Dialogue: Lynn Ramsay Talks ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin,’ Motherhood, the Inspiration in Literature, and Becoming Ahab

Dialogue: Lynn Ramsay Talks ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin,’ Motherhood, the Inspiration in Literature, and Becoming Ahab

Jan 12, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin poster with Tilda SwintonWith three dark features under her belt – Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, and We Need to Talk About Kevin – one might imagine a very pensive, conversationally measured personality, but director Lynne Ramsay is anything but. Much like fellow U.K.’er Andrea Arnold, Ramsay is a bright, talkative filmmaker whose exuberance for her craft is palpable. She’s the conversationalist you want to have multiple exchanges with, to get the first layer of thoughts about her art, contemplate them, then dig to the next level. It’s layer upon layer of artistic passion that manifests in myriad ways.

Ramsay exploded on the film scene in the late ‘90s, winning Jury Prizes and earning Palme d’Or nominations at Cannes for her short films Gasman and Small Deaths. By 1999 she offered her first feature, the Criterion-celebrated Ratcatcher --and in 2002, the challenging and strange sophomore feature Movern Callar. But an explosive start did not help the filmmaker keep bad luck at bay. For years she worked to adapt The Lovely Bones, which became a bestseller, garnered Hollywood attention and was ultimately handed over to Peter Jackson for a less-than-blockbuster adaptation. She took some time to recover, found Kevin, and was then hit by the financial crisis. Ramsay persevered, re-crafting the feature for a startling minimal budget ($7 million) and went on to make one of the most beautiful films of 2011.

For this conversation, conducted in late 2011, Ramsay fought through jet lag and press tour exhaustion to reveal the drive and inspiration behind her third film.

Movies.com: There was a long and difficult hiatus before Kevin. Could you talk about the struggle to get a third project made, and what sort of head space you were in as you got Kevin off the ground?

Lynne Ramsay: Well… I wasn’t going to do another adaptation after The Lovely Bones because I’d been so burned. But my husband who reads stuff for me had said, “You better read this, it’s amazing.” I read it, maybe in one sitting. I was in my late-30s at the time, thinking about children and women, so it really touched a nerve. I hadn’t seen anything in a film like that. Rosemary’s Baby, maybe, but that had the supernatural element.

My husband and I spent a long time writing the script to make it precise and viewable. This was a very complex script – all the images, signs, and editing is in the script. The most work was done before shooting. We only had 30 days to shoot it; we had so little time because of financing. The Dollar got strong and the Pound got weak, so we lost quite a bit of money before we shot.

Movies.com: The actors who play Kevin manage to look both cute and disarming. How did you go about casting them?

LR: I didn’t have any set vision. I was just looking for charisma – for a boy I believed could do that. It was exactly the same with Samantha Morton in my last film. I saw a lot of boys; I saw hundreds of boys. But Ezra Miller walked in there and he seemed to suck the energy from the room. He was slightly repellent at the same time, and very sexual. It was really weird. I think he studied up a lot. I don’t know what he did, but he did something. I phoned my husband straight away and said: “I think we’ve found him.” We were going to make the film just as the recession kicked in for a bigger budget, so I found him really early on and he stuck with me, you know?

What was slightly terrifying was a lot of boys said they related to the part. They said, “I know someone like that,” or “I feel the same,” stuff like that. So that was slightly terrifying! But he was it. They all shared similarities to Tilda’s bone structure. It was really important to me that she sees herself in him. It’s horrifying to look at your own child and see that darkness.

Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton in KEVIN still

Movies.com: How do you see the relationship between Kevin and his mother? Is he the manipulative mastermind that he seems? Is this her trying to put clues in her memories after the fact?

LR: I thought Kevin was the most honest person in the piece. Sure, he’s manipulative and he knows how to push all the buttons with his dad. He plays a completely different role with his dad. I spoke to a lot of parents and some of the moms said that the kids are a nightmare all day and then the dad walks in… That plays a part, definitely. There’s also the idea that she felt responsible, because she brought him into the world. She stays in the same place [after the tragedy]. She sees a little bit of herself in him, albeit a very shielded essence. That’s where it started. I think that’s a really intriguing idea, having kids myself.

Movies.com: It’s interesting that they have this very combative relationship, but as soon as he’s feeling sick and vulnerable, he becomes the loving son.

LR: For me, when he gets sick, he lets his mask drop a little bit. That was a very important scene for me. It was like he was too sick to be Kevin. Suddenly he can be a little boy again. I think the whole thing is a cry for help. I think he has an emotional quotient missing, and this is the one time she can be his mother. That was a nice contrast; it was in the book, and I thought it was a very interesting scene. He’s too weak, almost, to fight. It’s like a war film within a family; that’s how I saw it anyway.

It sometimes annoys me that people think that it’s —spoiler alert—a high school killer movie. It’s not. It’s completely about a mother and her son and their very troubled relationship. There are little signs along the way, and of course you always look back and think you could’ve done something about that. In the novel, Kevin does many more bad things.

When the kid vandalizes something, like her room – kids do that. Maybe she sees an extreme version. It’s a fantasy; it’s not a social commentary. She looks back at things and thinks they’re startlingly obvious, and that there’s something there, but he doesn’t do anything to warrant the assumption then. And there’s his dad, who sees a different side of him; he’s a performer, but he’s the most honest.

