On October 7, 2023, the famous British director and screenwriter Terence Davies passed away at his home in Essex at the age of 77. His representative film works include: “The Distant Voice”, which is full of poetry and personal style, “The Long Day’s End”, which has obvious autobiographical traces, and the literary adaptation “Fun House”, etc. As the British Film Institute’s obituary read, “There is no other director who has created films that are as thoughtful and insightful as Davis, and that can describe the subjective experience of the past with such precision.”
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Terence Davis was born into a working-class family in Liverpool, England, on November 10, 1945. He was the youngest of ten children. When Davis was seven, his father died of cancer. He was raised in a devoutly religious atmosphere because his mother was a Catholic; nevertheless, he abandoned Catholicism at the age of 22.
Like most people of his age, he began to fend for himself at an early age. After leaving school at the age of 16, he worked as a clerk in a shipping company and as a bookkeeper. It was not until ten years later that he decided to change his life and enrolled in a drama school in Coventry, 100 miles away from his hometown of Liverpool. In 1976, when he started filming the short film “Youth”, he was still a student. This film became one of the later “Terrence Davis Trilogy”.
”A Distant Voice” is Davis’s autobiography, and this film is of great significance to him. Peter Postlethwaite plays a violent Liverpool father in the film, who is basically a replica of Davis’s real-life father: he terrorized his wife and children, and was considered a psychopath in the eyes of his son, so much so that he died of cancer several years later. Years are the happiest time in children’s lives. When the film was re-released in 2018, The Guardian called it the director’s “early autobiographical masterpiece, as gripping as a horror film.”
Critics like to say that Davis’s films are indistinguishable from musicals, and that’s not an exaggeration. In his work, someone is always singing, whether in a pub, at a celebration, in church, or simply from the radio. In “Distant Voices,” small townsfolk and their children hide in a bomb shelter and sing “Beer Barrel Polka” together to distract from the war. Audiences heard “You Know Susie” at the wedding, when Postlethwaite walked up to a horse with a comb and sang “When Irish Eyes Smiled,” even in the most brutal scenes, on the radio There will also be chants of “Adventure for Love.” The film won the FIPRESCI Award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.
Davis is a regular at major film festivals. His “The Long Day’s End” and “The Neon Book” were shortlisted for the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and “Fun House” was nominated for the “Best British Film” at the British Academy Film Awards. Davis likes to find creative inspiration in literary works and his own life: “The End of a Long Day” is an autobiography; “The Neon Book” is adapted from the novel of the American writer John Kennedy Toole, set in the American South; “Sunset Song” is a coming-of-age story, adapted from Lewis Glassick Gibbon’s novel, set in Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century.
”Fun House” directed by him is adapted from the 1905 novel written by American female writer Edith Wharton. In the film, Gillian Anderson plays Lily Bart, a woman cursed by fate. “Village Voice” magazine gave high praise to the script adaptation and the heroine’s performance. The San Francisco Chronicle called it a “charming sedative.” Of course, there are also some negative comments. For example, the New York Times thought it seemed “too sad.” The film ultimately only earned $5 million at the global box office.
After filming “Fun House”, he had a ten-year hiatus because he couldn’t find investment. During this period, only one documentary, “Time and the City”, a tribute to Liverpool, was filmed. The film uses a lot of news clips, supplemented by contemporary pop music, and narration by the director himself. This is the most economical way to make movies. In 2011, Davis, who is known in the industry as “not so commercial”, finally turned around and filmed “The Deep Blue Sea” – if measured by the lineup, “The Deep Blue Sea” can be called a blockbuster. It was directed by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston star.
”The Deep Blue Sea” is adapted from the 1952 play by British writer Terrence Rattigan. It tells the story of a judge’s wife played by Rachel who falls into an affair with a former Royal Air Force pilot played by Tom. The film is still not a blockbuster, but it has received a lot of praise from critics. Tom Hiddleston later recalled that during a break in the filming of the film, Davis recited TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” “He suddenly began to recite a large section of the poem “Little Gidding,” and he became more and more excited. So that tears welled up.”
Davis through the eyes of an actor
Since 2016, Davis’s creative path has undergone some changes. He made two films, “Quiet Passion” and “A Prayer,” both of which featured poets: the former was the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, and the latter was the contemporary British poet Siegfried Sassoon. .
According to “Quiet Passion” supporting actress Jennifer Ehle, the relationship between the actor and Davis is not a collaboration, “but becoming paint in his palette.” Davis wanted to make this work largely because the director projected his own life onto Emily Dickinson, and the two became inseparable.
