Terence Davies has been bringing his particular view of British life to the screen since his short film Children in 1976, and is primed to release of one his best films this week with The Deep Blue Sea, based on the play by acclaimed playwright Terrence Rattigan. The film stars Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz as Hesther Collyer, a married woman in falls in love for the first time at age 40, with a charismatic World War II pilot played by Avengers co-star Tom Hiddleston. The historical context of the story is key to understanding its deeply personal drama, so Mr. Davies sat down with me to tell stories about the origins of the play – rumored to be a metaphor for Rattigan's own sexually, which Davies denies – and the prevailing social attitudes in post-War England. It only sounds dry. Davies is a master storyteller on screen and off, and his anecdotes are fascinating whether you plan to see the movie or not.
CraveOnline: I loved your film, but I have to ask – and I’m sure this is either really annoying, or else no one has asked you before – has anyone asked you about the giant shark movie that they did? The Deep Blue Sea?
Terence Davies: No, it’s not called The Deep Blue Sea, I think it’s called Deep Blue Sea.
Yeah, that one’s called Deep Blue Sea. But has anyone ever asked you, you know, sort of like, “I don’t see any sharks in this movie…”
Tom Hiddleston had just worked with Samuel Jackson, and that’s exactly what he said.
[Laughs] So he was disappointed it wasn’t a sequel?
Well, I’m afraid so. There are sharks, but they are the human kind.
So Terrence Rattigan, I was unfamiliar with his work before this. Were you an existing fan?
Well, I had never seen any of the plays onstage, but he was the most successful playwright in Britain before, during, and just after the war. And I’d seen The Browning Version, which was made in 1952 with Michael Redgrave, which is a wonderful performance, and Burt Lancaster made a version of Separate Tables in the late ‘50s, and it’s really good. But I’d never seen Rattigan staged, and when the trust came to me, I said, “I can’t do those two, because I think those two films are so good.” I read the entire canon, and I said, “Well, I think maybe I could do something with The Deep Blue Sea.”
Were there any productions of The Deep Blue Sea that you could have gone to, or did you consciously avoid that?
No. I mean, it’s been restaged recently, but as I don’t live in London anymore – I think Penelope Wilton played Hester on the stage – I didn’t see it. I’ve actually never seen anything of Rattigan’s on the stage, except a play called After the Dance, which is set in England between the end of the first World War and the beginning of the second. And the audience loved it. I had my reservations about it, but the audience absolutely loved it, because up until ’56, he did what was called “the well-made play,” and when John Osborne came along with Look Back in Anger, suddenly his career just nosedived, because it was angry, and men, and all that. And the irony is that you read Look Back in Anger now, and that looks like the antique play. It’s just a permanent rant, and you just want someone to shoot Jimmy Porter.
It’s interesting looking back on the time when this film as made, because it’s hard to imagine a story being told now where you could have sympathetic characters who are angry at someone for trying to commit suicide. The attitude was so different, I mean, people talking about prosecuting Hester for trying to commit suicide. Talk to me about that prevailing attitude, because you don’t see it really anymore.
I mean, it was a criminal offense in England, you would have to be sent to prison for attempted suicide. So it was something that people didn’t do, and where people did – one man in Austria committed suicide by putting his head in the gas oven, and it wasn’t a pleasant way to die. But the reason Fred is angry at her is because the average age for a fighter pilot to join the battle of Britain was eighteen to twenty-two, and he was flying sorties – could be as many as six or eight a day, and seeing his colleagues and friends being killed, and once you saw a German aircraft, you had only eight seconds to respond, otherwise you were dead. So he’s angry at the fact that she’s going to throw away her life on something that he sees as trivial, but what he doesn’t understand is that, when you’ve fallen in love – sexually, as well – for the first time at forty, the slightest thing is important. The very fact that he forgets her birthday, and the fact that her ex-husband does not.
Yeah, because her life with her ex-husband is… When they reunite, there’s comfort. They like each other very, very much, but there’s no passion there, and I was reading – because I wasn’t very familiar with this work before – that this was a little bit of an allegory for his own homosexuality.
