Monday, February 28, 2008.
I’d first learned of Terence Davies through a one-hour documentary profile of him on The Southbank Show on Bravo. [On London Weekend Television in the U.K.] He was charming, entertaining, with an incredibly sophisticated taste for music and cinema. Then he started talking about his first discovery of movies through Hollywood musicals and his lifelong love of Doris Day and the program cut to a shot of him lip-synching to one of her songs. Almost at once I felt a connection with him and wrote him a letter by way of The Southbank Show. Several months later I received a short but appreciative letter back from him. I was so taken that he had responded that I put together a package to him.
About two weeks later the phone rang and it was Terence calling from London. He told me that he was doing the finishing touches on his new film The Neon Bible and that he was feeling miserable and not getting much support. It was a Friday, raining, he’d returned to his apartment with a stack of mail from the office and was not looking forward to the weekend. But he noticed in the mail was a large envelope from California and decided to start with that. One of the Hollywood musicals that had made an influence on him as a boy was the Doris Day-Frank Sinatra film Young At Heart and an original full-sized color poster of that film was what he found in the package from me. I used to have a small collection of movie posters, but I felt Terence could give this one a better home. He told me it had changed his entire outlook on the weekend. We became friends from that moment and have enjoyed a warm long-distance telephone relationship ever since.
This past week Terence has been in California. Of all places in North America, the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, a mere eighty miles down Interstate 80 from us, has honored him with a retrospective of his work.
On the opening day of the program, called Closely Watched Films : Terence Davies, I was able to get off work early to drive into the Bay Area and attend the first film, the Trilogy, a series of three thirty-minute black and white short films shot over several years that, combined, form his first feature. It was the only one of Terence’s films I had not been able to see before and I must confess I was staggered by the rawness and minimalist beauty.
I also must admit that I wondered just how he must look at my own film Year, which I’d sent him two years ago. He’d called us after watching it and said that he liked quite a bit of it. Most notably the death sequence at the end because nobody broke down and started crying but, instead, just stood around the bed, looking at their dead mother. He liked that the film was about women and that it was not sentimental. But as I was watching Terence’s very first and triumphant films I also thinking, -he’s going to be watching some of my new movie in a couple days. i feel like a piker-
After the screening he spoke a bit, then people from the audience lined up to shake his hand and say hello. I kept quietly to the back and watched. Several people around me were saying how much they liked the film and that they never went up to talk to the filmmakers but that Terence was so entertaining that they couldn’t resist going up to tell him so. Terence was smiling ear to ear, basking in their praise. They genuinely liked his film and were truly won over by him. It was beautiful to watch. I didn’t want to intrude on this as he would be staying with Bonnie and me in just a few days. I waited until everyone had finished asking him questions and were filing outside. He was turning to leave with a couple of the P.F.A. people when I said, “Excuse me, Terence, I just wanted to say hello. I’m Mike –”
At the sound of my voice he spun around, his face suddenly flooding with life, “Mike!” His arms went around me in a bear hug and he held me to him for a long moment, then looked at me. “You came all this way! I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
“Well, we’d only spent a little time together before.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you so much for coming.”
A very beautiful moment and I was so touched by how happy he was to see me. The P.F.A. people very kindly invited me to come with them to have some drinks and Terence also asked for me to be with him. Almost immediately he began asking about Bonnie and the progress of our new film. It’s quite an extraordinary thing to discover a man and his films and be deeply moved an inspired by them, then to get to know him on a personal level and have him turn the tables and start asking about our film.
A few days later on Saturday I was back in Berkeley at the P.F.A. for their final event involving Terence. They were running Distant Voices, Still Lives and he was doing a live audio commentary of the film and fielding questions from the audience at the same time. I must say that I think I had not fully appreciated or enjoyed the film as strongly before that screening. It’s power, seeing it on the big screen, was breathtaking. It was an intimate epic.
The screening was a great success. Afterward, we loaded his luggage into my car and set off. I’ve driven I-80 from Berkeley to Sacramento many more times than I care to know, but this time I was driving back and we were talking and I couldn’t help thinking, “My God, I’m driving Terence Davies. I’m taking Terence Davies to my house!”
We got in a little after nine. Bonnie — and Ava and Lola, our Greyhounds — were at the door to greet him. Terence and Bonnie had a long, warm embrace. It’s beautiful to see Terence greet the people he cares about. You can feel a tidal wave of love sweeping out of the man and around you.
Then we asked if we could offer him something,
“Some wine or champagne?”
Almost shyly he said, “I’d really love a cup of tea.”
We just happened to have a Brown Betty tea pot and a box of imported tea from the U.K. Terence’s face lit up at the sight of it. Bonnie got a pan of water boiling and before the end of the evening Terence consumed two entire pots of Yorkshire Gold, with cream and sugar.
Having Terence staying in our home was the fulfillment of a dream that Bonnie and I have shared for many years. We could hardly believe it had come true.
The next morning after his breakfast tea and a banana he said, “So, can you show me some of the new film?”
I was both looking forward to and dreading this. Here is a man with at least one certified cinematic masterpiece under his belt and now he’s going to be seeing first cuts of scenes of our self-make, self-financed, no-budget digital movie.
So we all went out to the studio and circled around the Imac. I hit the spacebar. The opening scene started with night images of San Francisco Bay and Mercy [Lori Hochlerin, Bonnie’s real-life daughter] sitting on a bench smoking with some temporary mood sounds under it.
