Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea | Interview
The British master filmmaker dives into The Deep Blue Sea.
The films of Terence Davies can be divided into two camps: autobiographical works about the British filmmaker’s childhood in Liverpool and sumptuous prestige adaptations. Based on a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea belongs to the latter; its plot concerns Hester (Rachel Weisz), a distraught woman in 1950s England who leaves her wealthy husband (Simon Russell Beale) for a dashing but insensitive RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston). In town for the movie’s Chicago premiere at the European Union Film Festival, Davies, 66, sat down with me at the Siskel to talk about his first narrative feature since The House of Mirth (2000).
You were comissioned to make this movie.
The Rattigan Trust approached me. They said, “Would you do one of the plays for his centenary?” I said yes, but I couldn’t do Separate Tables, because I saw the Burt Lancaster film when it first came out in 1958 and it’s too good. I couldn’t compete with that. And I couldn’t compete with The Browning Version, because it has a wonderful performance by Michael Redgrave. I was brought up in an era where if you couldn’t do it properly, you shouldn’t do it at all. And that’s still very deep within me.
How’d you land on The Deep Blue Sea?
At first, I wasn’t convinced. It’s a rather unremarkable story. The whole of the first act is exposition, which I simply find dull. But I thought if I could do it from Hester’s point of view, then all the exposition could go.
Have you seen the 1955 version?
It’s awful! All [director Anatole Litvak] has done, in fact, is photograph the play. What’s the point? And it’s got a dreadful performance by Vivien Leigh.
How did you pick Rachel Weisz for Hester?
I don’t watch much television, but one particular night—it was a Sunday night—there was this film on [Swept from the Sea]. And this girl came on. This luminous face, these wonderful eyes. And I thought, God, isn’t she fabulous? I rang my manager and I said, “Have you heard of someone called Rachel Weisz?” He said, “You’re the only one who hasn’t.”
And Tom Hiddleston?
With [the character of] Freddie, I had to see a lot of people. And that was pretty dispiriting. Young actors in England have got this idea now—God knows where's they've got it—that you change the lines to suit you. Hang on, that's not the way it works. You're supposed to be finding the character. And I really did despair. And then Tom came in. We read the scenes together and we found Freddie. It was as simple as that.
There's a recurring motif in your films—both this new one and your autobiographical features—of characters finding solidarity in group sing-alongs. Was this is a common pastime in the '50s?
It certainly was. Working-class people went to the pub on the weekend. And you sang! You sang all the songs that you loved. It was usually the Great American Songbook, which was poetry for ordinary people. And that was absolutely common. And they didn't think, "Oh, I've got a voice, I've got to be famous." They just enjoyed singing. Not now, that's gone.
I've read that your film of Sunset Song, based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel, is happening.
No, we're still working to get the money. I don't know how this has gotten into the news, but we've just started to raise the money.
Can you talk about that process?
It's always a slow process. And I'm no good at it. I'm hopeless! I just get angry and want to sock them. It's a great, great novel and it was done for BBC television in 1971. It's set just before, during and after the First World War, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Most people in Scotland have read the book. Virtually no one else has. It's very difficult to read, because of the dialect, but it's a wonderful story. I really would love to do it. So fingers crossed!
Will you ever make another autobiographical film?
No, I’ve done my life in Liverpool. I was a very devout Catholic. I really did pray until my knees bled, because I wanted to be cured of being gay. I’ve never been happy with it. In a working-class family, it really was something that was never talked about. And I don’t even want to think about going through that again. What’s happened, though, is that the things that affected me as a child have come out in the films. The opening and closing shots of The Deep Blue Sea are taken from Young at Heart, with Doris Day. I saw it when I was 11 and fell in love with her.
All your films are period pieces. Will we ever see a Terence Davies movie set in contemporary Britain?
The England I grew up in has vanished. Even after the war—I was born in ’45—people behaved properly. And I miss that. It’s gone from England. We’re the most uncivilized country in Europe. I love my country very much, but I’m its severest critic. And it’s imploded. The reason we’re obsessed with the Second World War is that was the last time we were important.
In your essay-doc Of Time and the City (2008), you claimed to hate the Beatles. Were you kidding?
No! I grew up on the Great American Songbook, which is one of the great cultural gifts to the world. It’s as good as anything by Schubert, and I don’t say that lightly. One of my sisters took me to see Jailhouse Rock with Elvis. I was only 11 and cringed all the way through it. And the Beatles came out and they were even worse, even more banal! Devoid of any discernible talent, as far as I’m concerned. I hated them then, and I still hate them. I hate them with a passion!
The Deep Blue Sea opens at Landmark’s Century Centre and Landmark’s Renaissance Place Friday 30.