INTERVIEW: Gutter Jewel, Lynne Ramsay Finds Beauty in "Ratcatcher"
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 10.13.00) -- Few ever thought the rarefied Merchant-Ivory team would traffick in garbage (no "Golden Bowl" jokes, please), but that's just what they've done by presenting "Ratcatcher," the most beautifully photographed movie of the year that also happens to be set during a garbage strike in Scotland. This strikingly original gutter jewel by Glasgow-born Lynne Ramsay (with a nod to gifted director of photography Alwin Kuchler) might be grim to its fetid core, with dead children floating in canals and marauding vermin as big as cats, though it's just as likely to win you over with its whimsical charms.
Imagine a seven-year-old girl gleefully eating an ice cream cone atop a festering heap of refuse in the courtyard of Glasgow's most neglected housing project circa 1973 and you've got some idea where Ramsay's coming from with this loosely-autobiographical memory piece that ranks among the finest films you'll see this year. A lyrical depiction of the indomitable spirit of youth amid dire circumstances of poverty, neglect and social decline, "Ratcatcher" examines the quiet mysteries of childhood with a breathtaking visual sensitivity that recalls Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and Ken Loach's "Kes," yet it succeeds in establishing a cinematic world all its own. It also features the most adorable cast of scruffy young moppets to rampage across the screen in ages, including a standout lead performace by William Eadie that stomps all over Billy Elliot and his dimples.
On the eve of "Ratcatcher's" long-overdue U.S. release, indieWIRE spoke to Ramsay about photographic influences, personal recollections of living through the 1973 garbage strike and the perplexing process of casting child actors.
indieWIRE: How did your short films "Small Debts" and "Gasman" evolve into "Ratcatcher"?
Lynne Ramsay: I didn't see them as some kind of precursor to a feature at all. I was at film school when I made "Small Debts" and I was a cinematographer, so I didn't actually study to be a director. I guess I was just a bit pissed off with some of the scripts. For me, they weren't related to real people or real life, so I thought I'd write something about where I grew up, things I knew about. I saw them as short stories to be honest, at first. More like actual short stories, not scripts. "Gasman" was something I wrote on a beer mat in a pub. So they evolved from different things, but I definitely like the short film form. And I think it's quite different from feature films. I try to keep very simple ideas and keep them as emotionally powerful as possible.
iW: Stylistically they all have something in common in that they were filmed in Glasgow, and I assume that a lot of the subject matter in your shorts and in "Ratcatcher" is autobiographical?
Ramsay: Not all of it, no. Some things started off as details that I remembered. I guess because I grew up there, some of those things, some of these people some of these stories are connected to me. But they evolved in their own right. Once I started writing them they went somewhere else. Inasmuch as the environment and some of the details, yeah, but otherwise no, they're fictions.
iW: Was it difficult to sustain the mood in "Ratcatcher," seeing as how it shifts back and forth between whimsical and morose?
Ramsay: A lot of people have misconstrued this film as social realism and I don't think it is. I try to avoid some of the cliches of that. To be honest, I was trying to go into the psychology of the scenes, going into why we're shooting this way, why we're looking at it that way, trying to get under the skin of it a bit, inside the boy's head. It's a bit of a risky thing to do because essentially we're using nontraditional actors, so you go from this kind of harsh reality into something that's much more hard to pin down. It's more unreal, I guess. It's almost like two opposing styles. Don't ask where that comes from -- I think it's something I realize I've developed in my shorts.
iW: On the subject of non-professional actors, how did you go about finding the wonderful child actors that appear in "Ratcatcher."
Ramsay: It took a bloody long time, I can tell you! Basically I saw over a thousand kids from similar kinds of backgrounds, working-class backgrounds, schools, youth clubs. I was pretty exhausted before the shoot, but I knew I needed to find kids who were really uninflected so I didn't really look in the theater avenues at all. I chose right away to look for kids who maybe had never done anything before. And it took a bit of luck as well because sometimes if you look hard enough you find a gem. I quite enjoy that process, it's exciting.
iW: So it's basically you coaching them along most of the time?
Ramsay: Sometimes. If you look at the script in terms of the dialogue, it's pretty close to the script. But I'd improvise sometimes as well if I thought it was appropriate. Sometimes you get kids who are good at improvisation, but I think it has a lot to do with the timing as well. If a child does something and they do it in their own way, there's that special timing, y'know, that they have and I didn't rush them. But I like it when you don't need to ask everything, it's just a kind of interpretation. So I gave them quite a lot of room to maneuver.
iW: Could you talk about the central character James; how and where you went about finding him during the casting process?
Ramsay: 99 percent of the time when you cast right, it's a dream. If you cast wrong, it's a nightmare. I saw quite a few boys for the part of James, some of whom were very good but I didn't feel completely 100 percent because with some children it was like, Will they last the whole eight-week shoot? Will they get bored? I saw William Eadie a few times and I first I wasn't totally sure. I ended up seeing him four or five times but didn't end up casting him until two weeks beforehand. I just had to feel sure. But he'd just get better and better. Some kids aren't brilliant at first, y'know, I think it has much more to do with how they feel about you. You can't patronize! But he was a dreamboat; it was like working with a professional actor, being able to do the same thing again, no problem. He had a great face and he's quite a tough kid as well. I couldn't have hoped for better.
iW: The major theme of your films seems to be this sense of being stuck in a nowhere kind of void and resorting to innovative means of escaping that void. Would you agree with that? And if so, where does that come from in your own life?
