Terence Davies talks to Jason Wood (Curzon Director of Programming) about his adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s stage play The Deep Blue Sea
Jason Wood: How did you come to be involved in the film adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea?
Terence Davies: The opportunity came completely out of the blue. I have never adapted a play but Sean O’Connor, one of the producers, asked me if I would like to adapt a Rattigan play. I told him that I wouldn’t do The Browning Version, because I fondly remember the Antony Asquith version with Michael Redgrave. That couldn’t be bettered. Separate Tables with Burt Lancaster is also very good. I just wouldn’t be able to do them. I looked at the whole Rattigan canon and told Sean that I might be able to do something with The Deep Blue Sea. I was a little bit worried because the way Rattigan works is to put all the exposition in Act 1. I personally don’t like that but, of course, I respect that this is Rattigan’s style. I wrote a very tentative first draft and, to my complete amazement, Adam Brody of the Rattigan Trust suggested that I be more radical with it.
I had always maintained that the story had to be from Hester’s point of view and if it was going to be done from Hester’s point of view then most of the exposition has to go. If she is not privy to a conversation then we can’t have it. Once everyone agreed on that I thought, “Yes. I think I can do it”. The fact that there was so much talk was a real worry at first. That is one of the major differences between theatre and film. With theatre you have to explain everything. With film you can just show it.
Jason Wood: There are numerous parallels with your work: the notion of outsiders, the position of women in a repressed society and 1950s Britain. Why do these subjects hold such a fascination for you?
Terence Davies: I grew up in the 50s and so I know what it was like. I also know what it felt like. That is a completely different thing to just knowing how it looked. When you are growing up, and I think this is true of all children, you absorb a lot. That includes the social mores. In the 50s you did as you were told. Everybody in authority was believed and obeyed without question.
My mother was an incredible survivor and a woman of great love and tenderness. She was strong, not hard. I had sisters too. So, quite simply, I grew up with women. I loved my brothers but it was my three sisters and their girlfriends that I grew up with. They were wonderful company because they were funny. I also grew up with the romantic films of the period, such as All That Heaven Allows, Love is a Many Splendid Thing, Magnificent Obsession. So many were all about women and had women as their central characters. So focusing on female characters always came very naturally to me.
What I certainly didn’t want to do with Hester was to make her seem either a victim or clinging in that way that is possessive. That kind of possessiveness is repellent. I knew that we had to show a woman who is in many ways extremely conventional, doing something extraordinarily unconventional. Hester leaves her husband and women really didn’t do that in the 1950s, even if they were in a bad marriage, like my mother’s.
Hester finds sex at forty and it overwhelms her. She is prepared to gamble everything and that’s moving because it’s not characteristic of someone who is that conventional.
Hester makes a number of social faux pas that people may not know now but I certainly do. For example, she goes into a pub and gets her man to come outside. You did not do that. Hester is not aware of that so she does it, which makes Freddie even more furious. When that scene came up I explained that it had to be ferocious. It was not the done thing to argue in public. Even working class people didn’t argue in public.
Jason Wood: Rattigan’s play deals with passion and sex but was of course very much restricted by what it could show because of the time in which it was written. We live in less morally restrictive times so I wondered how that affected your approach in this regard. You show passion, but largely avoid sex.
Terence Davies: There is something very interesting about being sexually repressed. I am homosexual and that was illegal. But even heterosexual sex, you just never saw it. You might see a film such as Passport To Shame where Odile Versois takes her blouse off, but that was about it. There is something about restraint, and not just sexual restraint, that we have lost in this country.
Jason Wood: I am struck by the relationship between Hester and her husband William. I see it as very loving. It just isn’t love of a physical nature.
Terence Davies: Rachel didn’t actually see it that way initially. My perception was that he was a very kind man who probably possessed a very small libido. For William reading poetry and going to concerts together was as important as lovemaking, possibly more so, and because of her upbringing Hester came to the understanding that this is the essence of married life. Shared things are very powerful, and they can be as powerful as sex. Just not in this case for Hester. Much as she cares very deeply for William she now loves Freddie. It’s only when you do fall in love that you realise the huge difference.
Jason Wood: What led you to Rachel Weisz?
Terence Davies: I came to her completely by accident. Thank god I switched the television on one evening. I was bored with reading and fancied a change from Radio 3. There was a film on that had already started. I had no idea what it was called but then this woman came on with the most fabulous face and wonderful eyes. I thought, “God, who is this?”. I watched the film to the end and discovered that it was called Swept from the Sea and directed by Beeban Kidron. I rang my manager and said “Have you heard of Rachel Weisz?” and he replied, “Terence, you must be the only man who hasn’t”. We sent her the script with no idea whether she would say yes or no. I told her that if she said no I had no idea who else to ask. Thankfully she said “I’ll do it”.
Jason Wood: The role of Freddie is a difficult one. He has to be seductive and charming, but also a little heartless. What drew you to Tom Hiddleston?
Terence Davies: I didn’t know Tom’s work at all to be absolutely honest. It was my casting director Jane Amell who suggested I should see him. I remember our first meeting vividly. I have a mortal fear of being late because when I was at school you got caned for being late. My manager was driving me along High Holborn and when the traffic got really bad I insisted that I get out and walk. I actually ended up running all the way to Soho. Tom was late too, and was just about to go off to Los Angeles. There followed a series of apologies. I then asked Tom to simply walk around and throw himself on the sofa. Many actors are not very good at doing this sort of business. Tom did it with real ease. He then read and was brilliant. We were supposed to be seeing other people that day but I cancelled them. I said to Jane, “We’ve found him”. Tom came absolutely prepared and knew every scene by heart. He also came dressed impeccably, in the sort of clothes Freddie might have worn. He really is a very intelligent man, and a very gifted one.
Jason Wood: As with all of your work, music plays an incredibly important role in the film. Can you discuss your use of Samuel Barber and the popular music and pub songs of the time?
Terence Davies: I have known the Barber Violin Concerto for a long time and I think it is one of the great violin concertos. I knew it was right for this film. When I was growing up there was always a pub at the end of the road. It was your local. At about nine o’clock when everyone had got a bit merry, you began to sing. Everybody did it. It was incredibly communal. You could walk up the main road where there was a pub on every corner and it would be a cacophony of singing. I really did grow up with it.
I just know when something is right. I don’t know where this instinct comes from. Perhaps it was going to see so many musicals when I grew up. There was also, of course, always a good tune in the so-called women’s pictures I love. I must have imbibed this instinct. When music is used correctly in film it really is absolutely thrilling. It’s like being bathed in the most gorgeous joy.
Jason Wood: When we last spoke you had returned to filmmaking with Of Time and the City. Do you now feel more confident regarding your being able to make films on a regular basis? There hasn’t been the long hiatus you previously endured.
Terence Davies: I am in a bit of a daze to be truthful. I can’t quite believe it. I’m not religious anymore but I am slightly wary of the sin of pride. I am genuinely quite surprised at the response that has been given to me. Before Of Time and the City I didn’t work for eight years and I genuinely thought, “That’s it. It’s over now”. I never thought I would get a second chance. To have been asked to close the London Film Festival 2011 with The Deep Blue Sea is such an honour. I don’t believe it. I keep thinking somebody is going to come up and say, “We’re very sorry. We’ve made a mistake. It’s the other Terence Davies”.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
The Deep Blue Sea screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 25 November