From Glasgow to Glory: Director Lynne Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin

Having made three acclaimed features since her 1999 debut Ratcatcher, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has told dark but almost whimsical stories that don't have easy conclusions.

While she's proud of her working class roots, Ramsay speaks over the phone in an almost musical Glasgow drawl that even laryngitis can't quite stifle. Having grown up in Kansas, I agree with fellow Midwesterner Kurt Vonnegut lamented that our speech sounds like "a bandsaw hitting galvanized tin." With Ramsay's delivery, even sordid, grim topics sound oddly captivating.


The same could certainly be said for her adaptation of Lionel Shriver's Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which looks at an American couple named Eva and Franklin Katchadourian (Fellow Scot Tilda Swinton and Yank John C. Reilly) who's teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) consistently behaves in a disturbing manner. Despite living in a comfortable home, Eva regrets giving up her career as a travel writer for motherhood and has always had a contentious relationship with her son. At times, she wonders if her own failings as mother might have led to Kevin's transgressions.

Ramsay and Swinton are both nominated for BAFTA Awards in the UK for the film, and Ramsay won Best Director at the British Independent Film Awards. In addition, critics from London and Dallas/Ft. Worth have chosen We Need to Talk About Kevin as Best Film. The Online Film Critics Society has also awarded Swinton Best Actress. The film hasn't received any Oscar nominations, but Ramsay demonstrates that her uniquely Scottish sensibility translates remarkably well stateside.

In Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and certainly We Need to Talk About Kevin, you have characters who are opposite of what we in America call "Mary Sues," idealized characters modeled after the author who have unbelievable virtue.

That is supercool (laughs). That's so cool. I'm going to have to start calling people "Mary Sue," the people I don't like.

Your characters are like "anti-Mary Sues" because they have more baggage than LaGuardia.

That's true. OK. Most people in the world tend to have a lot of baggage. We're not all Mary Sues. In the world, you have to walk quietly and carry a bit stick. That may be Rudyard Kipling or something. I'm probably ripping that off.

Why do you think we're still willing to follow James in Ratcatcher or Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin?

Because they're really human beings, because they don't have music plastered all over them that tells you how to think or feel. They're human beings, and human beings have two sides, and there's contrasts. There's light, and there's dark.

Mary Sues only have light, and they only have manipulative music, and they only tell you one aspect of humanity. That's my thinking, anyway.

Have school shootings and violence or bullying been a big issue in the U.K.?

Violence in general is a big issue in the world, but we have Dunblane in Scotland, where a guy (in 1996) just got really angry and took a gun and shot quite a few people (16 children and a teacher), you know. And that's a tiny, little sleepy town in Scotland. I think that violence is everywhere in the world. Violence is in humanity, and we're designed as killing machines. That's why we have teeth and nails. We're survival of the fittest. We're killing everything else. We're killing the world.

The world in We Need to Talk About Kevin is very different from the world in your previous films.

It's a non-linear narrative. It was much more like, say, creating a Rubik's Cube. But also I wanted to an accessible film. I took a lot of inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, who makes pretty dark movies, but who does it in a very intelligent, visual way of utilizing what it is to make cinema. I think that as Tilda said herself that "cinema went downhill" the minute words came in.

I have to tune my ear to understand the dialogue with my own thick Kansas accent, but I have no trouble following your movies.

That's because they deal with universal subject matter. Ratcatcher was shown in China. And they loved it because they understood it. It's a visual film. You're telling a story through pictures and sound as well. The best filmmakers, as far as I'm concerned, still have the ability to do that.

At the same time, the Khatchadourians in We Need to Talk About Kevin live in a very different environment than the housing project in Ratcatcher.

That's true. Do you want me to speak about that?

Would you please?

I'm a blue collar girl. I grew up in the ghetto, but it doesn't mean there isn't rage in elsewhere. The funny thing is that with a lot of these killings even though I don't think the film is about that, and I really hate it when people do any spoilers, or that people go in open to the movie, thinking it's about something else -- there's rage everywhere in the world. It doesn't mean that the kid lives in a bad place, you know.

In general, I was looking to make a modern Greek tragedy. I just wanted to decipher the whole world through Eva's eyes, really. I was just really curious about motherhood, what if it doesn't go right? What if you don't get that state of grace, the mothering nature? What if you don't feel that?

Some things can't be explained. Generally, most parents are really nice. In Dunblane, they were lovely parents, and he was a sociopath, you know. He killed a lot of people, and was very loved. I thought a bit about the mother of Hitler, the mother of Mao, etc. etc., etc.

At the same time, I felt some sympathy for the Eva character because what mother can be loving and sweet 24/7?

You should have a license to have a kid, the same as a dog. Some mothers don't know what to do.

My mother's the best mom in the world. She's got hands like a sailor because she's used to picking up babies. She's very warm to the kids, and my brother's wife, she was just freaked out, man. She couldn't hold the baby. The baby felt nervous and was crying, so my mother had to take the child for the first few months. A baby picks up when you feel nervous.

