'Life's too short, and so am I'

Long dark nights of the north European soul are Terence Davies's speciality. So why is his new film The Neon Bible set in America, and why is he smiling?
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As Shakespeare didn't quite put it, there's no art to find the mind's construction in the movies. If you were to guess at Terence Davies's likely demeanour from the evidence of his sorrowing, idiosyncratically lyrical films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), you might perhaps imagine some kind of latter-day penitent friar: taciturn, glum, brooding tenderly on the frequent pains and fleeting joys of humankind. One American critic remarked that his early autobiographical shorts made Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis; and even The Long Day Closes (1992), much of which recalled the everyday bliss of his late childhood, was pierced with scenes of anguish and remorse. Davies is a uniquely gifted director, and the government should declare him one of Britain's national living treasures, but a meeting with him would not, you'd suspect, be a barrel of laughs.

You would be quite wrong. Whatever dark nights of the soul he may still have to endure in private, the public Terence Davies is great fun - if not quite a laugh riot, then at least an extremely enjoyable minor disturbance. His conversation swoops from crests of wild enthusiasm (for The Pajama Game, for American actors, for the novels of Dickens) in which he rocks back and forth in his chair, fists clenched up by his face in excitement as underlining for his favourite adjectives - "wonderful" "breathtaking!" "beautiful!" - to troughs of archly self-deprecating, throwaway lines: "I never finished reading Catch-22. Life's too short, and so am I."

In between the exuberance and the self-parody, however, Davies tends towardsreflectiveness. Of his new film, The Neon Bible, he observes: "I wanted to keep on with my experimentations with time and the nature of memory and the flux of memory and consciousness. I love the way the mind moves in and out of those two things, and I think film can do that, and I think it can do that like no other medium. Obviously, if it doesn't work for people - and my films don't work for a lot of people, they just think they're boring and I can't tell a story and they're slow as well... But those people who do get it see that that flux has been captured. I do get so excited about the nature of time and how we respond to it, it excites me more than I can say."

Though this preoccupation with time is not the only quality The Neon Bible shares with Davies's earlier work, the film does stake out new territory in several ways. It is the first film he has shot in America rather than Britain; the first in wide-screen format; the first to use a Spielbergian special effect, in which a boy's sudden leap into emotional maturity is signalled by the computerised morphing of a younger actor (Drake Bell) into an older actor (Jacob Tierney).

Most importantly, it is the first film Davies has taken from a source other than his own life, and therefore it provides critics with a first answer to the long-standing question of how this Wordsworthian director would move beyond creative autobiography. Simple: he has turned to someone else's creative autobiography.

A slender novella pitched, as Davies puts it, somewhere between Tennessee Williams and Anton Chekhov, The Neon Bible was the precocious achievement of John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969), who was just 16 when he completed it. Toole's was a strange literary career. He spent much of his early adult life pursuing an academic career and writing a second novel, considerably longer and far more comic than The Neon Bible. No publisher would accept it, however, and Toole killed himself in despair. The dogged efforts of his mother - who appears to be cruelly parodied in the mature novel - finally saw this work into print. It won Toole a posthumous Pulitzer in 1981, sold by the waggonload, is under option by Hollywood and has some claims to being the funniest American novel of the century: A Confederacy of Dunces, being the adventures of one Ignatius J Reilly, a hypochondriacal, rage-fuelled, under-employed and over-fed medievalist and mummy's boy.

Davies, who is wary of any comic novel not written by Dickens, has not read the book, but has compensated for this neglect by reading The Neon Bible no fewer than 47 times. He acknowledges that some of the novel is weak, and betrays its author's youth, but was caught both by its content - it's about a young boy growing up in dirt-poor rural Louisiana - and by its structure: a series of memories that swim into the mind of its hero as he takes a train away from the miseries and comforts of childhood. "It's crudely done, but the idea is wonderful; there's nothing more wonderful than travelling in a train at night, because you look out of the window, and what do you see? You see the interior, you see yourself. So that's what I pounced on."

Bringing this conceit to the screen was not without its pains. "There were all sorts of problems with reflections. You can't shoot into reflecting surfaces head on because you see yourself. I should have thought of that, shouldn't I? There's leadership for you." And Davies's decision to shoot the film in Cinemascope - a somewhat unusual choice, given that many of its scenes are domestic interiors rather than landscapes - also led to grief. "When I first saw the tests my heart sank. Cinemascope is as big as Canada and just as unpopulated..."

In the end, all such misgivings were amply recompensed, not least by the film's one major crowd scene, which shows hundreds of country folk walking through the evening to an evangelical rally: "And when you have a travelling shot in Cinemascope it's breathtaking; you just feel this wonderful kind of Brucknerian climax..." (pause, double take) "... which shows you how boring my private life is."

Davies also enjoyed his time filming in the South (save for the cuisine - he describes the local delicacy, grits, as being "like tapioca without the humour") and is in clench-fisted ecstasies about his American crew and cast members, particularly Denis Leary (best known here for his surly stand-up comedy), who plays the hero's father, and the great Gena Rowlands, who plays his showbiz-struck Aunt Mae. "She was my only choice for the role. She has an incredible range - it's like someone who can sing grand opera and lieder, too. I don't know who else I could have cast." Pause. "I think Thora Hird is a bit old."

Davies says that he thinks of The Neon Bible as a transitional film, and that he wants his next films to be more contemporary: "None of this period stuff any more, and rites of passage and kids growing up and losing their fathers. Bugger all that, I say." He's presently at work on the script for a gay thriller "or film noir - a whydunit, set in New York, mostly at night", provisionally entitled Vile Bodies (the Waugh estate has already expressed its displeasure). Where the cinematic touchstones for The Neon Bible were Lean's Great Expectations and Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, the touchstone for Vile Bodies will, he says, be All about Eve: tough, but witty. That, at least, should help help dispel the libel that Davies is nothing more than a gloom-monger. "People accuse me of being a miserable bugger," he acknowledges sadly, swiftly capping the phrase "...which I am."

n 'The Neon Bible' is on release from 13 October