I recently spoke over the phone with Terence Davies, director of the new film A Quiet Passion based on the life of American nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, scheduled to open in Boston on April 14, 2017, while he was visiting the United States from his native England on a promotional tour. The film stars Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, and Keith Carradine as their father. The following edited transcript is drawn from that conversation.
CM (Charles Munitz aka BADMan): I saw your film twice and thought it was powerful, intense, daring. Could you tell me about the trajectory of the project, how you were inspired to do it, how it got off the ground, and how you landed the cast?
TD (Terence Davies): I discovered Emily Dickinson when I was eighteen, on the local television station. There was a documentary with some of her poetry read by Claire Bloom. I went out and bought a small anthology and loved the poems. But I didn’t really start rereading them until about ten or twelve years ago. Then of course I wanted to know about her life, which was extraordinary really. I love the poetry – I think she’s the greatest of all the American nineteenth century poets because she’s so avant garde. I began to read about her life which seemed very cloistered in one sense, but then again not in another, for she had such a rich inner life. But her withdrawal so closely into the family made her life very intense, because all of those relationships were extremely intense. The other thing that interested me was her spiritual crisis. If you read the poetry it’s about acknowledging that there’s something called the soul, but what do you do if there’s no God? Her sentiments oscillate between feeling that there’s no God and the sense that perhaps there is, and she never comes down on either side. Nevertheless, evidence of her spiritual journey is still there and still very powerful. I was brought up as a strong Catholic and was very fervent until I realized that it was a lie and I rejected religion. So I knew what that crisis was like. Also that intense family has very personal associations for me. I’m the youngest of ten children, but despite its size, mine was a very close family, so I knew what it was like being in a close family and never wanting it to change. I don’t think Emily Dickinson wanted it to change either. Alas families do change. Regarding preparations for making the film, it took four and a half years to get the money together. I had previously met Cynthia Nixon regarding a film which never came off but I’d never forgotten her. When I was writing A Quiet Passion I looked at the only existing photo of Emily Dickinson taken when she was seventeen and one of my producers superimposed Cynthia’s face on Emily’s and they looked almost exactly the same. Cynthia was very loyal to the project and stayed with it. She was concerned that we wouldn’t get a film that she was starring in off the ground but we did. We indeed got it, and I think she is marvelous. She’s also an absolute joy to work with.
CM: She and Jennifer Ehle – a terrific actress – make an incredible pair.
TD: Not only onscreen but in real life Jennifer is absolutely radiant. As she’s got older she’s become even more beautiful.
CM: I saw her in the Tom Stoppard trilogy The Coast of Utopia in NY some years ago – she did a terrific job.
TD: I think she’s just lovely. I was blessed with a wonderful cast – what can I say?
CM: It was interesting to see Keith Carradine. I remember him from Nashville< (1975) by Robert Altman.
TD: A lovely man and a lovely voice.
CM: He makes a great master of the household – both severe and compassionate. I imagine that balance was a tricky one for you to achieve.
TD: He did it with such ease. In most Victorian households the father was the master and one did as one was told. He was very much in that role, yet he was also very loving and compassionate. When he ticks off Emily for being impolite to the servants it’s done with grace. And she’s touched that he’s done it so tenderly. Keith also has such a lovely voice because he’s a singer as well.
CM: Yes, I remember him singing in Nashville. That scene in which Emily asks her father if it’s okay to stay up at night and write was very sweet; in response, this commanding and forbidding guy is really compassionate, tender and fatherly in a lovely way.
TD: Yes, he is. But like a lot of men of that period, you have to obey it or else he’ll tell you off.
CM: When did you write the script? Was it before going out and pitching the idea or did you write it after it was an ongoing project?
