IT’S A movie we’ve seen before – a promising talent who suddenly disappears, then fights to regain success. But that doesn’t make Lynne Ramsay’s return to filmmaking with We Need To Talk About Kevin any less remarkable, or welcome.
At 5ft 2in, it might be easy to overlook the 41-year-old Scots filmmaker – but not her precocious career arc. Straight off the bat, her short films Small Deaths and Gasman won awards at Cannes and in 1999 her debut full-length film Ratcatcher took the critics by storm. Set during the Glasgow bin strike of 1973, the film drew on some elements of Ramsay’s own upbringing. Her mother is a cleaner, her father had a variety of jobs including market manager, and the family lived in Maryhill, Glasgow, before moving out to Summerston, an event she recreated for the film as a blissful moment when a city boy encounters space and countryside.
Ramsay’s later escape to London was based on a whimsical notion to use her interest in photography to train as a cinematographer at the National Film School. Her tutors told her she was too slight to move a camera, but Ramsay went on to become one of the school’s most in-demand camera operators.
That background shines through in her films, where her metaphors are strongly visual; Ramsay’s second film Morvern Callar has a strange, luminous pictorial beauty that summoned place and sustained mood as few contemporary films do. Samantha Morton starred as the enigmatic Scots girl who finds a new life after her boyfriend’s suicide, and the film walked off with the Cannes Film Festival’s Youth Prize. The following day, Ramsay collected another title, by marrying her boyfriend Rory Kinnear on a boat in the Mediterranean. Although they had only known each other a few months, Rory, a musician, had already proposed. “It was all very spontaneous,” according to Ramsay, who fashioned wedding bouquets from those sent for her Cannes success. “The fact we got married on a boat was down to Jerome, my French publicist. He’d been sighing over Rory and me all week, telling me how much in love Rory was. And at the last minute we decided to just do it.”
The year 2002 was a high-water mark for Ramsay. She already knew what her next project would be, after reading a novel as an unpublished manuscript. Instinctively she saw the potential of The Lovely Bones, Film Four secured the rights and Ramsay set about reworking it as a film. “I just hope no-one nicks it,” she joked. “I hear Spielberg’s been after it, but he’s not getting it.”
Then her life fell apart. Her best friend and scriptwriting partner Liane Dognini died waiting for a liver transplant; then her father passed away. And suddenly the movie which she’d lived with for four years was snatched away from her.
The Lovely Bones was now a bestseller, attracting interest from other A-list Hollywood auteurs. Ironically, Spielberg did play a part by putting The Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson forward as a more suitable choice.
Film Four caved in, dropped Ramsay and handed the project to Jackson. In 2009, his tone-deaf literal version revealed that, unless it has elves, epic sweep and source books so big you could use them to swat light aircraft, Jackson couldn’t hit heaven with a six-bore shotgun. “I saw that chiller-thriller,” said Ramsay this month. “Absolutely awful.”
Between 2002 and 2011 she went quiet. For a year, she says, she lost faith in herself and the industry but eventually managed to rebuild her confidence, worked on scripts, and almost managed to film We Need To Talk About Kevin in 2008 – only to see the £8 million budget fall apart at the last minute.
Her scripts establish, sustain and then gently shift tone and atmosphere, and it’s not too much to say that she is the most original and promising filmmaker in Britain. She hates to be described as a Scottish woman director, partly because her sex and identity have not always been advantages.
Female directors are viewed as too soft, too personal, too limited – too not one of the guys. “The film industry is completely sexist and completely class-biased,” she said recently. “It’s not something I get on the ground level, it’s more from financiers and producers and distributors. It’s a way of dealing with you that is essentially patronising: I know better than you. I’ve shut up about it for years and I feel bad about saying it, but I know it’s there and it’s all-pervasive. Plus, I always feel as soon as they hear a Scottish accent, they’re backing away. It’s just something I pick up on all the time. It’s there and it’s a drag.”
Working with Ramsay appears to be the shortcut to discovering that she is an effective, affecting director. Tilda Swinton signed up as the star of We Need To Talk About Kevin then quickly took a hand in its production as well. The film was shot quickly, on a tiny budget – the sort of set-up that actors love to hate – but Swinton still came away from the experience singing Ramsay’s praises as “one of those rare directors who creates the kind of films that just would not be there if she didn’t make them”.
Like her other films, We Need To Talk About Kevin struck a personal chord, not least because she and Kinnear have been considering starting a family. “I was attracted to it because my mother and father had a difficult relationship, although very different from this,” said Ramsay. “I’m at the age of thinking of having a child myself and wondered about some of these questions about responsibility.”
Most directors have a god complex but Ramsay is soft-spoken, collaborative, an encourager of those around her, but gets what she wants. “She’s small and sexual and very petite,” says Alwin Kuchler, one of her cinematographers. “But I know that she’s very strong. I’ve seen her fighting with people who dare to cross her path – she can be vicious.” According to others, she can also be tender, perceptive and droll. When Kathleen McDermott arrived for a nude scene in her first film, she took one look at the crew on Morvern Callar and burst into tears. “Lynne was brilliant,” recalled McDermott. “She rushed me off to another room and apologised. She told me it was a hard scene to do, whether you’d acted before or not. And then, to prove that we were in this together, she took off her top.”
Ramsay has her own way of making movies. And right now, we can’t wait to see what she does next.
The Facts of Life
• “I’m essentially a dreamer but I’m tough as old boots as well.”
•In 2005, Ramsay directed the music video for Black And White Town by the Manchester indie rockers Doves, but her video was re-edited and the released version is substantially different to the one she shot.
• Ramsay’s husband Rory Stewart Kinnear has been widely reported to be the son of the late comic actor, Roy Kinnear. He isn’t and Ramsay warns, “he’s really pissed off about it”.
• “Growing up in Glasgow, you don’t see Jean-Luc Godard (left) on the weekend.”
• Ramsay is currently based in London but is now considering a move to New York: “There’s not even a Film Council here now. I just want to get on and make films and not have to feel like I’m having to prove myself every single time.”