By Andrea Gronvall


For a world-class filmmaker, Terence Davies keeps a fairly low profile; you’re not likely, for instance, to catch him chatting up Jay Leno on late-night TV (in part because the director/screenwriter dislikes travel and hardly ever watches television). He has channeled his energies into his work, from ruminative autobiographical features like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, about Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, to his masterly adaptation of the Edith Wharton classic The House of Mirth (starring Gillian Anderson in one of her best movie roles), followed by the acclaimed documentary Of Time and the City, about his native Liverpool. His latest film is an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan stage drama The Deep Blue Sea, set in postwar London and starring Rachel Weisz as a married aristocrat who attempts suicide after forsaking all for love with a former RAF fighter pilot. Last autumn at the Toronto International Film Festival, Chicago-based distributor Music Box Films snapped up the U.S. rights; it’s the indie powerhouse’s first English-language title, following its successful releases of the French thriller Tell No One and the Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. The Deep Blue Sea recently previewed at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual European Union Film Festival, prior to theatrical release, and Davies, 66, made a rare appearance, regaling the packed house for close to an hour with his memories, insights, and movie lore. He was also generous enough to sit down with me beforehand, where we talked about the craft of adapting a stage play for the screen.

Andrea Gronvall:  The differences between Terence Rattigan’s play and your film of The Deep Blue Sea are striking. You’re faithful to the essence of the play, but you’ve given a back-story to the marriage of the Collyers–Hester (Rachel Weisz) and Sir William (Simon Russell Beale). There’s no hint of Judge Collyer’s mom at all in the play, but there she is in your film, played with icy malignancy by Barbara Jefford, and in a flash we can intuit so much more about the problems this couple faced.

Terence Davies:  I wanted to see Hester in a social position where she’s clearly considered not good enough for this woman’s son. And how a 50-year-old can still call his mother “Mummy”—that’s peculiar to the upper classes in England. We always said “Mum,” or “Marm,” or “Ma’am;” we never said “Mummy,” after we stopped being like, eight or nine. I wanted to open the play a little, so that it wasn’t all a question of people [characters] telling you things. When you can show things, as you can in proper cinema, you don’t really need much of the first act [of the play]; the first act has been collapsed into nine minutes. I said as soon as we set it from Hester’s point of view, all that goes; anything she’s not privy to, we can’t have.

AG:  There are other characters–some of whom you’ve reduced to essentially walk-ons in the movie—that in the play exist primarily to indicate different strata of society, and how oppressive England was in the postwar years. But in the play some of those characters appear annoyingly offhand in their dealings with Hester.

TD:  They’re not convincing, for one simple reason: he [Rattigan] never lived in a bed-sit in Ladbroke Grove after the war. So these people are caricatures; [in the play] Mrs. Elton is a caricature of a landlady. They weren’t like that at all, those women who had houses that they let out into flats. In the play, for instance, Mrs. Elton tells Hester, you’re behind in the rent, but it doesn’t really matter. That would never have happened. You didn’t pay your rent, you were out, because there were no tenant rights; those people relied on that income. So, that had to be changed; that had to be made truer, because I can remember when my sisters got married and moved into these awful rooms. I know what the Fifties were like because I grew up then.

AG:  In the play, the domestic setting is described as dingy; in your film, we indeed get the point that because she has chosen to be with her jobless lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), Hester has come down in the world. But as the movie progresses, I didn’t experience their apartment as drab; it took on a sort of dusky glow, and a certain richness, maybe because under your direction the production designer (James Merifield) and cinematographer (Florian Hoffmeister) convey a sense of lives that are fully lived. Is that effect deliberate, or was it my imagining?

TD:  No, the color palette was deliberately narrow, because at the end of the war, Britain was literally bankrupt. In homes you saw all that the people had, and they’d had it many years, and tried to keep it as well as they could. I was from a working-class background, and we had a front room which was called a parlor, and that was kept absolutely pristine. Coming home from school in September when it was dark, I’d go into the parlor, and the fire was lit, and a little plate of potato cakes had been toasted, with butter on them, and a cup of tea. But all of the fire was reflected in the surfaces—on wood, leatherette—so it made it look sumptuous to my eyes. It didn’t matter that we had nothing, and that the house was literally a slum—that [parlor] seemed so rich!

I remember being taken to see Young at Heart–I love Doris Day with all my heart—and those interiors were gorgeous. Which I know is absurd: these three girls, who never do any work, live in this fabulous place, and look fabulous all the time, and you think, how is that done? But I’d come home, and sit in the firelight, and think, oh, it’s just like Young at Heart. I’ve always been very aware of surfaces, ever since I was a child. It was just recreating that, with a limited palette.

