Lynne Ramsay Frames the Picture
ABOVE: LYNNE RAMSAY
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the book by Lionel Shriver, is built like a puzzle. Each piece is exact, each shot diagnostic. Eva Katchadourian is played by Tilda Swinton in two juxtaposed parts: bright past and void present. She globe-trotted, she reveled. She cleaved out a life for her and her husband in their cavernous Tribeca loft. She was smug. Now Eva lives with deep shame, shell-shocked by the acts of her manipulative, malevolent son, Kevin (Ezra Miller). From birth, their corrosive relationship sends Eva into a deadening stupor, similar in numbness to how Shriver describes the family’s later suburban home: “The kitchen cabinets pushed open and shut with a click. The whole house was on Zoloft.” Most of the film, Swinton’s pupils are dulled, near dilated.
Ramsay’s screwy wit and cut to the bone composition and script, which she co-wrote with her husband, Rory Kinnear, scales parenthood against society’s norms. What happens when mother and child spar instead of bond?
We spoke to Ramsay in late October at the Oscilloscope offices.
DURGA CHEW-BOSE: I attended last night’s Academy screening of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Tilda did a Q&A after.
LYNNE RAMSAY: She’s a goddess, man.
RAMSAY: She’s just the coolest person. We have such a laugh together.
CHEW-BOSE: Tilda joked that Kevin was the “feel-good movie of the year.”
RAMSAY: [laughs] She’s so perverse.
CHEW-BOSE: She also mentioned that the shoot was only 30 days. Is there anything in particular that you really couldn’t squeeze into the film that you’re still missing?
RAMSAY: At one point these guys who had done Twilight, for some reason, got hold of an unsolicited draft, a leaked-out draft, and they said they loved it. But my dad was dying, so I was really all over the place, and I got a call from the BBC, that they wanted to do it for 12 million dollars. I was working on that basis for a year or more. But then the recession kicked in, and they pulled out, and it really pissed me off at the time. So I reconceived my whole script from 12 million to six and a half. That was a big job. I wanted to do in a creative way. I went to Stromboli, which is a volcano, with my husband. There’s no cars on this side of the island. There’s no phones. There’s no running water; you have to take it from a well. No email. We really focused.
CHEW-BOSE: Was this the first time you’d written with him?
RAMSAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CHEW-BOSE: What was that like?
RAMSAY: Well, it was kind of crazy. He’s a musician and basically he’d written a script independently of me. He was really shy and showed me after he’d done the whole thing, and it was really good. He reads a lot of novels, classics. So it was a weird one because he showed it to me, and I was like, “You’ve got a lot to learn, you’re writing too much like a book,” but he reads everything that comes through my door, so he learned a lot. He said I was the best film school he went to. But I’m sure we wanted to beat each other up a few times. It wasn’t romantic all of the time.
CHEW-BOSE: When I was reading the book, I joked that it functioned as a form of birth control.
RAMSAY: My husband said to me afterwards, although he was joking too, “I wanted this to be a form of contraception. I was hoping this would put you off.” And I’m like no way, Jose. You don’t get out that easily. You know, but it’s hard to be a filmmaker and a mother, and there were things that appeared in the book that I identified with. And also, every mother has dark thoughts.
CHEW-BOSE: One of my favorite parts of the book is the school dance.
RAMSAY: I loved that. It was in a longer draft of the script. It reminded me of Carrie, that scene. There were other scenes too that we couldn’t shoot. A 30-day shoot is a nightmare.
CHEW-BOSE: Every shot is composed like a framed photograph. Your past as a DP…
RAMSAY: And still photographer first and foremost, actually…
CHEW-BOSE: It’s really made clear in this film. From the nearness of Ezra’s pimply skin or Tilda as Eva, hiding at the grocery store, standing in front of those tomato cans.
RAMSAY: There’s a lot of food fetish in the film!
CHEW-BOSE: What is your relationship like with your DP?
RAMSAY: Well, first of all, I feel as though my stills background influenced my filmmaking more than my DP background. And the reason for that was that I applied to film school with stills—I’d never shot anything moving. It was a massive learning curve going to film school. People were left to their own devices. It was the National Film School, just outside London, and it’s a wonderful studio and great equipment and cameras, and I was shooting in film, but for awhile we didn’t have a teacher for photographing, so you just borrowed cameras and tried this and tried that. It was a wonderful experience, but within the first two days I knew I was on the wrong course. I tried to switch out to documentary, but they didn’t want me to leave. You know the nightclub scene in Morvern Callar? It’s based on those stills. I would go and explore, so I right away knew I was in the wrong class. Film school was frustrating for me at first but I met some cool people like Lucia Zucchetti—she was amazing. And now, with Seamus (McGarvey) and Alwin (Kuchler), they are brilliant DPs. But I’m always quite sure of my images.
CHEW-BOSE: And the design. There’s pockets and washes of red and yellow in nearly every scene.
RAMSAY: Well yeah, I had said to [Judy Becker], “Pop art.” Like almost phony. But I also wanted it to feel more muted in the present tense, because she feels completely like a zombie. And I wanted the suburban home to have a slight glean to it, to be phony, like the performance of the family. None of them are being true. The younger times, she’s happier and more vibrant. She has a cool, funky flat. It was tough with no budget.
CHEW-BOSE: Tilda mentioned that the average scene was only two takes. Is that typical for you?
RAMSAY: Working with cool people helps when working with few shots. You trust yourself and them. Funnily enough, talking about Tilda, she worked with quite an art-house director called Derek Jarman and he came to film school when I was there. He was so warm and so generous and he said something like—and it really got to me—”You know, life’s too short. I only work with my friends, my band of brothers.” And I guess I just work with brilliant people. And Seamus loved the script because it was very visual. And the sounds too; all the sprinklers were written in.
CHEW-BOSE: Jonny Greenwood’s score creeps. It’s great. Even the everyday sounds, like jam being spread on toast. It added this sinister sort of sensitivity to scenes, especially those with Kevin.
RAMSAY: With something non-linear, you use a sound and it’s subconscious, and people don’t notice, but they’re thrown back into a scene. It was really forensic.
CHEW-BOSE: Describe working with Ezra.
RAMSAY: He’s a wonderful kid. He is incredibly intelligent. He’s intimidating, he’s got a challenging thing about him—he’s read every book! You just mention something, and I’m really well read, and my husband even more so, and he was like, “Oh my god, this kid’s not 18.”
CHEW-BOSE: The idea that a mother can struggle to love her son is totally taboo and unwelcome to some. And while your film is dark, it portrays bleakness with a bitter sense of comedy and compassion for this mother and son. Nothing is too obvious.
RAMSAY: I think it’s my Glasgow sense of humor. We’re so twisted out there, ’cause it’s a dark country, but we’re funny. I think [Kevin] is really funny in places, I mean Lionel was very dark in parts, but life is full of many aspects. I think people who want to go “Oh it’s so this or so that… or what’s the answer to…” it’s bullshit. I can’t give you the easy answer—if you want that, go see another movie. See something with a voiceover and tells you what to think and has a redemption song at the end.
CHEW-BOSE: But there is redemption in some ways…
RAMSAY: Yeah, it’s like some perverse love story. To me life is very complex. But there’s always humor.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN IS OUT IN NEW YORK TODAY AND WILL EXPAND NATIONALLY IN THE COMING WEEKS.