From: The Australian
November 02, 2011 12:00AM
Ezra Miller as teenage killer Kevin with Tilda Swinton as his mother, Eva, in Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of the bestseller We Need To Talk About Kevin. Source: Supplied
AUTHOR Lionel Shriver and actor Ezra Miller first met at this year’s Cannes film festival. The occasion was the world premiere of Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of Shriver’s bestselling novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, with the poutingly handsome, tousle-haired 18-year-old Miller playing the teenage psychopath of the book’s title, who goes on a murder spree at his US high school.
Tilda Swinton plays Kevin’s mother, Eva — the two involved in a charged stand-off — and the film, as with the book (which has sold more than one million copies), acts as a boa constrictor on the audience.
Kevin’s commanding terrorising of his mother, whether it be destroying her office or smirking when she walks in on him masturbating — the mystery of his antipathy, her own lack of maternal feeling and her resentment and fear of him — is powerfully realised by Ramsay.
The film is gripping and unbearable, less focused on the massacre (which occurs at the denouement) or the state of alienated American youth than with the wholly dysfunctional relationship of mother and son, both set apart from their peers, both interlopers in their own family.
Miller’s performance was so good that Shriver, 54, was undone by it. “She walked up behind me on the red carpet and said, ‘Well hello, Kevin,’ ” says Miller, sitting beside Shriver in a restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I turned around. A series of chills went up my spine. She looked deep into the chasm of my soul and said, ‘I feel I know you well.’ I wanted to die a terrible death, perhaps torn apart by wild quails with sharp beaks.”
Shriver tuts, with a big smile: “You see how full of shit he is? He’s very self-impressed, but you get irritated with yourself because he’s charming. When I saw Ezra on screen it was uncanny: what had been in my head had gotten out. It felt as if I had made Ezra up, as well as Kevin.”
Indeed, he was so like Kevin that she called him “a little shit”, writing that “something in me truly believed that this kid had killed seven students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker at his high school, and still thought rather well of himself for pulling the atrocity off”. Tonight, Shriver tells me: “I called him ‘a little shit’ because there was a sense that he is Kevin and proud of it. There’s an attraction I feel and I shouldn’t. The age difference makes it unseemly. But he’s cute.”
Their flirting feels half-theatrical, half-real. “I think Lionel’s cute. It’s very sick,” Miller says. “He seems very manipulative,” Shriver says. “I am deeply manipulative,” he says, dryly. The two love to parry.
The novel was written when Shriver was, as she puts it, “in the wilderness”; she had written six novels that had failed to gain recognition. Kevin, published in 2003, felt like a last roll of her dice, and its feel-bad material — not just the act of mass murder but also Eva’s maternal disillusion — had been rejected by multiple publishers. “The big difference between before Kevin and after Kevin is that I have an audience now,” Shriver says. “I didn’t enjoy writing for nobody.”
The critics mostly raved — Amanda Craig in The New Statesman called it “Desperate Housewives as written by Euripides” — although The New York Times was more qualified: “Shriver overwrites in every direction, but particularly in portraying Kevin as a monster from birth. That she eventually humanises him and her narrator makes the book memorable as well as frustrating.”
Shriver doesn’t have children and she once said that on finishing the book she realised that “if that’s what I think of when I imagine motherhood, then it’s probably not for me”. Although Kevin was written about the time of a spate of high-profile US school and college massacres — most famously at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 — Shriver wrote the novel, she once said, to “examine what it might be like for motherhood to go fatally, catastrophically wrong”. The verdict the reader must reach, Shriver said, was “whether Kevin was innately twisted or was mangled by his mother’s coldness”.
Shriver’s book doesn’t resolve that intriguing knot and neither does the film, which has been in troubled and protracted gestation since 2005, the same year the novel was awarded the Orange Prize. “I never thought that the film was going to happen,” Shriver tells me.
She had sold the option of her first novel, The Female of the Species, “and that hadn’t gotten anywhere”. With Kevin she was determined “not to lose any sleep over it”.
