‘The Deep Blue Sea’ director Terence Davies talks about working with Rachel Weisz and getting right the texture of a time

The title of Terence Davies’ latest film, “The Deep Blue Sea,” is derived from the old saying about being stuck between two ugly choices. The movie, which was adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan, focuses on Hester (Rachel Weisz), an upper-class woman in postwar London who forsakes her comfortable, cultured marriage with Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), a high-court judge, to live in sin in a rundown bedsit with R.A.F. pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). While Freddie might be an unparalleled lover, his immaturity and emotional scars from the war make him a lousy, feckless partner. The situation becomes so unbearable that, in the beginning of the film, Hester tries to commit suicide. “Beware of passion, Hester,” Sir William’s snooty mother warns at one point in the movie. “It always leads to something ugly.” To which Hester quips, “What would you replace it with?” That pretty much sums up the dilemma at the heart of this drama.

Davies has directed only five feature films and one documentary in the past 25 years, but his work has cemented his status as one of the major British directors of his generation. His first films, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” are meditative, largely autobiographical tales based on his working-class upbringing in Liverpool during the ’40s and ’50s and are explorations of both class and memory. This film feels very much of a piece of those earlier works.

I talked with Davies over the phone. He speaks with a nervous baritone that is reminiscent of a caffeinated college don. He is a remarkably candid and self-effacing. We talked about adapting Terence Rattigan’s work, working with Rachel Weisz, and getting right the texture of a time.

Jonathan Crow: How did you come to this project?

Terence Davies: When I was approached by the Rattigan Trust, I said, “I hope you know I’ve never adapted a play before,” and they said, “We want you to do it.” They approached me, which was very, very nice of them. They said, “Be radical with it.”

JC: What were the challenges of adapting this play to screen?

TD: The main problem, for me anyway, is that Terrace Rattigan puts most of the exposition in the first act. I just don’t think that’s interesting. The first act of the play is full of exposition. I collapsed it into only 10 minutes, because cinema can tell you, reveal to you. You don’t need people telling you.

So that was the main thing. Also I took out a lot of areas where Terrence Rattigan is weak. I mean he clearly never lived in a bedsit in Ladbroke Grove. He just never did. So he didn’t know what these landladies were like. So that had to be rewritten. But despite the radical rewrite, I wanted to keep the core of it, which is a ménage-a-trois of unreciprocated love.

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JC: What was it that drew you to this particular Rattigan play?

TD: It reminded me of when I was growing up in the ’50s. I was taken by my sisters to see what were called “women’s pictures” then. Movies like “Magnificent Obsession,” “All That Heaven Allows,” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” I really did love these movies. And then later I discovered through television “The Letter From an Unknown Woman,” “The Heiress,” and things like that.

So I’ve grown up with these films about strong women, and I feel sort of an affinity to that. Although I love my brothers, I was brought up by my mother and my sisters and my sisters’ friends. I was brought up by a lot of women. So I have a sort of special place in my heart for that.

JC: Was making this movie an act of nostalgia for you?

TD: Oh no, because nostalgia always turns into sentimentality. I don’t think I would create something sentimental because I know what that period was really like. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia. Call it an act of remembrance.

JC: What made it an accurate representative of the period for you as opposed to other contemporary movies about the ’50s?

TD: The problem was very often that they know what it looked like but they don’t know what it felt like. That’s the difference. And I remember what it looked like and what it felt like. What comes with that is remembering the interiors of houses, the exterior of streets, what textures were there, what people wore. If you haven’t grown up in that — and social mores as well — then you get 14th carbon copy of what the ’50s was like. That’s what’s wrong with it. They didn’t experience it.

JC: This a movie about postwar trauma. The characters, especially Hester and Freddie, are very much processing the war in their own ways.

TD: Yes. The war was the last great mass trauma the country went through. Everyone came together during the war. But the problem was that afterward, everyone assumed that it would go back to the way it was before the war. But people did not want to go back to the way it was. What did linger on was the social cohesion of good manners, of wanting to behave well and honorably.

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JC: And that is what Rachel Weisz’s character wanted, right? She wanted something new.

TD: I don’t think it’s as conscious as that. A lot of people, men and women, were relatively naïve. Sex wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. People believe in companionship and real culture and kindness. That’s what marriage was. And then she sees this young man, she falls head over heels in love with him and is prepared to sacrifice everything. For the first time, she found sexual love. That’s what she finds and that’s what makes her do it.

JC: The movie just swoons with passion, but with the exception of one shot right at the beginning, there’s very little skin in the film. Was that a conscious decision to keep everything buttoned down?

TD: Yes, but that was what it was like then. So when you do see some flesh and material, it looks sensual. You don’t have to do it obviously. You just suggest it. That’s enough. I wrote in the script that these scenes in bed are not to be explicit. I did not want them to be explicit because I don’t think explicit scenes of sex tell you anything other than the actors have got body makeup on and they go to the gym all the time.

JC: How did Rachel Weisz get connected to this?

TD: It was by accident. I don’t go to the movies anymore because I can’t suspend my disbelief. But I was very bored one night and I switched the television on. There was this film on, “Swept From the Sea.” I didn’t know the lead actress. She had wonderfully luminous eyes. I waited until the end of the film and saw that her name was Rachel Weisz. I rang my manager and I said, “Could you send the script to her?” and he did. I had no idea who I would have asked if she said no.

JC: How did you work with her, and how did you kind of develop this together?

TD: She was a joy to work with. Really, really wonderful. You work out the relationship quite quickly, and very often as a director, you have to sense the mood of the day shot by shot. Some days, the actors come on and you just think, “I have no trouble today. They’re really on the ball.” And other days, they come on and they’re just not quite up to par. So you have to get them up to par, but that has to be felt on a shot-by-shot basis. That’s how you build trust between yourself and the actors. And their trust was built very, very quickly because she’s very responsive. She’s just lovely, lovely.

JC: How about Tom Hiddleston?

TD: He’s a lovely lad. He just finished “Thor,” I think, prior to shooting this movie. He is very, very talented. And he deserves to become a name. I said to him during production, “Please don’t let all this fame go to your head. Remember at the end of the day, it is only a film. It’s not mining coal or a cure for cancer.”

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March 2012

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