Davis lives a solitary life, and his agent (who is also his physical therapist) is the director’s only contact with the real world. According to Jennifer Ehle, Davis spent every Friday night over cocktails and old movies.
Before the filming of a new film begins, Davis’s script will always go through three drafts, and once it is finalized there will be no further changes. He has a picture in his mind about what he wants to shoot next; if it doesn’t meet the expected standards, he will be very upset. “We only had three days to shoot at the Dickinson House, and the sun didn’t shine on one of them. He almost collapsed. That scene was so important to him that it was impossible to compromise. The reason is simple, the scene captured by the camera was exactly what he wanted. It’s different,” Jennifer Ehle said. Davis’s relationship with actors is unique. He rarely lets actors feel pressured on set or find it difficult to meet the director’s demands. “If he liked a shot, he would praise it as if you had just finished an aria,” Allie said. In some ways, he was so candid that he even told those around him why he was single—although he also used humor as a shield.
Davis was raised by his mother. You can imagine how important her mother was in his life. During the filming of “Quiet Passion”, there was a scene about Dickinson’s mother that made Davis unable to control himself. Because he was so sad, he had to give himself half an hour to calm down. “He is an anomaly in the film industry. In today’s era where everyone is eager to become a content exporter, and in this era where the image of a content exporter has been carefully designed and managed, Terrence is still a film author. “He makes films that are so special and so personal that it’s hard for us to think of them as part of pop culture,” Allie said.
Peter Capaldi, who played the poet Sassoon in “The Prayer,” said that when he first watched “The Distant Voice” (and watched it many times), he immediately recognized three things: perseverance, melancholy, and singing. Unbridled happiness. When Capaldi was growing up, he often saw these three things in the adults around him. So when he had the opportunity to work with Davis, he agreed without even reading the other person’s script.
Davis’ demands for performance can be best described as precision. He requires actors to strictly adopt a “no acting” performance method: he will intervene in every scene, every movement of the camera, every movement of the actors – as small as pauses, expressions and rhythms. Maybe many actors don’t like this directing style, but Capaldi benefited a lot. The reason is simple, because he is Davis. One time when Capaldi was shooting a decent scene, Davis came over quietly and said to him: “Be more sad.” “What expression should I use?” Capaldi asked. “Very serious,” Davis told him. After the scene was finished, the director said to him, “Can I officially adopt you?” That was Davis’ unique way of praising actors.
”The Prayer” was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Davis wore a face mask on the set that looked a lot like the riot shields used by police in the 1980s. “His red face looked very much like a sympathetic policeman who was accidentally involved in the miners’ strike.” Capaldi later recalled. When taking a break, Davis has a playful side and a happy look on his face; once he starts working, that look disappears immediately.
director as audience
Like all film directors, Davis is also the audience most of the time. He still remembered that the first time he saw a movie in his life was when he was seven years old. His eldest sister took him to a cinema called Odeon and watched “Singin’ in the Rain”. Until later in life, this movie remained his favorite. That was an era when watching movies required a sense of ritual. Fortunately, there are eight movie theaters near his home. Even more than half a century later, he still remembers where he sat while watching “Singin’ in the Rain.” Although he was too young to appreciate Jane Hagen’s performance at the time, he always remembered her line: “If we add a little fun to the monotonous life, the hard work will not feel unworthy.”
Davis I was so impressed by Odeon that I even remember the reliefs on the walls of the cinema. When watching “Singin’ in the Rain”, when the hero starts singing “Singin’ in the Rain”, he will cry from beginning to end. “Why are you crying?” asked my sister. “He was so happy,” Davis Jr. said. He didn’t know until many years later that the scene took three full days to shoot, and in order to capture the shape of the rain, milk was added to the water. He was also moved by the ending of the song. “When the extra takes the umbrella, you think, who is he? I often think about what happened to him. What will he think when he realizes that it is Gene Kelly in front of him?”
After becoming a director, he rarely Go to the cinema again. Especially going to see a movie he made, for him, the experience was too scary. “When someone turns slightly to one side, you will wonder if he can’t stand it anymore; if the person still moves, you will feel that he is really tired of watching it; if he continues to move, you will want to kill him.”
Davis believes that today A very important reason why there is no sense of ritual when watching a movie is that the curtain on the stage disappears.
In addition, he was annoyed by the constant chatter from the audience around him while watching movies. “They thought they were in their living room. Of course not, you are in a public place with other people around you.” In his later years, he was watching a movie in a cinema and a similar thing happened. A girl kept talking. Davis poked her head hard and told her: “I came to see someone else perform, not you.”