Kids can be little shits sometimes. I remember tearing up all my dolls' clothes. I don't even remember why I was doing it. I wasn't really being destructive. I just like the shapes and the patterns. My mother was horrified when she saw me cutting up all those clothes. Kids do that stuff. They're little animals. They're the most honest. You don't have the social graces then.

At the same time, you do a really good job with taming those little monsters. You do a really good job with them in all your films.

That's because I don't patronize them. I just talk to them on my level. The kids are very smart, very intelligent. I don't give them whole scripts to read. I don't go for pushy parents of kid actors. I absolutely detest that. I like to meet the parents first, and that's a quite a good indication.

But with the kids in Ratcatcher, some of those poor kids were from juvy, and they didn't stand a bloody hope in hell. It was a good chance for them, and they loved it. It was like a big game for them. What are we going to do next? I told them on the day what they were doing, and they had the story unfolding, which is much more exciting.

Jasper Newell (who plays the young Kevin) is such a wonderful child and so intelligent. His mom and dad are lovely. When I saw him last night I burst into tears because I hadn't seen him for six months. I just put him in my arms, and he just came up and gave me this big hug. That was really warm, and we had such a beautiful time during the shoot.

I've got a big family. My mom had 12 children. The Irish and the Scottish, they pop them out (laughs). I have quite an extended family I think because of that. I looked after my niece a lot when she was young because my brother's girlfriend got pregnant quite young. She was only 18 or 19, you know. It's really like a child bringing up a child.

In the film, even the infant Kevins looked menacing.

I had a wonderful casting director called Billy Hopkins. He did Desperately Seeking Susan, which is an amazing movie I think. I think we fell in love with each other a little bit, and he gave us all this extra time, which we would never get on this budget and the best kids ever.

But even he and I were stunned by Rocky Duer. I just told Rocky what to do, and he never said a word. I just said, "Rocky, can you do this? And he did it."


There was a lovely moment with Eva, and it's the only time Rocky got upset because he said I'm too big for diapers. He must have said to his mama, "I'm a big boy now. I don't need this."

I swear to you, man. I got that in one or two takes. People think it's CGI (laughs)! That kid was astonishing, astonishing. I'm good with directing kids, but how do you direct a kid who's three and a half?

Ezra Miller (who plays the teenage Kevin) came on the set to mimic their performances. I wanted him on set all the time because it was shot quite chronologically.

With your short Gasman and with We Need to Talk About Kevin, the viewer often has to read clues to figure out what's going to happen. Like with Gasman, you don't advertise that the title character has a family on the side.

We used to make cinema with visual clues instead of having everything handed to you on a plate. I think audiences have been patronized so much these days. People like to do a little bit of work. They're intelligent, you know. I love to watch films and work them out like puzzles. My dad was a huge crossword puzzle guy. I'd really love to learn how you play chess.

I wasn't brought up to like those "arty" movies. I was brought up to like Imitation of Life. I saw that about ten times when I was a kid. I cried every time. There were pretty dark subjects, but they were told in a very compelling manner, and you weren't spoon fed. There wasn't voiceover that was over everything. But there wasn't lazy-ass directing. There's a lot of lazy-ass directing in the world, if you ask me.

What you said reminds me of what Billy Wilder once told novice screenwriters, "Let the audience figure out that two plus two equals four, and they'll love you forever."

I love Billy Wilder. Actually, my mom showed me Sunset Boulevard. She can quote it. She knows a whole lot of the lines. In those days, in Glasgow, they used to call it "The Pictures." And they went every night. She saw Billy Wilder. She saw The Portrait of Dorian Gray when she was 15. They weren't fancy people, but they were getting that kind of cinema.

Lately, they've been getting bored. But my dad's dead now, but they could only handle really great movies. He liked commercial movies like The Green Mile, my dad loved. But with the lazy stuff, my mom gets bored. She falls asleep now at the cinema and starts snoring.

Even though you're known for making dark films, the story of how you got married to your co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear during the making of We Need to Talk About Kevin is worth noting.

We actually got married at Cannes (where the film eventually debuted), one month after meeting each other. He was a "waitress in a cocktail bar" when I met him.

He's a musician, and he reads every single day. All the classics. He knows many more books than I do, and I think I'm a pretty good reader. He's read Dostoyevsky. He doesn't read many modern novels.

After The Lovely Bones (which fell through and was later made by Peter Jackson), I thought I wasn't going to do another adaptation again. It came through the post from my agent at the time, and he reads everything.

(Rory) keeps telling me, I'm the best film school in the world because I keep telling him to cut words. He's very literary. He writes like a novel. He's learned a lot, and it works quite well. It trust him, and I've trained him, as well (laughs).

All Images © 2011 Oscilloscope Laboratories, used by permission.