Terence Davies: A Quiet Passion (2016) | featured image
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016)

Filmmaker as Prism: An Interview with Terence Davies on ‘A Quiet Passion’

Terence Davies reflects on his response to Emily Dickinson’s work and the echoes of the poet within himself that are stirred in his film, A Quiet Passion.

“I’ve only done a fictitious view of her life through my prism,” explains Terence Davies of his Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion. “It is not a definitive life, it’s only my view of her.” No matter this view, the celebrated American poet is a testament to the enduring spirit of art, through which the artist can attain immortality. Such an expression in the context of Dickinson’s life and work is, of course, irony-laden; she was a non-believer of life after death.

During her lifetime, less than ten of her poems appeared in The Springfield Chronicle, and for 69 years following her death, in spite of much of her work being published, it was edited, denying Dickinson the expression of her most intimate thoughts in her own words. It wouldn’t be until 1955 that Thomas H. Johnson’s published collection of her poetry, as true to Dickinson’s hand as possible, that the poet’s expression would finally be liberated from the silence during her life and the distortion following her death. Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a fitting title for a reclusive artist whose creative and poetic voice was her silent passion, offsets the enduring spirit of art with the discomforting reality inflicted upon its creator.

In conversation with PopMatters, Davies reflects on his response to Dickinson and the echoes of the poet within himself. He also discussed the validity of art, the difficulties inflicted upon genius, the opening of the heart through collaboration, and his hopes of a response compelled to action.

You’ve spoken of your fondness for Dickinson, but what compelled you to write and direct A Quiet Passion?

Well, I found the poetry first, and then I began re-reading her, I think it was in 1995. But it was only about ten years ago that I thought: I want to know more about her because I do love her poetry. This was an extraordinary life where she basically withdrew, but it wasn’t only that, it was reading a number of biographies about her and also reading the poetry.

What I also responded to was that she had a spiritual crisis: if you have a soul and there is no God what do you do? I was brought up a strict Catholic and I eventually gave up when I was 22. So I responded to that as well, and the closeness of her family was very much like the closeness of my family. It was those three things that really made me want to do it.

You mention Dickinson’s spiritual crisis. A lapsed Catholic myself, I have an inability to create the complete separation that part of me desires. I often ask myself why that pull remains, however minor it may be.

What do you do when you are confronted with your belief, in my case the Roman Catholic Church. She was an Episcopalian and rarely went to church. If you read the poetry, she constantly oscillates between there is no God and the possibility that there might be. She never actually says there’s no God. There’s always hope there and that in itself I think is very moving, especially in a society where things were very rigid and patriarchal. But these women were very intelligent.

That’s hard as well and so it was a combination of all those things. How do you carry on as an artist when of the 1,808 poems you wrote, only between seven and 11 of those poems were ever published in The Springfield Republican? That’s hard as well and so it was a combination of all those things.

While the words of a poem and literary work, or the images, dialogue, and music of a film do not change, our responses can differ from one encounter to the next. If this is the case, the permanence of the form and structure is compromised, subjugated to the impermanence of our experience of the work.

That’s always the problem with any art form that you are working in. Does it make any difference or is there actually invalidation? Does death invalidate everything? I fluctuate between yes and no. At the moment I think death does invalidate everything and what also exasperates the situation is that she had no recognition during her lifetime. It’s all very well saying she’s a great poet now, but as I don’t believe in an afterlife she didn’t know that. She didn’t, and that must have been pretty comfortless.

Perhaps all human endeavour is trivial, perhaps everything is impermanent and we shouldn’t take life seriously, but if this is all there is, it’s very difficult not to.

Would you then agree that our response to art and creativity is ultimately always in flux?

Yes, I think that’s so. In the end, you have to say does it matter, does art make a difference? I don’t know. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no, but I just don’t know. I just know that I need to make films because I know what it was like doing jobs that I hated.

I was 12 years a bookkeeper and I saw what it did to people who had been in jobs that they hated, and that really is life-denying. I don’t know whether art changes anything at all. I would like to think it does, but the way I feel at the moment I’m not sure.

It would have been impossible for Dickinson to have not expressed herself creatively, yet it must have been painful for her to continue. The lack of response to her work saw her expression either denied or lost in a silent void. She found herself in a contradictory situation of expression, yet a lack of expression.

Yes, I think that’s true and also you have to remember that she was ill, she was in a lot of pain. We don’t know what that was like because we have painkillers and antibiotics, whereas in those days they didn’t. You just bore the pain and most people saw death at home in a way that we don’t. She obviously needed to express herself deeply in poetry like everyone else who works in any kind of art form. You want a response, you need a response and if there is no response, or the response is indifferent, where do you find the courage to go on?

She had that courage to carry on in the face of only seven or 11 poems being published, that’s part of her courageousness of writing about and facing death, and the questions about mortality that arise from it. She showed enormous courage and I didn’t want her to be solemn. I wanted to try to show her character so that she was like every other human being; they take a bath, they go to bed, they bake, they play the piano, they talk, they read.

