Joan of Arc goes Manic Panic

Director Lynne Ramsay talks about child actors, chugging Jack Daniel's on Latvian TV and her celebrated coming-of-age movie, "Ratcatcher."

By Carlene Bauer

Published October 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Lynne Ramsay has a thing for Joan of Arc. "She's a good person to be into if you have to be obsessed with someone," says the 30-year-old Scottish director, who looks like Joan gone Manic Panic -- tiny, slender, with a girlish haircut dyed red and black. And she has a bit of the unexpected visionary about her. Ramsay grew up thinking she'd be a photographer, but on a whim, after seeing Maya Deren's film "Meshes of the Afternoon," she applied to Britain's National Film and Television School. Even though she'd never made a film she was accepted.

After a few years of confidence shaking she came out the other end with a graduation short film that won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, with one more Prix du Jury and an acclaimed feature, "Ratcatcher," to her name, Ramsay has been dubbed one of Britain's finest young filmmakers by the U.K. press.

"Ratcatcher," which was released in the U.K. last year but is opening in the U.S. now., takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, during a garbage strike in the '70s. At its center is James Gillespie (William Eadie), a desultory 12-year-old haunted by his implication in a playmate's death. To escape his occasionally drunk dad (Tommy Flanagan), long-suffering mom (Mandy Matthews) and snappish sisters, he buses to the end of the line and knocks about in the fields behind the empty homes of a new housing estate. Or he shuffles between Kenny, a kid with a speech impediment and an idiot savant-ish obsession with animals, and a gang of wannabe toughs, who practice being men on James' friend, Margaret Anne.

That's not much in the way of story, but Ramsay creates cinema the old-fashioned way -- with silent, moving pictures. Like her patron saint, she sees the things others overlook. The power of "Ratcatcher" comes from Ramsay's ability to visually articulate all sorts of indescribables: the pinched grief on James' dad's face as he and his mom dance their way through apology and forgiveness; the quiet contentment between James and Margaret Anne as they sit watching television.

I interviewed Ramsay in a New York hotel room during a press tour for "Ratcatcher." She drank room service Budweiser and chain-smoked while answering away -- with the occasional giggle breaking through her rapid-fire Scottish accent.

You wrote in one of the British papers that you felt that movies should provide an unquotable experience, that they should leave you feeling wordless. And it seems that you give that to the viewer with "Ratcatcher." You do an extraordinary job of evoking people's interior lives without much dialogue. Since the film feels more composed than scripted, how did you go about writing it?

I knew that I wanted to write about a young boy because I had never done that before. And I thought it was interesting because they have a bit more peer pressure to be desensitized and not express their emotions from a very early age, so that interested me. Also, I didn't want to write a cute kid, you know, the kid who's seen as the innocent victim. Right away we present this kid [James] whom the audience questions. But I start off the film with a much conventionally cuter kid and then shock the audience out of complacency by introducing who you think is going to be a main character and then kill him off.

For me, the script's not the final product, it's just a working process. People always know that it's always going to be a bit stressful working with me, but hopefully we'll get results! It's a bit like taking photos, actually, writing a script. You look at people, you listen to people, you look at the details, the body language that says something about them. So I guess being a photographer helps. But it's like taking photographs you'd always really want to take but could never quite get.

So how did you get from photography to directing?

I think I was provoked to apply because someone said, "Oh, you'll never ever get in, you need to have made a film," so I thought, "Fuck it, I'll just send in some stills and see what happens." With my stills I was documenting my life, going to clubs, some of the early rave scene. I was doing quite surreal still-life work, and I knew the school wouldn't accept me as a director, so I thought I'd apply as a cinematographer because then I could shoot documentaries and I could shoot fiction. But I had no idea what it really involved!

I made a lot of mistakes, but then I saw that those mistakes could be something that would work emotionally. I would maybe shoot a whole scene with the same lens and people would say, "Oh, you can't do that," and I would crop someone's head off while they were speaking a really important monologue. I was trying to think of interesting ways to get psychological insight into the character, but some people thought I was bonkers.

Because in film school a lot of the scripts for the short films, especially, they were really formulaic with a punch in the end, a twist in the tale. And I thought, "This means nothing to me; why I am shooting this?" Because I had to really understand it even as a cinematographer. Is this camera here for stylistic reasons? Explain it to me. So I was trying to think why I was putting the camera where it was. I think that helped me later as a director; you know, you're always looking for a reason, always looking for a kind of logic -- even my own illogic kind!

What did your parents think of all this mastering of fine arts?

