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Terence Davies on going digital, hating 'Downton Abbey'

The legendary English filmmaker talks about his new period piece "Sunset Song" and how the British film industry has gone back to accepting him.

Terence Davies is one of our great, most austere filmmakers, creating intoxicating and heady masterworks that stew in bygone eras. He’s also very funny. His films — including semi-autobiographical pieces like 1988’s “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and 1992’s “The Long Day Closes,” both about his youth in WWII-era Liverpool — usually aren’t. They’re slow, dreamy and sad, though often filled with joy as well as sorrow. Behind them is a man, now 70, who’s very opinionated, both about the particularities of the films he creates and about what he hates.

After 2000’s star-studded Edith Wharton adaptation “The House of Mirth,” Davies suffered a dry spell, unable to get financing for his fiction films until 2011’s “The Deep Blue Sea.” (In between is “Of Time and the City,” an excellent and often hilariously grouchy documentary about his hometown.) But he’s suddenly working steadily again. His latest, “Sunset Song,” adapts Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel about a young woman enduring tragedy in rural Scotland, and it’s as precise and hypnotic as all his work.

Davies was in New York to talk about a project he’d been trying to make for nearly two decades, and didn’t mind getting wonky and also off-track.

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“Sunset Song” was shot both on 65mm film and digital. There’s been a pushback from some to keep shooting on film alive, but the format really might be dying.
It’s been superseded by digital, because it is better now. It will replace film. When we made “Sunset Song,” it wasn’t as good, which is why we shot all the exteriors on 65 mil. But I just finished a film about Emily Dickinson [“A Quiet Passion”], and that’s all on digital. Because it just is better now. It really is. And what people can do with it is just extraordinary. These young people are fantastic at what they can do. Wonderful.

Has switching to digital changed your approach at all, beyond making it faster?
No. I still see it shot-for-shot. That doesn’t change. I know what the look is. Before, with film, you had to find the right stock. A lot of stocks were not good. Then it depended on how you treated that stock. Now you don’t have to worry about that, because digital is so sensitive to light now. But it still has to be worked out, it’s got to have the look it’s supposed to have.

Today you could probably create that specific, faded, old-time look you had for “Distant Voices, Still Lives” with digital post-production, as opposed to painstakingly creating it on stock as you shot and developed it.
Yes, you could. The only drawback is if you wanted to do something in black-and-white. You can’t shoot it in color, because all it does is take the color out. You have to light it differently for black-and-white. Otherwise it will just look silly.

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And you still don’t storyboard. Is there a reason for that?
There’s one simple explanation: I can’t draw. That’s why I don’t do them. I know what the shots are, but if you’ve got to change them for any reason you can. You can tell once you set it up, “Oh, this is not going to work. Let’s do something else.” Because I don’t have large budgets you’ve got to know what the shots are, and you’ve got to be able to say, “On this day I need a crane, on this day I need tracks, on this day I need 25 extras.” Any kind of copyrighted material has to got to be cleared before you start. It’s just crucial.

You spent 18 years trying to get this made. Did it change at all over the interim?
I’d finished the script, so it was already done. But the atmosphere in England became very anti the sorts of films I made, that are not mainstream, that would be considered intellectual and boring. The U.K. Film Council was just awful, awful. They were very, very hostile to anything that was not mainstream. Now, thank god, it’s come back to the BFI Production Board, which it should have been all along. They do an awful lot for film. It’s run by people who actually care about film and know about film. If you just want to make money, you shouldn’t make films in England. We’re not going to make the films that are going to make vast amounts of money, unless it’s something very popular. It’s usually bloody Jane Austen. [Mock gasps] How people can sit through those films and remain conscious is beyond me. But they’re very popular. “Downton Abbey,” the same. It’s a Never-never world of Edwardian Britain. Well, it wasn’t like that! Why is anybody interested? That’s popular culture. You can’t fight it; it’s too powerful.

“Downton Abbey” is very rosy about the past, whereas your films mix nostalgia with sharp criticism.
What it does in England is it makes people nostalgic for the great house bodies. Well, I’m not nostalgic for them. When you see what those servants had to do — maids of all work were virtual slaves: up at an early hour, going to bed late, hardly any sleep. It was just like slavery. Why would you want to look on that as any kind of ideal? And people flitting around with these silly titles — oh yeah, really interesting. And also, when you’ve got to do any period, get it right. Have you seen the interiors of [the English drawing rooms]? They’re suffocating. They look like funeral parlors, and they’re stuffed with all this expensive junk. You can’t breathe. Why on earth would anyone want to live in a house like that? They never get it right. [Holds fists up] Grrrrrrrrrr.

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This might be a silly question, but though all your movies after the “Trilogy” films are set in the past, have you considered making a film in the present?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t get a lot of pitches for the present day. I don’t really understand the modern world. I’m a mild technophobe. I only have one little mobile phone. I can’t do anything at all with all this technology. I see it as a sort of denial of the world. I’m actually repelled by it. When someone sends me a gangster film [script] I say, “What on earth are you sending that to me for?” What do I know about the underworld? Nothing. If I did a car chase it would be two cars going very slowly. That is not foot-tapping.

And you don’t watch new movies.
No. I can’t suspend my disbelief anymore. When you do something as a job it destroys it for you. You become conscious of the music, you ask, “Why are we cutting here?” Worst of all, this awful acting, especially in British films. It’s just awful. These are completely lifeless performances — lifeless. So I’ve gotten old and very miserable.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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