Published on: 11 October 2022 in Longform

T.S. Eliot: Into ‘The Waste Land’ — an interview with Susanna White

Reading time: 23 minutes and 32 seconds

In the new BBC documentary T.S. Eliot: Into The Waste Land’, Susanna White explores the complex personal stories behind the writing of Eliot’s celebrated, 100 year-old poem.

We spoke to Susanna about her creative approach to reflecting The Waste Land’s moments of hope and mystery, the detective work that went into telling the story of Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale, and how her own genre-spanning career has informed her love of factual filmmaking.

Read the full interview below. 

Susanna White working on Into ‘The Waste Land’. Photo: Josh Herum.
Susanna White working on Into ‘The Waste Land’. Photo: Josh Herum.

How did you first become attached to Into ‘The Waste Land’?

I’d wanted to make a film on T.S. Eliot for a long time. I’d made films before on Larkin (Love Again) and Auden (Tell Me the Truth About Love), and I’d always seen them as part of a trilogy. This film had been on my mind for a long time, I’d literally thought about making it 20 years ago. The difficulty was that the story I wanted to tell about Eliot and The Waste Land was rooted in the story of Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale. I knew there were these letters between them, but they were under embargo, locked up in Princeton. So, the film had to wait. But as the date of their release got closer I connected with Lyndall Gordon, an academic who has long believed that Emily Hale was crucial to Eliot’s poetry.

So, I had been working on the film independently, but I was actually directing on The Deuce when I got a call from Rosie Alison. She was a few steps ahead of me, and had already got a commission from BBC Arts to make a film about Emily Hale — and asked if I would be interested in directing it. It was the most extraordinary stroke of luck. You often hear that someone is pursuing the same idea as you. You don’t often get invited to make it together! I was so thrilled to get that call.

It’s really been a labour of love. We’ve been making it over a period of two years, starting with the opening of the Hale archive in January 2020. It evolved into a film more specifically about The Waste Land, to coincide with the centenary of the poem, which was something the BBC wanted to mark. Those two things dovetailed, Emily Hale and The Waste Land, and it emerged that Emily was absolutely pivotal to creating the latter. 

This documentary tells the story of relationships: Eliot’s with Emily Hale, and with his wife Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot — and how those relationships shaped The Waste Land. How much of that throughline was already there when you started, and how much came through while you were making the documentary?

When I first encountered this poem as an undergraduate I was really scared of it. I was the first generation in my family to go to university, and there seemed to be this mystique around the poem, a sense that you had to know all about the history of Western literature to understand it. But I remember having a very instinctive response to it: there were things about The Waste Land that I found so emotional and so haunting, in terms of the imagery, the music of the poem. I was split. I was scared of it, but there was also this level where it spoke to me.

Interviewing Lyndall Gordon. Photo: Oxford Films.
Interviewing Lyndall Gordon. Photo: Oxford Films.

When the Hale letters were published it became blindingly obvious that, despite this whole cult that had built up around Eliot being an impersonal poet, he’d in fact built a mask around himself. What emerged from the letters was that the poem is deeply autobiographical, and there are multiple references in it to things that happened in his life. At its heart, the poem is the story of a man going through an emotional breakdown brought on by the death of his father. He’s looking at how his life can be meaningful, and he’s caught in a deeply unhappy marriage to Vivien, and holding a memory of a very different love he had with Emily Hale. 

One of the things that was  important to me to get across in the documentary was Vivien’s role. In the past, Vivien has been written off as a sort of mad figure who brings Eliot down, whereas actually in the making of the film it became apparent – particularly in the work of Anne Pasternak Slater – that she was instrumental in the writing of the poem. One of the reasons Eliot wanted to marry her was because she persuaded him to stay in England and become a poet. She gave him the freedom to commit to poetry, but the complications of that marriage became the subject of what I think is his greatest poem.  

Vivien was also a great editor with an ear for dialogue, and the film goes into detail on her influence on the poem, where she corrects him and where there’s a to-and-fro between them. Then you also see, in a different way, the changes Ezra Pound brought to the poem. The poem was like a film, in a way, it didn’t emerge fully formed. There was a process of evolution and editing – and it was a joy to see the original drafts of the poem with suggestions and comments and sections crossed out, when I travelled to New York. 

The documentary is also structured as a close analysis of the poem, one section at a time. Was that your plan from the outset, did you consider anything else?

I have to say, this was possibly the hardest film I’ve ever had to make. The challenge of this film was to introduce a very difficult poem to people who may have never read it, but also provide an enriching experience for those who have read it.

We knew there was a wonderful detective story at its heart, about the hidden relationship between Emily and Eliot, and we had to piece that together, because Eliot burned all of Emily’s correspondence to him when he married his second wife. But we also had to tell the story of this famously inaccessible poem.

I was working with Paul Binns, an editor I’ve worked with before on my arts films, and we tried various “paper edits” of the film. Then Paul just came up with it one day: we should take the structure of the poem, and out of that tell the story of the life. That provided us with our backbone.

It’s very different to editing drama. When I first started in drama I almost wondered “What do you actually do in the edit?”, because I was so used to the edit being where you found the form and the story. In a drama edit the script is your guide, the structure is there fully formed, and you’re relentlessly fine-tuning it. 

Filming in St. Louis. Photo: Oxford Films.
Filming in St. Louis. Photo: Oxford Films.

On the topic of collaborators, what was your process for bringing people on board?

It was wonderful really. Rosie approached me with the commission and I went back to people I’d worked with. I knew right away it was crucial to get Paul, who was the editor I worked with on my poetry films. We were making this film over two years, so we did have to use a range of different people depending on availability. I largely worked with Roger Chapman as DoP. I’d worked with him a few days at a time in the past on documentaries, and he had a wonderful reputation. Then – across the two years – there would be times when he was busy, so I worked with Chris Ross, an amazing drama cinematographer who I’d shot Trust with. He came in and lent us all kinds of equipment as well. I picked up some great crew in America too, including a young keen documentary maker in Missouri called Josh Herum. But the bulk of it was Roger and me.

Roger shot a lot of the film sequences of the hyacinth girl. I knew it was crucial to me to get that central image. I wanted her to be backlit, so that there was a kind of halo effect, and we were incredibly lucky with the light on the day that we got it. But we also did a lot of shooting just on my kitchen table: we got some mirror tiles and made a prism, adding that to a turntable, and so on. I wanted these vorticist images to suggest the modernism of the poem. We wanted fractured images for the chapter headings, whether that was hyacinths I’d got from the market, my husband’s chess set, a disposable barbecue (for “The Fire Sermon”), it was very much a lo-fi approach – quite different to the other things I’ve been working on lately. Star Wars, for example!

That actually brings us on to our next point. Into ‘The Waste Land’ is a great example of the kind of visual creativity that the documentary form can allow. The range of visuals you use, from new footage to modern and historical archive, reflects the patchwork of images collected in The Waste Land. What work went into planning and creating the look of the film?

I knew there were very key images I wanted. Eliot was very visual, I think, and there were things that spoke to me in The Waste Land. Like the hyacinth girl: I knew I needed this image of a girl that wasn’t too literal, and that worked as a haunting presence, in the vein of Emily Hale. What I wanted to stand out in the film were the non-wasteland moments. There are these fleeting moments that in the midst of the wasteland - which can stand in for both post-WWI Britain and Eliot’s own emotional desolation – are brief rays of hope. I wanted those to be very vivid.

A still of the hyacinth girl. Photo: Oxford Films.
A still of the hyacinth girl. Photo: Oxford Films.

For example, I’d been travelling in the amazon and I kept trying to photograph these iridescent blue butterflies, but every time I came close their wings closed and were suddenly just brown. That vivid image kept coming back to me as a metaphor for these non-wasteland moments, and the great thing about working for the BBC was that we were able to get some natural history archive footage of those butterflies. Meanwhile, Chris Ross lent me some old Russian lenses of his, and we went and shot footage of the Church of St Magnus the Martyr, where Eliot refers to the “Inexplicable Splendour of Ionian White and Gold”. The lenses gave everything this flare, suggesting the spiritual quality that Eliot found there. So, I was trying to achieve these very heightened images - partly with filters, partly with lensing - all with the help of Roger Chapman and Chris Ross. But we also used a lot of available light, shooting at Margate sands, watching what the wind did and reversing it, for example.

What was particularly challenging was there was absolutely no moving material of Eliot, so I used archive in a more allusive way – to suggest the imagery of the poem – and set that against the interviews. I shot those interviews very close up, which I also did in my Auden film. That way it’s really about getting inside people’s heads as they’re talking. Thinking not so much about the room the interviewee is in, but what their thoughts are.

Then I made the decision that I would use Eliot’s voice to do a lot of the reading of the poem, because it is such a personal poem. So, we had Eliot’s own reading of the poem alongside the imagery – but I never wanted that imagery to be literal, I wanted the images as a counterpoint, to add layers. Then, alongside that, we had performers like Flesh and Simon Russell Beale doing their own reading of the poem, where I felt they were going to add another dimension of their own. Flesh, for example, I thought would be a wonderful reader for the section with the transgender character of Tiresius. To me, the poem feels tremendously modern, and I wanted to bring out the contemporary resonance of it.  

Behind the scenes still of the hyacinth girl. Photo: Rosie Alison.
Behind the scenes still of the hyacinth girl. Photo: Rosie Alison.

On that point, the documentary has voices of all kinds running throughout. From the academics at the centre of the story to performers like Flesh and Fiona Shaw. On top of that, you have Eliot’s own reading, and also some more conventional documentary narration – was it always your plan to include the latter?

We actually tried a variety of approaches. I’ve done other films where I used captions, but I felt this needed quite a lot of narration to help people through. I actually did that narration myself; I wanted it to have a stamp of my own interpretation of the poem. I worked with Rosie Alison on writing that narration and she was a great editorial force on it. There’s something satisfying about it being my voice narrating - I think because it was such a personal odyssey making this film. 

What was your process for choosing with the interviewees you wanted, then reaching out to them?

Lyndall Gordon was the first person we knew we wanted, and Rosie and I had both spoken to her independently about making this film. She was the person who had always had the theory that Emily Hale was important, going back to the 70s. Anne Pasternak Slater was my old tutor from university, and she’d written an excellent book on the writing of Vivan Eliot, giving her the status she deserves. Matthew Hollis was writing a new biography of The Waste Land, so that coincided nicely. Then the others arrived on the scene. When we were at Princeton we came upon Frances Dickey, and I thought she was tremendous. Flesh came to me when I was thinking about Tiresias. Meanwhile, I’d always been interested in Eliot’s use of Sanskrit in The Waste Land. I’d been to see Ralph Fiennes’ reading of The Four Quartets, and Daljit Nagra had written an introduction in the programme. He seemed really interesting, so we tracked him down and I thought he threw so much light on those famous last three words of the poem.

Simon Russell Beale reads from The Waste Land. Photo: Oxford Films.
Simon Russell Beale reads from The Waste Land. Photo: Oxford Films.

On top of these voices you have running throughout the film, what’s also interesting is your choice of music. The first voice you hear in Into ‘The Waste Land’ is Max Richter’s, and his music also underpins a lot of the film. How did you choose your score?

All credit here to Rosie Alison, who had been to see Infra and suggested that Eliot really speaks to Max Richter. From that, Paul and I started temping with Max Richter’s music and it just seemed completely appropriate. Thank goodness, Max was very generous because we probably couldn't have afforded whatever it would cost to have an entire Max Richter score! Eliot is so important to him that he made it possible for us to use his music, and helped us access it.

So it’s mostly Max Richter apart from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which crucially was the opera Emily Hale took Eliot to the night they fell in love, and some choral music which stood in for the voices of the children. 

Did you find out about Richter’s love of Eliot after planning to use his music? He tells an anecdote about reading The Waste Land over the speakers of a petrol station he used to work at, and that provides a wonderful opening to the documentary. Was that discovered by coincidence?

So we spoke to Max and he told us his petrol station story, and it was Nick Kent who said “What if we started the film with an image of urban desolation in the petrol station, and Max Richter’s story?” And it worked so well. It was just Chris Ross, myself and Chris’ son who was helping one night in Ealing. We were lucky it rained, so we got this neon kick off the tarmac – and we had our opening. For me that’s one of the real joys of making documentaries: the discovery of it. That moment of magic where the hairs go up on the back of your neck and you know you’re getting something special. I get that sometimes when I’m making drama and I get a wonderful piece of performance, but there’s never that sense of pure discovery that I’ve had in my best moments of documentary-making, where a real person, a real moment gives you some profound insight. There’s a magic about that, and a real unfiltered creativity about it.

So much drama-making involves a large committee of people because of the investment involved. One of the frustrations for me when I first started in drama was the feeling that you couldn’t be inspired in such a spontaneous way. Because of the cost, you have to be inspired at home then plan it all out. But in documentary there’s more often a feeling that if you want a shot, you can get it. If you see something you want, you can grab it. There’s a spontaneity about it that’s special.

A still from Into ‘The Waste Land’. Photo: Oxford Films.
A still from Into ‘The Waste Land’. Photo: Oxford Films.

The titles appear to be the ones Faber use on their poetry publications. What went into securing that small, but significant, detail?

They are. Amy Maguire, who I’m working with on another project at the moment, as a favour got them printed on acetate for me and we did some designs riffing on the Faber font.

I liked this idea of the lettering being in a watery environment. I did this thing when I worked on my Auden film a while ago, where I placed some titles in acetate into a block of ice which I then rotated – so I’m quite into doing homemade titles for my documentaries. I think these ones were in a lasagne dish with a layer of aquarium sand over them. It took quite a bit of working out. We tried different dishes, different depths of dish, how you lit the dish, what ripple you got on the water…but these were all literally done on my kitchen table. 

You’ve just come off directing Andor, working on one of the biggest IPs on the planet. To move to a BBC feature documentary on T.S. Eliot is a major shift. What was the timescale on you making these?

I had shot the opening of the Hale archive early on, before the pandemic struck, and that put us on pause for a long time. After that I went off and did Star Wars, and then after I left the edit of Star Wars I came back to the documentary and shot the sequence with hyacinth girl — which I knew was going to be the heart of the film. That was when we went into doing interviews.

