Ordinary People With An Edge; Lynne Ramsay on “Morvern Callar”
by Adam Hart
“Morvern Callar” is not a truly great movie, but there is greatness
in it. It’s a change of pace, a fantastic display of range from Scottish
filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. If anything, it confirms the suspicions the
film world had after the success of “Ratcatcher”‘s remarkably assured
grasps at beauty and pain in life on a trash heap. In terms of tone and
character, “Morvern” is a very different film — stark, focused and
minimalist (the incidentals often seem to melt into the background) against
the minutely detailed set-pieces and complex web of sympathies in
“Ratcatcher.” On a plastic level, the
resemblance is weak (and to speak most superficially, the color schemes have
little, if anything, to do with one another), but Ramsay’s hand is evident
in both films in her brilliant use of actors, her skewed, photographic eye
(she was a photographer before she got into film school, and her film work
often seems more akin to certain strands of British photography and painting
than to anything else going on in cinema) and a caustic brand of
introspection that twists inside her characters’ psyches in ways few others
can. Most of all, she is an atmospheric director, and a masterful one at
Based on Alan Warner’s award-winning first novel, “Morvern Callar” is the
story of a 21-year-old woman who finds her boyfriend dead, by suicide, on
Christmas Day. On the computer is his finished novel, along with
instructions for finding a publisher. He leaves her a mix-tape and money for
his funeral. Never having read the manuscript, Morvern changes the name on
the title page and submits it as her own. Burying him in secret, she uses
the money to get out of Scotland, along with her best friend Lanna, for a
trip to the south of Spain — with the possibility of a more extended
vacation. Soon-to-be-fatal differences arise between the two friends.
Morvern discovers the publishers loved the novel, finding it a work of
near-genius. The only problem is that they want to start talking about a
follow-up. With the promise of more money, Morvern wants to stay away from
her home forever, while Lanna is ready to return.
The focus is on escape, making it a sort of road movie. But the shifting
background serves mainly to highlight Samantha Morton’s trancelike
performance as Morvern; the setting is always changing, but she remains
unfazed. She’s been, in a sense, emotionally and spiritually hollowed out.
In the interview, Ramsay gently criticizes Morvern’s need to get away as
“selfish,” but there is something unmistakably romantic, maybe even noble,
in the idea as the film presents it. But Morvern never leaves anything
behind, she carries it all inside her everywhere she goes. She’s searching
for some kind of blank canvas, a white page on which she can begin rewriting
her life in peace. Character growth is marked not by inwardly-directed
revelations (or the cliched pregnancy that closes out Warner’s novel), but
through an evolution in her approach to exile. Flight can also be a form of
indecision — a way to avoid making a choice at all — and the film’s finale
comes when that sort of passiveness is replaced (with the same result) by a
fully conscious, active decision, and Morvern, not exactly confident but
still aware, going forward with her eyes wide open.
I spoke with Lynne Ramsay in the thick of Cannes 2002. She is a
veteran player on the Cannes roster, having twice won the Grand Prix for
short films and shown “Ratcatcher” in the Un Certain Regard showcase a
couple years earlier. She was disappointed not to be in the official
competition with “Morvern,” she told us, especially knowing how close they’d
come (evidently the filmmakers are told these things). Her tone told us that
she didn’t take
the slight personally, but was tired of having to think, and talk, about it.
With an international blend of critics and journalists, some better equipped
than others to decode her machine-gun Scottish conversation (the kind that
now comes with subtitles in the theater), we sat in the lobby of a rather
plush hotel just off the Croisette. It was noisy and busy, and famous
filmmakers would occasionally pass by the table with face and eyes down. She
didn’t mention a word about it to us (and who can blame her), but two days
later she and her boyfriend Rory would, on the spur of the moment, take a
sailboat about 12 miles out and have the captain perform a makeshift
wedding. In the U.K.’s Observer, she related how the ship had to start
clanging its bells to get the crew of a porn film on a nearby island to stop
the screaming and moaning until the ceremony was over. The festival was
hectic, surreal, intense — Cannes was the all-important first step for her
in successfully getting “Morvern” into cinemas (Cowboy Pictures
released the film in the U.S. in December) and the first ordeal was almost
over. She was comfortable enough with us, although it was clear that she had
a lot on her mind.
Briefly, she discussed her next project, another adaptation. Enthusiastic
about the possibilities to be found in a new location (America), and the
narrative, stylistic, and emotional demands of the touching story of a
murdered girl observing her family — with all the eccentricity of the
exhausted artist, Ramsay seemed most excited about an opportunity to employ
mist and fog — she gave us the lowdown on a well-written debut novel from
an American writer named Alice Sebold, whose book, “The Lovely
Bones,” was slated for release in the States that summer. Of course,
since then the book has become a monster hit and Ramsay, only a few steps
away from the start of production, has found herself at the helm of one of
the most anticipated films in recent memory.
indieWIRE: So why did you want to make “Morvern Callar” as a movie?
Lynne Ramsay: I think [Morvern] is just an extraordinary character.
It reminds me of a Camus novel, something like “The Stranger,” but
with a young
woman. I felt that she has a real edge to her character and I felt she’s
very modern. It’s challenging, you know? Some people will go for it, others
iW: Both “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar” are set in smaller towns.
Why do you feel you’re drawn to them as settings? Did you grow up in one?
Ramsay: Maybe I feel like I have. I love these characters — the
outsider kind of characters — and sometimes they’re not always likeable.
