British filmmaker Terence Davies has some great insults for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. One emerges from the mouth of Emily Dickinson, as played by Cynthia Nixon, in his new film A Quiet Passion. Another he shared with us when we spoke with him last September. Indeed, when reviewing the film for The A.V. Club, Film Editor A.A. Dowd highlighted just how funny A Quiet Passion is for a work that’s also primarily concerned with death, calling it “witty and stirring.”
Unlike many biopics, A Quiet Passion is not concerned so much with the events in its subject’s life, focusing instead on Dickinson’s philosophical outlook. Upon its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we sat down with Davies, who discussed his fascination with the poet.
The A.V. Club: Why Cynthia Nixon?
Terence Davies: Well, I saw her for a film that didn’t come off.
AVC: What was that film?
TD: It was a comedy called Mad About The Boy. Anyway, that didn’t work. But I’d never forgotten her. When I was researching the Emily Dickinson, there’s only one photograph of her, when she was 17, and I said to my producers, “It’s Cynthia Nixon, I can see her face now.” And one of my producers, who used to be a stills photographer, superimposed both faces and they looked exactly like one another. She also knows the poetry. There was originally a guide track. I said we don’t need to re-record it. It’s just so wonderful.
AVC: How did you start the research process when you started tackling the screenplay?
TD: I read six biographies. At the end of it, I was just numb. I thought, “I can’t read anymore.” It’s not a documentary. It’s my fictional idea of what she’s like. She wrote three volumes of letters. You can’t include all that. You just can’t. So I just wanted to concentrate on what I felt were the important things: The nature of the soul, is there a God, how to behave vulnerably, having a deep love for your family—so deep that she doesn’t want really to change, and deep love for her friends. It wasn’t sexual at all. If you can’t respond in the same way, she’s obviously going to feel let down. And the only person who doesn’t let her down is Miss Buffam [Catherine Bailey], because she’s honest. She, in a way, feeds that rebellious side. She says, “Don’t worry about your vices. It’s your virtues you should be wary of.” She always challenges her. She says, “You are a strange creature, with more depth than any of us.” “You don’t demonstrate, you reveal.” And she does. And you’ve got to do it in that, little by little, you introduce those things, and they gradually become part of the tapestry of the narrative. But it has to be introduced quietly. You just give little indications, and this is what film does better than anything else.
AVC: What was your first connection to Dickinson’s work? What made you fascinated with her?
TD: Well, it happened when I was 18. I was still working as a lowly bookkeeper. On Granada television, they’d used to have little documentaries on Sunday morning. One was on her, and it was Claire Bloom reading her poetry. I went out and bought them. The little press here at the beginning of the selected poems just said she withdrew from life and died a spinster and all of that. It didn’t occur to me to go and read about her life. It was only about 10 years ago, I started thinking of her again, and thinking, “Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot to this.” I started reading. Six biographies. I was so glad when I got to the end of the last one. But I thought, “That’s a really powerful story.” The family is a source of all that is wonderful, and all that is terrible, and that’s rich. Drama is all about families, that’s what they are.
AVC: Was there one biography or one work that touched on this belief in the nature of the soul and that conflict that drew you in? Was there one moment that you realized the theme of the journey you wanted to send her on?
TD: No, it was actually having read them. Those things emerge. What do I want to take from them? There was one that [argued] she was a lesbian. I really don’t care. I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Just as, someone says she’s epileptic, and the basis of that was “[your] brain [to] bubble cool.” I’m sorry, that’s pretty faint evidence. I don’t care about that. The point is the poetry, and how it came out of her. That fact that she wrote 1,808 poems, and only seven or 11 were ever published in her lifetime, and then punctuation was altered. That’s the other great tragedy, that she wasn’t recognized when she was alive. And I do think that when people are like that, I just feel a great deal of passion for them. This is great poetry. She’s the greatest of all the 19th century poets, I think. I find Walt Whitman virtually unreadable. And Longfellow. “The Song Of Hiawatha.” [Begins reciting the poem.] Oh, bugger off.
AVC: There’s a great Longfellow dig in the movie. Was that based on something that you read from her perspective? Or was that a little personal dig on your part?
TD: No, that was personal on my part. [“Hiawatha”] was one of the first poems we were required to learn great chunks of. It’s marginally better than “The Courtship Of Miles Standish.” That’s almost as boring as solo synchronized swimming.
AVC: You mentioned reading a biography that asserted she was a lesbian. What made you not care about that?
TD: I don’t think it’s interesting. What’s much more interesting is the fight to keep an enriched inner life. And that’s a struggle for everybody. It’s not just her. But also, how you come to terms with the world. If you had a child, you could die. You could die in childbirth. She had this disease of the kidneys, and there was no way of easing that pain. She must have been in pain an awful lot of the time, and knowing that people can die [Snaps fingers.] like that, with what would be a simple thing that could be treated now.
