Lynne Ramsey cuts to the chase in a conversation in a way that's both refreshing and startling.
"Kids can be pretty cruel, ghastly creatures, you know," she said on the phone from London recently, "As well as beautiful lovable ones."
Ramsey is the director and screenwriter on "We Need to Talk About Kevin," a deeply disturbing film opening in Minnesota this weekend.
Critics have lauded the film, and in particular the performance of Tilda Swinton as Eva, a mother dealing with the aftermath of a high school massacre perpetrated by her son Kevin. Many tipped Swinton as a likely Oscar contender, but the Academy passed over her when announcing the best actress nominees.
Ramsey adapted Lionel Shriver's novel of the same name which was a best-seller in the UK, and much lauded in the U.S.
"I thought it was a modern classic in a way," said Ramsey in her soft Glaswegian accent. "It picks up in these ideas that I think are pretty taboo but really struck a chord with people."
The taboo is not the violence however. "We need to talk about Kevin" explores the world of a woman who is deeply worried about her antipathy towards her first-born child. Ramsey says she was attracted to the novel in the way it peeled back layer after layer of how what many people consider a basic human interaction can go horribly wrong.
"form>"It's kind of a fantasy about your deepest fears as a parent," Ramsey said. "What if you don't feel that instant bond? What if you don't feel that instant connection you are meant to feel? And what if the child perceives that? And on top of that the child is a very difficult child?"
Ramsey says Shriver's epistilatory novel proved a challenge to adapt. In letters to her husband Franklin Eva writes about what it's like to live in the community devastated by her sons actions, and how her own fears about Kevin grew over the years. Eva began worrying that Kevin is manipulative and antisocial very early on, but Franklin never witnesses Kevin's malicious side, and becomes feels Eva is imagining things.
Ramsey liked the subjective ambiguity the letters introduce into the story, but felt simply reproducing the letters even in part would make for a weaker film. She didn't even want to use any voiceovers because she believed that too would lessen the sense of subjectivity
She decided that she had to write from a viewpoint right inside her character's head.
"What if I put myself completely in Eva's position: almost take the form of the book and smash it up but in the way keep the same structure. It's very much she's looking back and trying to figure this out one way or the other. You are never quite sure whether what she is seeing is reliable or not."
In time though she also found she had to get inside Kevin's head.
"Sometimes it was thinking about almost having an empathy for him almost was very strange. To me I almost thought of it as a perverse love story."
"He knows that she doesn't like him," she continued. "She might be his mother and through that bond even love him, but liking and loving are very different things."
Ramsey says she didn't immediately think of Swinton as a potential Eva. However they are friends and when she sent the script to the actor Swinton responded with immediate interest.
"We naturally gravitated to one another and I guess I didn't know what a coup that was at the time.," Ramsey said.