Cynthia Nixon (left) plays Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion

Terence Davies is one of England’s most important living filmmakers, having directed two seminal British films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). His subsequent films—among them The House of Mirth (2000) and The Deep Blue Sea (2011)—are just as rich as these, combining vividly realized settings, balletic camera movements, and exquisitely understated performances to create visions of the past that resonate in your memory long after you watch them. Davies is also an impeccable dramatist, rendering his characters’ emotional pain in palpable terms and writing dialogue that flows like music. His latest feature, A Quiet Passion (which opens Friday at the Music Box), is a moving biography of Emily Dickinson and another deeply personal work. As Davies explained when I spoke to him last month, he frequently drew on his childhood memories when devising the film, and its sympathetic portraits of female characters (not least Dickinson herself) stem from feelings he had as a boy for his mother and sisters. Davies also discussed the early filmic influences that continue to inspire him and some of his working methods.

Ben Sachs: You’ve said in the past that your biggest dream is to direct a musical. Is that still true?

Terence Davies: Yes. I’d love to do [Stephen Sondheim’s] Follies, because I love the score. I met Stephen Sondheim in New York a long time ago now. Unfortunately the person who holds the copyright wouldn’t release it. And anyway, who would give me $60 million to make a musical? Nobody would! Or they’d tell me who I’ve got to cast . . . No, I’m not Hollywood material, unfortunately. But I love Follies.

I bring up musicals because I’m always struck by the musicality of your filmmaking. Your movies often feel like musicals even when there’s no music playing.

I was brought up on the American musical. My first film was Singin’ in the Rain. I was lucky to have been brought up when all the best musicals were being made. And I just adored them so much. I knew nothing about how you make films. I was still at school . . . and going to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, not knowing that a lot of it was shot on a soundstage, when the snow came down during a scene, I thought, “How did they get the snow to come down like [that] on cue? How did they do that?”

I still love watching those films. They give me so much joy. I never tire of them. Some of those sequences in some of those films are just sublime.

Do you think of these movies when you’re making your own?

The best influences you don’t use consciously. You use them subconsciously, and then they come out refracted, which makes them different. What thrilled me—and what still thrills me—is when music moves and the camera moves through space. That seems to me to be utterly sublime. I just love it. And so [the musical] has influenced me. Very often I’ll say, “For this particular sequence—like the ‘Tammy’ sequence in A Quiet Passion—it has to be timed to a song or a poem.” Other times, I’ll say, “No, I’ll hear [the scene] through headphones and just let it run as it is.” Because it has to come out of you instinctively. You can’t consciously say, “I’m going to do that,” because then it becomes forced, I think.

How does this emphasis on timing extend to how you direct actors? Do you try to set a specific pace in how they deliver lines?

No. All I ask is that they don’t act, because I don’t want them to act. Acting is so boring. [I want actors to] just be—and that’s infinitely harder. Most of the time, I don’t think I’ve ever gone beyond five or seven takes for any performance. For A Quiet Passion, most of the shots were got in four takes or less. I like that the actors are still spontaneous at that point. You’ve got to capture the fleeting moment. Because in those fleeting moments people do lots of things that they’re not aware of, but that tell you a great deal.

Let’s say someone stumbles over a line. You hadn’t thought of that, but it tells you something extra about the character. And I love that, I love that accidental thing. I also love when [actors] do things with the dialogue that I hadn’t thought of. It’s infinitely more interesting.

A Quiet Passion

The dialogue of A Quiet Passion feels like it could have come out of a 19th-century novel. It has a very literary quality. I was hoping you could discuss how you went about writing the dialogue for the film.

What people don’t realize—I think even Americans don’t realize this—was that American English was very formal in the 19th century. You were imitating Britain because we were the dominant power. Now it’s the other way around—we imitate you, because you’re the dominant power. But you read in the footnotes of books sometimes the way that people spoke, and it’s very formal. It’s much more formal than it is now. And since these were very well-educated women [that A Quiet Passion depicts]—really much better educated than in Europe—they were witty, they were sharp.

You can’t give the actors modern English. As soon as you do that, it kills [the film] stone-dead. Because [the audience] just thinks, “I’m sorry, but they didn’t speak like that in 1850. They just didn’t.” You have to find a way of getting the flavor of it while still making it entertaining. It’s got to sound true.

