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LFF2011: Ramsay puts Shriver’s Kevin on the screen

LFF2011: Ramsay puts Shriver’s Kevin on the screen

In 2003, the author Lionel Shriver published her study of a mother’s inability to connect with her violent child in the novel We Need to Talk about Kevin. It went on to win the Orange Prize for women’s literature.
When Scottish director Lynne Ramsay read it, she thought it was the most original thing she’d read for ages and set about turning it into a film. She was interested in tackling what she saw as a taboo subject that’s not often explored on screen.
It was a very long and complex project for her. After the highly acclaimed Ratcatcher in 1999 and Morvern Callar in 2002, it’s taken her until now to get another film onto the big screen.
She started trying to adapt it with an American writer, with it being an American book about American subject matter, but the working relationship didn’t work out; he was too interested in the dialogue and she less so. Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kinnear, said that after living together for ten years, he couldn’t help but get sucked into the project and he ended up as the co-writer. It was his first foray into film-making. “It was the best film school in the world,” he beams.
Ramsay thought about making the film in the UK, but decided it didn’t feel right. It was an American story, but could still be made to be as universal as possible. But for a British director to make an American film with British money in America was never going to be straightforward, even if it hadn’t been so difficult to get the script right. Using pounds in the US meant that fluctuations on the money markets made it even more difficult to keep the project going. Aside from this, Ramsay notes that it was easier to make middle-budget films back then anyway.
The result was many transatlantic flights during the casting process and once the cast was in place, Ramsay and Kinnear decided that it would be cheaper to move to the States for six months, rather than criss-cross the pond.
One of the biggest differences Ramsay found making this film in the US was that she’d never had to work with the unions before. “It felt like being in a Kafka novel. Eventually, I got my head around the rules – and how to break them,” she half-jokes.
Ramsay knew from the start that she wanted Tilda Swinton to play the central role of the mother, Eva. The pair were already friends, but Swinton didn’t quite understand where Ramsay was coming from when she received the script. “She got back to me within three hours and excitedly asked if she could audition,” she recalls. “Of course I told her she didn’t need to.”
Finding the boys to play Kevin was more difficult. The team saw five hundred boys to find their Kevin – Ezra Miller met them three times before sealing the deal. “We made him work for it,” Ramsay laughs.
But once Miller was given the role, Ramsay had to find boys to play the character at two earlier points of his life.
Kevin the toddler was played by Rock Duer. “Rocky was extraordinary,” enthuses Ramsay. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to direct a three and a half year old. The only problem came in the scene where he had to wear a nappy. He didn’t like that and just screamed.”
A laid-back and jovial Miller, far from his bitterly intense screen persona, describes how he came to the rescue. “I took him aside and pretended to call Santa Claus and warned him that if he didn’t stop screaming, Santa might not come this Christmas.”
Jasper Newell played six year old Kevin, in a performance every bit as creepy as Damien from The Omen.
Although both young actors were picked for their resemblance to Miller, it was his responsibility to study their behaviour, to ensure the consistency of the character.
Film-makers often warn of the difficulties of working with children, but Kinnear said that they were able to cope with the demands of the subject matter because they were only ever given one job to do at a time and they had no concept of what was coming next.
Anyone familiar with the source material will know – and anyone following the extreme sociopathic tendencies of Kevin during the film will work out – that is is building up to a violent act so horrific that lives are changed – some are even ended.
“The school massacre was the thing that least interested me,” insists Ramsay. For her, this was a film about the relationship between the mother and son. “I didn’t want to show too much violence. That was already done in films such as Elephant. Eva only sees the aftermath of the violence.”
Kinnear concurs. Rather than being a psychological study, he sees the film as more of a fantasy. “Well, a nightmare,” he corrects himself.
When an author has his or her work adapted for the screen, the circumstances allow for a different level of involvement. Apart from an early conversation with Lionel Shriver in the early stages of the project, the author had little further role in the production. So what did she think of the final version of the film when she saw it? “She was stunned,” remarks Ramsay. “But pleasantly stunned, rather than aghast.”

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