INTERVIEW: The House of Terence Davies; Less Mirth, More Misery
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 12.13.00) — Edith Wharton‘s “The House of Mirth” is one of the paramount American novels of the 20th Century. The Nobel Prize winner clearly had her pen point honed when she wrote this cutting, witty and astoundingly astute look at New York high society. What’s even more amazing about this 1905 work is that if you’re a subscriber to the pink-tinged sheets of The New York Observer or the glossier W, you’ll know that dastardly refined world is still alive and fulminating innocent young, shallow women just as it did in Wharton’s day.
Now who better to adapt this caustically tragic novel than Terence Davies, the director/writer who turned homoerotic Catholic guilt into an art form with his previous endeavors (e.g. “The Long Day Closes” (1992); “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988))?
As the late critic David Overbey noted, “Terence Davies is one of that rare breed of filmmakers who can turn their own memories of pain and joy into art, illuminating our own lives, freeing us from fear, and opening our hearts to the possibilities of happiness.”
And Davies has succeeded grandly if you can accept his casting choices such as Gillian Anderson as a confused 29-year-old femme fatale with a legendary beauty that can stop horses mid trot; Eric Stoltz as an insightful yet deluded lawyer who chooses morality over love; and Dan Aykroyd as a sleazy, rich aristocrat. Clearly if you can abide Aykroyd in a costume drama, you’ll understand why the New York Film Festival showcased “The House of Mirth” (opening in New York and Los Angeles next week) and why the British Independent Film Awards nominated Davies as Best Director.
Those acquainted with Davies’ films will not be surprised that this product of a brutal Liverpool childhood chose to adapt a book with such a sorrowful ending. What Mike Meyers is too mischief, Davies is to doldrums. But that’s only on screen.
Off-screen the white-haired, British filmmaker is an articulate, playful gent, especially with two wines in him. In fact at the New York Film Festival, he was gay as a lark, a fact he himself credited to the drinks he had imbibed. The following sober yet not somber conversation took place a few days later in the Essex Hotel‘s restaurant right
indieWIRE: Would you say “The House of Mirth” is your most impersonal film, considering the majority of your previous work was so autobiographical?
Terence Davies: Oh, yes, with it being based on a novel that I’ve not written. I know I’ve done that before with “The Neon Bible.” That’s sort of a transitional work with lots of echoes of my other films. But, yes, [“The House of Mirth”] was a completely new departure. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to do any more of the same. “The House of Mirth” is about the Belle Époque. I didn’t live in the Belle Époque. All that has made it different. It made the shooting of it different. The content dictates form so basically; the narrative determined the way it was shot. There are ellipses in it, but it determines how it’s going to be shot. Yes, in that sense, it’s different, and I hope more mature.
iW: Mature in what sense?
Davies: Well, the problem with autobiographical stuff is that there can be about it a certain naiveté of visual expression, and it can seem a little primitive. I wanted to try and make a film that was more visually assured, because it absolutely mirrored the material that it was interpreting. That’s much more difficult when you’ve got your own autobiography to tell, because you’re so close to it. You have no aesthetic distance, and here I did. There were times when things had to be cut out that I could say, “Fine, it makes the story better.” Other parts where someone said, “I think they should go,” and I said, “No!” and then it was cut, and I thought, “Well, I’m not sure, but let’s leave it at that.” There were other parts where I said, “You will not cut it by a single frame. That scene has to play the entire length. You don’t cut it by a single frame or I will kill you.” I literally said that.
With autobiography, it’s much, much more difficult because you’re so close emotionally to the material that every cut is hard. It’s just hard because you think, “Oh, we’re losing something essential.” But it has to be cut. You can’t just stick everything together. You know, that’s not cinema. So in that sense, it’s different and I’ve changed as well over the last three years, and that affects the way you work. It just does.
iW: Having read “House of Mirth” before I saw your film, I have no idea how I would have reacted to it without all the background information Edith Wharton supplied to her characters. Was whether or not your audience was familiar with the novel have any effect how you filmed the book?
