Paraphrasing Lynne Ramsey

interview by Paula Nechak, 26 January 2001

It's a fall Friday in Seattle and thirty-year-old Scottish director Lynne Ramsey is raring to talk about her first feature, Ratcatcher. She's also suffering from a wee bit of a hangover. But what can you expect? The previous night she partied heartily at Seattle's "Women In Cinema" Film Festival where her haunting - and highly praised - debut cut the ribbon on the opening night festivities. At two the following afternoon she's still feeling a bit green, worsened by the looming prospect of an early evening flight to London and despite a Cuban coffee and a plate of cheese, fruit and bread heaped before her, courtesy of the Queen Anne based coffeehouse, Il Diablo. Ramsey's a petite brunette draped in wrap-around shades and a floor-length leather coat. She's full of determination and passion about the cinema and she wears a Scottish accent thicker than chest congestion via bronchial trauma; you sometimes have to strain your ears to catch her words if not her images and meanings. 

The director got her start in photography and transferred over to film, graduating from the National Film and Television School in 1995. Her short film, Small Deaths, won the Cannes Prix du Jury and her next project, Kill the Day, took home the Clermont Ferrand Prix du Jury. In 1998, Ramsey again nabbed the Cannes Prix du Jury prize for Gasman as well as snagging the Scottish BAFTA for Best Short Film. Ramsey's first feature, Ratcatcher, studies the residents of a '70s Glasgow neighborhood suffering through an oppressive garbage strike. This dismal, daunting world is seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie), who, as the film begins, has witnessed an accidental death. Consequently his family, friends and a negligible involvement in that death are shunted aside in favor of a different coping mechanism - a rapidly escalating fantasy life in which reality is not defined by his impoverished childhood, but a golden nether-realm in which he is carried away from the miasma of importune fate. It's a fascinating film that evokes visual shades of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven as well as the interiorized adolescent agonies of Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives. But Ratcatcher nonetheless manages to atypify its pulse on a culture crumbling under the weight of despair and neglect.

Paula Nechak: Was the cinema a way out of your neighborhood for you?

Lynne Ramsey: No, not really. I liked painting when I was kid and you know, you never really say when you're six years old, "I'm going to be a film director when I grow up." Actually, I got interested in photography and I applied at the National Film School not really expecting to get in. I lucked out because I never imagined I'd become a filmmaker.

PN: So how did it actually happen? What was the step that occurred between photography and the cinema?

LR: I think it was seeing Bette Davis in those camp melodramas - and old musicals. Those were the things I liked as a kid. I wasn't a real film buff; I hadn't seen many French films or foreign films or anything with subtitles -

PN: And now you've made a film with subtitles.

LR: Yeah. One of the guys who was in Ken Loach's film, My Name Is Joe told me he was really mad when they subtitled the film. He has quite a thick accent as well. He said, "The Americans, we have to understand them so we should start making them understand us." But I think we've had so many American films and you haven't had that many Scottish films in the States so it's required. After all even the English can't understand us Scottish people (laughs).

PN: Ratcatcher is a very specific film. It's set in the '70s, in Glasgow, and told from a young boy's point of view. Does its specificity make it more universal?

LR: Probably that and the details. The details are the things that make it dramatic. For example, when James tries to pull his mother's stocking over the hole in the hose. He tries to make it perfect for her. It says a lot about their relationship. There's something in the texture of the film that makes people remember and yeah, it's because those small details are universal.

PN: There are few films these days that make an audience work. Most are excruciatingly predictable. I've heard all the advance buzz about Ratcatcher, all the theoretic examination - the absence of traditional narrative values, the subjectivity, the reliance upon the visual to tell the story. I hate to compare filmmakers but it sounds reminiscent of Terrence Malick's 1977 film, Days of Heaven.

LR: Ummm. That's a great comparison. And yeah, a lot of movies now are like TV dinners aren 't they?

PN: But there's something about the less is more theory that applies in "Ratcatcher." Where did your inceptive thoughts about the design of the film come from? Were you walking down the street? Did you see a young boy near a canal? How did its structure take shape?

