Lynne Ramsay Starts With a Punch


“People tend to romanticize childhood,” says Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsay. “I think it’s actually quite a brutal place. I’m not interested in cutesy coming-of-age dramas; I much prefer something like Lord of the Flies. Children are shown a kind of hypocrisy in the adult world. People want to protect children, but children are never protected, really.”

Ramsay’s first feature, Ratcatcher, beautifully captures both the agonizing vulnerability and the escapist flights of an impoverished childhood. Dreamily suspended between kitchen-sink and magical realism, it’s an unsentimental, impressionist portrait that balances unblinking squalor and hallucinatory reveries against the startling backdrop of the mid-’70s refuse workers’ strike. Though Ratcatcher is less autobiographical than her prizewinning shorts, Gasman and Small Deaths, Ramsay drew heavily on her memories of the period. “I was about five, and the city was under siege, but it was magical, like this great playground—it felt almost medieval. For me beauty and horror have always been quite close, and that’s often how kids are—you know, like the fascination they feel in looking at a dead animal.”

Ramsay says it was unfortunately easy to find suitably grim locations. “Those places do exist, although I’m sure the Scottish tourist board would rather not know that. We were even told, ‘Don’t bother to bring the rats—they’re already here.’ The people on the street we shot on were quite suspicious. But we got some of them involved as extras and it became almost like a community project.” Much of the budget was devoted to building a polluted canal that looms large in the film—not just physically but psychologically and metaphorically, as the site of a defining trauma and the ominous locus of murky, unspoken fantasy. “It was quite ambitious for the money that we had,” says Ramsay, “but I had a bonkers designer. We dug a big hole and actually found some toxic waste, which cost a lot to take away.”

Ratcatcher opens with a trance-inducing slow-motion shot of a boy at play, wrapping himself up mummy-like in lace curtains—and proceeds to wrong-foot the viewer by abruptly killing off the kid in question and shifting the focus to his guilt-ridden friend, James. “The boy who drowns is more of a conventional cute kid,” says Ramsay. “But I wanted to tell a story about this other kind of boy, who you’re not too sure of. The first scene also sums up a lot of the film for me. It’s poetic, and there’s something scary about it, and then you’re slapped back into this harsh reality.”

Ramsay doesn’t dispute the bleakness of her film—”I tried to get to the root of what it’s like being a 12-year-old when there’s not a lot of future”—but refuses to see it as a direct descendant of the British miserablist tradition. “I also wanted to show the other side, which is incredibly naive and simple and beautiful. When people say the film’s dark and heavy, it really pisses me off. I’ll show you a few dark, heavy films that’ll make this look like Disney.”

Since Ratcatcher premiered at Cannes last year, Ramsay has attained next-big-thing status in the U.K. (she won a BAFTA, among other awards) and, to her annoyance, has been subjected to numerous lofty comparisons—from Bresson to Malick, Loach to Scottish director Bill Douglas. “It’s flattering, but when people compare it to social realism, it’s as if they’re not seeing the film,” she says. “And I get this ‘you’re Scottish, you’re a woman’ thing, which just makes you feel marginalized.”

In the move from short films to features, Ramsay says, “You get a lot of pressure to become a different kind of filmmaker, and you wonder why people asked you to make the film in the first place. I’m a bit of a fighter, though—I mean, if I don’t feel something’s right, I just can’t sleep and it drives me absolutely mad.” Ramsay did have to fight to keep the film’s resolutely ambiguous ending. “I think there was pressure to have a happy ending from the financiers. And in my own way, it is a happy ending.” She adds with a laugh: “I get letters with stamped self-addressed envelopes, asking, ‘Please tell me what happened.’ ” (She doesn’t reply, so don’t bother writing.)

Using all first-time crew and a mostly nonprofessional cast, Ramsay elicits remarkable performances from the untrained child actors (including William Eadie as James and the director’s niece, Lynne Ramsay Jr., as James’s sister). “I’m always looking out for the spontaneity in a very controlled situation,” says Ramsay. “The camera’s often quite close, but I got the kids used to that early on, just going around with a video camera. I never showed them the script, so it was exciting for them.”

Movies were not a big part of Ramsay’s own childhood. “If someone had said to me that I was going to be a filmmaker, I’d be like, Yeah, right. It was quite a working-class area where I grew up—you’re more likely to go to work when you’re 16; there don’t seem to be a lot of options. But I did love musicals. I was brought up on them. It was quite funny seeing Dancer in the Dark. You look at something like Singin’ in the Rain compared to that, and you’re like, fucking hell, they really knew what they were doing.” She ended up in art school in Edinburgh, where she pursued a photography degree. The plan was then to attend the Royal College of Art in London, but after seeing Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, she applied to the National Film School and was accepted to study cinematography. “I was terrible,” she says, laughing. “I could make a beautiful still but I couldn’t move the camera.” Her photography background still informs her work: “I home in on details as a way of embellishing the character,” she says. “I like to make the minutiae the most important drama.”

Clearly not afraid to speak her mind (“I just know that when I see a film, I want to come away not feeling like someone’s just shat in my head”), Ramsay says she’s learned some important practical lessons from her first feature. “I don’t want the production running me. I don’t work in the most conventional way, and I want to make the production work for me. I like longer shoots, smaller crews; I don’t want so many assistants. With the production system on Ratcatcher, it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The system’s so conventional, it can seem stupid. I admire people like Michael Winterbottom, who get around it.”

Her next movie, which will star Samantha Morton, is an adaptation of Morvern Callar, a novel by young Scottish writer Alan Warner. “It’s a mental road movie about a girl who works in a supermarket in this little town on the west coast of Scotland, which is like the Midwest of America, and she gets out of that lifestyle by the most extraordinary means. It’s sort of like Camus for teenagers.” Ramsay says the script has been a struggle. “It’s similar in structure to Ratcatcher—it starts with a punch, which you’re forever trying to match.” She admits to being wary of the high expectations in place for her second film. “It makes you want to lock your doors or run away,” she says. “I don’t want too much pressure. I’d rather remain a wee bit anonymous. You know, I still feel like a student sometimes.”