AG:  I watched, thinking, okay, maybe I’m just bourgie, but I could live in that.

TD:  [Laughs] Well, even Rachel Weisz said, “This is a very sexy apartment.” I said, “I grew up then; believe me, it’s not sexy.”

AG:  We can sense the ghosts of England’s wartime past within the parts of the movie that are set in Hester’s apartment, but naturally we can sense them even more deeply in the flashbacks. The subway scene in The Deep Blue Sea is so eloquent, when Hester, on the train platform in the film’s present, peers into the blackness of the tunnel. And then dirt and debris suddenly seep onto the tracks from overhead; the camera pulls back, the background goes dark, the foreground lights up, and we see Londoners taking refuge in the Aldwych tube station during the Blitz, as Nazi bombs rain on the city. A man sings, and the tracking shot continues along the platform, where all sorts of people are holding themselves together. Why did you decide to do that then, at that point in the film, when Hester is again contemplating suicide?

TD:  Because what I do find extraordinary about life is that a very simple thing can alter a decision. After the phone call [to Freddie], Hester decides, he doesn’t love me, I’m going to kill myself. And while she’s waiting for the train to come, she remembers what it was like during the war, when London was bombed 72 nights in a row during the Blitz. And it’s that memory, and of someone singing—because they did sing down in the tube; people danced as well, would you believe?–that stops her from doing something dreadful.

Also, the influence is Brief Encounter, when she [the heroine, Celia Johnson] runs to the edge of the platform and says, “I couldn’t do it, Fred. I wish I could have said it was for you and the children, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the courage, Fred.” What is extraordinary about human beings is that we have memory. Those people who suffer traumas where they can’t remember the past, it must be devastating, because we are the accumulation of our pasts. And if you can’t remember that, how can you possibly know what you are now? None of us really know who we are, but the past for me is not a foreign country. It’s alive, and with all the clues; if only we were intelligent or sensitive enough to unravel them, we might find happiness.

AG:  Hester is obviously a tragic heroine, yet she is also incredibly self-aware. But unlike protagonists nowadays who undergo psychotherapy in order to understand themselves and thereby change for the better, she understands herself, but doesn’t try to fix herself.

TD:  Yes, but in those days you wouldn’t have—especially in Britain, no one would have thought to go to a psychoanalyst, even if you could afford it. Hester’s very much like my mother; she’s a stoic. Not in the old Greek sense, but in the sense of, these are the cards I’ve been dealt with, let’s get on with it. I came from that era where you got on with things, where you didn’t give up. I was beaten up every day for four years at secondary school. I didn’t tell a soul; my mother found out by accident. You just didn’t tell anybody. Not like now, where not only do people want to go on [reality] television and cry, they get a franchise out of it! I mean, that would have been unthinkable in the Fifties. [Laughs]

And also [the very idea of] telling us everything—cinema doesn’t work like that. At the beginning of The Deep Blue Sea there’s a woman and two men. And what we ask is, what’s the relationship between them? And then the film says what the relationship is. It’s like dead simple! But simple things are always more powerful.

AG:  You’ve also improved on the play in terms of the character of Freddie. In the play he comes across as callow and self-absorbed and—

TD:  And stupid.

AG:  In the play, we learn one of the keys to Freddie’s troubles is an accident he had in Canada, In your film, we don’t really know why he’s fallen on such hard times. But that allows Tom Hiddleston more mystery to plumb; there’s more darkness to his character, who comes across as more unstable than in the play. In the play Freddie’s mostly a boor.

TD:  During the Battle of Britain, the average age of these young men was 22, and they were fighting eight soldiers a day. And when they saw a German aircraft, do you know how much response time they had? Eight seconds, or they were dead. And so part of the story is that Freddie’s horrified that he’s been through that, and Hester is going to throw her life away over the fact that he hasn’t remembered her birthday; he hasn’t done it deliberately, he’s just thoughtless. But when you’re in the thrall of love, to that depth, every single thing is important. Why are they late? They said they would come at four o’clock; they’ve come at six—why? You become obsessed with that, and that’s what’s destructive, the destructive side of love.

AG:  At the close of the film, when the camera pulls away from Hester looking out the window, moves up and out and along the street, and we see the devastation of bombed buildings at its end, did you mean to suggest in that shot that Hester will find a way to repair herself, just like London found a way to rebuild itself?

TD:  Not really, no. My intention was to say at the beginning of the film, we see this house: during this story, we’re going to concentrate on Hester, a tenant. And then at the end we come away and say, we’ve seen her story, but there are stories that we’ll never know. It’s for aesthetic symmetry; I love that. We see Hester’s story, and then we go back, and they get on with their lives.

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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott