Friday, October 21, 2011

Lynne Ramsay's 'We Need To Talk About Kevin': The Omen Inverted - A Pop Art Jigsaw Of Alienation And Fear Of The Alien Within

Fifteen years ago, when Lynne Ramsay’s filmography could be viewed in a little more than 10 minutes, I asked what motivated her. She was happy – her short film Small Deaths had just won a prize at Cannes – and her conversation was bright and full of hope.
Still, she didn’t take long to answer the question. She was motivated by anger, she said.
It seemed odd. On that day, in her rented room with a fire bucket full of discarded ideas, she seemed more idealistic than enraged. But, looking back, there was something in her attitude which would echo down into the more difficult days of her career. Describing her first experience of the whirlwind of Cannes, she talked about surviving the storm by going onto autopilot. And, while excited for the recognition, she had been shocked by the tone of much of the festival, in which films were discussed as items of trade, and filmmakers were required to talk about the Unique Selling Points of their work. “That really scared me,” Ramsay told me. “You’ve got to think about your own reasons for making films. Not other people’s reasons.”
Scroll forward to the present, and Ramsay’s horror at the commercial brutality of the film business is undimmed.
She has certainly endured a tough decade. After the great critical success of her first two full-length features, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), Ramsay seemed unstoppable. True, her films hadn’t troubled the box office, but she was established as one of the UK’s brightest talents.
The last time we met, nine years ago, she was newly married (on a yacht, in Cannes, to musician Rory Kinnear) and talking optimistically about her forthcoming project, a poetic adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones. She had acquired the rights when the book was half-written, and it had subsequently become an Oprah-endorsed bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer to that question is long and complex and sadly predictable. In short, Ramsay’s idealism came up against the power of Hollywood money, and lost. The battle was protracted, and debilitating, to the point where the Glasgow-born director wondered whether she would ever make another film. But this parable has a happy ending – albeit one underscored by notes of existential terror. After losing control of one bestseller in which childhood is scarred by evil, Ramsay acquired another: Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. And this time, not without difficulty, the film got made. Ramsay’s poetic reworking of the book played at Cannes to general approval, and there are murmurs that its somnambulant lead, Tilda Swinton, may be in with a shout for an Oscar.
Whatever: Lynne Ramsay is back. And this time she has good cause to be angry.

I meet Ramsay outside a Costa coffee shop in the shadow of the Archway Tower, near the north London home she shares with Kinnear, and a drumkit (to be played only when the neighbours are out). Technically, this is Islington, though it is not the Islington of popular imagining – Tony Blair, Granita and all that. It is scruffier, and more interesting – at least to a filmmaker whose first creative act was a portfolio of photographs of Glaswegian urban decay. 
The good news about We Need To Talk About Kevin is that it is very much a Lynne Ramsay film, filleting Shriver’s novel, and turning it into a sensual excursion into emotional numbness. In many ways, Ramsay’s dreamy, nightmarish Kevin is almost a silent movie. “I am a big fan of silent films,” Ramsay says. “And Tilda said something like ‘when words came in, cinema went downhill’. I like the actors to do very little – it’s all tiny facial expressions. It’s just describing feelings through images, rather than through dialogue.”
While toying with horror imagery, Ramsay inverts the clich├ęs of the genre. “I just thought it was a fantastic premise,” Ramsay says. “It was something I hadn’t seen before in film. There’s things like The Omen, but they’re fantastical. This idea – what if you don’t feel for your child, and how you project that onto your child…? These are things that you don’t get to talk about, but women do have those feelings. What if it turns out this way? It’s about real fears – it’s a fear of this thing growing inside you.
“I’m a big fan of genre films, but I feel you should play with it slightly , and I was interested in playing with it in an inverted way. Also the way the mother sees her son – she’s seeing him like he’s in one of those films, rather than it being one of those films.”

Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a teenage boy who commits a high school massacre. But the focus in Ramsay’s film is on the emotional struggle between mother and son. “I was trying to explore the mother-son dynamic, because the high school killing is Kevin’s smokescreen. I saw it as a perverse love story.
 “It’s like a Greek tragedy. Just focusing on this bizarre relationship between this mother and child. You can't do a wide nature/nurture thing – that would be so crass, but I was also trying to make a compelling film – something that would draw you in, like a psychological thriller or a horror.” 
Kevin, she says, is “a middle-class kid. He has everything, but he's still angry. When I was doing The Lovely Bones I went to a lot of schools, and I think there’s a lot of rage in young people – even in apparently safe, suburban places. And that age, 15, 16, is an uneasy age as well. You can see that with the riots.”
There is no violence on screen. “The rule I made for myself was I’d only show what she could imagine. She could never go inside the gym; she doesn’t know what the hell’s happened. She could only relive that again and again, so that’s her eternal nightmare.”
At Cannes, Ramsay explained her interest in the mother-son dynamic with reference to her brother’s sometimes troubled relationship with their mother. She doesn’t want to expand on this, except to make the general point that children sometimes have very defined personalities, irrespective of what their parents do, yet mothers get no respite from feeling responsible for them. But she agrees that Shriver’s book, while apparently about the after-effects of extreme violence, is actually more concerned with a woman’s fear of motherhood. 
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been thinking of having a kid, and then you think about having a career and how to juggle that. I have some of those fears about how the baby would turn out, and also looking at families, and how different each kid is, or seeing these mothers that don’t connect with their kids.”
At 41, Ramsay is no doubt aware that her own body clock is ticking. “It’s been a tough film to make, because sometimes you forget how loaded it is. But it hasn’t put me off. It’s made me think a lot, about being an older mother, and what you give up, and what you gain.”
That urge  to keep working, now that her career is back on the rails, is surely inspired by the experience of working fruitlessly for several years on The Lovely Bones. It has been a long haul, but Ramsay’s hurt and anger still seems fresh.
She tells the story with all its confusing subplots. Briefly, Ramsay was offered the opening chapters of the book by a producer, and agreed to direct it before she had seen the novel’s rather schmaltzy conclusion. By then, she had developed her own idea, which she describes as being a “Hamlet-like” exploration of heaven. As the book became a bestseller, Ramsay found herself fielding phone calls from Hollywood. “It was pretty weird, all the agents who loved my work sounded like they’d never seen any of it!” Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks pitched up, and Ramsay found herself under huge pressure to abandon her own vision. “People were talking about The Lovely Money instead of The Lovely Bones, and I was up every night, feeling like I was going to get into a ton of shit. It was becoming a studio picture, and people were saying ‘Where’s the voice of Susie that we know and love?’ It got very Kafkaesque in the end. They just wanted a literal translation – they think that’s what makes a bestseller into a good movie, and they’re so wrong.
“I just got sick of it. I’d handed in another draft to be told ‘this isn’t enough like the book’, but I told them: if you’re going to make the book, I don’t think the film’s going to work. I could have gone and made loads of money, but I probably would never have made a film again. It would have killed me. I’m well out of it, but having that amount of time in your life be wasted…” She sighs, wistfully.
The Lovely Bones, she concludes “was one of those projects that had bad smells hanging round it, because everyone wanted a wee piece. But you live and learn!
“That was my brush with Hollywood.”
The project began in a spirit of great optimism. When we spoke in 2002, Ramsay gushed with excitement about the American road trip she had taken with her co-writer and friend, Liana Dognini. Looking for inspiration, they had set off down the east coast, taking photographs along the way. Ramsay had hoped these pictures would set the mood for her film – the bruised Americana you’d find in the photographs of William Eggleston and Wim Wenders. “We were trying to get to New Orleans. We didn’t quite get there, but we had a lot of adventures along the way.” The thought of it makes the literal spookiness of Peter Jackson’s subsequent film of The Lovely Bones seem like a wasted opportunity.
