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Spiritual Questions: An Interview with Terrence Davies on A Quiet Passion

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By Amir Ganjavie.

It seems that there is no better subject than the life of Emily Dickinson to attract the attention of Terrence Davies, who is fascinated by questions of patriarchy and fundamentalist religion. Davies could easily find an enormous amount of material to work with in relation to these topics while cinematographically investigating Dickinson’s life. Dickinson was a poet barely known during her own life, particularly because of the difficulty for women to gain recognition during that time. However, she is now recognized as a genius who created some of the most important verse in American literature. Davies spends a lot of time and attention on investigating the world of interiors that surrounded Dickinson, a recluse who spent most of her life in her bedroom. Dickson’s relationship with her mother, father, and sisters dominated the universe of the movie and little is shown regarding the cultural landscapes that shaped that century. The following interview with Davies was conducted following the screening of A Quiet Passion at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Why did you decide to make a movie about Emily Dickinson?

It was really her inner spiritual struggle, going back and forth between believing that is there a God and that there is there not a God, believing that is there a soul and that there is there not a soul. What do you do if the answer is yes or no? It’s a constant problem for her. She swings between two poles and even at the end of her life she never really was quite sure that there is something after death. Part of her thinks that there isn’t but part of her hopes that there will be. She was really spiritual in the beginning and a Christian as well. Those things intrigued me. I grew up as a Catholic and I was a very good Catholic. I did everything that I was supposed to do. It was a complete waste of time but it took seven long years for me to come to that conclusion because you were told that if you doubt God then it’s the devil’s work. That’s very hard to keep in your mind and wonder if it’s true. So Emily’s inner life is the most powerful, along with the fact that she wrote poetry that sets her out as a genius, despite never being published during her lifetime. Only seven or eleven poems were ever published, and they changed her punctuation. If you read her original punctuation you see that it’s extremely eccentric but it makes sense. Nonetheless, people altered it, and she said that the punctuation changed, it’s hard to enjoy. When someone else does that it feels like an attack, which is exactly what it was, but that is the tragedy of Emily. In a way she wants her family to stay and never change. Well, it can’t stay the same. It will change because people go away, they die, they marry, they have all of these things happen, but she is thinking “If only things could stay like this forever.” I had that but I was in a home of ten children. When my brothers and sisters started to get married, I couldn’t understand it. I thought, “Why do they want to go? Why can’t they just stay at home?” And these people can visit because they are very nice people but I didn’t want it to end so I know what that’s like. You have to come to terms with the fact that everything ends.

Which biography of Emily Dickinson was your major source of inspiration for the film?

I read six, one of which is about a hundred years old and is very hard to read, very dry. There was another, called Loaded Gun, I think. But there were four others too. It was difficult to decide what to leave out. She also wrote three volumes of letters, including her extensive correspondence with Charles Wadsworth. What do I leave out? Then after I read those six biographies, it was about trying to understand the nature of her soul, the nature of her being truly spiritual, but then coming up against evangelical Christianity, which is always very, very dangerous. I was also interested in the time period when she got a new pastor who was very unchristian and unloving, so she has to fight that as well as to fight her father. That happened because she was not recognized for her accomplishments as an author but she had the courage that it takes to carry on. I mean, that takes real courage. You know, only having seven or eleven poems published out of the 1,808 that she wrote and still carrying on – that’s real courage. I love that about her.

How did you decide upon which part of Emily Dickinson’s life to portray in the movie?