Morvern’s an ordinary girl who does something quite extraordinary. They have
an edge, James [the hero of “Ratcatcher”] and Morvern. I think that there’s
a feeling of escape, of escaping a kind of banality. I think that this is a
film about a slightly lost generation. You know, the partygoers, the
clubbers — it’s
not a club movie at all, but it’s about that kind of disenfranchised youth
I suppose, in a way. There’s something quite alone about the club scenes,
about the parties…It’s much more selfish for her to want to get away, to
escape the banality. You know what I mean? And money, I think she gets the
money because she thinks it can buy her freedom, but it doesn’t. It does buy
her a sort of freedom, but she’s still alone.
iW: How did the movie get from the book to the screen? Had you made
Ramsay: After I made “Gasman” [her third short film], [I was
shown] this novel. It was about this kind of character that I’m interested
in and then it just went from there. But the thing was I started
“Ratcatcher.” We went to the script pretty quick and I ended up cowriting,
which I’ve never done before. But another director (Liana Dognini),
who’s an animator — she’s a friend of mine and a really good writer — she
started it off and then I came on and did the second draft. So it ended up
as a really good process in a way because I’ve never done an adaptation,
never co-written, and I didn’t know if I could. She’s quite analytical and
I’m quite intuitive, so we really pushed each other. And it was a difficult
project, a hard adaptation. It
ended up working out really well in the end.
iW: Did you see “Under The Skin” [Samantha Morton’s first
Ramsay: I’ve seen it. Yeah, years ago.
iW: Did you see that Samantha had that kind of character in her from
Ramsay: I think she gave a fantastic performance, and there might be
some of that there I guess. But really, I saw photographs of her and she
looked really quite in a trance, something with her eyes. I went to see her,
no pressure on casting, and I just hit it off with her. It felt right. That
was weird because she was like the first person I saw and that doesn’t
happen to me normally. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. That’s what her
performance brings to the film, and to the Woody Allen film too
[“Sweet and Lowdown”]. Because in that film she plays a mute, but is
iW: She’s an unusual British actress in that she doesn’t need a lot
of words to express herself.
Ramsay: I think so. She’s got quite a big range in her, and I think
she’s got a lot of integrity about what she’s choosing to do. I respect that.
iW: The reviews have been calling the film a piece of art, but have
questioned its commercial potential. Is that something you’ve thought about?
Ramsay: You don’t make a film because you don’t want anybody to see
it, or maybe just get it in a sort of extreme art-house where two people
will see it. I never saw it like that. I think that’s really underestimating
it, because I’ve interacted with audiences and they respond to it and get
it, and [box office] has more to do with the way it’s marketed. We’ll just
see what happens. Pretty much “Ratcatcher” was the same way, wondering,
“What do we do with this?”
I think when you don’t know what bracket to put a film in, it’s much more
difficult. It’s like, Is your movie this? Is it that? And I think you have
to give it a chance, let it breathe. It depends a lot, I guess, on people
saying, “I went to see that, it’s really cool. You should really go to see
that.” It’s a shame when they try to put it too much in boxes, but I think
it’s a very hard film to define. “Ratcatcher,” that was very easy: “Oh,
social realism, kitchen-sink” — which pissed me off at the time because I
felt it was a much more … poetic film than that. Or you know, this British
angle. But if you cannot find that box, it’s hard.
iW: Could you talk about how you developed the visual style of the
film? How spontaneous was each day of filming? Did you plan it out?
Ramsay: I didn’t have many storyboards, but I had a lot of
references. I worked with very good people — the production designer
Jane Morton and the DP Alwin Kuchler. We went through a lot of
the mood stuff, preparing the mood of the scenes. But a lot of the visual
style comes from the actual characters, or the emotion you’re trying to get
through in the images. [Morvern] is half a real character for me and then
half…there’s something quite surreal about her. It’s quite a leap in the
imagination to go with her. She buries her boyfriend and all that. I thought
“I’m not shooting this in a real way. It’s ridiculous to shoot it in a real
way.” You know, because I wouldn’t even believe it. So I would go with a
kind of dreaminess for Morvern, and she’s kind of a more iconic and symbolic
character. She feels like that in the novel, so it felt that that was the
right kind of style, anchoring it in reality and having this kind of
dreaminess to it as well.
But also, people say “You’re a visual filmmaker.” But there’s sound as well,
and the sound designer [Paul Davies] deserves a lot of credit for it.
I think it gives a lot of atmosphere and spatiality. It’s not just pictures.
iW: Just as with your first film, you’ve used non-professional actors
[most of the parts, including the very central one of Lanna, are played by
first-time actors], but have here mixed them with Samantha Morton, a
Ramsay: I thought it was an interesting combination, because Sam is
quite controlled and Kathleen [McDermott, who plays Lanna] is
very spontaneous. She also has a lightness to her — quick, funny — and she
becomes Sam’s balance. Sam has this edge where you feel like anything can
happen and she’s perfect for Morvern. And Kathleen really understood her
iW: Samantha had the script in advance, but Kathleen didn’t. Why the
Ramsay: I think that brought some kind of spontaneity to the film. I
think that with nonprofessional actors the way that gets the best work is
not to give them the whole script, which gets them into this kind of “Oh,
what’s my character mean?” That’s logical if somebody’s never done it
before. But I let her find her own way as well. Just so she’s not very
analytical about what’s happened in the past or whatever. Essentially, it
felt very in the moment because she knew what was happening now, and that’s
it. And that
worked. You have to gage a performance for each different actor, and I did
my best to do that with two totally different actors.
iW: Samantha went straight to “Minority Report” after this.
Ramsay: That must have been so weird after me.
iW: Do you think she was more comfortable working with you?
Ramsay: I think it was a great experience for her, because it’s sort
of an intimate experience and a lot of the crew are friends. It had an
atmosphere kind of like a hippie commune in Spain. I think she was quite sad
when she came off the shoot. It felt like a family was broken up. There was
a very good vibe.