One of the year’s most anticipated dramas, We Need To Talk About Kevin tells the story of a mother reflecting on her relationship with her teenage son after he has carried out a horrific massacre at his high school in Middle America. Focusing on the aftermath of the event, it is an emotionally overwhelming account of a woman forced to live with the burden of something for which she is not responsible, haunted by memories of moments from their relationship that she now feels have foreshadowed Kevin’s appalling crime.
Based on Lionel Shriver’s best-selling book, the film is also a return to cinema for Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish director rightly lauded for her early films Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Caller (2002). This is Ramsay’s first feature film in nearly a decade, having previously been attached to the adaptation of the The Lovely Bones eventually directed by Peter Jackson, and her return has received rave notices on the eve of its UK release.
Featuring a phenomenal performance from Tilda Swinton as Eva, it also boasts a remarkable turn from young actor Ezra Miller as Kevin. But in many ways Ramsay is the film’s star, building an incredible level of atmosphere with a meticulous use of sound, colour and production design that serves to create a world convincingly skewed by trauma. Ramsay and Miller sat down in a London hotel room a few hours ahead of We Need To Talk About Kevin’s London Film Festival premiere this week to discuss the process of putting such a beloved and challenging story on screen.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is fascinating in the way if refracts everything through the psyche of Eva, played by Tilda Swinton. How did you set about doing that?
Lynne Ramsay: Well I guess it was the starting point of the script. The book is in letters, and I thought about it like a filmmaker. I thought “Okay, well, this is Eva’s here and now, and this is what she goes through every day, running the gauntlet. She’s chosen to stay in this area where everybody is aware of what her son has done, almost as a punishment.” I thought about all the things running through her mind, the weight of guilt and responsibility; that she has to relive this constant nightmare and piece together and look back at things, and look at her own flaws as well. So that was the starting point.
So it’s fair to say that the film isn’t a straight adaptation?
LR: It’s a real jigsaw puzzle piece. It’s a very wordy novel, and you couldn’t do a translation, or an exact adaptation. I don’t think that would have worked. There are still quite a lot of things they have in common. There are lots of parts of it [the book] that are very much in it. Maybe not the long, long dialogue scenes, but it was really about finding an interpretation that felt it kept the real essence of what is was about, so I was more concerned with the mother-son relationship than an atrocity. I took that angle, and the angle of always staying within her perspective.
That perspective is designed to make you question whether she is imagining things, isn’t it?
LR: Well, I liked the notion in the novel as well of ‘How do we know what she’s seen is real?’ There are points where you might shift a little bit. You can see him as black and white but maybe you don’t, and playing with those kinds of ideas was really fascinating.
What is it like playing a character that may by the figment of somebody else’s imagination?
Ezra Miller: it was interesting, and you’re right it was almost like playing a dream figure within the context of memory. In the end it was sort of helpful because it focuses the performance, in that Kevin’s actions as perceived by Eva are those played towards Eva, so in that sense I got to involve myself in the show that Kevin is putting on, this specific performance that he is putting on for the singular audience member, his mother.
Is that more or less challenging than other acting roles? It must give you slightly less freedom in some sense.
EM: I feel like there are different types of challenges that will always be found for an actor within every different type of role. This held very specific challenges; challenges to my heart and challenges to my own psyche! But I don’t know if I’d say it was more or less challenging than any other role. It’s just challenging in very specific, scary ways.
Another fascinating thing about the film is how it uses very stylised production design, colour and sound to create atmosphere, rather than relying on dialogue.
LR:I didn’t want it to be at arms length or to create a sense of removal. I wanted it to let you in and I wanted to retain the black humour of the novel as well. Although some people don’t know whether to laugh or not! The sound design was very much in there from the beginning, although it developed a bit. Colours came into it, as I was using sensory techniques to bring you into different locations, instead of expositional ones, and there’s an economy in that as well. Also it sets certain things up that come back and are subliminal, especially sound. Sound does that much more effectively than picture actually.
The emotional intensity of the film must have been very hard to create straight away. Did you have time to develop that on set?
LR: There was no room to play around on set. We had 30 days to shoot, so there’s absolutely no room. Everything was very structured, planned, and because I was cutting and cutting and we didn’t have a lot of money to make it, it was a very tight shoot. You had to be very clever about what you did, and keep an economy while still keeping the audience there.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is out today.