A different director might have sensationalised and ratcheted up the melodrama. Ramsay, director of Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher, while jettisoning the epistolary format of the novel (with Eva’s letters to husband Franklin), retains its claustrophobic, thriller-like momentum. The critics were mostly in thrall in Cannes. The Times’s Kate Muir said the “earth-shattering film” was a potential Oscar contender. For Shriver and Miller, the most powerful scene is the final one, which hints at redemption and love in the most glancing, spare way.
“I was delirious after the Cannes premiere, shaking at the knees,” Miller says. “As the least impartial audience member imaginable, I still felt viscerally assaulted.”
While you never see Kevin commit his massacre in the film, Miller says: “I committed the act in my mind and heart. When firing that quiver of arrows, I lived those murders. After the second take, I saw a body twitch to death in my mind and felt a catastrophic loss of innocence. Human beings are natural killing machines: we have very sharp teeth and, if we let our nails grow, sharp talons. We’re pretty much designed for penetration and murder.”
For author and star, the larger context of the film is over-pampered yet disconnected US teenagers. “Everybody, especially American male teenagers, is like Kevin,” Miller says. “They’re full of wrath. My generation is its own enemy.”
Shriver adds: “Young people in the US have it too easy. When I was a teenager I was horrified by the idea of becoming an adult-me: she would be lifeless, humourless.”
Shriver has “a lot of affection still” for Kevin. “I like his perspective, his wit, intelligence and smartness.” Miller sharpened Shriver’s vision of her murderous protagonist. “There are so many translations, reissues and now tie-ins, but most book covers have failed to capture Kevin. The Italian one has him as a dirty blond, the Chinese version shows a lurching teddy bear looking insane and dangerous. The Brazilian one, my favourite, is black and white, a kid standing in the middle of the road wearing a bear’s head. Ezra has wiped out these arrant images and my own image of Kevin. He is so close to it. He ate my Kevin.”
Miller only skim-read the novel in preparation. “The book is written through Eva’s perspective, not Kevin’s,” he says. “I was going to read it properly when we finished, but the second we were I couldn’t touch it. It was the type of puppet you make and then burn.”
Shriver chose not to be involved with the film, although Ramsay canvassed her opinion on casting. “If you had been there, you and Lynne would probably both be dead,” Miller says. “You’re both prime candidates for murderers, both hardcore, both looked the truth a little too hard in the face.”
Shriver smiles: “With a film adaptation there’s a subtle tussle over who really possesses this story, whose version is better . . . a film adaptation is a form of theft.”
“Look, more people are going to see our movie than read your book,” Miller reasons brutally, Kevin-ishly. “You’re right,” Shriver concedes, “a lot of people will see the film instead of reading the book. I signed up for this. Any author would feel lucky to be in my position. It does require a maturity that doesn’t come naturally, though. I’m very possessive and territorial. My comfort is, I still have my book.”
She has long mulled over the possibility of a mass murderer citing her book as an inspiration. “But I’ve already rationalised it, should it happen: if someone is crazy enough to do something, they would have done it with or without reading my book.”
Shriver is working on her next novel, which is about obesity; her brother Greg died of the condition in 2009, “but the novel is not a memoir, it’s made up”.
Miller is working on two film projects, “trying to gather an arts collective together in New York”, and preparing to release the second album from his band Sons of an Illustrious Father, in which he plays drums, “which is pure emotion, a drive. I’m like that Muppet, Animal.”
As they finish their glasses of wine, Shriver and Miller decry the film’s poster, bathed in lurid red with a tag line, “Mummy’s little monster”. “It makes it seem like a horror film and the tag line is atrocious on a million different levels,” Shriver says. She also disagreed with Ramsay’s decision to have Kevin kill his victims with a bow and arrow rather than a crossbow, “which has a much more lethal velocity”. Miller disagrees, saying he calculated how he could kill so many with a bow and arrow. Indeed, the film turned him on to archery. He is about to get a licence and will shoot deer for food. “Hunting is the flipside of what Kevin does: a positive confrontation with our essentially violent natures,” he reasons.
Shriver, who hopes she and Miller remain friends, is overjoyed. “Deer are an overpopulating pest. Kill as many as possible and send me the meat, please. It’s impossible to find venison in the supermarket.” Finally, Kevin has become the right kind of killer.
We Need to Talk about Kevin is in cinemas on November 10.