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The Deep Blue Sea - Terence Davies interview

The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED director Terence Davies talks about some of the challenges of re-working Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea for the big screen and why he was given licence to make it radical.

He also talks about working with his cast and the joy they brought, as well as why he can think on the go and problem-solve but can’t abide rudeness. He was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. How did you decide on your approach to adapting Terence Rattigan’s play, which is to take it very much in the idiom of the ‘40s?
Terence Davies: Yes, well the thing was that when I read the play in fact I read the whole of Rattigan’s canon and he does something which I personally can’t respond to, which is putting all the exposition in the first act. I said when the producer, Sean O’Connor, brought it to me and to the Rattigan Trust that it’s got to be told from Hester’s point of view. If it’s told from Hester’s point of view you can get rid of all that exposition about what went on before the curtain rose and it’s much more interesting to then reveal it slowly. They were very, very good about it because the first draft was incredibly tentative. I’d never done a play before and Adam Brody, of The Rattigan Trust, said ‘be more radical’, which I thought was terrific. So, I was! But I think by putting in scenes that are not in the play I can imitate the sounds and the way in which he constructs dialogue and I’m glad to say… I did it on House of Love as well, I can imitate and I hope that the dialogue that is written for people who are not actually in the play sounds Rattigan-esque. But the Trust were just terrific.

Q. There’s also the idea behind this screenplay that love is never as spread out as evenly as we would like…
Terence Davies: No, no… and they call want a different kind of love from each other – that’s the tragedy. Love is really the most exclusively human emotion because of what we do for it… why is it that we look at somebody, and that doesn’t necessarily even make it sexual, but you can look at somebody and say ‘I love them as a person and I’d lay my life down for them’. And just do it. My mother was like that and I’d do anything for her… and she for me. But when it’s that powerful it can have a destructive nature, especially a possessiveness. And I saw that… I’m from a large family and I saw some of the people that my brothers and sisters met and were possessive and that’s destructive. And what moved me more than anything else was if you view it from Hester’s point of view, she comes to know real love and real love is to say to the person you love most in the world: “If you’re better off without me, go.” That is such an act of courage. None of them are villains.

Q. The pacing in the film is beautiful. So, how did you approach that in terms of performance and shot composition?
Terence Davies: Well, I’ve always screenplays as I see them, so I know every shot when I go on the set. That sounds restrictive but it isn’t because if something doesn’t work and you know instinctively if a two-shot is wrong, or a single is needed instead, you can run the scene through your head and correct it in the moment. The scenes at the beginning, which are secular shots, originally were tracks. Even in rehearsal, it took days and was terminally boring… but I thought well if it’s circular, like memories, it would be much more interesting and if we go from their naked bodies to flesh and cloth and then we see her lying on the floor, there’s something very satisfying about that in the way music is satisfying when you hear something resolved, after you’ve waited perhaps 10 minutes to hear that resolution. You’re thrilled by it because your inner ear is waiting to hear that resolution. And I think it’s the same with film because film is very close to music. You have to look at it viscerally, you cannot look at it intellectually. You either believe in the first two minutes or you don’t, and if you don’t go home because it’s a waste of time for everybody.

But the shots, like the acting, have to be felt. But when people do things that you had not thought of, and this is what’s wonderful about working with actors, there’s a little bit of it – and I know it’s very tiny – but it gives me enormous pleasure every time I see it, where Tom [Hiddleston] just throws himself on the sofa and goes: “So, the rain came down, golf… kaput [sniffs]!” It’s just fabulous because it’s so felt. You can’t direct that… that happens. And when they do things as you’re watching the scenes start to involve, you just think: “I don’t have to do anything today, they’re really on the ball.” It’s incredibly exciting. And then when they take a line and do something different with it, that you hadn’t thought of, like they take a falling cadence and make it a question, that’s really interesting. Again, I just love it.

But the shots are instinctive, I write them as I see them and then make the adjustments when we’re on the set or location. But one location fell through, so you think: “Right, I can’t do that now… we’ve got to do this.” You always end up with the location you deserve in a way and it’s really peculiar because, at first, you think: “Oh, I had the shots worked out for this particular situation…” But you just couldn’t get it. So, you think: “It’s got to be resolved!” You can’t fart about and go: “What shall I do?” You’ve got to think on your feet and I’m quite good at that. The camera broke down twice and we lost two half days and someone said: “You never get phased by that?” But I replied: “No, I don’t…” But what will phase me is if somebody is rude. If somebody is rude I’ll think that the magic’s gone and I’ll just want to put my coat on and go home. It’s ridiculous! At 66 years of age!