TD: I began writing it before we raised any money. I’d got a little bit of money to write the script. I generally only do three drafts, including the polished one, which includes specific instructions for every track, pan, dissolve, and every bit of music. Everything is in there so we can husband our resources. You’ve got to do that when you’re on small budgets; you can’t waste time or other people’s money. When I was writing it the producers were pitching it to other people and gradually getting financing. So that’s how it happened. By the time I finished the final polished script we’d got the money together to shoot it. All the interiors, by the way, were shot in Belgium where they built a complete replica of the Dickinson house for us. Obviously we couldn’t shoot here in Amherst because it’s a museum, but fortunately we got wonderful financial help from Belgium and were able to do the shooting of interiors there. We did shoot some scenes outside the house when we were in Amherst but most of it was shot in Belgium.
CM: What was your central motivating idea in the creation of this film? Was it to give a satisfying rendering of Emily Dickinson’s life and to provide an opportunity to present a good amount of her poetry?
TD: Apart from the poetry, which I do find wonderful, the thing that really upsets me is that she wasn’t recognized during her lifetime. That, for me, was heartbreaking. It’s the same with Bruckner (Anton Bruckner (Austrian, 1824-1896) Romantic symphonic composer). He had one success, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that Bruckner started to get played. So I do feel that when people don’t get the recognition they deserve when they are of that caliber – she was, after all, a genius – it prompted me to do something. I hope when people see the film they will go and read her because she deserves it. Despite the seriousness of her work and the insularity of her life, I didn’t want to make the film solemn; I wanted it to be fun as well as serious. She was a lively, intelligent woman. There’s nothing worse than biopics where great people are presented so solemnly and seriously for an entire ninety minutes; there’s nothing interesting in that. Emily did ordinary things like ordinary people did. She just happened to be a genius.
CM: The film is shot with very long pans and takes – it’s very daring in that way – and the camera lingers for a very long time on each of its subjects. Obviously this is intended to create a certain sort of attenuated mood. How would you characterize what your governing idea was with that?
TD: I wanted to make it true to what it would have been like. On a simple, practical basis, what entertainment would they have had? Basically, they had a piano and they read. Every year there was a commencement ball. But that’s virtually it. In film you can take a little thing and concentrate on it, so just the way that she looks around at the family when they’re all together becomes interesting. At the end of that early 360 degree pan, I said to Emma Bell, who was playing the young Emily Dickinson, you look at them and when the camera gets back to you something has died in you. You’ve got to see these characters just doing things, or not doing things, which is frequently equally fascinating. And to watch people just looking, or just doing something small, can be very revealing. The power of the silence that can convey is significant. The worst thing of all in film, instead of offering silence, is when you’re told by the music what you should feel. The music shouldn’t do that; it should underpin what you’re looking at and what you feel, but it should never prompt it. There’s always an exception to that rule, and that exception is exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); it’s his greatest work, and without that music the film wouldn’t be half as good. There are always exceptions, unfortunately.
CM: The music in your film is very expansive and penetrating. I was wondering if some of the vocal selections were settings of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
TD: No, that would have been far too modern. Some of the music is directly from the period. Emily was taken to hear Jenny Lind (1820-1887, Swedish opera diva) sing, though the program was strange. Lind sang There’s No Place Like Home and an aria from La Sonnambula (1831 opera by Vincenzo Bellini). It’s that bel canto thing, which I find sort of dull, just running up and down the scale, but it’s very virtuosic. But then what you hear is infintely more powerful, Schubert’s Nacht und Träume. So you get a range of what she would have heard and some of it is repeated when in the film Mabel Loomis Todd begins to sing it. And there are some very quiet songs like Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair, and when Emily’s father dies, The Last Rose of Summer. They’re charming as well as small and intimate. At the end, however, jumping out of the period, I use a twentieth century work, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.
CM: Yes, I noticed that. I thought I recognized the music as was The Unanswered Question without the horn part.
TD: That’s right. We recorded it and I wondered what it would be like if we took out the horn and flute. And what it sounds like is almost like the opening of Shostakovitch’s Tenth Symphony. It’s very strange and brooding. And you’re not at all sure what key it’s in or leading to – it’s perfect really.
