What is independent cinema? Critics and film scholars have wrestled with this definition for most of cinema’s existence. Is it fair to consider a film independent when the whole distribution machine is dependent on Hollywood? These four filmmakers are all considered independent. In the book Personal Visions, they talk about their troubles with the system and the limits of their independence.
The Liverpool-raised British director Terence Davies is one of the most poetic modern filmmakers. After living through an oppressive childhood, Davies found a way to channel all of his bad memories and experiences into his art as a kind of therapy for a life of constant “agony” and “misery”. It’s evident throughout his whole interview of the impact of his past on his present, whether by his self-deprecating answers or by his pessimistic views of the future, himself and his films. He himself declares:
[…] I hate me. I wish I could change. I would change tomorrow. I don’t like being me and I never have.
Nonetheless, his films exude beauty. Using constant stylization, and especially what the book names as a “tableau strategy”, Davies creates a unique, romantic and visceral experience.
Davies cites, as his first contact with film, the classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a landmark film in the musical genre—and containing a 20-minute stylized and silent dancing scene which no doubt influenced the filmmaker. As he puts it:
At seven, I saw my first film, Singin’ in the Rain, which was a wonderful introduction. I fell in love with film, particularly musicals […].
For countless filmmakers, musicals have influenced contemporary cinema, even after the genre’s disappearance, inspiring filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann. Further through the interview, Davies will reiterate the impact of the genre on his art: “Well, the main [formative influence] really was the American musical, because that was what I was brought up on.” The influence is flagrant in Distant Voices, Still Lives, the filmmaker’s most well-known work, and The Neon Bible later. In Distant Voices, Still Lives, the characters’ constant singing is as much an expression of their misery and sadness as a hymn to the use of songs in movies, conjuring up instantly the musical. In The Neon Bible, characters will integrate music to the story in a way that seems more than narrative and important to the film as a whole, like the sudden introduction of the song Turrah Lurrah Lurrah.
The influence of Old Hollywood is evident in Davies’s oeuvre. “[…] I went to the cinema all the time,” declares the filmmaker. There is also a definite influence from English comedies like The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness and Kind Hearts and Coronets, which he calls “the greatest film comedy ever”. “Much later, I discovered Bergman and Ozu, an even greater revelation,” says the filmmaker. Davies’s cinematic past plays an important role in his movies. In Distant Voices, Still Lives, characters go to the movies to watch Love is a Many Splendored Thing and the next scene, of men falling through glass, unfolds through the theme music of that movie. Davies uses references derived from his influences, like sound cues from The Magnificent Ambersons or Kind Hearts and Coronets. “They have enormous meaning for me and that’s why they’re in the film,” confesses Davies.
His work strategy is intuitive. Talking about the editing of the first part of the trilogy, Children, Davies says:
Very often, I would say ‘This just feels right.’ And she’d say, ‘well, if it feels right, you must go with it.’
Reading his interview, there is no sense of an overbearing analysis of his work; it seems to mysteriously come together for him. Images come to him through the elaboration of the screenplay, and those translate to the film. Talking about the Children script, Davies recalls his inexperience:
I didn’t know how you wrote a script, and so I wrote down what I saw. […] Also, if I write down everything, when I go on the set, I know every shot in the film. That gives you an enormous kind of bedrock on which to base everything.
He continues later:
“Sometimes you don’t know where things come from, like the scene of the man falling through the glass roof.” It’s as if the ideas are laid on Davies by the Muses.
Like most independent films, the production process, retold by the filmmaker, appears as a terrible and horrific experience. Terence Davies’s path is no different. The financing of his first film, Children, was “agony”, according to him. On top of that, the jealousy and resentment of the crew affected Davies: “Everyone on the crew, apart from the cameraman, loathed the script, and they let me know it. They made my life complete misery. […] The crew’s attitude was: ’You haven’t gone to film school. You haven’t made a film. Why should you get all this money from the [British Film Institute]?” His experience will be echoed by other first-time filmmakers in the book, like Neil Jordan.