Terence Davies’ latest film, Sunset Song (2016), was adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel of the same name. The story follows Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) as she comes of age facing a current of hardships on her family’s farm. Sunset Song — a project that was 18 years in the making — is a story of perseverance and forgiveness of the past. It is set during the First World War in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, not on the front lines, but at home. The gorgeous landscape shots by cinematographer Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone) elevate the land to a character as vital to the story as the Guthrie family itself (Agyness Deyn; Peter Mullan; Jack Greenlees; Daniela Nardini).
Before Sunset Song’s U.S. release, I spoke with "Britain's greatest living filmmaker" Terence Davies about the film’s message of forgiveness, adapting the essence of the novel onscreen, and his past and current projects, from Of Time and the City (2009) to the forthcoming A Quiet Passion (2016), a biopic of Emily Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon.
ScreenPrism: How did you come across the story of Sunset Song? What made you want to adapt it into a film?
Terence Davies: Well, when I was growing up in my teens, on Sunday night on BBC they had a serial that dramatized [the Sunset Song novel]. It was on for 6 weeks, and of course those days you couldn’t record everything, so I used to wait for every episode. I ran out and bought the book. It’s studied by most Scots, but outside of Scotland most people haven’t read it.
We struggled for 18 years to get the money [to make the film] and it wasn’t enough, but we all took the risk. It’s one of those stories that when you read it or see it, you’ll never forget it. So it’s always been a part of my memory.
Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song (2016)
SP: How closely do you follow Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel?
TD: I think it’s a very faithful adaptation, but there are certain things that you can’t do. For instance, all of the village life, we could not show it. It was just too expensive. The farm [next to that of the main family in the film, the Guthries'] is called Peesie’s Knapp, and one of the big things in the book is that it catches fire, and the whole of the Guthrie family go out and help. It’s a nice incidental detail, but when I was writing the screenplay it became obvious that we couldn’t afford it. What’s really important, I think, is to capture the essence of the story. How do you transpose something that is novelettish into a moving image? I was trying to make it as true to the novel without being too extreme. There are also [scenes in the film] that are not in the novel. Chris holding her husband’s clothes after he’s been executed. That isn’t in the novel, but I just thought it’s really important. That’s her only memory of him and that’s part of the forgiveness that she gives him.
SP: I was curious about the language. I didn’t realize when I saw the film that the novel was written in 1932.
TD: And [Lewis Grassic Gibbon] died in 1935. The story comes from Aberdeenshire. The local dialect is Doric, but it’s incomprehensible. We got a generic Scottish accent for the film, but even then, you [probably need] subtitles.
SP: Why did you choose Agyness Deyn for the role of Chris? What was it like working with her?
TD: She was the first in on the Monday morning [of casting]. I walked up the stairs, and I thought, she looks about 11. She was the first one in and gave the most wonderful audition. I said: “She’s got it. We found her.” And she’s an utter joy. I said to her, the performance is so true and pure because you are. She is the loveliest person. She stayed with it for 18 months and two of the actors, one of them was Kevin Guthrie, turned down work for two years. That’s real commitment. I’m so proud of them all. It was a joy to direct them.
Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie in Sunset Song
SP: You said that it was a long and difficult 18-year process for you to get Sunset Song into production. In this way, your experience of making the film is similar to that of Chris, who perseveres through hardship after hardship. How do you relate to Chris’ character, or do you think the reality of your personal endurance translated into the film?
TD: I’m sure it did, but subconsciously. The only example [of conscious endurance] that I can give you is that I would see twenty people for a role, and I would always give them the full amount of time because I think they all deserve a chance. At the end of the week, you think, "I can’t bear to hear this dialogue ever again." And then someone comes in and gives a wonderful audition and your freshness returns like that. It’s instantaneous. All I say to them is, "I don’t want you to act. Please don’t act." Most of the performances are done in under five takes and the rape scene was done in one…Had I said a second take, they would have done it, but I don’t think you can put actors through that a second, third, fourth time, because it’s cruel. They gave everything. Sometimes we went as many as five takes and that was pretty adventurous for me. If we go up to seven I get bored.
SP: What would you say the message of Sunset Song is, if it has a message?
TD: I suppose it’s about the forgiveness of all suffering. Someone said to me many years ago, "If you can’t forgive your past, you won’t be free from it." It’s very difficult to forgive when someone has hurt you very deeply…but [Chris] does. Once you forgive, you can then hope for better things to come. To be without hope, I think, is the worst of all things. To feel only despair, that’s just unbearable. But she endures because of love. An English poet who is dead now, Philip Larkin, has a wonderful poem called "An Arundel Tomb." It says, "what will survive of us is love," and I think that’s true.
Filmmaker Terence Davis on the set of Sunset Song in Aberdeenshire, Scotland
SP: There are so many gorgeous shots of the rural landscape in the film. Can you talk a little bit about filming in Aberdeenshire and the symbolic significance of the farmland in the film?
TD: The seasons are a character. We had to have the landscape because it’s an important part of [Chris’] story. In the end, she becomes the landscape. We went to New Zealand because they gave us some tax breaks and we needed sun. We got there and they had the worst storms of 50 years, and I thought we could have gotten this for free [in Scotland]! Then the sun broke and it was glorious for three and a half days. When we went to Scotland, we had very little sunshine…The weather changes so much in Scotland and the higher you go, the more it changes. We just set up the camera and hoped for the best. It was Michael McDonough who shot the film for me, and he knew where to set [the camera] up. He would say, "we’ll have some sun in three minutes" and then we would get it. He brought a lot to that, constantly looking at the landscape.
