With Sunset Song, writer-director Terence Davies completes a project that he’s been planning to make for over a decade. Not that he’s been waiting in the wings all of that time; since completing The House of Mirth in 2000, he’s made Of Time and the City, which ranks among the best documentaries of the 21st century, and The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. In fact, as far as narrative features go, Davies has been exclusively making adaptations since 1992’s The Long Day Closes, the last feature for which he wrote an original screenplay. The streak of adaptations has ended, however, with A Quiet Passion, made from Davies’s original script about the life of Emily Dickinson, which premiered at the Berlinale this past February. Thus, Sunset Song, with its luminous exteriors and startling performances, especially from newcomer Agyness Deyn, unfolds as a fitting swan song to that cycle, with Davies integrating autobiographical details amid his suitably visual and emotional approach to the novel’s story. I spoke with Davies about his love of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel, the difference between shooting on film and digital, and the continued relevance of melodrama.
Sunset Song unfolds with a more linear progression than several of your previous films. How did you go about choosing this approach for the adaptation?
Content always dictates form and the story is linear. So it seemed to be right that I tell it in a linear way, but without the usual glue that adheres to linear narrative of having to explain what comes next. Even given the linear narrative, which is what it is, I try and go to the next emotional thing that’s important and not the mechanics of a usual narrative. It really dictated itself and I just had to listen to that.
You had been working toward adapting the novel for over a decade before the film was made. What is it about Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel that suggested it would provide such strong visual material for you?
It’s not so much that as it’s a book I loved. I saw a miniseries of it on television in 1971 when I was 18 and still just working in an office. But I loved the story; it’s so powerful. Those visual elements obviously are in there, but it’s the story that grabs you. I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve read that your pre-production process is quite meticulous, though you stop short of storyboarding. Was it a similar case with this film, or did it require a different method?
No, I write all of the scripts the same way. I write as I see it and what I hear. That’s also a practical reason. One, if you’re using other material which is copyrighted, you have to clear it beforehand. Because my budgets aren’t big, the way in which it’s going to be shot has to be worked out so that you can say, “On this day I need to crane,” “On that day we track all day,” or “On this day we need 25 extras.” That’s the only way you can do it on a small budget. You just cannot do it any other way, I don’t think.
But, having said that, and having worked out what it looks like and the look of the film as well, things change once you get onto the set. As they should. The actors bring certain things to their characters. You look at a shot within a scene and think: “I don’t really need that. I can do it in two shots instead of four.” That’s all worked out. When you come to get the performances, which we usually get in below four takes, you’ve got that spontaneity that you’ve got to capture. After seven takes, the actors get bored and so do I. But we do a very short rehearsal time and then shoot it fast. I’ve always done it that way and that’s the way that comes naturally to me.
Has technology altered your approach to this process at all, regarding film or digital? You used digital to shoot Of Time and the City, but have mostly shot on film otherwise. What kind of cameras did you use for the shoot?
At that time, when we were making it, film still had the edge over digital. So we did all of the exteriors in 65mm and had an additional camera for all of the interiors. But since then, I’ve made a film about Emily Dickinson and that was all shot on digital, because now digital is as responsive to light as film used to be. And it’s as profound as the coming of sound, I think, and what you can do now with digital is quite extraordinary. Digital is so much more versatile than film and looks just as good. So, that’s the reason at that point we chose to shoot the exteriors on film, but if we were making it now, it would all be digital.
The film makes haunting use of off-screen space, whether it’s Chris’s mother’s screams or the uncertainty of Ewan’s return. But there’s also a scene of on-screen violence early in the film where Will [played by Jack Greenlees] is lashed by his father, John [played by Peter Mullan], that is shot with a single, stable take and without dialogue. How did you configure misery or suffering in the film as it relates to actually showing it or keeping it visually hidden?
I just go back really to my inner eye and ear. That’s always been my criteria. If I can see it, I know what to do. If I can’t see it, I can’t do it. You try and make in so many terms the script as explicit as you can what you want, but once you have other people bringing in their expertise and talent, it begins to change subtly, and usually for the better. All I ask is that whatever the actors and crew do, I ask it to be true. It’s got to be felt and true. And if it is, then all you’ve got to do in a way is just photograph it. It’s like sometimes, with a conductor conducting an orchestra, you just tweak it here and there. You say, “This could be a little bit slower,” or “Can you just take it an extra beat, just there.” At all times, you have to let the actors know they can do what they like and I will photograph it. But sometimes, you have to go with the moment. When Chris finds out that Ewan has been killed, in the script she says, “It’s a lie,” just twice. On the day we did it, she kept on saying it, like a mantra. And obviously I’m going to use that because that’s more powerful. Some things, like the rape scene, I said, “We will only do this once. I’m not putting the actors through this a second time.” And that was just one take.
With the whipping scene—what’s interesting about families is that when there’s a row or whatever, it’s not just the act of there being a row, it’s the silences between it. They’re terrifying. I know what that’s like, because I’ve been in rooms where the tension is almost unbearable because of it. So silence is very powerful. Silence works like music. But I also wanted to get at how this is what he’s done previously, almost in a ritualistic way: I’ve stepped out of line, he’s going to beat me, I won’t cry. That’s what the scene means. But it tells you more by lingering on it as he goes out, which wasn’t in the script because I hadn’t seen it yet. But as he goes out of the barn, he steadies himself with his hands against the wall. That makes it. That’s a marvelous moment. But that’s because of the actor, not because of me [laughs].