His second consecutive drama about an iconic poet with a life of inner turmoil, Terence Davies’ Benediction affords the filmmaker canvas to explore queerness more explicitly than he has in decades. It concerns World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi), who was known for his epic, satirical poems detailing trench warfare and the horrors of a war in which he fought bravely but spoke out against. He was also a closeted gay man in Britain, where those in power considered his sexual identity a crime.
As the film arrives in theaters, I spoke with Davies about his unique approach to biopics, making his first explicitly gay film in decades, themes of loneliness and conformity in Benediction, the 30th anniversary of The Long Day Closes, and his next project.
The Film Stage: This is your second film about a poet, once again beautifully subverting the structure of a biopic. When it comes to your process, do you take a look at the rather obvious moments in one’s life you know you want to exclude in order to shape it around what you find most interesting?
Terence Davies: With Siegfried Sassoon, it was very difficult because he went everywhere and he knew everybody. It was really thinking: what do I do with this guy? Well, I’ve got to first decide what I leave out. You can’t encompass a life in two hours. You just simply can’t. And there were things which were very easy, like him hunting. I don’t agree with hunting. And cricket, you know, the only thing more tedious than cricket is Formula One. For me, death is preferable to Formula One. Anything that had to do with sport, I forgot.
But I drew the things that I was emotionally drawn to. Obviously, the fact that he was gay. He was a very privileged gay, too. A lot of those men never got caught because they were privileged. They knew the right people. But they also got married, which I find very curious. But the most extraordinary thing was to want to become a Catholic. I mean, my God. I was brought up as a Catholic. Why would you want to voluntarily?
So I chose that as the basic structure. The other thing that is very important to me is the nature of screen time. I’m not interested in what happened next; I’m interested in what happens emotionally next. It’s like memory. Memory isn’t linear. It’s cyclical. A tiny thing can be the thing that’s more interesting. So that, of course, was determined by my discovering T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets when I was 18. Just wonderful. Just some of the greatest poetry that’s ever been written in English. “The flowers had the look of flowers that are looked at.” When you arrive at the train station, “while the narrowing rails slide together behind you, leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.” I’m mean, that is cinema.
Beautiful. I believe this is your first explicitly gay film since Madonna or Child/Children. Being able to see you play around with these long, extended conversations and explicitly talk about things you had once expressed more subtly was a joy. Was that part of the appeal of this story?
Well, I couldn’t really avoid being gay, unfortunately. [Laughs] But what I did want to do, I wanted him to be seen in bed with Ivor, but I didn’t want any of that nonsense about, you know, it’s all semi-dark and they have all got gym-trend bodies, they’ve got body make-up on, and nobody ever gets a cramp. Nobody ever farts, which one longs for. So I thought it’s just got to be literally matter-of-fact—the important thing being seeing the betrayal. That’s what’s important, not the sex. But there was no way of avoiding the fact he was gay. This is literally what Hester said he proposed to her: “Stephen’s told me everything. That’s all I need to know.” I mean, that’s incredibly naïve. And I think they both went into that marriage with a great deal of naïveté and suffered the consequences.
But there’s no really getting away from having to show that gay side and the cruelty that’s in gay society. And I think it’s still there. The sexual predator-ness of it and the venality of it, and it’s all about what you look like. Well, there’s surely got to be more to that. What about compassion? What about love? For me, when I went on to the gay scene for a very short time, I thought, this is not for me. I can’t live like that. And I became celibate. And it was easy because a) I’m not very good at sex to begin with; b) I wasn’t good-looking. No one was ever interested, so it was very easy to do that. My real thirst was knowledge, because I left school at 15. And that’s what I wanted to do most of all. I wanted knowledge.
Speaking on the theme of loneliness: your approach to cinematography. Jack Lowden is often shot somewhat centered and alone in the frame. Can you talk about the visual motifs and the way it correlates to the themes?
Well, when I see the frame, I see the frame. I’m trying my hardest to become asymmetrical. I’ve got to put someone on the right- or left-hand side, not in the middle. I do try very, very hard, but I think there is something beautiful about symmetry. I don’t know why, but it’s instinctive. Asymmetry is much harder for me. It’s just that there are recurring themes like windows and staircases [in my films]. I have no idea why they come. They come into every single film and God knows I’ve tried not to, but they managed to get in somehow. There’s obviously something about them that draws me, but it’s when you look down the camera and look at the right lens, it tells you what the frame is.
I don’t know why that is. You go, “No, I dare you. Just go to the left a little, come in just a little bit.” That has to be felt on a frame-by-frame, a shot-by-shot basis. Although I write the scripts with every single shot in it, every single piece of music, because you’ve got to actually clear it before you start shooting. I mean, that’s just practical. Knowing every shot I could improvise if something important came up. It was Ingmar Bergman who said, “You can only improvise if you prepare.” And he’s right.
Does that planning also pertain to the archival footage you have? It’s really wonderfully woven in. Did you pre-select clips before shooting?
Oh, it was always my intention to use archive footage—because even if you have all the money in the world, you cannot recreate what it was like in the trenches. You simply can’t do it. And when you see the footage, it’s so powerful and it’s barbaric as well as it’s beautiful. It’s got so much power. I said, “We’ve got to use that.” I think we spent three days going through all the WWI footage, three or four days, and you just choose the bits that you think they say something. I don’t know what it is, don’t know where they’ll go, but it says something. But no, you can’t compete with that footage. It’s so powerful and horrific at the same time. And you realize these men carrying these huge, heavy, hand-cranked cameras into battle. It’s inconceivable now.
Yes, that is shocking. Speaking to that, there’s a line in the film where it’s asked, “Are you pro-German?” Sassoon answers, “I’m pro-human.” This idea of objecting to war will, unfortunately, resonate throughout human history because there will always be war. But how do you think his belief as a conscientious objector and a pacifist resonate as strongly today?
