‘Benediction’ writer/director and his specific process for making extraordinary films
June 10, 2022
What if you spent a lifetime looking for redemption and never found it? In Benediction, the latest biopic-drama from writer/director Terence Davies, that was one of the themes he wanted to explore as he told the story of revered English poet Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon (Jack Lowden) experienced the horrors of World War I in the trenches in Europe becoming a decorated soldier. Upon his return, as the war persists and his friends are ordered into battle, Sassoon became a staunch critic of the continuous fighting, even insisting that those with the power to stop it aren’t doing so.
Telling Sassoon’s story
“His life was extraordinary and so full. It was difficult to decide: what do I leave out? What do I put in?” Davies admits as he researched Sassoon’s life. With such a vast life before him, Davies struggled to construct such a grand existence into a two-hour film. “He knew everyone, he went everywhere.”
So, how did he decide what to include?
“Anything that I responded emotionally to,” Davies muses, “Obviously he was gay, obviously he was a great poet. I couldn’t understand why he got married but there were a lot of privileged gay men who did get married in [that] day.” Most of all, what shocked Davies the most was that he became a Catholic. Having grown up a Catholic, he can’t fathom why someone would become one voluntarily.
What emerged from all those aspects was a single connection he could relate to: “He’s looking for redemption and he never finds it.” Davies even adds on a personal note, “I’ve been looking all my life and I’ve never found it and that’s why I think I responded to that.”
Part of Sassoon’s story is the monumental impact World War I had on his life. Throughout Benediction Davies uses real footage from the war to enhance the emotionality of the time period. Although the film was budgeted for around five million pounds, Davies felt that even having 100x that amount and shooting his own war scenes wouldn’t have done it justice.
“Even if you have an unlimited budget, you can’t create what it was like in the trenches. I’d always knew that I wanted to use the footage because it’s astonishing and barbaric - you cannot reconstruct that,” Davies explains.
A career quite by accident
Davies went to drama school to be a writer and actor. He had written a short film as part of a trilogy and sent it to just about everyone – they all turned it down if they even cared to reply. When he returned home after three weeks to see his family, he ended up turning on the television and watching a BBC program produced by the British Film Institute Production Board. It was his last hope and he sent his script to them.
Nearly four months later, they reached out and requested a meeting. They gave him 8,500 pounds, not a penny more, and told him to direct it. He proceeded to do so even though he had never directed anything in his entire life.
Davies remembers, “The cameramen and the crew hated the script and they told me that every single day on set for three weeks straight.” But he shot it and returned to drama school not particularly proud of what he did. They had to insist he edit it to his liking but he responded that they were throwing good money after bad.
If not for a brilliant editor, his career could have ended right there.
Instead, he learned a valuable lesson in storytelling and cinema.
“The audience, if they’re engaged, fills in [those] gaps,” Davies says. He didn’t have to show everything in his film but rather trust the audience will fill in the missing pieces on their own. He was right.
Years later when Davies directed Sunset Song, there was one lady in the audience who got mad because of the way the father abused the child. She thought it was brutal and almost left the theater.
“I said you didn’t see it,” he recalls. “She thought she did but you never see it. You supply the missing link. That’s what makes it alive – when the audience is not passive but fills in the difference between the cuts. That’s magic.”
Writing to direct
Davies has a trusted creative process. He writes everything by hand and starts with lots of ideas, which include everything from simple scenes to whole sequences to sometimes just a line of dialogue. As it forms into some kind of shape, that’s when he sits down and writes the first draft.
“I get the basic structure out first and a rough idea,” Davies says. He writes three drafts, taking notes on each one. “When I get to the third draft, I take those notes and I do a polish and I don’t take any more notes. That’s it, that’s what’s going to be shot.”
His confidence in his script stems from the way he writes to direct.
He adds, “Because I write every shot into the script, I know every shot in the film so I can save a lot of money saying, ‘We just need this in the frame, only dress this part of the room, nowhere else.’ You do all the groundwork then so when you come onto the set, the actors have a sense of security.”
He admits being too much of a worrier and believes he would have a nervous breakdown if he came to set without a specific, set plan to shoot.
Once on set, Davies will average about four takes per shot unless the actors want another one. He will work with his actors to ensure they feel safe to give their best performance. This includes no rehearsal if the actors think their performance would be better without one, or shooting a single take and telling his actors they must get it right.
Over the course of his 50-year career, Davies muses about being more sensible, more commercial.
“I wish someone would ask me to do The Fast and the Furious 25,” Davies states but admits that his version would come out rather slow and not very exciting. “Men running around in tight t-shirts shooting guns – I don’t see the glamour. I wish I did, but I don’t.”
Davies has found his voice and has garnered success over the decades in period dramas having won over 20 awards and 40+ nominations.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.