Terence Davies interview: making Sunset Song

Terence Davies has been trying to adapt Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Scottish novel Sunset Song for over 15 years. We catch up with the Liverpudlian filmmaker on the eve of its release to find out why he persevered to bring it to the screen

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 08 Dec 2015

There’s a tension at the heart of Terence Davies’ work. From his autobiographical trilogy of shorts (Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration) to his handsome literary adaptations (The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea), his films quiver between pleasure and pain, melancholy and revelry. The suffering of the characters on screen is balanced by a formal beauty and grace. A scene of abuse or heartbreak will be juxtaposed with a communal sing-song or a romantic flourish of the camera.

This same dichotomy seems to plague the 70-year-old director. When The Skinny sit down with Davies in HOME’s cafe ahead of a preview screening of his new film, Sunset Song, he wears his conflicting emotions on his sleeve. He’s lively one second, morose the next: a fond recollection of his sisters (“they were immensely magical; I was allowed to put their makeup on them on Fridays”) will quickly spill into a dark thought about his fire and brimstone father (“he was psychopathic”). Like his films, Davies’ memories aren't linear: the heartbreak is jumbled up with the joy.

It’s easy to guess why Davies was attracted to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, then. It spins together romance and tragedy as it tells the story of Chris, a young woman coming of age on a hardscrabble farm in the north east of Scotland in the early 20th century. The 1932 novel, perhaps Scotland’s greatest, isn’t well known south of the border. Davies came across it initially in an adapted form. “The BBC, this was 1971, they used to have a Sunday serial,” he recalls, “and one of the series was this book. So I ran out and bought it, read it and loved it.”

Peter Mullan in Sunset Song

Back then, though, Davies was a simple junior bookkeeper with dreams of working in the arts. It wasn’t until 2000, when he was looking for a follow-up to his exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, that he considered bringing Gibbon’s novel to the screen. “I thought, 'Oh, I’d love to do it if I could possibly get the money,' but it has been 15 years getting it to the screen, so it’s been a struggle, I must say.”

What was it about the book that made him persevere?

“I just loved the story,” he says. “There are certain stories that you just fall in love with: when I was 15 I read my first proper novel, which was Jane Eyre – it’s terribly badly written, really badly written, but the story is fabulous, and you just never forget it, and that’s what I felt about Sunset Song. A lot of people I know have tried to read it and just can’t get through it” – many Scottish Higher English students will sympathise with this – “but you need to persevere because it really is rewarding.”

Identifying with the book's protagonist

The book centres on Chris (finely played by Agyness Deyn in the film), a precocious young woman who’s torn between her love for the land her family works and lives on, and her yearning to escape her duties on the farm to become a teacher. Davies felt a similar struggle growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s and 50s.

“I do know what it’s like to be torn between one thing and another,” he says. “I knew that I needed to leave home but I was a real home-bird. So that part of it really did touch me deeply.” Unlike Davies, however, Chris chooses home, the land. “In a way, it restricts her, but, in another way, it frees her too. But I really did feel for her in having to make that choice. I remember going down for my audition to drama school, getting it, then coming home and saying that I’ve got it and my mother trying to be happy for me but it was awful.”

Sunset Song also allowed Davies to return to a theme that he explored to devastating effect in earlier films like Distant Voices, Still Lives and A Long Day Closes: family. “The family is the repository of all that is wonderful and tolerable in life,” Davies says with a flourish when we bring up its importance in his work. In particular, Sunset Song sees Davies once again exploring the cruelty of a religious, working class patriarch, played here by Peter Mullan, who rapes Chris’s mother, beats Chris’s older brother, and on his death bed demands that Chris sleep with him as she’s his property.

(Continues below)

More from Film:

 Agyness Deyn & Kevin Guthrie in Sunset Song

 Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs and Trainspotting 2

Amazingly, Mullan was able to find some humanity in the character. “What Peter brought to it was a great deal of warmth, which I hadn’t seen in the character at all.” This comment give a clue as to how tough Davies’ own upbringing was. “If you actually listen to Peter, he only uses the lower register of his voice all the time, which is actually very caressive, so he appears in the early scenes as very tender and loving – when he turns, that’s when it’s shocking. I can’t take any credit for that. But it’s extremely powerful.”

A cursory glance at Davies' filmography shows a career of two halves. His first two films, Distant Voices, Still Lives and A Long Day Closes, and his trilogy of shorts, were directly torn from his own experiences. The next period of his career, The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea, are all literary adaptations with a concern for female oppression.

Davies insists this split wasn’t conscious. “I just felt I had said it and there was nothing else to say now,” he says of his early biographical work. “There were areas I didn't want to go into quite frankly, and even if I had, no one would have believed me.” The next project, he explains, always finds him: “I couldn’t do anything if I don’t see it; I’ve got to see it and hear it, otherwise there’s no point in me doing it. It’s usually a passage somewhere and I think, 'This is the shot for that scene,' and that’s what starts the process.”

That hasn’t stopped foolhardy producers trying to commission him for other projects over the years. “I remember being sent a script once about gangsters and I thought, 'Well what do I know about the underworld?' Nothing! I’ve never taken drugs, I don’t know how you’d even acquire them. And there was a car chase and I thought, 'My version of this will be too costly, very slow, not foot-tapping – why did you send me this?'"

His drift to making “women’s pictures”, as he calls them, was quite natural. “Women just interest me more,” he says. “As much as I loved my brothers, I think, like a lot of gay men, I gravitated towards my sisters and their friends.” The films that would entrance him as a kid in Liverpool's grand picture palaces also informed his sensibility. “When I was growing up, all the great romantic films, huge hits in this country, you know, Love is a Many-Splendid Thing, All that Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, they were about women.”

Terence Davies and commercial success

Davies’ films, despite their critical praise, haven’t had the same commercial success. And this is what film fans find so heartbreaking about Davies career: he just hasn’t had the opportunity to make enough films. When he was initially trying to finance Sunset Song in the early aughts, for example, the British Film Council declined his funding request, telling him his script “didn’t have legs.” One wonders if Davies would have been more prolific working in a country more sympathetic to auteur filmmaking?

“I think it’s just as difficult to make films everywhere,” Davies suggests. “What is different is that they still, on the continent, consider cinema an artform – they don’t in this country.” British filmmakers are also persecuted by the fact that they share a language with America: “There’s always, in this country, financiers looking over their shoulder and thinking, 'Will America like it?' Well I don’t give a toss whether they like it or not, quite frankly. That shouldn’t even be part of our consciousness.”

We’re pleased to report that these hardships look to be behind him. Not only has is his next film, biopic A Quiet Passion, about American poet Emily Dickinson, in the can, he’s all set for his next project, another biographical film about a poet, in this case Siegfried Sassoon. “I’ve never had so much work in all my life,” he beams. Long may this uninterupted run continue.

Sunset Song is on general release now