x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

We Need to Talk About Kevin: One film's exploration of a mother's agony

The director Lynne Ramsay and the actress Tilda Swinton talk about the making of the film We Need to Talk About Kevin.

A scene from the film We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton, which screens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Saturday.
A scene from the film We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton, which screens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Saturday.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the much-awaited adaptation of Lionel Shriver's award-winning book about a boy who commits a Columbine-style massacre at an American high school. It's directed by Lynne Ramsay, the much-admired Scottish director of Ratcatcher and Morvern Caller.

Ramsay's first film in nine years stars Tilda Swinton as Kevin's mother, Eva, from whose perspective the book is written, John C Reilly as her husband and the newcomer Erza Miller as the older Kevin.

It's impossible to retain on screen the format of the book, which is written as a series of letters by Eva to her husband, a structure that had led many to claim that the book could not be adapted.

Miller argues that he almost had to forget about the book when taking on the role of Kevin.

"I read the book like scripture," he says, "and when I shut it, I let it fade into the memory. So much of Kevin is about him trying to figure out what is going on."

Swinton adds: "That book is written in letters, so it is about her being communicative, we knew we didn't want her to be so communicative in the film, we wanted to go with her head and her heart, so we knew that the film was going to be more inarticulate than that book ever is. It was really about us forgetting the book."

As such, the aspect of Eva being a travel writer is alluded to in the book. Indeed, much of the back story of Eva is missing from the screen adaptation in a process that Swinton likens to stripping cheese. Taking back layers and layers of the book to make the story work for the screen.

"A very important element of the book is that Eva is not only a travel writer but is a great adventurer," says Swinton. "She has a sense of herself not as an American but as a world traveller. She doesn't identify herself as American, no sense of feeling grounded as an American, she feels like a world citizen, and that was a series of decisions between myself and Lynne to whittle that element of the book out. We couldn't put it all in, and it's there if you look, she is named on a poster as a great adventurer."

Ramsay's eye for the visually stunning is prevalent in the first scene, shot during La Tomatatina in Buñol, Spain, a festival taking place in August where the participants are involved in a giant tomato fight. Harking to her past as a travel writer, Swinton is seen being submerged in a sea of red tomatoes. It's a powerful metaphor for the story of a mother punishing herself over the actions and crimes of her son.

"We didn't have a lot of money to deal with," says Ramsay about deciding to shoot while the festival was actually taking place. "We just shot the sequence and we only had one hour to shoot it as that's how long the festival lasts. It's a testament to Tilda that we could fling her into that. It was like we were in a bloodbath - 40,000 people in a little road made it interesting to shoot there, to say the least.

"But we thought, she had this life before as a traveller, and the way it worked as a metaphor of her guilty feeling. It was a gamble to shoot there that might not have paid off."

In the end, it has become one of the most remarkable starts to a movie this year. Ramsay structures the first act so that it doesn't matter whether the audience knows the film is about a school shooting or not. It's clear something heinous has happened and the crux is whether Eva should have done more to prevent her son from going nuts.

The central relationship is between Eva and her son. The middle section is made up of increasingly antagonistic discussions between them.

"Everything they say to each other is some form of fakery," says Swinton, "the fictions of family life."

Ramsay says of the story: "You want to see the best in your children always, but there is also turning a blind eye. I think sometimes you look at the state of the world and this is where a lot of the problems are coming from."

The iconography of horror films is prevalent throughout and in one pointed moment, Eva stands with her crying baby next to a pneumatic drill on the streets of New York. Ramsay, a master of metaphor, captures Eva's feelings of helplessness and isolation. She also never loses sight of the fact that this is a story about contemporary America and in keeping with pop references, has Swinton standing in a supermarket against a column of tomato soup cans as if in one of Warhol's screen tests.

This is a story that wonders how much everyone is a culprit of the crimes committed. There is a fascination with evil that is human nature. At one point, Kevin asserts that television viewers are "watching people like me. Don't you think they would have changed the channel if all I did was get an A in geography?".

Shot in Stanford, Connecticut, there are many moments of near silence as the antagonism between mother and son builds. Swinton jokes: "I'm all for silent cinema; I'm very bad at learning my lines."

Ramsay says there was a need to stay within horror genre conventions because of the "dark subject matter".

"I wanted to make something accessible," she says.

Swinton says of the part that many feel may lead to her receiving an Oscar nomination: "The role is looking at stuff that one really doesn't want to think about. It's like looking under a rock, looking in your peripheral vision all the time. It was exhausting to constantly have to look for that uncomfortable place.

"It was not troubling in the sense that the wonderful thing about looking at dark material is, at the end of the day, you are so happy it is not your life."


We Need to Talk About Kevin is showing on Saturday at 9pm, Vox 1 and next Friday at 8.45, Vox 1.