She does all that, but she just happened to be a genius. She makes life very difficult and it is so even for geniuses that are recognised in their own lifetime, because they have one less protective skin in life, and that makes it very hard.

Cynthia [Nixon] has a great affection for Dickinson’s poetry, and in the production notes you mention that while writing it with her in mind, you didn’t necessarily expect her to play the part. How important was it to have an actress that knew Dickinson’s work that would enable Emily’s identity to emerge through the poetry?

I had met her a number of years before for a film that did not take off, and I’d never forgotten her. When I was writing the script I just saw her face and she actually looks very much like the young Emily Dickinson. It was a bonus to find that she’d grown up with the Julie Harris recordings of some of the poetry and she’d read the poems, and so she knew them. She actually read the poems superbly.

A lot of people can’t read poetry and that was my worry, but when we did the guide track, which is the one we used in the film, they were just so wonderfully read and wrought. She asked: “When do you want me to re-record them?” I said: “No, I don’t want you to because what you’ve captured in that crackle we did just as a guide track is something special. I don’t want to actually re-record it because I’m afraid of spoiling what you’ve done, because it is quite frankly superb.”

So that was an added bonus that she knew about Emily Dickinson and she’d read the poetry; she’d listened to poetry being read and she herself can read poetry. I was just very lucky [laughs], but I would have cast her anyway because I just knew she was right.

Did Cynthia surprise you in her interpretation and even reveal things that allowed you to see Dickinson in a different light?

Obviously, you have an idea of how the dialogue should be said, but you have to be open to it being reinterpreted. You have to do that, and it wasn’t just Cynthia but all the actors, even in the smallest roles. When they do something that I hadn’t thought of I actually find that thrilling, and there are moments when I think: How on earth did you decide to say it like that [laughs]?

When she has that long scene with the reverend, the line is: “But art be wrecked by success.” She plays it with a big smile, but there’s such regret in it. It’s a wonderful moment and all the actors do that. One of the things I love about just watching them is how they open their hearts for you, and you have to open your heart for them so that they can try absolutely anything. I say try anything, but the only thing I ask you not to do is act. I want you to be, and that’s much more difficult.

I was blessed with the most superb cast and they all surprised me, and I love being surprised like that, there’s nothing more thrilling.

Speaking of opening your heart, is an important part of the filmmaking process instinctive, requiring you to not just listen to your own and the actors’ instincts, but those of the crew?

Yes, because it is the most collaborative of all the art forms. Again I say to the crew: “You can make any suggestions you like, please tell me, don’t keep them to yourself. We are all making the film, it’s our film, it’s not mine.” Sometimes they don’t even ask, they do something and you think, God that was fantastic.

Your antennae has to be out and open to everything. Any kind of thing that will make it better or improve it you have to be open to. When it happens you’ve got to recognise it and I always rejoice in it quite frankly.

Interviewing filmmaker and artist Rebecca Miller for Flux Magazine, she told me: “If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them. Even though film is such a collaborative art, if there is a real auteur behind it, then that person imbues the film with who they are, and what their concerns are at that moment.” Your work is cited as being autobiographical. Can you see a part of yourself in A Quiet Passion?

Oh yes, and my manager said it is my most autobiographical film and I think he’s right. I really do feel very close to Emily, I really do, and there are lots of things that are in her that are also in me, and found echoes in me. So yes, but in every film that you make, there’s something about yourself that is revealed.

Somebody else making this film, another writer or another director may have thought about the business of her soul and her standing up to Miss Wadsworth is a nice enough thing, but it’s not really important and they’d concentrate on something else. I’ve only done a fictitious view of her life through my prism. It’s not a definitive life, it’s only my view of her. But as I say, my manager thinks it’s my most autobiographical film.

Picking up on the reference to your own subjective view, the work of any poet, artist, writer or filmmaker is inevitably experienced and interpreted through the subjectivity of their audience.

Yes, but as I say you have to put yourself into it, in a way like the actors have to find their subjective response to the dialogue they are given, which then changes. Sometimes it is: “No, could you just say it like this” or “No go back to that and do what you did in the second take.” But it has to be an organic thing and it also has to be enjoyable.

In life, you have to have passion, but you have to have a sense of humour, too. A film without either of those or both, then you really are dead. As much as I take it seriously, and like everyone else that works on the film I want to make the best film I possibly can, it isn’t mining coal, it’s not a cure for cancer and you have to keep it in perspective. You have to keep the atmosphere on the set enjoyable so that people enjoy coming to work, that’s important.

In the production notes, Sol Papadopoulos is quoted as saying: “It’s a work of enormous wit and pathos.” To my mind, this encapsulates the film, the mix of sadness and joy, a celebration of the two sides of life and the way they intertwine. Would you agree?

Oh yes, I’d go along with that, but what is also important is at the end of the day the best reward is that people go away and read her. That would be a great reward and I don’t believe in an afterlife so she’ll never know, but it would be lovely if people went out and bought her poetry and read it. That would be a great thing for me.

Photo of Terence Davies courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.