Oh no, this is a myth that’s grown up about it.
When it was first produced in 1952, Fritz Banbury, who was the original director, knew Terrence Rattigan very well, and actually, when he was asked, he said, “No.” He said, “I said to Terrance, ‘Is this a covert…?” and he said no, because in those days, it wouldn’t have got on the stage anyway, because it was against the law, and the Lord Chancellor’s, which had, which was the censor’s office, would not have allowed it. But no, what happened was, one of his lovers committed suicide by gassing himself, and he used that to commit suicide for Hester. But it’s not a cover for a homosexual…
Well, you can almost see it, though, because it’s almost difficult to see why, after so many years with William, and after such hardships with Frankie, that she wouldn’t be tempted to go back to him, and if that’s just not where her sexuality lied, it was so just not her anymore. You can see why the metaphor might capture people, I think.
I’ve not seen it like that. What I’ve seen it as someone who went into marriage… men and women went into marriage fairly naïve. Sex wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, and he was probably, you know, quite a small libido, but he was cultured, and he was kind, and she may have thought, as a young girl, “Oh, well, that’s what marriage is.” Genuinely thought that, and then out of the blue, she falls in love with this man. Completely falls in love with him, and it’s very passionate sexually as well. And that changes her fundamentally, because love does change you fundamentally, and not just sexual love, but when you actually fall in love, it changes you profoundly, and that’s the change. If there is a metaphor, I would hope that it was about love, and the fact that no matter what age we’re in, no matter how sophisticated we are, it’s still difficult to say to someone, “I love you,” because they may turn round and say, “I don’t love you.”
Yeah. Or even just, as this one brings up, not in the same way.
Yes, and each of them want love that they can’t get from the other person.
Well, it’s like Citizen Kane, everyone wants love on their own terms. Talking about the opening, I was thrown by the opening of the film. It opens in a somewhat direct way with her suicide note, we’re hearing it, and then she tries to commit suicide, and then the music swells, and we get an almost Last Year at Marienbad sort of look back at the start of this relationship. And I wasn’t sure – I was thrown out of place, I was trying to make connections, I was – you didn’t introduce it in a formal way. In a good way, if that makes sense.
In any form, if you don’t believe the first two minutes, then you should go home, because there’s no point watching the rest of it. And if it doesn’t convince – because it obviously didn’t – then what you should’ve done, really, was to have not watched it, because you’re going to misinterpret everything that goes from that. You just do. I think it’s a perfect opening for what I wanted to say…
Oh, I do too, I’m sorry if it sounded critical.
Oh, no, no, I thought you said you were…
No, no, no! It’s that it wasn’t feeding me information hand-to-mouth.
Yes, but it is. It is, but it’s not doing it in an obvious way.
That’s what I mean. I’m being inarticulate.
If you don’t connect with something viscerally… it’s like music. If you don’t like a certain sort of music – a composer, say – no matter how many times you listen to it, you say, “I’m sorry, I’m bored.” I don’t like Berlioz or Wagner. Listening to Wagner is my idea of pure Hell. Death is preferable. Bruckner is my great love. I’ve had people say to me, “But it’s tuneless, and it goes on for hours.” But it’s not tuneless to me. You have to respond viscerally, and if you don’t do that, then everything from the first two minutes is all misinterpreted. And that’s not just my film, it’s any film.
I feel like I didn’t misinterpret it, I feel like I came across incorrectly on that.
No, but if you feel it, that’s what you should say. It’s best to be truthful.
It is best to be truthful, and I am being truthful, I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed the opening, but I enjoyed playing a bit of catch-up with her life, with bits and pieces. As opposed to being introduced to her as a young girl, and… the non-obvious way that you opened it.
It’s what Shostakovich said: the path taken is very nice, and very comfortable, but it’s also dull.
I feel like in America, we have a very different association with the war, as you do in Britain. How does that effect… because you go back to it in that wonderful scene in the tunnel. Even the last shot of the film is of, sort of a…
Yeah, dereliction. How does that inform the interpersonal relationships in The Deep Blue Sea?