The content of anything tells you how it wants to be made. It just does. When poetry is concerned, those poems came naturally to me when I was writing the script because they seemed to illustrate the point that I was making visually. It’s a symbol, really. But the nature of the family, that’s the way it was in the nineteenth century and you were expected to do as you were told. She says, you know, that her father allowed her to write, while no husband would. She knew that if she got married, her husband would say no to the writing and tell her to do something else. You also have to remember that during the nineteenth century women knew nothing about sexuality; they thought it was terrifying. That’s what Susan said, and Susan said this in real life. The thought of men in that respect terrified women and turned them into stone. And that made it so hard to do so she says, “I do my duty.” And it is a duty rather than a pleasure. Women died in childbirth. We can’t imagine that now, although they still do. But can you imagine dying in childbirth? That must have been terrifying. So there are all of those factors and also just on a purely practical level, you are in pain all the time, and there is no way to kill that pain. You have got none at all. And going through life with that pain, it ruins your life. Emily Dickinson suffered from Bright’s disease, which is a disease of kidneys. Every couple of years I get kidney stones. The first time it happened, I crawled to the telephone to call for an ambulance because the pain is unbelievable. It would have been infinitely worse for her, and she had congenital heart failure as well, which is actually what she died from. When you grow up with pain and know that people die relatively young, it changes your view of life. It changes your view of whether is there a soul. So all of those things which acted upon her let her to produce poetry.

In the Sunset Song we have a father who seems to be very cruel, who dominates and controls the life of the women. Here the father is more open and not very hostile. Apparently you were less interested in the question of patriarchy, which is a constant motif in your works.

Yes, he is a tender man and you know that he loves them but he expects to be obeyed. When he says to Austin that he will pay five hundred dollars for someone else to fight in his place, he will not take that for an answer. And in a way, he kind of killed something in Austin because now he will always feel that he is a coward. Whatever his father said, that’s what he will think but Emily backs him up. However, when he says to her that she will do as she is told and behave in the proper way because he is telling her to do so then she has to obey. Her only way of kind of subverting it isn’t smashing the plate.. She knows where the perimeters are, yet she is bereaved when he dies, as is Austin, especially because it happens suddenly of a heart attack. He is very tender and I wanted to show his tenderness towards his wife. Don’t forget that Mrs Dickinson was on the verge of tears all of the time. I think she was suffering from perinatal depression, which they wouldn’t have known in those days. She is always very close to tears and he doesn’t know why she is so unhappy, always looking so sad. The father does actually say and do sweet things for her, kissing her and holding her hand. There is real tenderness there but when he wants to be a obeyed, he expects to be.

This is a very enclosed world. What were the reasons behind your decision to make the movie with this specific format?

Quiet 03It’s an enclosed world. She only went into the garden but you can’t have scene after scene in the garden. That doesn’t say that things aren’t alive within that house. For me it’s alive. It may not be for everyone but for me it is. And all you can do is say “That’s how I saw it.” There is an English composer called Ralph Vaughan Williams who died in 1954. He wrote nine symphonies, one of which got very mixed reviews. He said “I don’t know if I like it, but it is what I meant.” That’s a wonderful thought.

There is a very beautiful scene in which the characters are ready to take picture and you see that they are being replaced by older versions of themselves. Yu used this technique to show the passage of time. Can you say something about this scene?

How do you show the passage of time? How? Very often it’s dissolving, we all read that as time passing but if you travel right to left, and dissolve that then it implies that you are going back in time. If you travel left to right, and dissolve then it implies that you are going forward. It just does to everybody. Except if you are Arab then it’s the other way around because you don’t read from left to right. I thought, how can we do it so that it’s very economical? We couldn’t use very fancy make-up but rather had to do things very simply. So I just thought, we have the three of them there, we track them when they are young, we track them when they are old, and we are both between them. That seemed to be a tighter way of doing it. I later added the music, which is by Charles Ives. I just wanted to show in a simple way that they have grown up.

What will your next project be?

I am actually working on two. I can’t believe this, especially at my age. One is not going to happen until next year. It’s based on an American novel called Mother of Sorrows. I am writing the other one at the moment and it’s about Siegfried Sassoon, who is one of the three war poets of the first World War, along with Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. They were killed but Sassoon survived. I’m interested in this because the war poetry is just magnificent.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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