SP: I read that you grew up in a Catholic family and are now an Atheist. When did you become an Atheist, and did your early experience of Catholicism or religion in general color your work?
TD: Very much so because it did a lot of damage. It’s a very pernicious religion, especially with the guilt. I prayed in my teens until my knees bled. I thought if I pray, I’ll be forgiven. If I pray, I’ll get the grace of God. And no…I used to go to evening mass, and I remember when I thought it was a complete lie. I was 22 [when I became an atheist].
[The loss of religion] leaves a huge hole in you. I discovered classical music, I discovered poetry, I was reading a lot — those things are wonderful — but there’s still a residual hole. It would have been lovely to believe that we go to a greater good, but I don’t. Why should we go somewhere after this? You try and fill [the hole] with art, music, these things that are of great importance. As I get older, I’m not sure that they fill the hole that I thought they would fill. I sure couldn’t live without books. But there is part of me that feels that in the end, does it matter at all? Chekhov said in one of the plays (Three Sisters): it doesn’t matter, nothing matters. But the very fact that you say that means that it does matter. That’s what is so ironic.
Agyness Deyn and Peter Mullan in Sunset Song
SP: I read that you worked as a shipping office clerk and accountant for 10 years before going to drama school. What made you want to become a filmmaker and how did your prior work experiences influence your films?
TD: I left school during secondary school. I didn’t go to a university or anything. My first job was the lowest form of office work, which was a shipping clerk…We shared an office with another company that made gun powder...The office was run by [an 84-year-old man] and he would leave his car engine running. One of my jobs was to knock on the door and say, “Have you left the engine running?” I would give him the keys and he wouldn’t come back for days…Then I got a job as a bookkeeper, and I worked with lovely people, but I watched people in offices for all their lives and I thought, I can’t do it.
I started to write and I applied to several big drama schools and didn’t get in. I eventually got into a drama school in the midlands. When I was there, I wrote the first part of [The Terence Davies Trilogy] — the first film I ever made. I sent it all around and everyone turned it down. And then I heard that there was something called the BFI production board, so I sent it off, and 6 months later I was told to come down to London. The man who ran it said, "You have eight and a half thousand pounds to make it, nothing more, and you will direct." I said I had never directed before and he said now’s your chance…Soon I applied to film school and I got in, and they gave me another grant. That saved my life. Once I looked through the camera lens, I thought, "this is what I was meant to do." Even if I did it badly, I didn’t want to act and I would always write, but it just wasn’t nearly as exciting as looking through the lens.
SP: Your 2008 documentary Of Time and the City (2009) fuses autobiographical elements with Liverpool’s history. What was your experience like making this film, and do you think you’ll make another documentary?
TD: To the second question, no I don’t. I’m not a documentary filmmaker. But when I grew up there, I really did love [Liverpool]. There was a wonderful feel about the city, and curious little lanes like Leather Lane. There was just electricity in the air at the beginning of the pop scene.
[Of Time and the City] was really a love letter and a farewell to all the things about [Liverpool] that I loved, and it’s not just a farewell to the city, but a farewell to the England I grew up in. That’s gone now. I often think of the riches we had, considering we had very little, but within walking distance of my house there were eight cinemas and another eight in town. I still now can remember what films I saw, the route I took, and where I sat. But all of that is gone and I do miss it. Also, because I moved away, I’ve changed. I’m not the same person. Every time I go [back to Liverpool now] it’s for funerals. You feel with each funeral, with each death, those links are getting more tenuous and frail.
SP: When you were growing up in Liverpool were you reading and going to the movies all the time? What was your childhood like?
TD: I was taken to the movies all the time. My sister loved American musicals, which I love too, but also the richness of that period was in British comedy films. They were just wonderful [actors]. In American films, if Thelma Ritter was in it you just had to go. She was a wonderful comedian. That was my education. It was very simple. [When I left school at 16], I read for an entire year. The whole of Dickens, I discovered two years later (T.S. Eliot's) Four Quartets, and then I started listening to a lot of classical music. That’s when my self-education began.
SP: Sunset Song is coming out on Friday in the U.S., and you also a retrospective at Museum of the Moving Image this month. What’s next for you?
TD: Well, I’ve finished another film [that is a biopic] about Emily Dickinson (A Quiet Passion), which I think will be released later this year. It's a wonderful performance by Cynthia Nixon. I’ve also written a film based on an American novel called Mother of Sorrows by Richard McCann. You should read it. It’s a beautiful modern novel. We just need to raise the money for that and we’ll probably shoot next year. I’m writing at the moment a film about Siegfried Sassoon. In 2018, it will be the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I. And Sassoon was one of three great English war poets. He was the only one who survived…He was gay, but he got married and had a child, and he then converted to Catholicism. Very peculiar. I think there’s a lot of roughage there.
SP: What was it like working with Cynthia Nixon on A Quiet Passion?
TD: She’s delightful. The irony is that because we didn’t have enough money for Sunset Song, everything that could go wrong went wrong. How we got the film made I shall never know — just by people being supportive. With the Cynthia Nixon film, there was not a blip anywhere. It went like a complete dream. She’s lovely to work with, she’s intelligent, and she’s funny. It was a joy from beginning to end.