One of my great loves is [William Wyler’s] The Heiress, and that’s in very formal English. Some of it’s better than the actual [Henry James] novella [that it’s based on]. You know, some of the lines that he gives to Morris at the end—”I say, the Deuce!” Well, no one talks like that, not even in the 19th century. But the formality of the film and its precision was a template for A Quiet Passion. There’s a wonderful scene where Morris is trying to charm the father, and he says, “It is irrelevant whether I like you or not. You are not from the class that one chooses a son-in-law.” It’s very nasty, but very polite. He’s a bastard. Someone described his performance as “hushed tyranny.”

That term “hushed tyranny” nicely describes a recurring theme of your last three films, The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song, and now A Quiet Passion. I think of these films as a loose trilogy about the cruelty women have endured in past eras.

They’re also about [women’s] heroism. It’s very much an autobiographical thing, because my mother had a terrible life. My father was very violent. But she was never hard; she was strong, but she was never hard. One thing I see in films now is people confusing hardness with strength, as though they were analogous. They’re not. I think that it’s heroic when you have to decide what do you do when you’ve got ten children and your husband is psychotic. Where do you go? In the 1950s, when I grew up, there was nowhere to go—you were just stuck. If you made a bad marriage, that was it. It wasn’t like now, where people can go to refuges and actually prosecute their partners for beating them up. You couldn’t do that in those days. So I admire the heroism of women who endured that.

I also admire the heroism of Emily [Dickinson]. She was in pain a lot of the time, and yet she managed 1800 poems, three volumes of letters, the letters to the Master, a long conversation with Judge Lord, and gardening, baking, and playing the piano. I mean, how on earth did she fit it all in when she was in pain?

A Quiet Passion

One thing I admire about the film is how make her pain felt through your imagery. The second half of A Quiet Passion takes place almost entirely in Dickinson’s home—which, as you show, she never left. The darkness of her home becomes suffocating.

I said to Florian [Hoffmeister], who shot the film, that it should be Shaker light at the very beginning. If you’ve ever been to [Dickinson’s home in] Amherst, there are these two parlors with huge windows, so the light would just pour in. I wanted those scenes to look really sharp, but not cold. Then gradually the film gets darker, which reflects Emily’s progression. That was a conscious decision.

Did you decide on that while writing the film?

Yes. When I’m writing, I write every track, pan, dissolve, every bit of music, every bit of copyrighted material, everything. I’ve always done it like that. The reason I started doing it like that is because I can’t draw, so I’ve never done a storyboard in my life. I also do that so I can say to producers, “This is exactly what we’re going to shoot; you’ve got to find enough money to shoot it.” You can say specifically on this day I need a crane, on that day I need 25 extras. You can husband your resources that way.

A Quiet Passion is your third film—after The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth—to be set in the United States. What in particular about U.S. culture attracts you?

When I was growing up, America was the land of magic. And if you were a girl, one of the coolest things was to have a Yankee boyfriend. My older sister had one. He was from Boston, his name was Jimmy, he came down the street in a white suit, and everyone knocked on the door just to hear his voice. Because we had only ever heard an American accent in a film. That’s part of it.

But it’s the stories, really. If the story’s good, it doesn’t really matter where it’s set. We can all share loss or love or hurt or anger at the people we love and the people who love us. That’s universal. I’m just drawn to the stories, first and foremost. The last two [I directed] just happened to be about women. The next two are about men, all of them gay. The one I just finished writing is based on a lovely book by Richard McCann called Mother of Sorrows. The other one, which I’m writing now, is about Siegfried Sassoon, one of the three great poets of the First World War. It was him, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke. They were killed, but he survived. And he was gay and he married, like lots of gay men did then, and later on in his life, he converted to Catholicism, which I find very peculiar.

The female characters in your American-set films tend to be very verbose. Are you drawn to these characters for that quality?

You know, there just used to be a time in American films when the dialogue was so delicious, like in All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives [both written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz]. In a way, I was trying to emulate that, that kind of air. Particularly that of someone like Thelma Ritter or the wonderful Eve Arden. I love Eve Arden. They had really sharp lines that were just a joy. You waited for them!

You give a lot of Mankiewicz-style lines to Catherine Bailey’s character, Vryling Buffam.

Again, that’s semi-autobiographical. I’m the youngest of ten, and I grew up really with my sisters. On a Friday, their friends would come round—I can smell Fridays—and I was allowed to be there for the makeup. There were two friends that I loved so much, they were called Monica and Jingles. They were lovely. British northern women are very funny, and I wanted Vryling to be funny like that. She’s a complete invention, though. I just wanted the film to be fun.