Writer-director Terence Davies discusses his Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, and how he developed the film’s aesthetic. This is the second feature in our Special Issue on A Quiet Passion, which you can read in full here.
Writer-director Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, is Davies’ first non-autobiographical original screenplay. This gorgeously shot film is the story of an unappreciated writer who perseveres despite rejection because it’s her passion, a woman quietly rebelling against the many restrictions 19th century society placed on her. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Davies to discuss why he wanted to tell this story, how he developed the film’s intricately detailed aesthetic with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, and how he approached adapting the life of a famous woman into a screenplay, and finally, a film.
7R: What was the appeal of Emily Dickinson?
TD: Her courage, apart from her genius, her courage: that you carry on even though no one wants to read you or print you. I find that immensely courageous. It makes me sad that she wasn’t at the head of the queue. Why couldn’t her bread have won first prize and not second? Couldn’t she have been at the front of the queue just once? I warmed to that very much. The bitterness didn’t end her writing. She was above that. I think she must have felt very, very, betrayed is too strong a word, by the unfairness of life. But I do hope that if there is an afterlife, that she is looking down and thinking, “Well, it’s not half bad.”Why couldn’t her bread have won first prize and not second? Couldn’t she have been at the front of the queue just once?Click To Tweet
7R: It seems like a lot of the time we’re looking at the world and then we’re looking at Emily, who is separate from it.
TD: That’s what she was. She happened to be a great observer of the world. Her life was contained in her family and that house. So it had to be set there mostly. Yes, she goes away to seminary school and comes back via Boston. They go to a concert. But that’s it. The interiors then really become the story.
The architecture is in the screenplay so you know where to set. If you know the meaning of the scene, you know how many positions of the camera there should be. Sometimes, it’s two. Sometimes, it’s just one. But that’s felt. Sometimes, I’ve been lucky. When Vryling Buffam marries, originally, there were some shots in the church and some shots outside. We found this beautiful American church, but outside was far too modern. We didn’t have the money to dress it. So we decided to keep it all inside. We set up the wide shot, and the camera was on a track. Somebody hadn’t put the brake on, and it slid down. And I said, “That’s the shot. We don’t need anymore.” So that’s luck.If you know the meaning of the scene, you know how many positions of the camera there should be.Click To Tweet
7R: When you were choosing the house, where so much goes on, how did you decide what you wanted it to look like?
TD: We went to the [Emily Dickinson Museum], and we built the house from the museum. We dressed it in the period stuff it should have had. Because she was a great gardener, there should be quite a lot of flowers at the beginning. Throughout the film, they just get gradually less and less and less and less, except in the sequence when she’s looking for the looming man, then the flowers in the hall were fabulous but they look like the flowers of death.
You can’t completely recreate what it was like. She was a good pianist, but she was given a piano — the sounds are awful, dreadful. I said, “We’ve got to use a modern piano. Because it sounds so awful.”
There were very, very kind people around the museum because they said, “We wish our museum looked like it is in your film”, which is lovely.
7R: In your audio commentary on The Deep Blue Sea, you talk about the colours and the costumes as having symbolic meaning. How did that come into play in your collaboration with your cinematographer and costume designer in choosing the colour palette in A Quiet Passion?
TD: I said to Florian [Hoffmeister, Davies’ cinematographer], because there’s so much light coming into that house — there are huge windows everywhere where her brother’s house just up the road is very dark, and the atmosphere is very not pleasant — I want it to look like shaker light. It’s crisp. It’s pure. And it’s rich. But that would not be the case in the evening when they only had candles and firelight. I said, “In those scenes, that’s what they’ve got to have. Just firelight and candles. Nothing else.” And he’s a very, very gifted photographer. He made it look even more fabulous than I had thought of.
The thing with the costumes is, I said, “They have got to look as though they wear them.” There is nothing worse than a period film where they look as though they’ve just come out of costume. I just don’t believe it. The dress Emily has on in the commencement ball, when she turns her back to the camera, it’s slightly frayed. Just slightly frayed, the way it would have been.The thing with the costumes is they have got to look as though they wear them.Click To Tweet
Equally important, the actors have to feel comfortable in what they’re in. I did act for a while, only as an amateur, and if you’re told to put something on that you think is wrong, it really does throw you. I said, “If you are in any way upset about what you’re going to wear, just say. Because you’ve got to give the performance. And if you’re wearing something that you don’t like or feel uncomfortable in, that will distract us. So please, please tell me.” And no one ever did.There is nothing worse than period film where they look as though they’ve just come out of costume.Click To Tweet
And they’ve got to speak in a way that is not modern because it was the nineteenth century. Britain was the dominant power. They imitated Britain. They were witty and read a lot. I wanted it to be that. I didn’t want it to be solemn.
