Sunset Song is both Terence Davies’ most lavish film and an adaptation of one of Scotland’s most beloved books. It’s a rich, lyrical film, with some of the finest cinematography of the year. This being a Davies film, however, it doesn’t follow the familiar rhythms of Hollywood cinema or spell its themes out with broad brushstrokes. As such, it’s a movie that bears discussion, picking apart its subtleties and nuances.
Who better to do that than Terence Davies himself? When VODzilla.co’s Nathanael Smith met the director, he was jovial, thoughtful and more than happy to discuss the processes and ideas behind this intelligent tale of rural Aberdeenshire in the build up to World War I.
Landscape plays such an important role in Sunset Song. In terms of choosing the where you shot, did you feel quite a lot of pressure, given the significance of the land in the novel and the screenplay?
In your mind, of course, you always get the perfect locations where it looks rainy and fabulous. That’s not real life. It’s a constant worry. Is it going to pour with rain – especially in Scotland. What Michael [McDonough – Director of Photograph] did, he just takes photographs all the time. He’s lovely, he’s so enthusiastic. He’d say “maybe I’ll put a camera here, after we’ve finished I’ll put another camera there for twenty minutes.” So we’d often get strange lighting. The two that stick out in my mind are the wind blowing through trees with rather watery sunlight, which is gorgeous, and when she is coming home in the gloaming. It looks like coral because of the lighting. That was due largely to him.
Much of the film is spent in mid or close-up shots of Agyness’ face, which is great as it gives the film an affective power. The film, as a result, ends up being quite reactive – you’re watching a lot of reactions with the actions happening off screen. How do you direct that, because there’s a subtlety that’s required. How do you direct her, just pointing the camera at her face?
It’s not so much that, I tell all the actors before we shoot that I don’t want any acting. You mustn’t act, you’ve got to feel it. Now, that’s much more difficult. Of all the forms of acting, cinema is the hardest because it’s all shot out of order. If you’re an actor, you’ve got to retain the whole architecture of the piece just looking at one piece of stone. I’ve got great respect for anyone who does it. If, for instance, you’re looking at something, that’s what you do. In real life, you look at it. You may look away. There’s a moment where you look, and we all look. I just wanted to be truthful.
If you’re eating breakfast and someone says “I’m going to Aberdeen,” there’s not a great deal of moving around, because you don’t need to. What you do, you make the space deliberately menacing, because we track in on Peter Mullan, who doesn’t react at all. So, of course, the next couple of scenes are affected by the fact that he didn’t say anything. Also, the actors have got to know that you are absolutely behind them, so that if you need to hold it for a very long time, that’s what you’ll do. They have absolute freedom to do what they like, only occasionally will they give a line reading and I’ll say ‘No, I think the emphasis should fall there’. By the same token, when they’re in bed and her older brother just says ‘I hate him’, and says it three times, I said ‘Could you give it a bit more venom?’ He did, I said ‘That didn’t really work, did it?’ So I said ‘Why don’t you just do it as you feel it?’ Once you say that, you give the actors the safety net of ‘Do what you feel’, as long as it’s not acting, as long as it’s true.
I’ve noticed throughout your work your love of faces and the way your camera will just linger on them. Does that affect your casting in anyway? Is there a director that influenced that style?
Gosh, no, not at all. It’s very simple, I cast the people who give the best auditions, whether they’re well known or not. If they’re right, I get a feeling in my stomach and I know they’re right. When I do cast a film, and it’s the same with the crew, I believe in them completely. Then you can say this is what the scene is, these are the set-ups, and then you play it. They’ve got to know that you’re sitting behind the camera thinking we’ll get something.
No one’s face is ever at rest, truly. The greatest piece of direction was to Garbo at the end of Queen Christina. The director said ‘Think of nothing’, which, of course, is impossible. All sorts of things go through your mind, but what a great piece of direction.
Did you find that you needed to make a tonal shift from Catholicism, which has been a preoccupation in your earlier films, to Presbyterianism? Did you notice any differences in the way you were shooting or writing?
Not so much that, it was more a feeling. Catholicism is bad enough, Calvinism is even worse. They’re even more guilt-ridden that Catholics. That will always be a subtextual part for me, I am very influenced by religion because I was, I was very devout. I do think it’s pernicious.
I did try to live by the tenets of Catholicism, to be pure in thought, word and deed. No one can do it! It’s too hard, especially with being gay and praying to be forgiven. I prayed until my knees bled. No succour came and I suddenly then knew, it’s just a lie, I don’t believe it. I believe this is all there is, you die and then that’s it.
Did you find there was a different relationship between sexuality and religion in the different denominations?
I think it is different to the denominations but they play variants of it. I think religion’s purpose is twofold: one, to control human sexuality; two, to make death more palatable. They always fail, because you can’t do that on the basis of feeling guilty. For me, as an outsider, Calvinism is almost as rigorous and unforgiving as Catholicism.
So I wrote the speech of the vicar to the bare essentials because, when you’re bathing it in light, the implication is that it’s God’s light and he’s going to tell you something about being human, and he tells you to go and shoot people. That’s what’s shocking. There’s a little bit of autobiography there. When I was growing up, one mass at Christmas, the collection was given to the priests and there was this horrible, horrible priest called Dr. Byrne. These were working people in the congregation, and he said ‘This is the silver collection for the priests and if you see this as a way of getting rid of your copper, don’t bother’. I was so shocked that any priest could say that. There were people in that audience who could only afford copper.
Thinking about war, I was throwing around names of great films about World War I with my friend today and we struggled. La Grande Illusion, Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front were three we came up with. Do you feel like it’s a fairly ignored topic, especially in British cinema?
Well, no. There have been lots of films over these last four years about the First World War. Obviously in ‘14 it was the anniversary of the start of it, and there’ll be more about it in 2018. The problem is not so much are there many films about it. What you get is a pastiche of what it was like. You know these trenches, they’ve been made up. Trying to recreate what it was like is impossible and it… there’s King and Country… no that wasn’t in any way of saying ‘I’m going to make a war film’. The war in it destroys something essential, it destroys, bodily, the person she loves. It’s merely a part of the script. I’m writing a film for 2018 on Siegfried Sassoon, so obviously that will be much more about the actual. He’s also a great poet, he’s only one of the three great poets that survived, because Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen survived, as you know. So that is about the war because it destroyed most of the men in England, Wales and Scotland and it destroyed the world. At the end of the Somme, the combined dead was a million people. You cannot imagine it.
Sunset Song is out now on DVD and Blu-ray and VOD. It is available to watch online in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 subscription. You can also rent or buy it on Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, TalkTalk TV Store, Wuaki.tv, Google Play and Sky Store.
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Photo: Dean Mackenzie