Mother's Little Monster

Lynne Ramsay and Tilda Swinton on the complexities of their Columbine-inspired collaboration

Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a killer in <i>We Need to Talk About Kevin</i>.
Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Nothing prepares you for coming face to face with Tilda Swinton. This Oscar-winning actress cuts an imposing figure: tall, red-headed, androgynous, fashionable, and regal, yet looking as though she might be a near relative of David Bowie's alien Ziggy Stardust alter ego. Swinton's résumé is no less striking. Iconoclastic is the word that best describes her work and the numerous gender-bending roles she's played in addition to parts that plumb deep questions of identity and self. She has worked with many of the most challenging directors of our time, as well as others whose films have few prospects beyond the festival circuit. Her multifilm collaboration with the gay experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman early in her career led to work with such other distinctive artists as Spike Jonze, Sally Potter, and Jim Jarmusch. Swinton has also been featured in many popular American movies, appearing as the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia films, one of the goofy lead characters in the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, a key figure in David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the duplicitous and cutthroat attorney in Michael Clayton – the role for which she received her Oscar.

Along with director Lynne Ramsay, Swinton is one of the executive producers of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Involved in the project from its early script stages, Swinton also helped shape the film during its editing process. The movie is adapted from author Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel of the same name, a tragic and deeply unsettling story set in the post-Columbine era. The film discards the novel's epistolary structure in favor of more dramatically focused storytelling. Nonlinear while also burrowing relentlessly toward the narrative's core, the film is a harrowing journey.

Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of a teenage boy who goes on a killing rampage. Eva's voyage through grief, guilt, and acceptance form the crux of the story, which also observes Kevin's puzzling connections to his family. From infancy, Kevin is a peculiar child who is born with a seeming tendency toward sociopathy, but his mother's ill-fitting relationship with him is an undeniable factor in his perverse evolution. Viewers will differ in their opinions of the motivations of Kevin (who is played brilliantly by Ezra Miller in his teenage years, and Jasper Newell and Rock Duer during different stages of his childhood) and those of his uneasy mother, Eva. The mother and son's tense pas de deux is a dance that's out of step with their other family relationships. (John C. Reilly plays Eva's husband, and Ashley Gerasimovich plays her younger daughter.) It's a relationship that only finds firm footing in the aftermath of disaster.

I interviewed Swinton and Ramsay in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Though each interview was conducted separately, many of the questions asked and topics discussed overlapped and are combined below. Swinton was thoroughly disarming as she pulled up a chair to face me. Sitting erect and nearly knee-to-knee with her interviewer, she asked almost as many questions of me as I of her. Ramsay, a talkative Scottish director, has a sunny disposition that belies the dark recesses of her previous feature films, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. Nine years have intervened since the release of her last feature in 2002. One project that was dear to her heart during this time was an adaptation of The Lovely Bones, the popular novel that was ultimately made into a film by Peter Jackson. Despite turning in "a million drafts," Ramsay parted ways with the producers when they couldn't reach an accord on how the movie should be made. Eventually, another novel caught her eye: We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Austin Chronicle: The title of this movie is so appropriate because viewers come away from it really wanting to talk.

Tilda Swinton: It is to be talked about. There's nothing fixed in the film. Whether we live with children or have had children or not, we've all been children; we've all had mothers. And we've all seen moments on our mothers' faces that we haven't necessarily understood when we were children. But you do understand more when you become a parent yourself – moments of cluelessness and being lost and also that searching for the mask to put it back on again, that feeling that your mother might not be completely authentic and not knowing quite how to get her to come back to full attention. I think we've all experienced that. It's not actually very exotic.

AC: We Need To Talk About Kevin also delves into the very taboo subject matter of what happens when a mother isn't crazy about her offspring or about being a mother.

Lynne Ramsay: It's a dirty little secret, that. It's like, "Oh god, I know someone like that." Everyone does. ... I like stories about strong women, and stories that have never been told.

TS: There's really an assumption that that maternal instinct is an inevitable thing and – whether we know mothers who have had this terrible experience of having a child and that instinct not kicking in or whether it's the children of those mothers – we all know at least somebody who's been through that experience. There's this habit these days of editing experience and only choosing the Hallmark card aspects of life. Life's much more interesting and tougher than Hallmark would have us believe – more interesting and better, more shades and more substance, and more worth living as well.

AC: I was struck by some people's reaction to the movie as a perverse kind of love story. I had been thinking of it more in terms of a horror movie.

TS: We talked about it [during the shoot] as a war film as well. This is one of the reasons why we worked in widescreen. There's that sort of Sergio Leone standoff with Kevin on one side of the frame and Eva on the other. I remember years ago reading a book by a very erudite film semiotician, and he was talking about unconscious placement in a cinema frame. Because we read from left to right, what one tends to do unconsciously as a filmmaker is put the protagonist on the left of frame and the antagonist – the problem – on the right. And interestingly enough, and I remember saying this to Lynne after we'd completed shooting, that every time we got to a point where Kevin and Eva were put like that, Eva was always the problem. He's the leading aspect and she's the antagonist.

LR: In a way, Kevin takes everyone else out, so his mother has to pay him attention. They're left together at the end. Mothers, whatever the damage, that's your son. People say it's a horror film, but this is more terrifying because it's real. ... It's a scary film in many ways, but it's a ride. It's a "what if" or the worst-case scenario.

AC: It's so much Eva's point of view throughout the story.

TS: But she's getting in the way. And I think, for her, that is the worst part of all of this horror. Not that she looks at him and he's a foreign element. What's really horrific is that she understands him only too well. He's so familiar. He is her. He came out of her; the apple did not fall far from the tree.

AC: He is a demon child.

TS: He's her demon child, though. It's so funny. I just remembered a very funny thing. Whenever my children and I are watching any kind of scary movie, if my daughter is scared of an animal or something, I always say, "Its mother loves it." I just realized the truth of what I've always said to her: Its mother loves it.

AC: I love Lynne Ramsay's color sense and the way she moves objects through the frame is remarkable.

TS: Lynne is such a pure filmmaker and cinematographer. This is why it was interesting to work with her. For her to manage to make such a cinematic film out of such a literary book is a major triumph.

LR: You always have to work films out, really plan, but this project was insane. And we had 30 days to shoot it. Everything had to be precision. But people like Tilda, they're fine. They can just turn up and bring it. Tilda and I talked a lot, and I went up and stayed at her house just to hang out, just to chill out. She already knew what I wanted and she doesn't like rehearsing. Instinct? She's fresh, like silent movie actresses with faces that are very subtle. So many of Tilda's scenes are silent, just facial and body language. I so enjoy writing for these fantastic people.

We Need To Talk About Kevin opens in Austin theatres Friday, Feb. 3. See Film Listings for review.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton, Lynne Ramsay, Lionel Shriver, Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, Columbine

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