June 11, 1999
by Rob Mackie
AN OLD-FASHIONED GILL
A Strange phenomenon and a remarkable coincidence have brought a famous Hollywood actress to Glasgow, Where she is working for a fraction of her normal fee with an English director whose name means nothing to the industry she comes from.
Starring in The X Files has made Gillian Anderson one of the world's best known TV actresses and earned her plenty of movie offers when she decided to follow TV stars such as Jennifer Aniston and George Clooney on to the big screen. Terence Davies, on the other hand, was an esoteric arthouse director, whose films, such as Distant voices, Still Lives and the Long Day Closes, drew heavily on his working class Liverpool childhood, and attracted rave reviews, but never big audiences. Anderson lived in a world of aliens and pay cheques of around £3m per series, Davies in a world of old movies and tight budgets. Davies watched little television and had never even seen The X Files.
But when it came time to cast The House of Mirth, an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel about upper-class New York society at the turn of the century, he saw Anderson's Picture and decided she looked perfect for the central role of Lily Bart, a socialite determined to find a rich husband, rather than follow her heart.
"I was looking for someone who had that kind of period look: I wanted the film to look like Singer Sargent portraits," says Davies. "And I saw her extraordinary face and that kind of luminosity that one associated with Greer Garson in the late 40s.
"I just thought ...she'll never meet me; she'll never say yes." Anderson was on holiday in London last summer when her agent phoned to say an English director wanted to set up a meeting. Anderson recalls her irritation hat having her vacation interrupted: "I said, No, no, I'm just relaxing.' He said, "It's with this obscure director; you'll never have heard of him. His name is Terence Davies.'"
And here is the punchline, the strange phenomenon. It turned out that although Davies was one of the few people in the Western world who had never seen Anderson in The X Files, she was one of Davies's biggest fans.,p> "It was like, "Wah, I'll take it'," She told me at the weekend after arriving in Glasgow to begin work on what is Davies's most ambitious project, a radical departure from the intimate, highly personal cinema on which he has built his name.
Davies regards The House of Mirth as one of Literature's great modern tragedies and has wanted to film it for 15 years, during which time Martin Scorsese also abandoned familiar territory to film another of her books, The Age Off Innocence, with Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Davies is a fan of the Scorsese film, which he, says over coffee in Glasgow City Chambers, a location for his film, has been badly treated by critics, in much the same way as Charles Laughton's The Night Of The Hunter is mistreated even now. "What do they mean - a flawed masterpiece? Where are the flaws?"
Davies may not watch TV, but he knows and loves cinema, citing various Hitchcok films as templates for the way he wants to film Anderson. "What is extraordinary in the way he photographs women is this immense romanticism," says Davies. "I'd like to get that kind of feel, because she's extremely beautiful and this society simply destroys her."
The House of Mirth's £5m budget is minuscule by Hollywood standards, but much bigger than Davies previous budgets and grosses. Even with Anderson on board, it was hard to cobble it together from various sources, Including Granada, Film Four, Scottish and English lottery grants and the Glasgow Film Fund.
However, Davies realised his dream when a nine-week shoot began this week, with Glasgow doubling for New York. The Big Apple was dismissed as too expensive and impractical. Baltimore and Philadelphia were possible alternatives before Davies was persuaded to consider Glasgow, whose status as a leading merchant city was reflected in its Victorian architecture.
"I want it to look rich and opulent," says Davies. "It's the belle époque, it's gorgeous to look at but, underneath, these people are savages. It' jungle warfare: they do it with the greatest aplomb and sophistication and manners, but they really are nasty."
It would probably have proved impossible to raise the money without the involvement of Anderson, whose appreciation for Davies began when she saw The Long Day Closes, his 1992 portrait of a working-class 50s childhood in Liverpool. "It was before the series started," she says. "I remember sitting in the theatre and being overwhelmed by the emotion that he captured in the texture of the scenes and the camera work and the music and the relationships.
"There was one shot where the camera comes up to a window, it's raining outside and it comes and settles on a rug in the room, and it holds on a rug for minutes. I remember sitting in the theatre and bursting into tears. There was just something about it that was so rich and so full and said so much, even though it was centred on a rug. I was just blown away by it."
Davies laughs with the glee of a child receiving praise for his homework from a respected teacher as Anderson continues to detail her enthusiasm for the film. "I brought my own copy a few years ago," she says. "It took me forever to find it. And I show it to people and they either get it or they don't." It turns out these details of her passion for the film are as new to Davies as they are to me.
Fortunately, enough people "get it" to provide Davies with an outstanding supporting cast in The House Of Mirth, including Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Jodhi May, Anthony Lapaglia, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Linney from The Truman Show.
Davies admitted to being "terribly starstruck" in the company of Anderson and Stoltz on Saturday. "You don't believe that people you see on the screen are real; and then, when you're with them, you think, God, they are. I remember the same thing happened with Gena Rowlands [who starred in Davies's film The Neon Bible]. "I saw her at the age of 11 in Lonely Are The Brave and then I'm sitting on Sunset Boulevard opposite her at lunch."
Anderson shot to fame seven years ago in the first series of The X Files, which tapped into America's paranoia about government conspiracies and the universal fascination with aliens and supernatural phenomena. Anderson's agent, Dana Scully, and her partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), were forever finding pieces of a jigsaw, without ever getting close to the big picture.
There have been six series of The X Files, making the 30-year-old from Chicago one of the highest-paid television actresses in the world. The film version was a big commercial hit last year.
But when it comes to films, X-Files movie apart, Anderson has seemed determined, in the few she has made, to turn her back on Hollywood and redefine her image. She was almost unrecognisable behind slatternly make-up in The Mighty, an underrated drama about a crippled boy with a brilliant mind, and the friend who carries him around.
She could command a seven-figure fee, but says she has "different values to a lot of big business and Hollywood". Most of her favourite films are small or foreign. "This is the kind of stuff that I have always wanted to do. And there is no reason why I should not be true to that, simply because another side of my life has been more public than I ever imagined or wished it would be."
She had been give a copy of the book The House of Mirth by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond at the end of shooting Playing by Heart, an ensemble drama in which she appears with Sean Connery and Anthony Edwards.
She loved the book. "I don't know why he gave me this beautiful hardbound copy of the novel. And then many months later when I got the call, and not only was it Terence, but he was doing House Of Mirth it kind of shook me."
A Remarkable coincidence. Or was it? It sounds like this could be a case for Mulder and Scully. Well, a case for one of them, anyway.
Transcript appears courtesy of The Guardian.