CM: The film gets progressively darker as it goes along. Certainly when Emily is young there are a lot of outdoor scenes and there is quite a bit of visual variety. But ias things progress your intention appears to be to use the lighting and interior spaces to close things in and create a much more visually contained context.
TD: You’re absolutely right – that’s exactly what I did.
CM: And with the music building and the poetry cascading, there’s almost a sense of a pot boiling.
TD: The poetry acts as music very often in this film. That’s what the real music is. The other musical palette is secondary to that, except for the end, which needed something distinctive to carry it.
CM: I was amazed at how much of her poetry was included. It’s not only an interesting biography, but a wonderful introduction for her work. How many poems are actually recited in the film?
TD: I haven’t counted to be honest. But she herself wrote 1808 poems, of which only a few were published during her lifetime.
CM: Did you include references to those in your script originally?
TD: Yes, all the poems in the film were included in the script.
CM: Cynthia Nixon is reading all of those, right? She does a great job.
TD: She reads poetry beautifully.
CM: The non-poetry dialogue throughout is wonderfully witty in so many places, especially between the members of the family, but particularly when that character Vryling shows up – she’s really full of piss and vinegar.
TD: With a name like that, she’s got to be fun. In fact, she was Vinnie’s friend, not Emily’s. I saw a photograph of her when she was about forty and she looks completely humorless. I think the name of the historic person is so extraordinary, but I did invent much about her character for the film.
CM: I wanted to ask in connection with that whether this dialogue which was not drawn from the poetry drawn from any historical documents or was this pure invention?
TD: A mixture of both, really. What people don’t understand is that nineteenth century American English was very formal, mostly because Americans were aping Britain which was then the dominant power. It’s the reverse now and we imitate you. But then, American English could be very formal. I read some of Dickinson’s letters – not all of them because there of the sheer volume of them – and some of the quotes from the film are in her words from those. But the conversational language is all very formal, and in Emily’s case, frequently poetic as well. I don’t think people now quite comprehend the formality of American English in the nineteenth century. If you read The Gettysburg Address, it’s not a political statement, it’s poetry, sheer poetry. The irony is that when Lincoln delivered it only a few people heard it because his voice didn’t carry; someone did say it wasn’t very memorable, which is why that’s in the film too. The women in the film were very well educated, so they would have exhibited a real love of the language. I very much wanted their conversation to be intelligent and witty; and, at the times they go at one another, it’s savage, which is how it should be.
CM: You don’t deal with the sequelae to Emily Dickinson’s life. The film highlights the battle with between Emily and her brother Austin over his infidelity with Mabel Loomis Todd. But in actuality it was Mabel Loomis Todd who was almost singularly responsible for the publication of Emily Dickinson’s work posthumously and for the recognition that she was a great poet.
TD: From what I’ve read it was a mixture of her and Vinnie, with some help from Austin. What’s hard to believe is that after she was dead they not only changed her punctuation but in certain cases dropped complete stanzas of the poems. There are two versions of I Could Not Stop For Death and in one of them the middle two stanzas are dropped, God knows why. They touched up Emily’s picture as a seventeen year old and put curly hair around her neck; she looks ridiculous. It’s very strange and curious, indeed, that the woman who caused a schism in the family should be so instrumental in wanting to get Emily’s poetry better known.
CM: I was interested in your decision not to deal with or even allude to that, just to end the film at the end of Emily’s life.
TD: The film is told from Emily’s point of view, so we couldn’t really have anything in it to which she was not privy nor had heard about. Obviously when she died she wasn’t well-known. Try to deal with the aftermath of her death would have been a narrative cul de sac and wouldn’t have got us anywhere. And it might have done what I hate, which is to give it an uplifting end. She’s now acknowledged as a great poet – that’s sentimental nonsense. The fact of the matter is that she died unknown and you can’t get around that.
CM: So you were trying to convey in a dedicated way the sort of awareness that Emily had of her own life.