7R: What was the process for collaborating with actors? Did you do rehearsals?
TD: I don’t do rehearsals. What I do is get them on the set early in the morning before they are made up in costumes. You work out what shots are, what the positions are, and where you’re going to light. And then they go away and get dressed and all that. They do their homework, as well. You see the scripts and they’ve got all sorts of notes. I love that. I think it’s all just fantastic when there’s that kind of commitment.We got most of the text in less than three takes. Very rarely did we go over. Click To Tweet
Then we come on, and we decide which way we’re going to shoot because of the light. We run through it three or four times, and you can tell after working it, “they’re ready now.” We got most of the text in less than three takes. Very rarely did we go over. After seven, they start to become repetitive. After seven takes, I get bored. If the camera is moving, that’s a different matter: all sorts of things can go wrong. But mostly, I like the takes to be the first three. It’s much more alive, I think.
7R: How did you bring together this great cast for the film?
TD: I approached Cynthia [Nixon], and she just said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” She stuck with it for two years because she was very busy on Broadway and making two other films. You just have to see a lot of people. That can be a bit demoralizing, especially when you can’t find someone. We only found Vryling Buffam [portrayed by Catherine Bailey] in the last week before shooting. We were all getting very worried because no one seemed to be able to play it. As soon as she’s funny, people play it funny, and you don’t do that with comedy. You play it quite seriously. You have to have a comic sense which is not the same as being funny. It’s completely different. If people don’t have a comic sense then you can’t cast them.
7R: A lot of your films are adaptations. What do you find interesting about the adaptation process?
TD: It’s when you’re reading it, and you think “Can I see it?” Because if I can’t see it, I don’t know where to put the camera so there’s no point in me doing it. If I can see it, then I know what to do. Usually, there’s one bit that I think, “I know how to do that.” And if I know how to do that, then I’m alright. But I’ve got to find that one piece in the work, not written by me, where I think, “Yes, I think I can do it.” I write it the way I see it and the way I hear it. As I’m writing the dialogue, I know where the camera position is.As I’m writing the dialogue, I know where the camera position is. Click To Tweet
7R: Have you got every shot figured out in the writing phase?
TD: Yes, every track, pan, dissolve — everything is in the script. But that’s a practical thing. A) It acts as an aid when shooting. B) If you’ve got to clear any copyright, you have to do it then, because you have to find an alternative if you can’t. It might be too expensive or you just can’t get it. I know every shot when I go out. What can then happen, if something like the track in the church happens, then you think, “That’s much better than five shots. Infinitely more interesting.”Every track, pan, dissolve — everything is in the script.Click To Tweet
7R: How do you decide where you want the camera to be?
TD: I’m afraid it’s rather boring. I just write it as I see and hear it. It’s as boring as that. But that doesn’t mean to say that it can’t be altered. If you see something, you might think in a scene, “We really don’t need that two-shot in the scene. All we need is the one-shot. Here, we need an extra closeup because it’s missing a beat.” But that has to be felt. I try to do as much in the script as I can, but that’s then got to be free to alter it, if it doesn’t work. You’ve got to.
7R: Now that you’ve made so many movies, you must have a much better sense of where you want it than 20 years ago?
TD: That’s true. You think, “Ah, when he says that, we’ve really got to be in closeup. When this is said, we’ve got to be further away.” Having made films for 40 years now, you tend to know where that is. Even so, it’s only a guide.
Once the script is filmed, I never look at the script again. You’ve then got to work with the footage you’ve shot. The script is irrelevant as you get to the final cut. You’ve got to know where to put things, simply because it saves money, and I don’t have a huge budget. You can’t go around on each day with a viewfinder saying, ”I think it might be here. I think it might be there.” We haven’t got the time because we’ve not got the money. You’ve got to go on and say, “These are the shots.”Once the script is filmed, I never look at the script again. You’ve got to work with the footage you’ve shot.Click To Tweet
7R: Does that then free you up in the editing process because you’ve already pared it down so much on the set?
TD: The drawback can be you think, “Oh god, why didn’t I do that closeup of that field?” If anything, “Grrrr.” But you can’t think of everything. You just can’t. What happens, which is so exciting, you make a mistake by not having something. But then how do you resolve that? How can we resolve that? That’s a challenge, and that’s always interesting — sometimes frustrating. It’s all solved in a variety of ways…usually, two or three reels down this way or that way. It’s never the problem here. Each film is different in the films that you’re trying to do and whatever mistakes you make.
Read the rest of our Special Issue on A Quiet Passion here.