The Deep Blue Sea

Q. You mention, and I’ve seen from the play, that you’ve been radical with Rattigan and the estate apparently encouraged you to be this. And yet the film comes across as surprisingly not gay in the modernistic sense of the word….
Terence Davies: Well, there is this myth that he actually wrote it for two men and Frith Banbury, who did the first production of it in 1952, said that he never ever saw a draft that was about two men. And even if it were, it’s not relevant. What’s relevant is that somebody gets profoundly changed by the discovery of sex. At 40, she discovers sex, which is overwhelming. I mean, when you fall in love, that in itself is overwhelming. It really just knocks the wind out of you when you realise it. But when you discover sexual love as well, that combination is incredibly powerful and I didn’t want it to have any inclination or any implication that it was basically about two men because it’s not.

What is important is that it’s about a woman, who is very conventional, who does the most unconventional thing. She leaves her husband… women didn’t do that in the ‘50s. If you were working class, you had too many children and there was nowhere to go. Middle class people simply didn’t do it. Also, she makes faux pars like she goes and gets her man out of the pub. You did not do that in the ‘50s… you just didn’t do it! So, I mean not only has she made him feel incredibly guilty because she’s tried to take her life, she then drags him outside of the pub, which makes him even more angry. I remember when we were doing the auditions I said: “This has got to be ferocious!” It is played with such ferocity. You can hear poor Tom [Hiddleston] almost losing his voice but it’s played with the most wonderful ferocity, which it should be. If it’s got to be emotional then that’s what it should be, and especially when it comes from England, where we’re all terribly repressed… well, we’re not that repressed anymore. But we used to be. If you listened to Mrs Dale’s Diary on the radio, Doctor Dale would come in and say: “You look rather spiffing this morning!” And she would say: “Don’t be ridiculous [mocks blushing]!”

Q. Did you decide to cut a lot of the play? The doctor’s role feels a little under-developed from what I can remember of the play…
Terence Davies: No, because I don’t think it’s that believable in the play. It’s interesting up to the point where Mrs Elton says: “Well, he actually goes to a local children’s hospital and helps out there…” It’s much more interesting if you don’t know why he’s used as a doctor. And the reason I say that is when people died in my street there were always two women who just appeared at the door and they washed the body. No one ever asked how they appeared like that but it was extraordinary. People like that are much more interesting when they’re opaque.

The Deep Blue Sea

Q. But there’s nothing about his refugee background…
Terence Davies: Well, that’s the bit of it I don’t believe. He was obviously struck off and probably because he was gay. But I find all that terribly weak and uninteresting. In the play, it even takes away from the actual story. What is the story about? It’s about these three people: Hester, William and Freddie. Anything else has to be subsidiary to that and I just think he’s more interesting if he’s just opaque. I just find it more interesting because I had to cut a great deal of the exposition… and because, quite frankly, he had clearly never lived in a bedsit in Ladbroke Grove and Mrs Elton is a bit of a cliché. It had to be cut down and cut down almost to the bone. And then when Ann Mitchell came in and read it [in the role] it leapt off the page… that woman is so powerful. She has a lovely rich voice. The meaning she gets into it is quite wonderful, quite wonderful! She has this wonderful little touch of Americanism in her delivery and I heard women like that. But those touches have got to come from the actor.

Q. Had you ever considered modernising the play even more and putting it into a contemporary setting?
Terence Davies: Well, I did write a contemporary comedy but I couldn’t get the money for it. It was set in the world of fashion but I couldn’t get the money for it. If you can’t get the money, then you can’t do it. But it would be nice to do something modern. But the difficulty is what the theme should be, what the story should be. I feel alienated from the modern world. I’m completely hopeless with technology… completely hopeless. I can only make one kind of telephone call on my mobile. If you leave a message I don’t get it for three years… it’s ridiculous! But I feel it’s got a sort of life of its own – that it’s controlling me. And the more it becomes technological, I think it kind of denies the world. I remember getting on the train to go home one day and everybody in the carriage was either texting, or speaking, or on lap-tops and you just look around and think: “Surely, there’s got to be more to life than this?” But then I’m getting old and miserable probably!

But it would be nice to do something funny because being made to laugh is one of the great joys of life. It really is. And that’s why the atmosphere on the set should be warm and you can have fun. We’re doing something serious but you’ve got to be able to have a laugh. The worst thing of all is people with no sense of humour… they are just killing because they take themselves so seriously. I remember on one occasion, one actor who was completely humourless, at the end of the shot broke the most enormous fart and it was louder than Krakatoa and a lot closer! I said: “Surely that’s not an opinion?!” But nothing… it was like trying to have a conversation with a corpse! Those are rare… but you’ve got to have a laugh; you’ve got to have passion and humour – without those, you’re dead.

Read our review of The Deep Blue Sea

Read our interview with Tim Hiddleston