Last week, just before the release of his new film Sunset Song, beloved filmmaker Terence Davies (widely considered to be Britain’s greatest living auteur) stopped by the Criterion kitchen for lunch. Davies’s films—from his melancholy autobiographical drama The Long Day Closes to his devastating adaptation of Terence Ratigan’s The Deep Blue Sea—are layered studies of human emotion, exposing both the depths of suffering and the joys that make life worth living. An unsurprisingly quick-witted and passionate conversationalist, Davies was quite simply a pleasure to be around—and he became especially animated when our discussion drifted toward two of his great loves: the plays of Anton Chekhov and musicals from the 1950s.
We spoke to Davies about a range of topics, his affection for theater, the films he’ll never forget, and his idols. And as we sat down to eat, we jumped right in.
I know you absolutely adore Doris Day—have you met her?
No—I don’t want to be disappointed. Gena Rowlands once said to me, “I can get you an introduction,” and I said, “I don’t want one. I want to remember her as I saw her in those wonderful musicals when I was growing up," because I do love her, I really do love her.
Is there anyone else you’ve idolized in that way?
Yes, but they’re all dead. Oh, I would have loved to have met Thelma Ritter. She was nominated six times and never won—she deserved to win.
Are there any up-and-coming English filmmakers you find intriguing?
I don’t go to the cinema anymore. I can’t suspend my disbelief. When you make films, you become conscious of everything, because of your syntax—the shots, where’s the logic of the sequence—especially when they cut all over the place.
Has it been that way since you started making films, or is this a more recent development?
No, over the years it’s progressed, especially with directors working with the same people, giving the same dull performances—you think, stop acting! Why would you want to watch the same performance? Why? It’s dull.
Since you’re not seeing new films, which old ones are you revisiting?
They tend to be the ones I discovered in my teens and twenties. A lot of the old films you couldn’t see then, there was no kind of art cinema, and so you saw them on the television. On Sunday afternoon, BBC One had a series called Love Story, and they showed Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Heiress, and they were revelations! And then I would go to see them when they were screened in London. But I just can’t suspend my disbelief anymore. I’m only ever drawn to a story that I can see—if I can see it, then I know what to do with it. If I can’t see it on the page, there’s no point for me. The films I love, I can remember where I saw them, the route I took, and where I sat—and it’s that vivid. They have a sort of wonderful glow about them. And some of them are terrible, but I don’t care! I always cry in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing when she runs up the hill at the end.
I do think cinema has changed, because once you move out of the studio and do things in real locations it changes the writing and it changes acting, it just does. It’s very interesting. I was watching Murder, She Wrote, and June Allyson and Van Johnson have a scene together, and they were acting as if they were in a studio in the late forties, early fifties—you don’t see acting like that anymore, you just don’t!
What was the first movie you fell in love with?
When I was seven I saw Singin’ in the Rain—how could you not love it? Jean Hagen gives one of the great comic performances.
Music—particularly singing—has a big place in your films. Has song always been an influence on you—for instance, was it a part of your life as you were growing up?
Everyone sang and had wonderful voices. Everyone knew what the group songs were, and then there were certain people who sang certain songs. I grew up with it. A lot of my family had very good voices; I, alas, didn’t inherit it. My first day at drama school, we had to do a song, and I said, “I have a terrible voice—why put yourself through this agony?” But I had to sing, and the teacher said, “Terence, your voice comes from the same mold as Frank Sinatra—he got the voice, you got the mold!”
But in general, people weren’t shy about singing?
No, because those people had really good voices. It’s not like today, where if you have a good voice you’re expected to be a star. They just enjoyed singing! They just enjoyed the Great American Songbook because it’s poetry for ordinary people. These writers were poets, and when it started to die was when Elvis Presley came out. I remember I was eleven, and my sister took me to see Jailhouse Rock, and I remember cringing, it was awful, that awful voice! And then the Beatles come along and they’re even worse! But the Great American Songbook is sheer beauty and the cleverness of a lot of those songs, Cole Porter especially, wonderfully clever. “The breeze is chasing the zephyr, / The moon is chasing the sea, / The bull is chasing the heifer, / But nobody’s chasing me!” And there’s a wonderful nod to Shakespeare from Kiss Me Kate—“If she thinks your behavior is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus.” [Davies breaks into laughter.]
Have you always loved theater?
I went to my first proper play when I was sixteen, which was The Seagull by Chekhov. I had no idea what it was, but I fell in love with his work; he’s my favorite playwright. I remember being bathed in this wonderful, pastoral light, and the woman who played Arkadina was called Helena De Crespo—isn’t that fantastic, wouldn’t you love to be called Helena De Crespo!
Have you seen more modern versions of The Seagull?
No, I haven’t seen The Seagull for a long time. I saw quite a good version of Uncle Vanya about four or five years ago in London. It was interesting to see how other people play Vanya because he’s the great tragic figure, he really is tragic. And it’s always very interesting to see how they’re reinterpreted, especially when you really love them. It’s like going to hear music that you love—very often it may be that the tempo is too slow or too fast, but the joy is in what has been brought out of this person by this conductor, and that’s always a joy.
What is it about Chekhov that you love so dearly?
I don’t know, I just find it incredibly moving. In the middle of a scene, which is ostensibly about nothing, someone will say something that will leap out at you, like in Uncle Vanya, when she says, “I’m on the verge of tears twenty times a day.” It comes out of nowhere and suddenly begins to alter how you look at it, because you know some sort of precipice is going to happen and there’s going to be some sort of disaster, and the disaster happens, but it happens to Vanya! It does not happen to her. It’s just things like that. And there’s a wonderful speech that Trigorin has in The Seagull. Nina says, “It must be wonderful to be a writer,” and he says, “Why do you think it’s wonderful . . . I go into a garden, I look up in the sky, I see a cloud shaped like a piano, there’s the smell of heliotrope in the air, what’s so wonderful about that?” She says, “But you’re a writer,” and he says, “Yes, but when I die, my friends will pass my tomb and say Trigorin was a good writer, but not as good as Turgenev.” It’s wonderful writing, my fave.
Do you revisit those films and plays that had such a formative impact on you, or is it like with Doris Day?
No, not at all—the films that I love will always give me the same amount of joy, and rereading Chekhov is a joy in itself. I’ve seen some wonderful productions; the greatest Uncle Vanya I saw was at a little theater that was literally falling apart and had a tiny budget. There’s a page-and-a-half speech at the end about hope that was so devastating, so devastating!
Do you have favorite directors?
I have favorite films that a director might have done . . . With Bergman, I would put Cries and Whispers at the very, very top, with Persona and Autumn Sonata. Through a Glass Darkly is pretty dull. But Fanny and Alexander, what a fabulous way to end a career. Ah! It’s just marvelous.