Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Lynne Ramsay

'Callar' ID

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 8, 2003—One of the most promising directorial debuts of the 90s -- along with the more explosive ones by Quentin Tarantino (>Reservoir Dogs), Richard Linklater (Slacker) and Wes Anderson (>Bottle Rocket) -- came quietly with a little film made in 1999 and released in the early hours of 2001 called Ratcatcher.

The film didn't exactly blow the doors off the box office, but those who saw it were haunted by it for months afterward. It beautifully captured the damaged spirit of a place -- a small Glasgow village during a garbage strike -- and the dreams and fears of the people who live there. Only once the mood was established did it quietly weave the barest thread of a story throughout.

The writer/director behind >Ratcatcher was Lynne Ramsay, a Scottish native trained at the UK's National Film and Television School.

Now Ramsay, 32, returns with hard proof that her first film was no fluke. Her beautiful, lyrical new film, Morvern Callar, is based on a novel by Alan Warner and stars Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown), but still resonates with the same unique feel her indie debut had.

Set in Scotland at Christmastime, Morvern Callar begins when Morvern (Morton) discovers that her boyfriend has committed suicide. She opens the presents he has left for her, goes to a party with her best friend Lanna (first-timer Kathleen McDermott), and returns home, taking stock of her situation. The boyfriend has left behind a finished novel, upon which Morvern deletes his name and adds her own. He has also left behind a healthy bank account.

So Morvern submits the novel, disposes of the body, takes the money and invites Lanna on a trip to Spain.

But again, plot here is secondary to character and mood. "I'm quite conscious of what I'm doing, but it's all based on logic," Ramsay says during a recent visit to San Francisco. "It seems subjective, but it's actually quite objective. I wanted it to have a free form."

Her pleasant voice comes through with a thick accent, and it's not always easy for an American to understand her. (>Ratcatcher was subtitled in English for American audiences, though Morvern Callar is not.)

One of the most important things on Ramsay's agenda was to show the party scene -- as well as a later club scene -- as realistically as possible.

"It was a real party," she says. "We just threw the actors in there. I don't like party scenes and club scenes in movies. It never feels like the real thing: those shots with lots of people waving their arms in the air. It never feels like being at a club."

Ramsay invited friends and friends-of-friends for a real party and told them that they could drink a little and make conversation. If one of the actors came up to them, just have a normal conversation. She says that everyone was a little stiff in front of the camera, but as the evening wore on, everyone loosened up.

"I think they all drank a little before they came," she says with a grin.

After the party, Morvern and Lanna march home together, stumbling and balancing on each other and behaving truthfully as if they were old friends.

"They really became friends," Ramsay insists. "I met Samantha early and we just hit it off. And I wouldn't have cast Kathleen if they hadn't got on. There was a really good energy there. It felt like a real friendship rather than a girly movie friendship."

Ramsay was not daunted by the idea of working both with first-timer McDermott, and with Morton, a veteran of directors like Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Alison Maclean.

The director says that McDermott found it easy to be herself on camera, which made her feel comfortable enough to expand the role beyond the novel. "She's got a real comic element about her," Ramsay says.

On the other hand, Ramsay had never directed a professional actress before but found Morton an absolute wonder to work with.

"I felt like she wasn't even acting," she says. "It's like meeting a child. She has this quality of being from another planet. And the way she looks at things. She's intelligent but not academic -- she's intuitive. She's really extraordinary in that you can see her in lots of films and you don't recognize her. She always brings a freshness like she's in it for the first time. I think that's hard to keep, and she's managed to do that."

Even if Morvern Callar does not find the reception it deserves, Ramsay is already hard at work on her third feature, The Lovely Bones, adapted from Alice Sebold's best-selling novel. She agreed to the movie before the novel was even published, and so had no idea how huge it would be.

As a result, Ramsay's fans may worry that she'll sell out and lose her poetic vision. "We'll raise the budget in terms of what it's going to cost," Ramsay insists. "And it will be true to what's there in the book, but it will still be my film, in the way that I do it."

[Note: The Lovely Bones, sadly, was eventually made by Peter Jackson.]

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