Of Time and City: Interview With Terence Davies

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Writer-director Terence Davies is known for his uncompromising filmmaking, which has led to his difficulties in securing funding. But with Davies it can almost certainly be argued that it's about quality rather than quantity, with four films to his name in 20 years. His work is infused with personal emotional experience and often explores homosexuality and his own experiences both as a gay man and a Catholic growing up in Liverpool. Davies talked to The Hollywood Reporter's U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp about turning his hand to documentary filmmaking, letting other people read his poetry and traveling to Cannes to see his latest screen venture unspool.

Documentary Versus Fiction

Terence Davies: It has the same aesthetic but it is the practical things that are very different. In fiction you clear everything (rights) before you start shooting. I'd never (made a documentary) before which was hugely exciting. A documentary emerges over time as you make it. You find a subtext, or rather the subtext finds you.

The Process

TD: We looked at all the footage we had gathered twice and it took an entire day each time. There is so much fabulous material to look at. Liverpool really is a unique place in the country, if not the world.

Emotional Investment

TD: Some things were very emotional. I've written a lot of poetry over the last 20 years and never shared it with anyone apart from very close friends. But once I showed it to others and they deemed it good enough, it was fine. (The poems) remind me of my Mum and family and all that has gone, so it is emotional. I have tried to inject comedy into it.

Intense Memories

TD: One intense memory is about listening to my first Grand National (horse race) on the wireless. In those days you couldn't put a bet on in the same way as now and most betting was “off course.” My Mum had a flutter on a horse called “Queer Times,” which won. It pierced my heart that she was so happy with a few shillings and the name of that horse.

Origins of Project

TD: It all happened by accident. Sol Papadopoulos, one of the producers who is also a photographer, had taken pictures of me and my mother many many years ago. He phoned me up and asked me if I remembered the pictures, which of course I did. They are lovely and I still have them. Sol started talking to me about this project (the Digital Departures micro-budget filmmaking initiative) they were running in Liverpool. We talked and he explained it was competitive and we would have to apply. I said I wanted to do a documentary about the city and I wanted to capture being Liverpudlian and what that city means. There were 156 applications I think and we got down to being one of the three films and it has been a complete revelation. I had a structure and 90% of the film is wonderful archival material. I gradually got to the film that subconsciously I wanted to make but consciously didn't know.

Choice of Subjects

TD: In a waym, the projects select you. I haven't worked for seven and a half years and can't get anything off the ground. But I have got one or two projects in the running. I'd love to do “Sunset Song,” it's such a beautiful book. But the next one we're looking to do is a romantic comedy. I hope you were sitting down when I said that.

Sexual and Religious Orientation

TD: I went back to my parish church during the filmmaking. I once prayed to be forgiven until my knees bled and I hadn't done anything. You can't shake it, the guilt. You are ipso facto a sinner because you have original sin in your soul. It is wrong.

Cannes Experience

TD: My film won the FIPRESCI prize for “Distant Voices, Still Lives” in 1988. But I never expect to win anything, and I promise that is not false modesty. I really don't. I feel like this time it is another Terence Davies who is going. I keep expecting someone to turn around and say “no, not you, you should be in the glue factory.” I really do. Any distinguished festival which will take your film — that is the prize. It is going to a festival with your film that revives your heart and spirit. But the fact that the biggest festival in the world wants it and took it makes everyone involved feel worthwhile. Considering it was made for 250,000 pounds (about $500,000), I think it's a real achievement.

TD: Obviously we wanted to get into the Cannes lineup) but when it did get in I was completely taken aback. To have your film shown there in any category, well, it's a world stage and it is fantastic. It has revived my heart and spirit.

Festival Entry: “Of Time and the City” Selected filmography: “The House of Mirth” (2000), “The Neon Bible” (1995), “The Long Day Closes” (1992), “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988). Notable Awards: FIPRESCI prize for “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988), Golden Leopard for “Distant Voices” at Locarno International Film Festival (1988), Evening Standard British Film Award for “The Long Day Closes” (1993).