Lynne Ramsay is back. The Scottish director first made a name for herself with her acclaimed 1999 debut “Ratcatcher,” which she followed with the similarly well-received 2002 effort “Morvern Callar,” a Directors’ Fortnight entry.
Then Ramsay hit a rough patch, spending years working on an adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” that eventually fell apart. (For the record, she calls Peter Jackson’s eventual adaptation “absolutely awful.”)
Of course, this story has a happy ending: She eventually did make a successful adaptation, the 2011 Cannes competition entry “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Based on Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, it premiered to great reviews on Thursday. Starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly as the parents of a high school shooter (Ezra Miller), the movie displays many of Ramsay’s stylistic trademarks while also potentially opening up her work to new audiences. A jubilant Ramsay sat down with indieWIRE on Friday to discuss her experiences.
Did you enjoy the premiere?
It was a lovely response, really warm. Even at the pre-screenings we had in London, I was feeling a good feeling. You kinda just know. It’s not for everyone, but I think we’re getting a strong reaction. John [C. Reilly] had never seen it, and he was really moved — moved to tears, actually.
Were you nervous?
No. I think I’d be nervous if I hadn’t done so many others. It’s been a long time since my last movie, and I got a little bit burned by my last attempt.
You mean your unrealized adaptation of “The Lovely Bones.”
How long did you spend trying to get that made?
Four years. A producer came to me with the material for the book before it was finished. I thought it was an interesting concept, and then when it came out and wound up on Oprah’s book club, it was massive. There was a lot of heat around it. But when I got the rest of the book, I felt there wasn’t a lot of drama in the latter half. After a while, I parted ways with [the production company] Film4. The company had shut down and then reopened, and [the new staff] inherited the project. The person who came onboard at Film4, Tessa Ross, she inherited this bloody massive bestseller. When Peter Jackson started sniffing around the project — I mean, he’s the biggest director in the world. Him and Spielberg. I’m just Lynne Ramsay. So it just went a bit awry.
Did you ever see Jackson’s adaptation?
I saw that chiller-thriller. Absolutely awful.
So you moved on.
Hopefully, it won’t take that long next time.
At least you didn’t quit the profession.
I tried drumming for a little while.
Whatever pays the rent.
Well, it’s been hard. You battle through it. I think we’re a little bit lucky in the U.K., that there is some help you get from the government, but now they’ve closed all that. It was the U.K. Film Council and it became the BFI. I don’t think there’s much money and support in it. But when I shot “Kevin ” in the states, I realized how lucky I was because a lot of young, great filmmakers just really need to be inventive. They don’t have government cash. I feel I’m really lucky to have that support network behind me. I’ve made some movies, but it’s going to be a lot tougher for newer filmmakers.
Do you think now that you’ve worked with U.S. stars, you’ll get other opportunities to work on a larger scale?
I just like working with good actors. I’ve worked with non-professional actors as well. It’s a real trust thing with actors. These actors wanted to work with me. That’s a real honor. Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly asking “What’s your next film? Can we be in it?” probably gives me some power. Not financial power, though. I also think Ezra Miller’s a discovery. He was great in “Afterschool,” but this really — when he walked into the room, I thought, “This is the next James Dean.” He really believed in the role. He studied all the kids [playing younger versions of the character] so he could get their mannerisms.
Despite the gap between your second and third features, your stylistic approach hasn’t changed a lot. Your movies are still mainly focused on evoking subjective experiences.
I think you’re always learning how to explore different territories. For me, I’ve never done a non-linear film. I mean, I’ve done it in a short, but this was super-complex, like a jigsaw puzzle. That was different, a new challenge — how to break the form. But I tried to maintain an intimacy to the feelings that are underneath and also tell a compelling drama, not just make an art movie.
Do you have any interest at all in this movie playing a role in the conversation about real teen shootings?
It’s not an issue movie. “Elephant” is a brilliant film that dealt with that. I wasn’t interested in that. I wasn’t trying to make an issue-based film; I’m trying to pose a set of questions. I was really interested in the mother-son relationship. I thought it was the last taboo in a way: You can love your kids, but do you like them? To me, that was an interesting proposition. I haven’t really seen anything explore that.
Have you seen “Beautiful Boy”?
No, but I read that it has a similar premise.
Yes, but it’s a much more straightforward plot about two parents dealing with the aftermath of their son’s role in a high school shooting.
That sounds a bit worldly to me. I don’t want to do worldly cinema: “Hold your breath, this is art.” To me, that’s bullshit. “Kevin” is a psychological horror film. It uses genre elements, so hopefully it’s exciting to watch.
I see it as a monster movie where you can’t figure out whether the monster is the mother or the child.
Well, that’s was the question I was posing. If you see the son, he even looks like her. To me, the look was important; they had to look like each other. They have to reflect each other. By proxy, she has murdered all these people. It’s really exploring the psyche of a woman who has this massive guilt.
Pretty dark stuff.
Yeah, it’s dark subject matter, but I would hope it’s a good watch. That’s what I liked about the book as well. You knew he had done this, murdered all these people, but you’re turning pages to figure out why. I wanted to use that structure. You’re compelled to know the reasons.
From a purely commercial perspective, it’s a tough sell.
Then again, look at movies like “Mildred Pierce,” where the daughter’s a bitch. It’s heavy subject matter. Look at Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life,” where a black woman wants to be white. That’s pretty dark subject matter, but these are still commercial movies. So I’m hoping that comes across.