So all those things impinge as well on what it was like then, as well as having this wonderful education. They were given a wonderful education. They were erudite and they were learned. And that’s another thing that’s very interesting. That they lived that life, which was intelligent, and it was witty. And it could be equally unpleasant. It was when you love someone as much as she loves [her brother] Austin, and she feels completely betrayed by what he’s done. She can’t forgive him. When you’ve idolized someone, and you find they’ve got feet of clay, it’s awful. And in families, it is vicious, the fighting. I know, because it happened in our family, so I know what that’s like. So it’s those things, and how at the end—and this is only an implication rather than something that actually happens in the film—that it’s a kind of “Well, does it matter?” Because when she reads “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” she reads it in this wry, detached way, which makes it all the more powerful, because it’s almost comic, you know?
AVC: There’s attraction to Mr. Emmons [Stefan Menaul], but she also doesn’t want him to see her. Did her internal conflict come to you through the biographies, or was that something that you built through the poetry and through your own imagining of her?
TD: It comes from—and she did actually say this—“The man, the looming man.” She actually used those words, and, “Please let him come before the afterlife. Please let him not forget me.” She said those words. But “looming” is a very interesting word. Because it has an edge of something that’s a little bit frightening, and dangerous. Because she wants him desperately to come, and I thought the best way—once she’s retreated, and that young man comes—and he’s genuine. He’s a nice young man.
But she’s on her guard all the time. Because she did say, “I am a kangaroo amongst the beauties.” So any kind of compliment, she takes the wrong way. So that in the middle of that, she has this longing for this man who will never come. And he comes back, and he’s even more charming, and she’s even more annoyed with him. “Don’t try that with me, it won’t work.” She says to him, “You’re a bit too quick to play the martyr.” And he hasn’t, he’s genuine. But when that is going on in your inner life, you misinterpret other things that are outside it. It’s the fact that this very nice young man is charming, and she could obviously strangle him, because he’s come at just the wrong time.
AVC: What was the thinking behind having the almost fantasy-like sequence in the film?
TD: I think it’s important that we had that in. But to make it not romantic, but have something with a darker edge to it, which is why it’s shot at 48 frames per second, and those flowers look like the flowers of death, they’re not happy flowers, you feel like. But the longing for something, the urge to have some sort of life, and when you fantasize about that, reality never lives up to it. Because you’ve got to get on with people, and they press the toothpaste tube in the middle and not at the end like you do, and you want to kill them because of the fact that they haven’t done it, and that’s real life. She says, “When you’re deprived, you long for something.” I’ve known that too. I’ve been celibate most of my life. There have been times where it would be lovely to have someone just when I get home after traveling to say, “Put your feet up, I’ll make dinner.” But then if you go home and they’re in a bad mood—I think, “Oh, get lost. I’m tired.” Unfortunately, reality never lives up to the fantasy.
AVC: What was the process of working with Cynthia Nixon like?
TD: Oh, it was lovely. I did say to her—I said to all of them—“I don’t want you to act. I want you to feel it.” I said, “And I have to say that I’ve only watched Sex And The City twice, and I think it’s really pernicious. All about going to bed with someone and eating and shopping.” I said, “The second time I watched it with the sound down, because all your reactions were the truest. They were the truest.” I said, “I knew you were right.” I said, “Please don’t take offense, but I had to be honest about that.”
AVC: What was Cynthia Nixon’s reaction to your dislike of Sex And The City?
TD: She was extremely civilized. Just as if she had seen films of mine she didn’t like, I would have expected her to say, “I didn’t like that.” It’s best to be honest. In the long run, it’s best to be honest. I don’t want to do anything under false pretenses. I can’t do that. I think it’s dishonest. If it’s above board, and we all know where we stand, then that’s far better from thinking something is when it’s not.
AVC: There is that photograph of her, and you reference it more than once. Why did you want to return to that?
TD: Well, we went to Holyoke. They haven’t got all of her collection—a lot of it’s in Harvard—but they have the photograph. I said, “Can I pick the photograph up?” [The man who runs it] said yes. It’s a little daguerrotype. And you just think, “God, you wrote this wonderful poetry.” It was so moving. And at the back is a lock of her hair. She had reddish hair. And you think, “God, you’ve written some of the great verse of the 19th century.” I thought, “Well, I’ve got to use it. I’ve got to use it at same point.” And then it came to me—we have her age from the moment she dies to when she’s middle age to when she’s really young.
AVC: Why did you want to end the movie with a real image of Emily Dickinson?
TD: Because it’s about the nature of death, and the fact that here we’ve seen her in her 50s, and then she’s younger, and then it’s the actual photograph, and she’s only 17, and that life in 58 years is now gone. Like that. Like it does for everybody. And I had to have “This Is My Letter To The World.” She wrote that not at the end of her life—it was a sort of later poem, but not really late. I thought, “I’ve got to have that, because it’s so poignant.”