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Queer Film Legend Terence Davies Shares His Cinematic Influences

Terene Davies

The 70-year-old director is enlivened by American musicals.

Courtesy of AP/Carlo Allegri (Davies). Everett Collection (Singin' in the Rain, Young at Heart). Everett Collection (Victim). Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Sunset Song).

It should come as no surprise that Terence Davies is as bittersweet as his art--a catalog of cinema that ranges from 2000's The House of Mirth (his aching Edith Wharton adaptation with Gillian Anderson) to 1992's The Long Day Closes (his semi-autobiographical ode to fleeting youth, which Out contributor Armond White cites as the greatest gay film of all time). And yet, speaking to the British filmmaker in the lead-up to this month's Sunset Song, his rich take on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's pre-WWI-set novel, it's startling how much his id and inspirations reflect his body of work. The 70-year-old director is as keen on chronicling loss as he is enlivened by American musicals (don't get him started on Doris Day), and while he may not be able to cite a movie that articulates his thoughts on love, the one he thinks best depicts loss is nothing less than the first English-language film to use the word "homosexual."

Terene DaviesWhat was the very first film you saw in a theater?

I was 7 when my eldest sister took me to the pictures to see Singin' in the Rain. It was a wonderful way to start. I remember seeing the title number, and I burst into tears. My sister asked why I was crying, and it was because I didn't know if I'd been that happy up to that point. It was just wonderful.

During your adolescence, if you were ever struggling with fears, insecurities, or anxieties, what was a film you turned to for escape or solace?

Being in Liverpool, where I came of age, we didn't have a lot of theaters. But we had commercials on the BBC, and on a Sunday afternoon, they did a thing called Love Story. In that [program] I saw some of the greatest films I've seen, like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter, that kind of thing. I was educated by the BBC on Sunday afternoons. I suppose the films I go back to are those that are very deep in my lot, like Letter From an Unknown Woman, which I didn't see in the theater until I came down to London.

Terene DaviesOne of your most memorable features is Distant Voices, Still Lives. Was there one movie that was most influential in the making of that film?

It wasn't any one film--it was an interpolation of singing that came from watching American musicals, again influenced by my sister's love of them. During the time in which that film is set [the 1940s and 1950s], those musicals were at the height of their powers, and that's when I was watching them. It all stems from the first great musical, which was Meet Me in St. Louis, and extends to lesser films I might not revisit, like The Pajama Game. It's not very good, but there are wonderful songs, like "I'll Never Be Jealous Again." Doris Day is just sublime.

And then, of course, there's The Long Day Closes, which has been embraced by so many as a seminal queer film. Were you surprised by that reception?

Well, I never thought my films would go beyond [my own] country because they're about Britain and Liverpool--those earlier ones, anyway. Obviously, I'm delighted that people have liked them, but they were simply very important to me. More than anything, I was thinking about the passing nature of childhood, because even when I was at my happiest, I knew that ecstasy was short-lived. I desperately wanted those moments to last forever, which is of course impossible. Even the family in Meet Me in St. Louis--it will disintegrate. One wants to hold those things forever--and one can't.

Terene DaviesWhat film made you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Oh my, it was a complete accident--my becoming a filmmaker. I was in drama school, and I'd written the first part of a trilogy. I sent it all over England, and everyone turned it down, but then I heard about something called the BFI Production Board. So I went down to them in London, and they said, "You have PS1,000, not a penny more. You will direct." That's how it happened--quite by accident. It was when I looked down the lens that I realized that's what I wanted to do.

Is there a film you associate with falling in love?

I can't think of one, to be honest with you.

What's a film you associate with falling out of love -- with separation?

I think that's Victim. I saw it when I was 15, and it was a very, very brave film to make in its time. There's a wonderful performance [from Dirk Bogarde], particularly at the end, when you realize [his character's] relationship with his wife won't last. But apart from the performance, the film is important because it helped changed the law in England [regarding homosexuality].

If you had to choose one film to take with you to a desert island, what would it be?

It would have to be Young at Heart. That was the first time I saw Doris Day in a film--in 1956. I'll never forget it.

Terene Davies

Sunset Song opens on Friday, May 13 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Film Forum.

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