But something I like to do when making documentaries is keeping shooting days back into the edit. That way it evolves when you get a paper edit and, you get a template which means your can shoot more as you go. Because Rosie and I normally make drama, it was great that everyone was so flexible on the dates and when we shot it.  It meant we had a much longer production, but everyone was very collaborative and understanding. That was a real luxury.

You started your career in factual before moving to drama, so this could represent a kind of homecoming to factual for you. Do you feel as if documentary-making, or your approach to it, has changed at all?

Well, I think this is quite an old-school documentary, really. It’s the kind of arts documentary people used to make, and I felt tremendously privileged to get the commission to do it. A feature length film about a poem for BBC2, it’s incredible! Generally now you don’t have the luxury of making this kind of film. Twenty years ago there was a huge BBC arts department, with staff researchers and time to get things right. I made my film about Auden in that environment, and it evolved in a similar way. We got a commission to do something about the relationship between Auden, Isherwood and Spender, and that evolved into a film about Auden trying to define the nature of love. Like this film, it started out broader before finding its focus.

Shooting in St. Louis. Photo: Josh Herum
Shooting in St. Louis. Photo: Josh Herum

So, this is a type of film that was much more common twenty years ago. It’s very unusual for people to be making it now – and that’s why I feel enormously privileged to have been given the opportunity. It’s also a privilege to have been surrounded by supportive people who wanted to make the best film possible, whether that’s Mark Bell or Rosie Alison or Oxford Film and Television. There’s a huge amount to be said for the luxury of backing someone creatively, giving their film time to evolve, and allowing the time to get it right. There’s not always the space to do that on broadcast schedules now, in the way there used to be.

Also, working with the BBC allowed us to have access to all sorts of things. The archive is so wide-ranging, we used everything from The Simpsons to American news footage to old black and white footage from a lake at Lausanne. 

What do you enjoy most about factual filmmaking, and how has your experience of directing other genres informed your filmmaking?

I think at its best, documentary directing gives you a sense of authorship and purity of vision that is hard to achieve in drama. As I said before, it’s just that with the amount of money invested and the number of people involved, there will always be a slight sense of it being made by committee. What I so loved about returning to do Into ‘The Waste Land’ was that it was a very pure creative experience, where there was very little filter between me and what ended up on the screen. Often, on larger dramas for example, the creativity is now more expected to come from the showrunner. The writer is king.

So, for documentary directors who want to move into drama: yes, drama is tremendously exciting and stimulating, and it flexes all kinds of muscles, and I feel so privileged to have had the career I’ve had in it…but don’t knock documentary making, because there is a genuine creativity in it. 

A lot of directors worry about becoming pigeonholed as a director of a certain genre at some point in their career. But you’ve directed everything from feature films to drama serials to TV documentaries. Did you ever have that fear in your career, and how have you avoided getting attached to one genre?

The biggest leap was moving from documentaries into drama. I managed to do that by persuading the BBC to let me on a drama directing course, where I went on to do Holby City. From Holby City, I managed to persuade Jane Root to give me £200k to make a single film about the poet Philip Larkin – and somehow I did it, that became my calling card.

But once I’d made that transition, it was very interesting how being a female director, I think, made it hard to get certain breaks. A lot of the moves in my career in fact come from taking the opportunities I’ve been given, rather than actively seeking out the next piece of work. As an example, I directed Generation Kill for HBO, a huge work with David Simon about the Iraq War – and I think it’s still my favourite thing that I’ve made. Off the back of that, I was offered Nanny MacPhee and the Big Bang. That was a huge budget family film, a great opportunity with a great cast, but not the obvious choice, I think, for the woman who just directed an Iraq War drama. But that was the opportunity I had.

Behind the scenes is St. Louis. Photo: Josh Herum.
Behind the scenes is St. Louis. Photo: Josh Herum.

That happened quite often, just taking the opportunities that were there. You might look back at my career now and think that I’ve deliberately tried to direct a lot of different things, but actually it hasn’t always been straightforward. There have been gaps in work, and like any director, there has been that feeling of “Oh god, am I ever going to work again?”

If there’s one thing that I think dictates what I want to work on, it’s that sense of story. I do try to go after great writers: David Simon, Tom Stoppard, Emma Thompson, for example. A great script is something I will seek out. 

What are you working on next?

I’m lead directing a new series for Apple TV: The Buccaneers. It’s written by Katherine Jakeways, and has a very exciting young cast, with some other amazing people working on it. It’s based on the Edith Wharton novel of the same name, and is a sort of return to period drama for me – but it’s not an entirely traditional period drama, that’s all I’ll say about it for now! 

T.S. Eliot: Into ‘The Waste Land’ will be broadcast on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday 13 October, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards. Susanna White is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.

Banner photo: Susanna White. 

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