Well, I don’t think [someone in the military] possibly can be pacifist now. You know, you probably couldn’t be pacifist then. And to be pacifist then, you could put your life on the line and he was prepared t. There’s something about the Great War. Although many more people were killed in the Second World War, there’s something about the Great War that is seismic. I mean, it changed history in a way that other wars have not done so. There’s a story in Britain of 13 lucky villagers, and they’re called lucky villagers because they were the only villages in the country where they lost no one during the Great War. Everywhere else lost people, sometimes entire families.
It is so catastrophic when you look at those casualty lists. 29,000 men were killed or injured in the first hour in the Battle of the Somme. I mean, sending men against machine guns. It’s so horrific. It’s still horrific. More horrific, I think, in a way than the second World War. You look at Ukraine now and you’re thinking: how can one man inflict all this misery and destruction on other people who’ve not done him any harm? You can’t believe it. You watch these people being killed. Will we never learn? And of course we won’t. The irony is what came out of the Great War in Britain, culturally, through the great poets. Isn’t that an irony?
Can you talk about developing the structure of the film, and if anything surprised you in the editing process?
The content dictates form. It will tell you what it wants, you know. All you have to do is listen to it. That’s all. And once you’ve got the all the arc of a film, then you’ve got structure. You know what you’re trying to achieve. But even then, no matter how detailed that script is––my scripts are very detailed––after the first assembly I never look at it again. Because there’s no point. You’ve got to find the truth of the film. You’ve got to make it sing, if you like. And so the “Ghost Riders in the Sky” sequence, in script, it comes two-thirds into the film. In the film, it comes a third in. Because that’s where it’s supposed to be. It will tell you. But you have to respond to it emotionally. You have to listen to the material as well as look at it. And it will tell you where it wants to go. And sometimes you want to put something in and it just won’t go. “Sorry, I’m not to go in this cut.” And you can try as much as you like; the answer will always be the same. Once you know that you’re all right.
But what’s infinitely subtle about editing, which is what makes it both wonderful and awful at the same time, you can change the meaning of something by a very small thing––a very, very small thing. In the opening sequence it says Benediction, London, 1914, and we come down. And Alex [Mackie], who cut it for me, said I’ve changed it a little. I said, “Let’s see.” It now says Benediction, then we come down, and it says London, 1914. It’s absolutely right and it makes a huge difference. That’s when it’s wonderful. The Christmas sequence, the poem to the brother, was in fact not in there, and she said, “I put it in.” I said, “That’s just a masterstroke.” It’s so perfect. That’s when you begin to find the truth of it. Then you can actually be quite savage in saying, “You know, we don’t need this now.” It’s quite a terror and delight when you’re cutting it.
Last week was actually the 30th anniversary of The Long Day Closes, which is a film that means quite a lot to me. Have you revisited it since, and what are some of your fondest memories of making it?
Well, I never look at the films anymore because I’ve seen them so often during the cutting. I could run a sequence in my head. It was, you know, constantly you’ve got to watch for money. It’s got to be shot for the amount of money that you can raise. I never, ever thought—I mean, even in my flights of fancy—that I would rebuild my street that I grew up in, which is what I did. We made certain changes, but not a lot. No, it seems very, very curious. They don’t seem to be part of me. I can’t explain it. I just think, “Oh, did I do that? That was good. It was rather clever of me.” But as far as [Benediction] is concerned, I had such enormous commitment from everyone from the top to the bottom that I don’t really consider it mine. I consider it ours now.
You were all set to shoot and then had to break for six months because of the pandemic. In that time period, did it better prepare you for the shoot?
What happened was: we were about to shoot and then we heard it was going to be postponed because of COVID. And I really thought then “that’s it, we won’t come back.” Luckily, BBC and BFI came up with the money for the COVID testing, and we didn’t have a single COVID case during the whole shoot and into the post-production as well. Which was wonderful. But, you know, they got that extra money. If that extra money hadn’t been found we wouldn’t have been able to do it. So thank God they did. But I did think at that point: “well, no, perhaps this is it”—you know, slow fade to black. The end.
I’m glad that wasn’t the case. There’s this heartbreaking idea that runs throughout the film of living your whole life in a kind of conformity and searching for something that you might not be able to find, some sort of inner peace. Can you talk about that throughline between the character portrayed by Jack Lowden and then Peter Capaldi? There’s a strong sense of their shared pain that goes on for decades.
Well, I think the unfulfillment—that’s my most autobiographical thing. I think there’s a little autobiography with Emily Dickinson as well [in A Quiet Passion]. I mean, I felt them very, very deeply. And I think she’s the greatest 19th-century American poet. She’s just simply fabulous, fabulous, but no recognition. He got recognition, but was overshadowed by the fact that Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen had died. And that gives them a cachet that he couldn’t compete. At the end of my working life I’m asking the same question: why did I put work and the aesthetic of the work before anything else? And I have. I’m beginning to think, “Was I wise in certain areas?” I wasn’t. I wish I’d been more venal and said, “OK, you know, I’ll do a couple of films just for money,” but I can’t do it.
It was announced you are developing an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl. What’s the status of that project?
Yes. Well, I mean, we’ve been on this three years now. The script is written and we’re raising the money. But, you know, it will be a co-production, which means if one domino does fall, then everything collapses. It’s the same thing. You know, it took six years to get Benediction onto the screen, and that’s a long time. It’s a long time. And you begin to wonder: was the journey worth it? Should have stayed at home and taken up embroidery.
Well, I’m glad you didn’t. I’m glad you pushed forward.
Benediction opens in theaters on June 3.