The story of English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Sassoon is explored in Benediction, an upcoming WW1 drama written and directed by Terence Davies and filmed by Nicola Daley ACS.
Interview by Sarah Jo Fraser.
Benediction tells the real-life story of Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi at different stages of his life, a British poet and soldier, as he searches for meaning and hope throughout his life through poetry, religion and other means. The film spans his life from 1915 to the 1950s and charts his experiences from the first World War and beyond.
Sassoon was a complex man who survived the horrors of fighting in the First World War and was decorated for his bravery but who became a vocal critic of the government’s continuation of the war when he returned from service. His poetry was inspired by his experiences on the Western Front and he became one of the leading war poets of the era.
“What’s interesting is that we didn’t film any battle scenes,” explains cinematographer Nicola Daley ACS. “All the war footage is archival; it’s all old black and white footage.” Director Terence Davies is no stranger to using archive footage amongst a drama narrative, having done this in a handful of previous films.
Adored by members of the aristocracy as well as stars of London’s literary and stage world, Sassoon embarked on affairs with several men as he attempted to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, broken by the horror of war, he made his life’s journey a quest for salvation, trying to find it within the conformity of marriage and religion. His story is one of a troubled man in a fractured world searching for peace and self-acceptance, something which speaks as meaningfully to the modern world as it did then.
“What Siegfried saw and how he experienced the war was embedded in who he was as a person, so the archive footage plays throughout the film as memories, or sort of resonances of what he experienced. It’s quite an interesting mix of mediums.”
Daley was excited to work with Davies, a stalwart of British cinema. He is best known as the writer and director of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) which earned the FIPRESCI Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as The Long Day Closes (1992) and The House of Mirth (2000). But his years of experience didn’t mean he wasn’t open to new ideas. “I think of him as a traditional, classic poetic director,” says Daley. “But then he’s got all of these ideas for visual effects, so we’ve got a couple of really interesting visual effects moments in the film.”
In one scene a young Sassoon (Lowden) sits in a huge cathedral. “Davies wanted to start the camera behind him and track 180-degrees around the actor, then as we track around he ‘morphs’ into the older Sassoon (Capaldi),” says Daley. “Then, when we come to the front we reveal that Siegfried’s son is sitting behind him.”
Working closely with visual effects supervisor Paul Docherty, the cinematographer used motion control to achieve this. “We planned it a lot,” she says. “We had to pick the exact seat he was sitting in and then the motion control team went in hours before we arrived to set it all up. There was a great deal of discussion about what they were wearing, because everything has to morph right so you don’t want one person to be wearing something wild.”
Lighting a space as large as the enormous Downside Abbey was another challenge in itself. “We went through several lighting designs on paper,” says Daley. “I remember there was a gully on the outside of the building, so to light through the windows we would have had to spend a week building scaffolding which just wasn’t in the budget. In the end I lit inside the cathedral and through the two ends of the church with 18Ks, but then there were a lot of Sky Panels bounced, 6Ks lighting columns, just to give everything a shape. It was all really soft and natural.”
“The basis of cinematography is to tell the story and evoke the emotions of the characters, so I try reflect that in the lighting, but it’s more obvious in some places than others,” the cinematographer explains. “What is beautiful about this film is that it’s not just a biopic about someone’s life, it goes into his interior world too. Davies has a very specific way of seeing things and part of my job is to uncover how to practically do something that’s very poetic.”
Benediction marks the first of Davies’ films to feature Steadicam, a fact which Daley recounts with a sense of pride. “He was a bit hesitant about using it so I sent him a couple of showreels from Steadicam operators that I use and he watched them. He thought they were brilliant, he was really pleased with it. In fact I think he really embraced it.”
We had Steadicam operator Dan Edwards and he sort of free-flowed with it a bit. He used it in a poetic way and I think maybe that was something new for Davies who realised that it could be quite intuitive. It was really fun to watch him enjoy the experience of going, ‘oh, this is a new tool,” says Daley.
A later scene in the film depicting the time when Sassoon and his wife have a baby used Steadicam as a fluid way of bringing the audience into a space Daley describes as the ‘mirror world’, another of Davies’ visual effects moments in the film.
“They’re at the christening and he’s dancing with his wife, and the camera comes off a shot of them and moves into the mirror. Then we’re in the ‘mirror world’, and into Sassoon’s memories of all the partners that he’s had. He’s dancing with them one-by-one and the camera tracks towards them and past them. It’s like an endless track past and then the next character appears, until the last couple is him, older, dancing with his older wife played by Gemma Jones.”
“We decided that we would use Steadicam at the christening going into the mirror, and then once you’re in the ‘mirror world’ it’s green screen and a track,” says Daley. “It sounds really simple, it’s just a straight track towards the couple dancing, going past them, and repeating that for each couple.” Crew had music standing by for playback and a choreographer watching that the steps were in time. ”The grip got very good at going at the same speed.”
With each couple, Daley made the lighting slightly colder, starting with half colour-temperature orange (CTO), going to a quarter, and landing on around a half colour-temperature blue (CTB), which speaks to the cinematographer’s philosophy on evoking emotion through the camera. “It’s about remembering all of the people he was in love with, and it ends on him aged and in an unhappy marriage, so it’s quite sad,” says Daley.
“Colour is one of my storytelling loves,” explains Daley. In her early discussions with the director, painters such as CW Nevinson and John Singer Sargent were used as a launchpad for discussions on the look and feel of the film, and this informed many of her choices down the line, using mixed light to cultivate a painterly feel to the whole film. “I’d often use two lamps behind a sail, one with half CTB and one with half CTO so one would cancel out the other, but then the shadows were coloured. The colour of the shadow is so important to what you’re lighting.”
Benediction follows a non-linear narrative, with the audience relying on whoever is playing the lead character to get a sense of where they are in the timeline. “The film never tells you what year it is, so there’s very poetic movement between different time periods,” says Daley. Filtration was used to inform the audience of Sassoon’s internal world, “the only filters we used were Glimmerglass diffusion, but they were a storytelling tool as well. The diffusion was used In Sassoon’s more halcyon days, and then when he’s, say, under pressure or depressed, there’s no diffusion on.”
Cooke Speed Panchros were chosen to lens the film after Daley had used them on a previous film Pin Cushion in 2017, favouring them for their smooth and creamy old-style period look. The 32mm and the 40mm lenses were the workhorses of the film. Benediction was shot on the Sony Venice. “It’s not a close-up film, it takes in the environment and the sets, which were gorgeous,” she says. “We shot on location, however production designer Andy Harries completely transformed each one. Every time you walked in you were amazed.
“It was a great team, starting with first assistant camera Jessie Brough,” says Daley. “My gaffer was Pete Trevina, and my grip was Chris Hughes who was really instrumental in working out some of those trickier shots. It was a really balanced team and I think it’s important to create that balance because you want to facilitate an environment for the actors to do the best job they can.”
Nicola Daley ACS is an award-winning Australian cinematographer based in the United Kingdom, known for her work on the film Pin Cushion (2017).
Sarah Jo Fraser was the recipient of Screen Australia’s 2018 ‘Gender Matters’ cinematography placement program and is based in Melbourne, Australia.