LR: It's not really about me but it's definitely a personal film. You don't see a lot of films made [about Glasgow]. And I came from there and I'm not ashamed of that so I thought I'd liked to make a film about the people I grew up with. That's how it all really started. I liked the idea of how this family stayed together through thick and thin and the complexity of the relationships within the family. Using a city under siege was a great backdrop and the reason I used a boy as the protagonist was because I'd already made a few films before about kids and they featured girls. I thought it would be rich to use a different perspective. There's a lot more peer pressure for a boy to become like his dad, to not show emotion in terms of death. There's very much a group mentality in that culture.

PN: Yet the dad isn't a one-dimensional drunk either. He has some very tender moments with his wife and kids.

LR: Well, I hate people who write characters that don't have dimensions. It really pisses me off because nothing is as simple as that. Drinking is a part of that culture you know? It's a means of escape.

PN: Film criticism is a relatively new "art form," if you can call it that. Maybe a social phenomenon. Ratcatcher has been praised, your short films have won awards at Cannes. The critical process is designed to tell others what to think. If you were a critic how would you review your film?

LR: Oh God. That's a hard one (laughs). I'd say it was great of course. I'd think it would stand out in some way because when it opened it Britain it was unique against a bunch of gangster films. I don't know, I don't know. Hopefully I'd like it. I only know it's like a vocation in a way - I do it because I have to.

PN: When you make a movie it's shot out of sequence and it's up to you and the editor to shape it. When you look back on it now, two years after making it -

LR: - would I see the flaws? Well, there are things about the ending.

PN: You wouldn't change the ambiguous ending would you?

LR: No, it kinda lives on its own by now. I wouldn't change its identity but I might have changed a couple of shots.

PN: To shift gears, do you ever feel pigeon-holed by the whole gender thing? Here you are at the "Women In Cinema" Film Festival...

LR: That's interesting because this is the first one I've actually been to. But I kinda feel like it's sometimes a bit marginalizing yet I also feel it's the best thing to do because there aren't many women directors in the world. Only two percent, I think.

PN: Did you find in University that film was taught only as an extension of the other arts? It's changed in some schools who actually have film schools, of course.

LR: Well, I like that better actually. Everything's combined and it becomes much more subconscious. it's a complex thing to make a film and to make more than one statement, you know? It's a very collaborative thing. You can't make a film by committee but you can get people who really know what you want. It's better for me, better for them and for our communication. I don't want to make films with people who don't have a clue what I'm trying to make or why they're on the production. Why bother?

PN: What comes first for you in the process, the image or the word?

LR: The image and the story should be a combination of each other. That's what makes it cinema; you're telling a story through image. I hate the "it looks good because its slick" mentality. I'm trying to find something else. I'm trying to read emotions through what I've shot - the space in the frame, the focus, why are we seeing this, not a wide shot? Why is it in close-up? What does that say? There's a logic to it. I don't like films that are glossy, you say "wow," but they're empty. I think that's bullsh*t. You need image, story, character, detail that's connected and which you cannot tell apart.

PN: What other directors do you like?

LR: Nic Roeg's brilliant and amazing. I like Alan Clarke (Rita, Sue and Bob Too; Scum) and a Scottish filmmaker named Bill Douglas, who died [in 1991 and made Comrades, My Way Home, My Ain Folk]. No one knows him but his work was incredible. I like Malick and some of Fassbinder's work; some of Lars von Trier, though I was disappointed by Dancer In the Dark. I hate the way he makes those martyred-women films.

PN: Do you ever feel frightened at being under such a magnifying glass? Everything is exposed when you successfully make a movie. There are no secrets, what with the media hungering for hype. Do you ever worry that aspect of the business will taint you as a filmmaker?

LR: I guess so. When you make a film you do expose yourself anyhow, like you're in your underwear or something. When I made my shorts I went to Cannes with them and really, no one gave a sh*t about short films. On one hand it was very tough but on the other it was nice because people actually saw your film and they talk to you and there's a vibe as to whether they liked it or not. Sometimes you think, "What am I doing here?" Yet on the other hand I'm grateful because this film wouldn't be the film it is if I hadn't done all of that.

PN: So Ratcatcher has opened doors for you?

LR: It has actually. I've got two other films I want to make. But I try never to worry too much about what I'm going to do tomorrow or if I'll actually get to make another movie. I do have American financing on my next one and so I feel like I have a true career. I feel pressure and I worry because of it that I might somehow f*ck it up. Now I just tell those worries, "Go away, go away."



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