Special is the opportunity to speak with one of our great living filmmakers; doubly rare is a chance to do so as their latest project premieres on YouTube. Participating with the murderer’s row Film Fest Gent compiled for their 50th-anniversary series––Paul Schrader, Bi Gan, Jia Zhangke, Radu Jude, Helena Wittmann, Naomi Kawase, and João Pedro Rodrigues, to note a handful––Terence Davies has directed Passing Time, a three-minute view of Essex scored by Florencia Di Concilio’s stirring composition and anchored by his reading of a self-penned poem.
Speaking over email, Davies and I had an exchange on the project that, however brief, proves a skeleton-key-of-sorts to his modus operandi: how actors should work, what poetry conveys on-paper and read-aloud, why Essex of all places to capture this music. Therein is also an unfortunate detail about a long-developing project but embers of hope for something new.
Special thanks to James Dowling and Kim Verthé for facilitating.
The Film Stage: This film started with the extraordinary score by Florencia Di Concilio. How did you connect it with the Essex landscape near your home, and this poem of yours that’s read?
Terence Davies: My first response on hearing Florencia’s beautiful score was that this should be a love poem. I thought about using an ancient Egyptian poem that begins “Seven days from yesterday I have not seen my beloved.” But then my producer and neighbor James and I couldn’t come up with suitable images that would be practical to film with our limited budget and resources. So I chose one of my own poems. It is still a love poem––for my sister, Maisey, who died two years ago. Her loss broke my heart. I heard that emotion in Florencia’s music. Florencia’s music seems to capture the tentative, bittersweet sensation of remembering.
There is also a bucolic quality to the music that spoke to me of the landscape where I live. You can hear the sounds and sensations of the countryside in her orchestration––the birds, the breeze in the trees, the movement of clouds, the shift of the light. So James set out with his iPhone and a tripod into the fields where we both live and came back with that lovely single shot. It was his idea. It just worked. The music seems to breathe through the poetry and the image. The bird chorus at the start of the film was actually recorded five years ago in a woodland on the Isle of Mull…
Do you have a more general philosophy of connecting images with music, be it popular songs or compositions?
Music is one of my great loves and is central to my own creative process. When I am working on a new film script, I see each shot in my mind’s eye and I hear the music in my head––it’s all part of the same creative moment. I usually only use music that I know and love. The music is felt. I just know when it’s right. So it’s wonderful to be a part of this project for Film Fest Gent that celebrates this symbiotic magic of music and images, and to be introduced to new music and its composer. We are hoping to work with Florencia on a similar small project in the coming months, but this time the other way round––she’ll create music in response to my poetry. I can’t wait to hear what she comes up with.
I’m fascinated by the decision to let us her the sound of paper ruffling at the very end––it’s almost the closest this film could come to breaking the fourth wall. What drove that decision?
Well, I suppose there are a number of things to say about that. I like the sound of the page turning as it seems in keeping with the themes of the poem––the final turn of the page of a life, the end of a script, fade to black. Writing poetry, for me, is itself an act of remembrance and I write long hand with a pen on paper, so I rather like the audible presence of that paper fluttering like the leaves on the trees that we don’t hear in the film. We recorded the poem twice in my study at home; the first take I dissolved into floods of tears on the final word, and the second take had me shuffling the pages. I think we chose the best one.
I joked that Benediction overcomes the problem that poetry (at least to my ears) has never sounded good read-aloud. I think this short could be added to that small canon. This leads me to wonder: what do you value in poetry as it’s read?
Poetry was designed to be read aloud, to be recited, to be shared communally. I think poetry only comes alive when it’s heard, when its linguistic music is audible. Very few people, including actors, can read poetry well––that’s the problem! Cynthia Nixon and Jack Lowden, my Emily and Siegried, are naturals! My favorite poem is Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”––I always take a copy with me when I travel. I was first introduced to the poem via a television performance by Alec Guinness reciting it from memory over four nights. Spell-binding!
There’s a theory that most directors are good onscreen because they spend so much time working with actors and their material. Do you think this is true? And do you think your time working with some of the world’s greatest actors has inspired your vocal performance here?
I suppose that depends on the actors! Most actors, in my view, spend far too much time “acting.” No one wants to see someone acting on screen. Actors should feel, not act––otherwise it’s inauthentic. Likewise, you have to feel poetry. I went to drama school before I directed, and I loved hearing spoken language long before I wanted to be an actor. I grew up listening. I was the youngest of ten children, so I listened to my older brothers and sisters and their friends talking together, telling their tales. There wasn’t anything else to do! And we were taught to recite poetry at school. (“The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes was a favorite!) I think that’s where it comes from. That, and memories of Alec and “The Four Quartets.”
What do you tell an actor when you suspect they’re “acting” instead of “feeling”? What language, gesture, or tone tends to bring them down to earth?
Well, it’s really all in the casting. I meet everyone in-person and know instinctively if they are right for the role or not. I can spot the “acting” straight way, and then it’s a polite “no thank you.” Whereas with Jack Lowden, for example, we met for a drink and I just knew I’d found Siegfried. It is rare that “acting” happens on set but if it does there’s usually a reason––it’s been a long day, they are anxious or you know something’s going on off-set. You have to sense these things. A gentle suggestion to forget what they’ve prepared and “just feel your way through” usually gets us there and then they do something wonderful I’d never have thought of, and that’s the magic.
How are things proceeding with The Post Office Girl? It was announced in February that you had cast three actors. Are they still involved, and is there a start date?
Funding, or rather the lack of it means that The Post Office Girl is likely to be no more. The producers have been trying for six years now. You do get to the point when you think maybe not this one…. in the meantime, I’m working with EMU Films (who produced Benediction) on a new script that may take us to Jamaica, so fingers firmly crossed for that!
Terribly sorry to hear Post Office Girl is done. But great news on this next film––do you mind if I ask what it will be?
I’m sworn to secrecy at the moment. But we’ve finished the second draft of the script and now we’re starting to make approaches to lead cast.