Director Lynne Ramsay, her husband and co-script-writer Rory Kinnear and star Ezra Miller talk to us about the film version of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin
Lots of admirers of your first two films are thrilled to have you back behind the camera – do you share that enthusiasm and relief?
Lynne Ramsay: Yeah. It’s taken quite a long time. I’ve been making some music in the meantime so have been having a life as well. It was a real Fitzcarraldo – pushing a boat up a hill – to get this movie made. I had a bad experience with the one before [Lynne was working on The Lovely Bones] so I wasn’t planning to take that amount of time out. But it’s good to take a step back actually. This was a very complex project as well and the script was very complicated. It is great to be back and hopefully I’ll be back behind the camera sooner rather than later next time.
And why Lionel Shriver’s novel why did you think it would make a good movie?
Lynne Ramsay: I normally don’t read that many contemporary novels – I’m still working my way through the classics and that’ll take while! This was the most original thing I’d read for ages. It’s a modern classic, if you like, because it addresses quite a taboo subject that I don’t thing has been explored that much – especially not in film – what if you don’t feel that bond with your child? That’s a really interesting thing to explore and that attracted me to it.
Ezra this was challenging role for any actor did you relish the challenge of it?
Ezra Miller: It was fantastic. It would be hard for any actor who wasn’t darkly psychotic but for me it was a breeze!
And how did you prepare for the role? Did you do any research into the mind of a killer, for example?
Ezra Miller: I wouldn’t say research cause that implied I searched somewhere. I just searched internally – we all have killer brains!
Did your role in Afterschool serve as a sort of 90 minute audition for this given that it covers similar territory?
Ezra Miller: Well it’s dark psychosis! So they knew I can achieve dark psychosis!
Rory Stewart Kinnear: There was a huge casting process to find Kevin – maybe 500 kids or something like that – and we saw Ezra three times so we made him work for it. But he was Kevin – he didn’t have to do any research!
Lynne Ramsay: When he walked into the room I knew I’d found Kevin. I did make him work for it but he just got it. Ezra was it – simple as that.
And what about the rest if the casting – how did that go?
Lynne Ramsay: We didn’t have a lot of money to make this film and it was just a 30-day shoot. We were trying to make a film in America with UK money when the dollar was getting stronger so we didn’t know if we had the budget before we went. It was really intense. I went for one casting session in LA and thought I’ve just got to stay here or we’ll never find the children. Rory and myself both moved to America. We went out for one week and didn’t come back for six months – we had one little suitcase and were sleeping on people’s floors. It was kinda crazy but I knew I needed that time to find the three children and babies. Luckily, I worked with this wonderful casting director Billy Hopkins, who cast things like Precious. He gave me this extra time – as a lot of people did on this film as they simply weren’t getting paid very much. But to find both younger boys took months.
How did you come about casting Tilda Swinton in the role of Eva?
Lynne Ramsay: I’ve known Tilda as a friend for a while now and I talked about the project to her a few times when we met in the States. She was really excited about it and had read the book but we never really thought she was going to be in it. She wouldn’t have been someone I’d naturally have thought about for Eva but the I thought this is great because she’s so conspicuous because of her height and her look and that really works in an interesting way in that small community where everyone knows what her son has done. I thought that height and physicality was interesting as she’s trying to hide herself a lot.
Also to make her look like a plainer mother was a real challenge. But she took me by the scruff of the neck to get the part. She was the first person I sent the script to and she got in touch within three hours and said she was taking me for lunch. Then she said she’d audition and everything and I was like: “It’s ok you are Tilda Swinton!” But she really wanted it and she’s very humble. I needed someone reliable, I didn’t have time for anyone who’d have histrionics or the odd “moment”. She comes from a military background and I think that’s in her – she just gets on and does the job.
What was your relationship with Tilda like and how did you go about building that “non-relationship” you have as mother and son?
