Terence Davies makes painfully sensitive, closed, introverted movies that nevertheless often achieve transcendence. Meeting the man at the Toronto Film Festival - where his documentary Of Time And The City screened along with his early trilogy of shorts - explains a lot. But beneath his claims that he's awfully shy and self-loathing, there's an exuberance and sly wit.
You've got amazing footage in Of Time And The City. Did that influence the structure of the piece?
Early on I had a rough idea of the architecture - but of course that all changed. When we started, I said to the archivist, these are the areas I'd like to look at. Can you get footage of this or that? That began to affect the script itself, and the narration came from that. It grew organically. The throughline emerged very late and it came about subtextually and subconsciously, as it ought to.
I hope you're not through with fiction films.
This will be my only documentary - I can't see myself making another. I did tell the editor, We must cut it like fiction. And if there were big musical sequences, we'd cut it mute and then lay the soundtrack down and see where the cuts fall. Sometimes they fell in just the right place. Putting something on and seeing where the cuts fall - some were terrific.
There are touches of autobiography in here, especially one moving sequence where you talk about seeing Dirk Bogarte in Victim. How old were you and how did it affect you?
I left school at 15 and went into a shipping office at 16. I was the lowest form of life, the junior clerk. The lad above me was 18 and seemed very sophisticated. When he went to the pictures he noticed the photography. He asked me to the pictures one night and it was to see Dirk Bogarte in Victim.
I'll remember the sequence til the day I die when Bogarte's character goes to the policeman's office and talks about homosexuality. That was a word you just didn't hear - and I knew I was one. The word then was "queer," but that has horrible connotations - I don't like it at all. It was a huge worry. It was a criminal offence until 1967. I remember thinking, this is not going to happen to me, I am not going to prison. Which is why I remained celibate. Also I don't like being gay, I think it's ruined my life. I'd rather be heterosexual, very good-looking and really stupid. Because then the world would be your lobster.
But would you be an artist?
Who cares?! (he laughs) It reminded me of the Lady Chatterley case. One of the barristers prosecuting the book for obscenity said - and this was 1961 or 62 - "Would you allow your servants or your wife to read this?" That's medieval for God's sake!
Watching this film and your others brings up the question of art and class. It must have been especially difficult to create coming from a working class background. So much of art is created by privileged people who have access to this and that and can afford to make it.
Yes. Probably not so much now, but back then yes. We've gone the other way to a certain extent. You've got people going around saying, "I'm a poet because I say so." Well, hang on, you can't do that.
Any artform is a craft beforehand, and you've got to learn your craft. I told my family that if they weren't related to me, they wouldn't go see these films, they'd be bored stiff. I got two great compliments. My mum once said, "He's told the truth," which I've always tried to do. Another time I was showing Distant Voices, Still Lives at a local cinema in Liverpool for my family on a Sunday morning. Two cleaners who'd just cleaned the theatre stood back and watched it. And one of them said, "That's true to life." That was a wonderful compliment. Other people said it was incomprehensible, that there wasn't any story. I remember one woman shouting, "Why are your films so bloody slow?" And I said, "It's a gift."
If you'd come from a more privileged background you'd be more prolific?
You know what I'd have? Huge confidence. That's what they have. I have none at all. At breakfast this morning I was riven with terror. Thank goodness my assistant and producer came with me. I have nothing to say. I don't have any small talk.
But you've been working for decades. This film has been acclaimed. You have lots to say!
It doesn't make any difference when you don't like yourself.
Have you been in therapy? Have you tried to work through some of these issues?
It's too hard. And also, I'm 63. It's too late.
You must have more confidence now than you did starting out.
Confidence comes, I think, from being loved by both parents. In England it comes from a certain class. There are certain people whom I know and love very dearly, they're terrific people - intelligent, funny, but they come from the upper or upper-middle class and they've got a confidence I don't have.
Your anger towards the monarchy is hilarious in the film. Where does that come from?
I think they're absolute parasites - living and dead! They do nothing for the money they get. I get angry about it. The sooner we become a republic the better.
Don't they serve a symbolic purpose as figureheads?
So did Stalin. Why should we revere people born in the same bed into a family where they do nothing for the good of the country? It'd be far better to hire two actors. It'd be a lot cheaper. I'm sure Judi Dench would always say yes.
So you don't expect to be knighted any time soon.
Oh God no. Will it make me a better person? Will it put money in my bank? No. And now everybody is a sir or a dame. You're distinguished by the fact that you don't have a knighthood. On the other hand, I might not say no to a damehood, but I don't think that will happen.
Do you fear being labeled elitist? You thumb your nose at the Beatles. You talk about how popular music has increased your love of classical music. Can't the two concide?
Yes they can. I'm just not interested in pop music. I liked pop music before Elvis Presley. In 1956, Cole Porter was still alive. He was at the end of that tradition that began with the Gershwins. That was a wonderful era with some wonderful songs. Poetry for ordinary people. With the rise of rock 'n' roll. I remember being taken to see Jailhouse Rock when I was 11 and I cringed through the whole movie. When I hear the Beatles, it's frightful. It's grotesque noise. For me, listening to modern pop music is sheer agony. If I were a spy, they'd only have to put on pop music and I'd say anything.