They thought, "When is she going to be done with school?" But when the first film I directed went to Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola gave me the Prix and the press came to them in Glasgow, they were like, "What the hell?" They were really chuffed that I was going to Cannes but it was something abstract as well. I think that's when it started kicking in for them. We didn't have any money growing up, but they were great. My mom was a cleaner and dad had odd jobs, was unemployed for a bit, managed a bar and an outdoor market. They were cool about me doing something arty-farty and not knowing what I was doing, switching from painting to film or whatever I was doing.

What do you think about getting all those Prix and having the film garner you all this attention?

This can really ruin your work, this kind of recognition. But I just keep putting the pressure on myself. I try and make myself scared. It's not the most important thing in the world to make a film, but you've got to feel like that in order to get it done.

For your next project, you're directing and co-writing a screenplay adaptation of the Alan Warner novel "Morvern Callar," with Samantha Morton in the lead. I'm wondering what you saw in the book, because it seems like your filmmaking and his prose -- both kind of dense and spare at once, both letting the somewhat bizarre flower out of the ordinary -- seem perfectly matched.

I chose it because it was a really original voice -- I hadn't read a young girl like that for a while. Morvern's a mixture of a woman and a man. She doesn't analyze herself, which is a traditionally female thing to do -- I mean, I do it. But she's very much in the moment. She works in the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket and by this bizarre event completely reinvents herself. She's thinking, "I don't know who I am in the world and in relation to other people, but it's OK to be floating out there."

I think a lot of young people can relate to that -- I really relate to that. Sam's exactly like the kids I worked with on "Ratcatcher." She's really open, she's really instinctive. She has had some training as an actress, but she reminds me of other people that I worked with who are not professional actors. And probably the rest of the cast will be unprofessional. If you cast actors and nonprofessionals they both help each other. It doesn't always work, but if you get the right combination ... We'll start shooting in February.

You're living in London now, so what's your relationship to Glasgow, now that you've grown up and out? It seems, too, from the film that you kind of point out the city's split personality -- the neighborhood is rough, but there's a lot of tenderness between the people who live there.

It's a very beautiful and very ugly city in places. You get a backdrop of mountains and then you have these really tough urban environments. Something about it being a tough place really shapes the people. I always think you need some therapy when you leave Glasgow! Actually, London has given me a wee bit of perspective on it, but I'm always drawn back to it, you know. I love it. Even if you go into town and don't know anybody or you get on the bus someone will speak to you. I tend to be quite bad about compliments. When someone says, "Oh, that was really good, Lynne," I tend to say, "Oh, shut up." I think that's a real Glaswegian thing, that.

At times, the film feels like a pictorial poem to childhood -- at least, with James, that point in childhood where you're hanging around waiting for adolescence. There are so many great details -- how James scuffs new unwanted shoes with beer-bottle glass, how his little sister is always kind of flirting with their dad, the way the kids sit and cringe while their mom dances in the living room, but you know they secretly love it.

Yeah, I'm making these tiny little things the focus of the drama rather than them being in the background. But those details are kind of quite universal and actually remove it from being a film set in Glasgow, which I was trying to paint as a landscape that felt like it could be past, present or future. I get asked if the film is autobiographical -- I mean, I did grow up in housing estate in Glasgow -- but it's really more personal. I went to Latvia last week and people were saying to me, "That was my childhood." That's such a joy, whether you look at photographs or films or read a book and recognize something like that. I know I don't like that barrier up where someone says, "I'm so clever that you can't understand this," so I was trying to make something quite rich and quite sensual and textured. Some people will like that and some people will find it dull. It's not got any car chases in it, but I think it's got its own drama, and even the violence is tiny, it's got small violences -- one of the kids sends his mouse to the moon on the string of a balloon, but it becomes a very brutal act.

What was going on in Latvia?

"Ratcatcher" was an entrant in this film festival there -- part of it, in addition to an official award, was this lottery involving some kind of magic pebble. And the lottery consisted of this weird, almost pagan, ceremony where for some reason they had this big carp, this big fish, in a tank at the side of the stage, and everyone was like, "What the hell is going on?" There were, like, 18 directors and we all got up onstage, and then they took the fish out of the tank and a Japanese guy started beating the fish over the head and started making sushi out of it. I thought they were going to make us eat the sushi and find the magic pebble in the sushi. But no, this was just part of the ceremony. And then this guy brought up a tray of Jack Daniel's with cream or something so you can't see through the liquid, and he goes under a black cloth onstage and puts the magic pebble -- which was in the tank with the fish -- in a drink, and then we each took a glass. One of the other directors pointed to my glass and then I said, "Oh, I think I've got it," really quietly, and then they dragged me up to the front wearing this mustache of Jack Daniel's and cream. I saw it on telly in Latvia the next night and it was so embarrassing. And I won $10,000 -- which they gave to me in cash. It's probably Mafia money.

Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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