.” And she’s really touched by that. She genuinely is sorry and the fact that she would say she was sorry to people who work for her father, and he doesn’t actually say to her you’ve got to apologize. She does that on her accord.
In the film, there is a really breathtaking pan across the Dickinson parlor, which in and of itself is so domestic and such a Victorian setting. The shot lingers on that atmosphere, then lands on a young Emily and a tumult of intense anguish from her. How did you approach capturing that very specific feeling?
When I was a child, we didn’t have a large house. It was a very cramped house. In September term at primary school, you’d get home in the dark and the parlor wasn’t lit. We only had very cheap furniture, but the fire was pleasant. It reflected in all of these surfaces, the pot of tea and something toasted. It seemed to make everything unbelievably luxurious. I used to sit and watch my family just do things. When you’re the young son, you do. And I thought that that’s what she does. What entertainment have they got? Either they play a game of cards or they read or they sew or they play the piano or they just sit and look in the fire. So that was something I’d experienced as well. When we come back to her, I said to her, “But something in you has died,” and I didn’t explain it. Her eyes filled with tears. She’s a wonderful actress, that girl. Because I did that as a child, thinking one day, they will all be dead. And even as a child, I experienced the ecstasy of happiness, but knowing that it wouldn’t last. That’s what I wanted to convey. They carry on with their lives and they’re only doing small things, but they’re together and it’s peaceful… the fleeting nature of happiness.
In telling Emily Dickinson’s story, how much did you think of her being a woman writer, a woman creative, being stifled by her times?
It wasn’t a conscious feminist tract. It was, “Here was a great artist.” Simple as that. She happens to be a woman, but she’s a great artist and was not known in her lifetime. That more than anything drew me to her. It reminded me of Anton Bruckner’s music. He had one success, the 8th Symphony and that’s it. It wasn’t until the 1960s when they began playing Mahler in concerts and then Bruckner, and he had one success and he was a very devout Catholic. There’s a wonderful story. I think it’s after the 8th Symphony, he didn’t know how to say thank you to the conductor, so he waited for him to come out at the stage door and he gave him forty donuts in a bag. That’s what moved me more than anything else that she wasn’t recognized. There were men who weren’t recognized either. Not just her. And any artist of that stature, not to have someone say, “Look, you are gifted.” At least Brookner had a young Mahler saying to him, “Dr. Brookner, your music is wonderful.” And he said, “Yes, but nobody wants to hear it.” So he had at least that. I don’t know whether she had anyone who said to her, “Look, you are a great poet.” I wanted someone to say it. Just once.
It was so beautiful having that scene with the man she has a bit of a crush on. He reads her poetry, says it’s great, and asks where she’s been published — that moment of tiny validation, albeit private and in her garden. At that point, any validation felt so nice for her and for us as her audience.
I do also think in a way, it’s not enough. Perhaps, people totally ignoring your work is better than one person saying, “I think it’s fabulous.” It’s certainly better than someone saying it’s interesting. That’s really awful. There are those awful times where if someone’s in a play, you go backstage and what do you say… I can’t lie. I asked someone what do you do, she said, “I go and say, ‘You’ve done it again.’” I said I couldn’t do that to them.
What sort of films influenced you while making this?
The two great influences were The Heiress and Letter from an Unknown Woman. I love those films. They’re just fabulous. Letter from an Unknown Woman is the greatest film about unrequited love, and what is wonderful about The Heiress is that she finds her strength and look at what she’s had to abandon. Someone described Ralph Richardson’s performance, which is the best one he ever gave, as a study in hushed tyranny. Isn’t that wonderful? When they’re in Paris and they’re eating chocolate, he says to her, “Have you’ve changed your mind?” and she says, “Never.” Then he says, “We’ll go back to New York.” She says, “I thought you wanted to see England?” He says, “I’ve seen England.” It’s a fabulous film. They were great influences.
And in your film, Emily speaks down from the top of the Dickinson staircase. For me, the staircase from The Heiress immediately came to mind. And then when you bring her poetry to life with the phantom male figure going up those stairs, I felt that sublime romantic yearning you feel in both of those films.
That is never requited, because no man came. The sad fact is that when you really desperately need something, and someone quite innocently has got no hidden agenda, this young lad is just a nice young lad. She misinterprets everything. She thinks she’s being spoken down to and she goes for him, and he’s really a nice lad. When you put it between those two scenes, going out and coming back, and she’s had her fantasy… because she’s still vibrating with that idea, and then this kid starts saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Great, that’s all I need — a cliche. That’s why she’s so acid with him. The poor lad, he hasn’t done anyone any harm. He’s probably a bachelor for the rest of his life, the poor sod.
A Quiet Passion opens in limited release on Friday, April 14.