TD: Yes. And it’s not, by the way, intended as definitive biography. The film is very subjective and seen through my own prism. I responded to things in her life that I have partially experienced as well. Anyone else might have taken a different tack, might have, for instance, tried to explore the letters that went to the Master – we don’t know who that was – or someone else might have wanted to concentrate on her relationship with Judge Otis Lord – all of those things. The film represents only my subjective view of her life and is certainly not definitive.
CM: I’ve read in some places that Emily never actually met Mabel Loomis Todd.
TD: Yes, all the biographies say she never did.
CM: So it was an interesting departure in your script that Emily confronted her and Austin in the middle of the act.
TD: I thought that was more powerful, and gave much more reason for her to be antipathetic to Mabel but also explains her disgust with what Austin has done; she thinks it’s utterly immoral. By the same token, it reveals that she has an incredibly high standard that other people can’t reach. That’s why I had Vinnie say integrity taken too far is equally ruthless. It was important narratively, despite what really happened, to have her see them make love.
CM: The character of Vryling – not totally invented by you but largely fabricated by you – and in this other case of Emily discovering Austin and Mabel in the middle of things – were departures from fact. Are there other places where you’ve taken liberties with the biography?
TD: I can’t remember, to be truthful. I don’t think so. I tried to be as truthful as possible. There is one other departure. Emily had two aunts – Aunt Elizabeth who was on Edward’s side, and another aunt whose name I can’t remember. Elizabeth was only twenty-six when these children were born and she really hated being an aunt at that young age. She was also known for being very difficult to live with; they had to treat her very gingerly. I thought if I created an amalgam of her and the other aunt who was much older that would be more interesting. The amalgamated aunt says exactly what she thinks – like an American version of Lady Bracknell (from Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’) – and feels that whatever she says is absolutely valid. She can be very funny but also can be very cruel.
CM: I was curious about the dialogue between Emily and Vinnie after Emily has confronted Austin about his infidelity. Emily is taken to task by Vinnie for being too judgmental. Suddenly there’s a turn by Emily from being very definitive and forthright about her judgement of Austin’s and Mabel’s infidelity to turning on herself and exhibiting considerable self-hatred. You seem to have wanted to bring out something both about Emily’s intensity of judgment about the world but also about herself.
TD: She is genuinely appalled by what Austin has done. But when she is confronted by Vinnie to basically be more human and to stop having impossibly high standards. Emily also realizes that she has not met that high moral standard herself. I don’t think it’s self-hatred at all I think it’s when Emily’s been told a few truths by Vinnie she realizes that she herself is just as bad. I don’t think it’s self-hatred, but it does exhibit an incredibly critical sensitivity to everything that is ethical about the soul and morality. Vinnie says we’re only human, don’t pillory us for that. But the way I see Emily is that once you have that high standard, if you have abandoned it, you have compromised your own ethics, your own standards, even your own soul.
CM: What do you think she felt she fell short in? Why did she feel she was as bad as Austin?
TD: I think because when there’s only your own family – when there’s no one else who comes in and loves you – which I think she wanted but was terrified of – things which arrive in the family take on a huge importance. When you’re hermetically sealed in that world everything is intensified. When she wins only second prize for her baking that obviously deeply hurts her. If you invest your whole being into something and it falls short of what you felt it was you feel a sense of utter betrayal. I’m from a large family and my older sister whom I adored treated my mother very badly in the last years of my mother’s life and I was just appalled; my sister and I never spoke again. I told her that I adored her but that I could never forgive her for how she treated our mother. That’s part of my own autobiography that goes into the narrative here. Emily’s the same in many ways – all there is is the family. If that lets you down, then what do you do? There’s nowhere else to go in a way.
CM: I wanted to ask you about this film in the context of your other work, where it fits in with the trajectory or your collective creations, if at all.
TD: I can’t answer that question. I’m too close to this film and to the previous ones. Each time I just think I’ll try to make the next film a bit better.
CM: Do you have plans for upcoming projects?
TD: I have two. One is a film based on a book by an American author named Richard McCann called Mother of Sorrows for which we’re trying to cast and raise the money, and I’m writing a film about Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967, English poet).