Ezra Miller: Off set we just hung out and she would sort of treat me in a kind, good maternal way with lots of cuddles. I think there was something good in that in helping form the non-relationship. There’s a quintessential element to the bond between a mother and a son and I think to just cultivate a bond – period – allowed us when we got into a scene we have a blank canvas of connection to then paint horrific awfulness on top.
What was it like directing some of the younger characters when the implications of some of their behaviour is quite dark?
Lynne Ramsay: Yeah it was very interesting – especially the very young kids. Rocky Duer, who was just three and a half I didn’t know if I could direct a three and a half year old. But this kid was extraordinary – and that was down to Billy and a lengthy casting process. He just walked into the room wearing a little leather jacket, climbed up on this chair that seemed like a mountain to him and turned round to me. I said one of the lines from the film to him: “Can you say mummy, Kevin?” And he just said: “No!” [As he’s supposed to in the film.] Then I asked him to throw something and he threw it at me. He didn’t say another word got up and walked out the door and that was the whole thing.
I don’t think that kid said one word to me he just took direction. Luckily, Ezra saved the day on occasion as he came to all the other scenes to study the kids and pick up any nuances. In one scene where Kevin has to roll the ball back to Eva you could see Rocky was not happy about wearing the diapers. He was thinking “I’m a big boy” and didn’t want to wear them. That’s the only time he lost the plot and he screamed and he screamed until Ezra took him outside.
Ezra Miller: I called Santa Claus – or Father Christmas as all of you know him. I placed a 45-minute call to Santa Claus and told Rocky that if he finished the scene he’d be such a hero that he would certainly – and this is true in America – be rewarded with all the gifts he could possibly ever want. I placed that call but started to question my own sanity when I realised that Rocky had been convinced to do the scene 20 minutes ago and I was still having a one-sided conversation with Santa.
Rory Stewart Kinnear: When you’re talking about the dark subject matter and where it’s leading the one thing I saw from Lynne was she just gives the kids one little job to do at a time and they have no concept of what’s going to happen next. They’re living in the moment of that so even though Jasper Newell who plays the middle Kevin was smarter than his years it was only towards the end of the shoot that he started to realise Ezra’s Kevin wasn’t such a nice guy. I remember sitting on the lawn with him and he said: “I feel like Ezra’s Kevin is eating my Kevin.”
What were your thought processes around how you presented the school massacre given that you come from Scotland where the Dunblane massacre took place?
Lynne Ramsay: It was probably the thing that least interested me I always felt it was a smokescreen – for want of a better word – for what this is actually about which is about a mother and a son and the many aspects of their relationship. It was hard thinking about it but one thing I didn’t want to do was to show a lot of violence because I think film can focus on that too much. I think film like Elephant [Gus van Sant] has already dealt with that brilliantly. I felt Eva never sees what goes on she can only imagine that. She can only see the aftermath and I really approached it like that.
Rory Stewart Kinnear: Right from the off this film was never going to be about social commentary or trying to understand about high school killings this is a psychological film and those things are there for symbolic reasons not for us to explore. This is a Greek tragedy about a family.
Was Lionel Shriver involved at all in the creative process?
Lynne Ramsay: Not really. We had a conversation early on where I told her I wasn’t going to approach it via the letters the way she does in the book and she was totally cool about that. After that I’m sure she started to wonder what was happening as it was so stop-start for a while. It was really nerve-wracking when Lionel came to the screening in May. We didn’t know which way she’d go and she’s quite a strong woman so I was expecting an extreme reaction one way or the other. It’s a very different piece, it’s almost inspired by rather than very literal and I think she appreciated that. What she was trying to do in the novel was repeated in the film just in a different form. After the screening we just went for a glass of wine and I think she was a little stunned at first – but pleasantly stunned rather than aghast. I did give her my hat so maybe that helped. It looked better on her but I don’t really know why I did it. So there you go Lionel Shriver stole my hat!
Ezra Miller: You heard it here first – we bribed Lionel Shriver with a very nice hat to like the film!