At one point I thought it’s all about performance; Eva’s performing, Franklin’s performing, and Kevin’s performing to them.  There’s how you’re meant to be, and how you actually are, and the secrets that get brushed under the carpet.

Movies.com: The color red dominates the film. Often, it represents the despair surrounding Eva’s life, but it also dominates her happy memories.

LR: To me, it’s like a horror film. She has to deal with this horror every day. She makes a point of staying in the same place, where everyone knows her, because she feels culpable. It’s like a punishment. I think those visual lengths, it’s an implication. One of the first things we landed on was the paint on the house. Someone vandalizes her house, and you don’t know why. It’s very intriguing. It was also a visual cue, I guess, because every day she thinks about the carnage, but she never saw the carnage, and that’s even worse. I can’t imagine… I tried to do this very much from her perspective. She has to clean up the paint; she has to cleanse herself somewhat because she feels guilty. She feels like, by proxy, she did it. I think every mother has that feeling of responsibility and guilt – bringing a person in the world and hoping they’re okay. Sometimes it doesn’t work out like that.

Tilda Swinton in KEVIN still

Movies.com: As a fragmented story that jumps back and forth in time, but has such a rigid structure, how do you about crafting them together into a cohesive whole?

LR: The script took years because it is completely constructed. It’s not a literal adaptation; it’s a completely psychological adaptation. The book’s in the form of letters, and we didn’t take that form. Everything that’s in the film is in the script, so that’s the reason it took a while. The only problem was in the editing, the things we had to cut at the last minute – they left little gaps, so we’d have to work to connect the dots.

A lot of people think I improvise, but I don’t. We didn’t have any time to improvise, that’s for sure. With Ratcatcher, we had time, but even that was a constructed script. The only thing I do is maybe run the tape long, keep them in character, and cut late, to see what they do.  Sometimes something brilliant comes from that. That’s improvisation, I guess, since they’re still acting and there’s a little bit of a gap.

Movies.com: The dark thematic matter is juxtaposed with a peppy soundtrack. What is it about that combination that attracts you?

LR: I once thought about not doing any music at all, but that makes it super-dark. To me, the juxtaposition makes the film accessible. But not just that – they’re all chain-gang songs.  They’re all prison songs, and she’s in prison, you know? They’re happy, but more like Washington Phillips [“Mother’s Last Word to Her Son”]. I find that juxtaposition much more frightening, actually.

“Everyday” by Buddy Holly is one of my favorite songs, and as a child, I heard that song so many times, but in some very dark scenarios, so maybe that leaked in. [laughs] I was a big Buddy Holly fan. My mom and dad played a lot of music and they played a lot of films. They were blue-collar songs, not arty songs – more like Billy Wilder or Douglas Sirk. My mom loved Lonnie Donegan, and there are quite a few tracks in the film [“Mule Skinner Blues,” “Ham N Eggs,” “Nobody’s Child”]. I didn’t even know he was from Glasgow; I thought he was American. So there’s a little Glasgow darkness coming in!

One musician they got for us, she’s Chinese; her names Liu Fang. My husband’s a musician, and he sent me this piece called “The Ambush,” that’s a love story, even though it’s called “Ambush.” It’s extraordinary. She can’t play in China because it’s traditional pipa music. There are no sheets of music for these things; it passes through generations. She’s actually living in Canada, in Toronto, but we got her to the studio with Johnny (Greenwood, Radiohead). And Johnny is a genius; he’s the voice behind Radiohead, as far as I’m concerned. We had this wonderful, classic Chinese musician saying “You’re not recording this, right?!” And she wanted us to clean her sound, but we wanted it to be a dirty sound. It was a really fun part of the whole thing. Everyone brought elements to the film.

Movies.com: Though your films tend to feature a sense of removal, there’s talk of you filming a psychological sci-fi horror film next based on Moby Dick. What can we expect from that?

LR: I’ve always been into genre. I really loved Hitchcock as a kid, and they’re quite dark movies. For me, I never wanted to do the same film twice; Ratcatcher, Morvern Caller, and We Need to Talk about Kevin are all very different films. This story is a bit like being a filmmaker …  I just love the idea of the guy who’s on a revenge mission, who takes everyone to their death. As a filmmaker and director you’re the captain of the ship, so you’re the one taking everyone on this journey. Psychologically, it’s a bit like going to war. And I think something really appeals there, something appeals about the story.

I think Moby Dick is the American classic, a classic novel that I think most people haven’t read. [My film] is not Moby Dick, it’s just inspired by him. I think the actual themes are fantastic – especially the way the world is. The idea has been boiling in the background the last few years. I read the novel in the airport when I came to do Kevin. You know, you can never find classics in the airport; it’s always modern books, and it really annoys me. I’m trying to read as many classics as I can. I read Moby Dick when I was a child, but I didn’t understand all of it.

I read it and I was wired by it and it all started there. I was wowed thinking the scenes were amazing. I wanted to take the ideas and themes and take it to a different place, to engage with it. I thought it would be really fun designing an alien as well, because I’ve never done that before. So for me, it’s just a challenge. Same as Kevin, it’s a monster movie – something like Frankenstein. It’s great to get actors I trust, willing to go on really weird trip with me, like Ahab!

We Need to Talk About Kevin hits screens in New York on Friday, January 13, Los Angeles on Friday, January 20, and wide release in February.

Be sure to check out a more in-depth look at Ramsay's work in our TIFF 2011 edition of Girls on Film.

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