Davies: The thing is you can’t control that. At one time I used to worry terribly about things like that and now I don’t. I can’t change that. Those who’ve read the novel come with their expectations, and there’s nothing you can do about that. In a way, it’s like me going to see Chekhov, my favorite playwright. I’ve seen the most dire productions where you’ve cringed with embarrassment. I thought how can it be so bad? How can it be so bad? Then you see a great production and you forget all that.
But I bring all that to a Chekhov play. And I’ve not only acted Chekhov, I actually played Uncle Vanya. I’ve read the plays as one would read poetry or whatever, so I know them very well. And I’m bringing all those prejudices when I go and see so you can’t deny the people their foreknowledge or indeed their prejudices. They’ve a right to them. Because I can’t do anything about it; all I can say is I tried to make the best possible film that I could, and that it has to stand on its own. It has to stand up on its own merit because it is not a novel. It’s a film and it’s different.
iW: Now one familiar with your previous films would say, “Oh, there he goes again. Why couldn’t he at last do a film with a happy ending?” Could you see yourself filming a Jane Austen novel, even though they’ve all been done already, but something like that where the heroine and everyone else lives happily ever after in the end?
Davies: Oh God, I can’t stand Jane Austen. I know she’s a great mistress of form but my God! It’s dead for me. DEAD! Much prefer Brontë. A bit more passionate. More raw.
No, that wasn’t a consideration. The consideration was that I loved the book. It happened to have a sad ending. Lily Bart dies at the end. If it had had a happy ending, I would have done it because I love the book. And someone did say, “Why’d she got to die?” Because it’s a modern tragedy. That’s her inevitable fate. You can’t change that. If he [Lawrence Selden] gets there at the end and Lily lives, it makes nonsense of what you’ve seen. It just makes nonsense of it. So of course she has to die because that’s what the book is.
But if there were a book that I wanted to adapt that had a happy ending, I would do it. But I think I’m drawn to the tragic because my psyche is basically not optimistic. It’s tragic. My view of life is tragic. Pessimistic. I’d love to do comedy, but I’m not sure whether I could actually pull it off because having a good sense of humor is not the same as being able to make good comedy. I suppose I just see the underlying tragedy of life and also it’s pointlessness.
iW: (I take a copy of The Art of Happiness out of my knapsack and stand it on the table.) This is a bestseller in America now. It might be selling well in England. Do you care to guess whether this book by the Dalai Lama might have any positive affect on you?
Davies: I doubt it. I’ve had all that hope knocked out of me.
iW: As a child.
Davies: Um. . .
iW: But do you ever think if you were born Jewish, you might have more fun in your films. Jews have often turned tragedy into comedy while you deal with your Catholicism and your accompanying Catholic guilt by making one tragedy after another.
Davies: No, you can’t say what you might do if you were something else. I’m stuck with what I am. And I know that I cannot justify what I’m about to say intellectually at all, but I can justify it emotionally because I’m still really in my delayed adolescence. I know if I was very good-looking, had a very good body, and was very stupid, I would be immensely happy. In the next life, that’s what I’m going to be. Although knowing my luck, I’ll come back as a hamburger, a small but tasty life.
I’ll give you an example. My agent and his wife and I went to see “Annie Get Your Gun” last night. We’re all seated, and this man came down the aisle. One of the most beautiful men I think I’ve ever seen in my life. Skin-tight T-shirt, muscles, leather. I’d trade anything to be him because everyone went like this: [He eyes and mouth open wide] And he stood for a long time at the end of the aisle while everyone looked at him, and then he took his seat. I envy that so much. I really, really envy it.
iW: But do you think he’s experienced the joys of Chekhov? Also he needs you to admire him while you have your intellectual pursuits and your art. You can be satisfied being alone in a room while he might not be able to.
Davies: I still would like to be him. It would be lovely for once. Just once. I’d settle for it once to be able to walk into a public space and have everyone go. . . [He makes that face again.] Of course, I’m vain and shallow. [He laughs.]