“Gosh, that’s very stylish.”
Then I played a clip of Bonnie singing that will go under and cross-cut with the scene. And Terence’s mouth immediately wrinkled into a warm grin. When the song was over Terence, who makes these very subtle films, just unrestrainedly burst out, “Oh God, that’s wonderful! Just wonderful!”
[It should be noted that one of Terence’s passions is music and he completely adores Bonnie.]
Next up were a couple of the edited dialogue scenes. At the end of these he looked at me and said, “Can I be honest?”
“It doesn’t really work. It’s too much. It’s just too much. I know Americans feel they need to say all this and all that, but you only just need a little bit. Be more oblique. Just use a little bit of this line and cross cut the scene with Bonnie singing. And on your close-ups, look through them and find the bits in between where they’re not speaking and try those. Let me feel it. It’s so much more powerful. I don’t know – I could be wrong. Just try it.”
And many more specific suggestions about cuts and re-arranging shots, which I was maddeningly writing down as fast as my hand could scribble.
And, of course, as he’s saying this it’s like turning a light on because I know he’s absolutely right. From the very start of this project I’ve wanted it to look different, both from what I’ve done and from what everybody’s done. Another part of my long-form plan in editing a film is to first edit it the way you’ve shot it and make that work, then over time sit back and try and look at it with fresh eyes to see how to make it different and even more original than how I’d imagined it. Terence was being very generous to show me that perspective. His words really were sparking my editing fires.
I played another scene. At the end of it Terence looked at me, smiled and said, “It’s really far too long, isn’t it.”
And the moment he said that I was already chomping at the bit to want to start slashing and burning, which always serves to make what remains only stronger and more memorable.
Now I wanted to jump ahead and show Terence one of Bonnie’s big sequences, which I’d been working on in anticipation of his arrival.
I started to play this from about the middle of the scene that leads up to it. There are a few lines from Mercy [Lori] that as they came out of the speakers were very noir genre and that I figured would go straight into Terence’s bad scene basket. The first part of the scene played and Terence looked at me quite seriously, didn’t say a word and looked back to the computer screen. The next scene with Edie and Mercy [Bonnie and Lori] started and continued and continued and continued.
When we were shooting the scene I was directing Bonnie to have a certain look about her. Bonnie wasn’t quite sure about it. She didn’t feel that it was natural. I had to assure her that when she saw the scene in the context of who her character is and where her mind is in the scene, the audience would get it. The sequence came to an end and I was anticipating -it’s far too long. it doesn’t work. and that corny line!-
Then Terence said: “I wouldn’t touch it. I’d leave that exactly as it is. If you cut one frame frame from that I shall be very cross with you.”
Then Terence said to Bonnie, “And that look that you had throughout the scene was so right.”
“That was Mike. He directed me to be that way. I wasn’t sure about it.”
“Oh no, it’s marvelous!”
I was shocked. I felt like I could breathe again. Then he added:
“And that line [of Lori’s]. I love that. I wish I could write like that.”
I’m not Catholic but I wanted to shout out, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” I felt like I’d hit a home run.
“I think you’ve got something really, really interesting here. It’s so stylish. So stylish. I can’t imagine that when people see this they aren’t going to want you to make a picture for them.”
Then it was Terence’s turn. He pulled out a DVD with a one-hour rough cut of a film he’s working on, a documentary-memoir-poem to Liverpool, where he grew up, called Of Time And The City*. I don’t know what I can say about it here, but suffice it to say that it is like nothing he’s ever done before. It’s beautiful, it’s evocative, it’s sad, and deeply, deeply moving. Bonnie and I both sat transfixed and honored that he was sharing his work with us.
It was a magical experience sitting in our studio watching each other’s films as fellow artists. The unifying power of film, music and art, mutual respect and love.
Then it was time for more tea!
[Since writing this, Of Time And The City premiered in the 2008 Cannes Film Festival to universal praise as “the new masterpiece by Terence Davies.” At the end of the year the U.K. film journal Sight And Sound took a survey of fifty European film critics ranking the year’s best films internationally and Of Time And The City was listed as Number 7.]
At one point later in the day we were talking about Terence’s work and I said, “You know, Terence, there aren’t very many people who have made a masterpiece.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you to say and I think I’ve made some good films but I haven’t done anything great.”
“How can you say that. What about the B.F.I. list?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
I was incredulous.
“No, I had no idea.”
He genuinely had no idea that his work was among the ranks of films by David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Carol Reed, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Alfred Hitchcock.
At five minutes to four the back door slid open, as Terence was staying in our studio.
“Sorry, did I wake you?”
“No, no, I was just getting up to get you.”
“All right, I’m going to run back and take a shower.”
“I’ll get the tea on.”
It had been a great, though, too short weekend. But incredibly beautiful. To look back on the journey of our friendship and see where it had evolved to, that I have now developed into a filmmaker of my own right and to have his respects for the films I’m making and the road I’m taking is nothing short of remarkable. And it’s so incredibly wonderful to watch Bonnie and Terence together. They completely adore each other.
When I saw Terence off at the security departure line at S.F.O. it was the same as when I was first greeted by him a few days before — with a long, loving bear hug. He’s a rare, lovely, loving man.
Bonnie and I have sworn that our next meeting will not be nearly so long from now and at Terence’s home in his beloved England.