Ramsay: I'd agree with that, yeah. You can see that in my new work as well. I grew up in Glasgow and there weren't a lot of options for the future and so if someone had said to me, "You're going to be a film director," I would have laughed. But you make the best of your environment as well. It shapes you, but even if it's a tough environment it doesn't kill your imagination. That environment is in my films, but it doesn't necessarily need to be Glasgow, I could work anywhere. I like starting off from the place and I find that it really informs the characters. So I guess I start off with that when I begin a script, like the one I'm working on now, which is an adaptation of "Morvern Callar." It's about a girl, she's 21, and it's set in Northern Scotland, which is totally alien to me, it's like a different country. It's pretty much nowheresville again, one of these small villages that's not affected by culture, ten years behind everyone else. She's a checkout girl and her means of escape is limited, so she actually takes authorship of someone else's novel and she uses that money to go off to Spain. She's a Camus type of character, existentialist, sort of.
iW: Can you describe shooting "Ratcatcher" in Glasgow, your home town. Why is it such a cinematic city, in your opinion?
Ramsay: It's got a lot of little urban villages, or suburbs just like any city, but you can look to the skyline of Glasgow and see the hills, more of a "Braveheart" atmosphere! Absolutely stunningly beautiful, yet in some places in the city, it's kind of ugly beautiful. I always thought it would be a good place to shoot a science fiction film. I'm really interested in buildings as well and Glasgow feels quite timeless in places. You've got a mix of old style and modern buildings and I think it's one of the best sites to shoot in Britain, basically.
iW: The canal in "Ratcatcher" was a set you constructed because you couldn't find a real canal that you felt worked in the context of the movie. . . ?
Ramsay: I never normally work with sets. I like to get the feeling that you're in the real place. That always makes me feel much more comfortable as well. But there was quite a lot of set work in "Ratcatcher," mainly because the canals are so polluted that there was no way we could go near them. The kind of canals we could use were far too pretty and didn't look like the canals in inner cities. We decided for better or worse to build a canal on a very low budget. It was quite a nightmare, really, but luckily I've got a great set designer. We started digging and we wanted to go deep but there was toxic waste underground so it cost 10,000 pounds to remove that. The whole thing became a bit of a large-scale event. It gave us loads of freedom in the end, though!
iW: What about the 1973 garbage strike that serves as "Ratcatcher's" major set piece, did that have an autobiographical significance?
Ramsay: I was a very young child, but I remember it almost as a medieval landscape. But I didn't want to go too deep into the political point of view that has been done before very eloquently by other filmmakers. I wanted to look at it through the eyes of people living there. The title comes from a headline: "The Ratcatcher!" -- a soldier holding all these rats they'd killed at the end of the strike when the army had come in. It was a state of emergency toward the end.
iW: In the U.K., "Ratcatcher" was unanimously praised by all who saw it. Did you expect the sort of instant success you received with it?
Ramsay: Do you ever expect that with a film? You just make your film and you hope for the best. It first went to Cannes and the response from the British press was fantastic -- they can be quite critical, you know. There's a lot of British movies being made and "Ratcatcher" wasn't the most commercial, maybe, and of course it's dark subject matter. I think it was praised because it shows an alternative view of British culture, it wasn't something that was prepackaged or marketed to a U.S. audience like a cuddly British comedy or a period drama would have been. We do have established filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach who do that but as a style it seems sort of strained and I kind of stood out against that. So I think that's why it happened. But I was surprised and it was really great for the film, of course.
iW: There's almost a painterly quality to a lot of your work. Some critics have compared the images in "Ratcatcher" to Caravaggio and Andrew Wyeth. Does this stem from an interest in art or was it more due to your training in cinematography?
Ramsay: Probably a bit of both. I was a photographer before, so I sometimes look at stills more than films. At times I think stills are more intense and I wonder what's going on outside the frame. The mystery in stills I find very different from filmmaking. I was a painter as well when I was younger. I think the images in "Ratcatcher" generally came from trying to work out where we are psychologically with the characters. So when James, for instance, goes for the first time into the field for me it felt to me like this boy's never seen a field, so we should heighten it, because in his mind it's completely unreal.
iW: Are there photographers you especially admire?
Ramsay: There's quite a few. Robert Frank, quite classic. I like Diane Arbus as well. Nan Goldin. There's a British photographer I like who did some controversial work recently called Richard Billingham -- he's a young guy who took photographs of his family. I thought there was something really beautiful about them. I definitely look at a lot of photographs when I'm making a film as well. It helps your point of view. It's been very useful to me, coming from a cinematography background.
iW: You were originally trained in cinematography -- does it make it easier to visualize in that sense?
Ramsay: I feel like my relationship with the D.P. (Alwin Kuchler) is very open and I find it easier to imagine a place when you come from that place. It's got to have an emotional core, though. It's not just the image for the image's sake. I'm really interested in editing as well. It's the rhythm of things; it's not just the way things look that really makes a film work. I really seem quite formal as a filmmaker. I love sound; I love that really underused, totally subconscious part of the medium that's really, to me, incredible. Not a lot of directors focus on that aspect of a film. I'd really like to sound design my own next film.
[Andy Bailey is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Time Out New York, Interview, Dazed and Confused, and The Face.]