Terence Davies makes movies about exceptional, lonely people. His newest film, Benediction, is no exception to that rule. The film tells the life story of Siegfried Sassoon, the real-life English poet who received acclaim for the haunting poems he wrote about his experiences during the first World War. Played by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi, Sassoon was both a war veteran struggling with survivor’s guilt and a closeted gay man, and as a result, he was very much an outsider in early 20th-century English society.
In his telling of Sassoon’s story, Davies brings his usual, impeccable visual style to Benediction, but he also plays around with time and narrative convention repeatedly throughout the film. There are stretches of Benediction, for instance, in which Sassoon’s poems are read aloud while real archival footage of World War I soldiers plays out in grainy black and white. In a recent interview with Digital Trends, Davies opens up about some of his visual and musical choices in Benediction, reveals what drew him to Siegfried Sassoon’s story in the first place, and explains why he believes music is the medium that cinema has the most in common with.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: Why did you choose to use archival footage at certain points in the film?
Terence Davies: Well, it was, first of all, practical. On a £5 million budget, you can’t recreate the trenches. If you’ve got billions of dollars, you still can’t recreate it. You just can’t. And I always knew that I wanted to use the archive footage because the footage is so powerful. It’s horrific, and it’s very beautiful as well. So I always wanted that. There was a simple case of that’s what I wanted, but I also knew we couldn’t afford to build any kind of trenches. You just can’t do that on £5 million. You just can’t.
The war footage is so fabulous. It helps you move in and out of his psyche as he remembers things and it brings him forward and it takes him back like memory does. It moves forward and back in a cyclical pattern. That’s not a linear pattern, so that’s the reason I wanted to use it.
Your movies are often very musical, but this one is very restrained in its approach to music. Why did you decide that a smaller soundtrack was the right take for Benediction?
Well, the music has got to be used in a way that ensures that you feel it like you feel every shot, every frame. You just have to feel it. There were certain things I always knew wanted in it. I always knew that I wanted to use Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis. It’s one of the great works for double-string orchestra. I love it so much, and it captures an England before the war in this curious way — yet it’s universal. Other things? I don’t know where they came from, to be truthful. I mean, I can tell you that some of them come from a very curious place. “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” for instance.
I come from a very large family. Every Saturday, we usually had a bit of a party, and one of my mother’s friends was called Mrs. Dora and her husband drove Guinness vans. He would sometimes come around at the end of the party, and he always did the same thing. He had a bottle of pale ale and he’d sing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I don’t know why I remembered it. But when I really heard it again, I realized, of course, that it’s about redemption. That’s what that song is about. Where or why it came back to me from 70 years ago, I have no idea. But you have to feel the poetry. You have to feel the music, and you know when it’s right or when it’s not because it will tell you.
You’ve said before that music is the closest medium to cinema. Can you explain what you mean by that?
You have to believe in the film in the first two minutes. If you don’t, it’s best to go home. But you don’t have to be a musician to go on a spiritual journey. In a symphony, if you love the music, you go along on that journey. It doesn’t matter whether you realize that at the end of the finale the orchestra gets back to its home key or if it’s in contention with it. You feel that truth. You go on that journey. Cinema at its best, I think can do that. It certainly happened to me when I was a child. I mean, I fell in love with movies because, at seven years old, I saw Singin’ in the Rain. I mean, who wouldn’t after that? I felt that what I saw was literally true, and I think I became like an acolyte for cinema. I believed it was true. It influenced me intensely.
I could see a film once or twice and remember stretches of dialogue and whole shots. I thought everybody did that because nobody told me that they didn’t. The most powerful thing for me was to see the camera move to music. I can remember seeing Singin’ in the Rain and that wonderful number, which is nine cuts, eight positions and that’s all, and I wept. I couldn’t stop crying watching it. My sister asked, “Why are you crying?” And I said, “He just looks so happy!”
