Terence Davies makes movies about exceptional, lonely people. His newest film, Benedictionis no exception to that rule. The film tells the life story of Siegfried Sassoon, the real-life English poet who received acclaim for the haunting poems he wrote about his experiences during the first World War. Played by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi, Sassoon was both a war veteran struggling with survivor’s guilt and a closeted gay man, and as a result, he was very much an outsider in early 20th-century English society.
In his telling of Sassoon’s story, Davies brings his usual, impeccable visual style to Benedictionbut he also plays around with time and narrative convention repeatedly throughout the film. There are stretches of Benedictionfor instance, in which Sassoon’s poems are read aloud while real archival footage of World War I soldiers plays out in grainy black and white. In a recent interview with , Davies opens up about some of his visual and musical choices in Benedictionreveals what drew him to Siegfried Sassoon’s story in the first place, and explains why he believes music is the medium that cinema has the most in common with.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
: Why did you choose to use archival footage at certain points in the film?
Terence Davies: Well, it was, first of all, practical. On a £5 million budget, you can’t recreate the trenches. If you’ve got billions of dollars, you still can’t recreate it. You just can’t. And I always knew that I wanted to use the archive footage because the footage is so powerful. It’s horrific, and it’s very beautiful as well. So I always wanted that. There was a simple case of that’s what I wanted, but I also knew we couldn’t afford to build any kind of trenches. You just can’t do that on £5 million. You just can’t.
The war footage is so fabulous. It helps you move in and out of his psyche as he remembers things and it brings him forward and it takes him back like memory does. It moves forward and back in a cyclical pattern. That’s not a linear pattern, so that’s the reason I wanted to use it.
Your movies are often very musical, but this one is very restrained in its approach to music. Why did you decide that a smaller soundtrack was the right take for Benediction?
Well, the music has got to be used in a way that ensures that you feel it like you feel every shot, every frame. You just have to feel it. There were certain things I always knew wanted in it. I always knew that I wanted to use Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis. It’s one of the great works for double-string orchestra. I love it so much, and it captures an England before the war in this curious way — yet it’s universal. Other things? I don’t know where they came from, to be truthful. I mean, I can tell you that some of them come from a very curious place. “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” for instance.
I come from a very large family. Every Saturday, we usually had a bit of a party, and one of my mother’s friends was called Mrs. Dora and her husband drove Guinness vans. He would sometimes come around at the end of the party, and he always did the same thing. He had a bottle of pale ale and he’d sing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I don’t know why I remembered it. But when I really heard it again, I realized, of course, that it’s about redemption. That’s what that song is about. Where or why it came back to me from 70 years ago, I have no idea. But you have to feel the poetry. You have to feel the music, and you know when it’s right or when it’s not because it will tell you.
You’ve said before that music is the closest medium to cinema. Can you explain what you mean by that?
You have to believe in the film in the first two minutes. If you don’t, it’s best to go home. But you don’t have to be a musician to go on a spiritual journey. In a symphony, if you love the music, you go along on that journey. It doesn’t matter whether you realize that at the end of the finale the orchestra