Well, if you’re not English then you don’t understand. You must remember that, during the war, for eighteen months, we were the only country fighting Hitler, and we had inadequate resources. And in 1941, we thought we were going to be occupied, and had Hitler launched an attack then, we would have been. We just wouldn’t have been able to have withstood it. What people did, for probably the last time in British history… the whole of the country united, in a way that it’s never happened before. And that has had enormous historical, as well as cultural and emotional repercussions within England. I was born right after the war, and I mean, my family were in air raid shelters, and one of the air raid shelters got an indirect hit, and it burst hot water pipes, and all the people in that shelter were scalded to death. And my sisters, who are living, knew what that was like.
But also, the obsession with it now is because that was the last time England was important. We’re just a very unimportant island off the coast of Europe, but then, we were important, and we were fighting for our lives. And we actually had a navy that was larger than the United States’. It was the last moment before Empire begins to crumble, and there was something terribly sad about that. But there is this… I don’t know, it’s in the British psyche, we actually stood alone, and we fought, and we were determined to fight, in a way that it’s never, never happened before. And it’s only things that come out, now, out of the historical documentaries, like the fact that the Queen Mother wanted Halifax to be Prime Minister, who wanted to settle a peace with Hitler. Which is utterly disgusting. Utterly disgusting. And the Duke of Winsor speculating against the pound, when that was treasonable, because we couldn’t afford our currency to be weakened.
So all those sorts of things really shock now. But you look at, say, Listen to Britain, which was made 1941 by Humphrey Jennings, and what he did in that film, he captured the nature of what it was to be British, but it also captured, “This could be our last hours of freedom,” and it’s significant that the music you hear is by Mozart, it’s by a German, and in fact she’s playing the 21st concerto, about a friend who had got out of Germany – she was a soprano – because these concerts were given every day, at the National Gallery, you know, “You must come and sing.” But her friend said, “Well, I only sing German lieder,” you know. “It’s German!” So she said, “You’ve got to come and sing, you must come and sing.” So the soprano went on the stage, and she began, I don’t know which one – “Dichterliebe” or something – and the whole audience applauded.
The, um… I’m sorry, I just like hearing you tell stories. [Laughs] I don’t know what else to ask you about, I just want you to talk. I feel like there’s a lot of Feminist theory that could apply, in some ways, to The Deep Blue Sea, and the way that people see, sort of, how Hester “should” behave in any situation. Freddy thinks she should behave in a way that she should sort of… well, love, granted. She should love him in a way that he thinks she should love him. William feels the same way, but it’s also, they’re judging her. Her behaviors with William’s mother, or the way that they react to her suicide. Do you feel that there’s anything that played there, or do you think it’s more unique and personal than that?
No, it’s the mores of the time. There were ways that you were taught to behave, in a certain way, and you were taught to behave honorably, and do the honorable thing. I mean, her father says, “Well, do the honorable thing. You’re married, that’s where your duty lies.” And most women would have thought that too. I mean, most middle class women would have not left their husbands, they’d have had a peccadillo on the side. Most working class women, like my mother, couldn’t go anywhere because they had ten children. But it was a shared morality. That didn’t mean to say that people didn’t do it, but the majority of people behaved “properly,” in a way that they felt was honorable.
What’s interesting about her is the fact that she’s a very conventional woman, really, and she does an unconventional thing. When conventional people do unconventional things, it’s really, really fascinating, because they’re doing it really, in a way, half against what they’ve been brought up to believe. I always quote – it’s a wonderful story, about Ibsen, who didn’t like going to the doctor, because he was embarrassed by taking his clothes off. And this is someone who wrote “Ghosts.” That’s the irony of being conventional: you want to do the right thing, but something happens, and you’re compelled to follow your heart and your soul, and in this case, your sexuality as well. But that’s hard to do, it’s not easy, and she doesn’t do it lightly. She says, to her father, “What advice… from your heart?” I’ll tell you something odd, but I think if he’d said, “Go with Freddy,” she’d have been shocked. [Laughs]