But Ramsay’s regrets are more poignant. After a sudden illness and a liver transplant, Dognini died. “She was only in her early forties and it was really unexpected. It was really sad.
“So it was a pretty messed up time for me, with that project being such a nightmare and then that happening. I was completely depressed for a couple of years.”
She laughs, trying to lighten the mood.  “My dad passed away quite soon after Liana, so it was a really heavy time…”
Though the autobiographical aspects of Ramsay’s films are perhaps overplayed, there is a scene in Small Deaths which is mined directly from childhood memory, as a young girl’s mother combs and preens her husband’s hair, preparing him for a night out.
“My dad was just a real Glasgow guy who would go to working men’s clubs, and his local. He liked his pint and his crossword. But he was a really bright guy. I’ve been getting into crosswords and I’ve noticed there’s a real correlation between making a film and doing a massive big puzzle. A film’s like an insane jigsaw puzzle, you know? With this one, it’s like I’ve made one of those jigsaws with too many pieces, and I’ve lost one.” She laughs. “But I think I got into problem-solving through him, because that was how his brain worked.
“He’s sorely missed. He was really proud of me, but he said it like, ‘That’s great, hen,’ you know?
“I would have loved him to come to Cannes. He’d have laughed his head off and thought it was a lot of crap anyhow! But just to get him there on the red carpet would have been hilarious. He was just such a grounded guy. I just love that he would never get starstruck or any of that. He was a real star himself in a way, for never thinking that all this was that important. That’s quite a nice thing to have in your life: somebody who doesn’t think it’s the be-all-and-end-all, where you’re going ‘God, filmmaking’s my everything’. You can end up getting so embroiled in it for years that you can end up not looking outside. You’re so blinkered. You don’t see your family. You end up talking to other filmmakers all the time.”
In the lean years, Ramsay survived by doing some teaching and a bit of writing, but there was a time when she was living off her credit card. Kevin was made on a shoestring, and she calculates that she earned no more on it than she got for Ratcatcher. “But if you’re going to stick to your guns and say I want to do it my way, that’s what happens.”
Really, the warning signs were there all along. These days, few filmmakers get away with demanding final cut on their movies, and the budgets for films with an arthouse sensibility have been severely squeezed by the recession. As far back as 2003, Sir Alan Parker – then chairman of the (now abolished) UK Film Council – singled her out for scorn, saying he had no time for filmmakers who expected their films to be funded without regard for their potential audience. He told me: “They’d say: ‘I want the money for my next movie’. You’d go, ‘Hang on a minute, Lynne, or whatever your name might be, you should maybe try and find an audience next time, if you’re gonna ask, not for a hundred grand, but millions of pounds. Don’t you think?” He added that Ramsay limited her audience by being truthful to the language of her country. “Maybe audiences elsewhere find that tough to understand, even if their first language is English.”
“Maybe he never forgave me, ’cause I spilled a glass of red wine over his white suit in Cannes,” is Ramsay’s mirthful response to my edited report of Parker’s criticisms.
As our conversation is interrupted by an eccentric woman cadging a hand-rolled cigarette and offering a biscuit as payment, Ramsay issues a final salvo of ire: about the way the British film industry is Oxbridge-dominated, and sexist; and how her Celtic sensibility is better suited to working in the US, where people say what they mean.
But her heart isn’t really in it. In truth, she seems as happy and motivated as she did when I met her at the start of her career. If all goes to plan, her next film will be a comedy, set in Glasgow, followed by a sci-fi picture, with spaceship, filmed at Pinewood. That's the idea, anyway. As we walk past Archway Tower on a bright autumn Sunday, Ramsay points out that Ratcatcher was well-received when Swinton showed it in China as part of her Cinema Of Dreams project. “People really got it,” she says, excitedly. “It’s a universal story, told in images. That’s what filmmaking used to be about!”