UK director Lynne Ramsay enjoyed international recognition early on in her career after short films Small Deaths and Gasman were invited to the Cannes and won the Jury Prize in its short film competition in 1996 and 1998 respectively.
“That was the first film festival I went to. It was so overwhelming,” Ramsay told a masterclass for the Doha Film Institute this week . “When Gasman won a prize and [Francis Ford] Coppola gave me the prize, that opened the way for me to make other films.”
The film’s reception in L.A., when Ramsay showed them there as part of a British Film Institute talent showcase in the late 1990s, was less enthusiastic.
Revolving around a young girl who slowly discovers a puzzling side to her father’s life during an outing to a Christmas party, Gasman shows the protagonist and other characters from the waist down only in the opening scene and other parts of the film.
“The Hollywood producers who saw it said, ‘Did the camera slip because you can’t see any heads’. I thought, “Oh My God, you’ve really missed the point.” If you see the whole film, it’s really revealed in the details, this bigger picture about a tragedy at the centre of this family,”
“It was scripted like that. It’s about a fractured family, who are together but not together,” explained Ramsay. “With those first films, I was able to dig deep into the language I was finding. It was a way of understanding the language of film.”
“Somehow you know when you have a camera in your hands, what’s right and what is wrong and if you go against your instinct, you kind of screw up,” she continued. “There was a kind of naivete in the making of them which still moves me.”
Ramsay returned to Cannes with her first feature Ratcatcher, in Un Certain Regard in 1999; her second film Movern Callar, which played in parallel section Directors’ Fortnight in 2002, and We Need To Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here, which played in the Official Selection Competition in 2011 and 2017 respectively.
“I don’t know if I enjoyed it as much as when I was there with my shorts,” she said. “It’s a bizarre experience because often you don’t really know what people think or how the film is taken on board until later so it’s kind of nerve-wracking.”
Ratcatcher won Ramsay multiple prizes including a Bafta for best newcomer in 2000. Set in her native Glasgow in 1973, the drama follows a young boy living in squalor against the backdrop of a garbage strike as his family awaits to be rehoused in a new development.
The setting has led to the film sometimes being described as belonging to the British tradition of social-realist films. Ramsay said she did not agree with this classification.
“I love those kinds of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning films. There was a real sort of wonderful time in British cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, but I never felt I was following one tradition. I’ve actually always liked filmmakers like Nick Roeg, who would break things up and smash it up a bit,” she said.
“I was doing something about where I grew up in a certain time in a familiar environment to me. I think anything that was working class in that environment was deemed as social realism but I never felt it was. I never ever thought I am part of this thing. I just thought, I’m making a film, and this is where it’s taking me,” she continued.
“I never felt part of a movement although I love many of the filmmakers. I felt it was misinterpreted a bit as a social-realist film. It goes to different places. It’s a strange film. I don’t like to adhere to those sorts of things or be one thing in any of the movies I made.”
After writing an original screenplay for Ratcatcher, Ramsay’s subsequent three films have been adaptations.
Movern Callar, starring Samantha Morton as a woman processing the trauma of her writer boyfriend’s suicide through a trip to Spain, was based on Alan Warner’s 1995 experimental novel written in the first-person narrative and in Scottish dialect.
“The second film is the most difficult. Everyone wants you to make what you’ve just made, and I never want to make what I’ve just made, I want to make something new. I want to challenge myself,” she said.
“It’s a novel in the first person. It was what was going on in this girl’s head and I made it with no voiceover whatsoever. It was an interesting novel. It’s about a young woman who takes life into her own hands. It was never a straight adaptation. It was just my interpretation of this amazing wild character.”
Ramsay next film We Need To Talk About Kevin was adapted from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel of the same name. The director said she had been attracted to the work because of its seemingly ‘unfilmable’ structure.
“There was something interesting for me in the core. It was the type of subject matter I hadn’t really seen dealt with before in the movies: this mother and son relationship in which you don’t know if she loves him and she doesn’t know if she loves him,” said Ramsay.
“It was written in the form of letters to the husband. It was pretty literary and looked like there was no way to make it. I had to boil it down and find what is really the essence of it.”
The filmmaker said showing Shriver the film for the first time was a “nerve-wracking” experience.
“The producer’s wife was late and Lionel is pretty hardcore. It was such a different interpretation of her work but she really loved it as something different to what it was in the form of the novel which was good because she is quite a character.”
Ramsay revealed she had been reluctant to cast Tilda Swinton, even though the actress had been gunning for the role of the mother and they were friends.
She had initially felt that Swinton’s extraordinary looks and strong on-screen persona were at odds with the character, and then, she decided they would work in its favor.
We Need To Talk About Kevin marked Ramsay’s first experience shooting in the U.S. and working with unions and guilds.
“There are certain freedoms that you have in the UK which you didn’t have in the U.S., things like extras. You can’t talk to the extras if you’re the director. There’s a union for extras,” she said.
“Everyone wants to be in-camera. I would have this great shot with Tilda Swinton and then I’d notice everyone in the background was moving really slow.”
In spite of the challenges, Ramsay said it was We Need To Talk About Kevin was one of her favorite shoots thanks to the New York crew and the camaraderie with the other cast members, who also included J.C. Reilly and Ezra Miller.
“I love the New York crews. There’s a real vibe and when the crew enjoys the process, you enjoy the process,” she said.
“That movie was a brilliant movie to make even though it was such a dark movie. It was one of those films where the actors came and hung out at night, we cooked together and played music together because we were dealing with this pretty intense thing. It was a release. Weirdly, the darkest film I’ve made was the easiest to make.”
The director, whose last film was the 2017 thriller You Where Never Really Here starring Joaquin Phoenix, also gave updates on a number of projects she has on the boil including Stone Mattress, Die, My Love and Polaris.
Having focused on writing during the Covid-19 pandemic, Ramsay said was now keen to get one of the projects she was juggling off the ground.
“You always want to make something that is breaking new ground,” she said. “I feel these are all things I am super interested in and they’ve taken years to develop.”
Asked if she could ever envisage making a drama series, Ramsay said it was unlikely.
“I’ve been asked to do things but I do love cinema. There is some great stuff out there. Maybe if it came from me. If I devised it… my first love is cinema and bringing people into a world.”