People cry a lot in Terence Davies movies, but the English directors no fan of gelatin teardrops running prettily down actors cheeks. He goes for thunderous crying jags, pushing his camera right into his performers faces as theyre racked by seismic sobs. Its one of his grimmer trademarks, like realistic vomiting in Ingmar Bergmans movies. How does he get his actors to cry so convincingly? I show them my bank balance! laughs the 55-year-old director of Distant Voices, Still Lives and now The House of Mirth, starring a luminous Gillian Anderson. That usually sets them off.
Davies, one of Britains greatest directors, is broke. To keep expenses down on Mirth my fees were slashed three times. I owe more money now than when I started. Its hard, but Im not a jobbing director. I wish I were, but I have to care about what Im making. Stupid! Stupid! Davies is probably too honest for his own good. His refusal to do hack work means that hes made just seven films. But abstinence pays off on the screen, and Davies oeuvre is almost sui generis in modern cinema. His autobiographical works -- the three shorts known as the Terence Davies Trilogy, the features Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes -- are unflinching yet finally uplifting looks at the directors grindingly impoverished 1950s Liverpool upbringing, in a house overseen by a monstrous father and at a school where he endured years of relentless bullying over his emerging homosexuality.
What life taught me was to be stoic, Davies says of those terrible years. If bad things happen, you must endure them and never complain. No one -- not a soul -- knew I was beaten up every day for four years. I didnt tell anyone. But, he says with an impish grin, it puts iron in the soul! He admits that all these attempts to exorcise his memories have not fully worked. They stay with you because they happen when youre at your most vulnerable. Theres no catharsis. I thought there would be, but there isnt. What you come to realize is the arbitrariness of the world, that suffering has no meaning. It just happens to you if youre unlucky.
The House of Mirth, which Davies calls my first really mature work, takes the director into the field of literary adaptation. Davies has moved into what he calls proper linear narrative, jettisoning the striking sound-image assemblages and intoxicating style of his previous work for greater narrative precision and a banking down of his emotional fires. He has also made adjustments to the way he works with actors. He used to let actors read the script just once, then take it back. They were permitted one glance at their lines before going in front of the camera. You can only do that if a films about mood and juxtaposition of images, he says. You cant do that with Edith Wharton. The materials too dense, and theyve got to have the script for as long as they need it. It wasnt a problem -- though Im sure the actors didnt like it at the time, because I will give line readings if I think the cadence of the line is false or the rhythm is wrong. But they were absolutely gracious about it. In one interview, Eric Stoltz said I dont so much direct as conduct, which is a lovely way of phrasing it. No, they werent used to detailed direction. Yes, my direction is very rigorous. Ive been an actor. I know the tricks. If somethings insincere, I can smell it.
For all the adjustments hes made, The House of Mirth is still indubitably a Davies movie -- a slap in the face to Merchant-Ivory and the Brit-lit heritage adaptation. Audiences have been leaving the film emotionally shriven, exhilarated by Davies ability to communicate raw feelings so directly. But despite the gathering critical unanimity over the films many transcendent virtues, Davies is pessimistic about his future employment prospects. Its hard when you have a mortgage to pay. It would be nice not to have to worry about money so much, but I move from one set of debts to the next. You can do that when youre young, but Im 55 now and I just want an easy life. And as a director I feel like a dinosaur, to be honest. The things I value are no longer valued: craft, telling a story well, being cinematic and not just an extension of TV. I dont feel part of any kind of community and never have. I feel like Im probably past my sell-by date by now.
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