There is a part of me where, every time I see it, I wonder about the extra who was given the umbrella. I wonder what happened to him in this one moment of glory, and that comes with a tinge of a kind of sadness. But there are the moments in films, especially in Singin’ in the Rain, which are very avant-garde. I mean, it’s quite extraordinary. But great film music is integral to the image. It doesn’t actually tell you what you’re supposed to feel. Bad film music does that. Great film music simply underpins it and makes it more powerful.
If you look at the greatest score of all, which is Psycho, I think at the end of that film’s opening sequence, you’re not frightened. You’re disquieted, which is something much more subtle. And then the film drifts across this lazy afternoon, but already, you’re feeling something which is menacing, and you don’t know what it is.
You’re very open about your love for movies and I feel like I can always see the influences of certain films in your work. What were some of the films you looked to for inspiration when you were making Benediction?
Well, I suppose it’s an amalgamation of many things. It’s an amalgam of parts of Brief Encounter. It’s bits of Letter From an Unknown Woman. It’s all those films that I love and that I have returned to again and again and again. In terms of good dialogue, you know, look no further than All About Eve or A Letter to Three Wives.
So many of your films are about people who are, in some way, separate from those around them, and that’s certainly true for Benediction. Is that what drew you to Siegfried Sassoon?
That was part of it, yes. That’s what drew me to Emily Dickinson as well [ in the film A Quiet Passion]. These people never were really hailed as the great artists that they were — particularly Emily. She’s the greatest of the three American 19th-century poets. She’s just fabulous, and you know, I have to say the very first time I ever came across poetry was when I was 10, and it was “The Song of Hiawatha.” You cannot forget that poem’s rhymes because it’s trochaic. It’s got eight beats to the line, so you can never forget it. That was my first understanding of how language can be like images.
But I suppose I’m drawn to people who I think were great and were not properly rewarded. In terms of this film, Siegfried in a sense is seen as less because he survived. Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen were killed, so that kind of gives them a kind of sainthood status. Siegfried didn’t have that, and I think that must have been quite hard for him because he wrote really wonderful poetry in his later years. He really did.
You’ve dealt with loneliness a lot in your films. Is that an emotion that you think cinema is uniquely suited to explore?
I don’t think it’s unique to cinema. You can do it in other forms as well. But I explore it in film because that’s the medium I love. But I’m a loner. Even though I’m the youngest of 10 children, seven surviving, I was always outside. I didn’t know that when I was a child. I just observed and listened all the time, but I am an outsider. I’m from a large working-class family. I didn’t go to university, but I have a very acute ear for language and, even though most of my family spoke with very strong Liverpool accents, I didn’t. I sounded like this, you know? I sounded like the Queen Mother after she died, which is really depressing [laughs].
When you become aware that you’re different, that’s sometimes very hard to get, especially when you’re different and you’re gay. You know, I come from a country where it was a criminal offense to be gay until 1967 and I grew up in a culture that didn’t speak about heterosexuality — let alone the gay community. When they did, it was with utter contempt and hatred. The word “queer” was filled with such contempt. It was horrible. So I think in that sense, Benediction is largely autobiographical as well.
There are several very long dialogue scenes between Siegfried (Jack Lowden) and Dr. Rivers (Ben Davis) in this film where a lot is said without anything actually being explicitly uttered out loud. Can you talk about what it was like writing, shooting, and editing those scenes? They’re very long but they’re spell-binding.
Because they’re from the same class, they can say things which mean a great deal and both of them will get it. I mean, they just will. They both know that they’ve shared secrets and then they make light of them because that seals the secrets in a way. I have to say shooting some of those sequences with Dr. Rivers featured some of the most sublime acting I’ve ever been privileged to see. There was one scene where I just said, “It’s sublime. There’s no point in doing it again.” But that’s because it’s felt. When the actors don’t act but feel, then it becomes different. Then it becomes alive.
You can always cut to a face because faces are never in repose. Something always happens. Even if you cut from someone whose eyes are open and then you cut back to them and their eyes are closed, what does that mean? That is the kind of storytelling thing that is wonderful in cinema because a cut like that can tell you an enormous amount. My template is always the first really big close-up of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. All she does is she opens her lips just slightly. That’s all she does! But my God, what a close-up.
Benediction is now playing in theaters.
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