interview | lynne ramsay Movies

Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay on adapting books to screen, working with Joaquin Phoenix, and more

Page turner: Ramsay says short stories make for good adaptations  

An imposing red hat, navy blue dress, boots and a thick Scottish accent, filmmaker-writer Lynne Ramsay has a distinctness to her style and personality. It’s a warm lazy afternoon in Goa, and Ramsay meets me at a Panaji hotel bar to discuss adaptations — a creative process she has been heavily invested in. It’s evident that she loves a good book, but, in her own words, not all great literature lend themselves to good films. Counted among the best contemporary voices in cinema, Ramsay has had the knack for sniffing a visual treat in novels and bringing them out in her own unique vision, while retaining its literary essence.

A regular at Cannes, she has helmed adaptations like Morvern Callar (2002), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2017), and along the way garnered praises from both, critics and readers, a rare feat in the books versus film debate. Excerpts from an edited interview…

What is it that you look for in a source material?

Something original that I haven’t seen before. We Need to Talk About Kevin [by Lionel Shriver], deals with a mother who has ambiguous feelings towards her son but also the son being a sociopath, so it’s really complex. And it’s an epistolary book, it was written in letters, so it was a really difficult adaptation. I’m sure many people would say you couldn’t make a film of it, because it was a book of letters. It was a challenge and I have always made the books my own, and it’s always a companion piece to the source material. You Were Never Really Here with Joaquin Phoenix has much more of the mother in the movie. The scene where he is with the gunmen and they are singing, that was not in the novel. I’m lucky that the three adaptations that I’ve done, they’ve all been so different from the original material it is adapted from. I’ve done one original and I’m doing an original now. The writers of the novels who have seen the movies have really loved them, so that’s great considering I have taken a lot of liberties.

Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay on adapting books to screen, working with Joaquin Phoenix, and more


I read that your next is an “environmental horror”. That’s quite fascinating.

I think there’s elements of ancient horror in it with an eye for the environment, but I was being a little bit flippant. You know when people ask sometimes what are you doing, and you say just something to them. But yes, it is an original and a period piece, which is very interesting, and I’m also doing an adaptation of a short story by Margaret Atwood. I can’t really say much about that.

Ratcatcher (1999) propelled you into the limelight, and that’s an original script. So how do you compare originals with adaptations? Are adaptations restrictive?

I’ve done quite different ones. My second film, Morvern Callar, was like making my own thing of the book. Some of the filmmakers I like have done adaptations or originals, and I’ve done a bit of both. I kind of see adaptations as original works too. It’s more like taking an element [in the book] and running with it as a film. In case of We Need to Talk About Kevin, that was a 500-page book, whereas You Were Never Really Here was like 20 pages. If it’s something shorter you can go ahead and expand on it, whereas We Need To Talk About Kevin, it was a bit condensed, and I wanted to make it visual because it wasn’t very visual, and to get all the timelines right [was challenging], so I have probably learned the most in that movie. The editing was written in the script. It was completely like clockwork and we only had like 27 days to shoot, so I had to be completely precise. So to me, they are all like originals because I’ve never done a strict adaptation. It’s really nice to adapt from a short story because you have the space to make it your own. When I think of filmmakers, I like [Stanley] Kubrick’s adaptations because they were different. The Shining (1980) is not the same as the book, and he was the master of taking an idea and making it into cinema. Sometimes you find an amazing book but that doesn’t mean it is going to be an amazing movie. It’s a different medium.

Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay on adapting books to screen, working with Joaquin Phoenix, and more


You take a book and make it your own, but with The Lovely Bones (2009), for instance, the producers insisted on sticking to the source material, and you walked out of that project. So do you face this often?

I think that book was a bit strange, because I saw a few chapters before the book was finished, and thought this was [a] super interesting idea, and then the book came out and became so big that I almost couldn’t change it, and I was going in a way that was quite different. People would expect it to be exactly like the book. I wasn’t sure if that was going to make the best film. The idea was fantastic and I’ve done a few drafts and even if you don’t make something, you learn from that. It was also in Oprah Winfrey’s book club so there was an expectation [for the film] to be like the book, so I didn’t want to mix with those expectations. Then of course, Peter Jackson made it which was much closer to the book.


Are there any books that you think would make for a great film?

Short stories can make for really good adaptations. I read a lot and ideas inspire me but I wouldn’t take that and make a script. There are some writers I like. Jonathan Ames, who wrote You Were Never Really Here, sent me another book, and he’s a good writer. I have a short story that I’m adapting now, and that’s really nice. Working with a short form works really well for a feature film. Everything is a bit inspired. You can read an article and go ‘Wow, life is stranger than fiction’. I watch a lot of documentaries. I am very inspired by documentaries.


A lot of adaptations are not well-received by critics, and yours have been an exception. What are the traps filmmakers fall into while adapting?

I came from a background of photography so I look at details and visuals, and I see things in pictures or signs. I think the pitfalls can be when you make it too expositional or you do voice over, it’s not a very cinematic form. It’s a real skill to take a piece of literature and make it in cinema. It’s quite a different form, and I think I have to respect that. So that’s why I say just because it is a successful book does not necessarily mean it will be a successful film. I can’t explain what I do but it’s more about I look for something sensual, and try to tell the story very visually, through signs and subconscious. I work at making it cinema than a simple adaptation. And you see a lot of that [kind of adaptation], especially in the UK, where you take a period piece and make it exactly like the book. That feels a bit like TV to me, and you get a lazy adaptation. My adaptations are just as complicated as an original.

As a director, how you pick actors that fit the characters in the book?

With Joaquin [Phoenix], I thought of him right away [in You Were Never Really Here]. I wanted someone who wasn’t your usual type of an action guy, because he is quite a complex character and has post-traumatic stress, and I thought he could play it with a lot of dimensions. This was before Joker (2019) and now he is huge. But he came early in the process, almost two months before, to build the character and we didn’t rehearse but talked about the character intensely. Tilda Swinton is like that, and Ezra Miller was an actor I wasn’t expecting. I’m always looking for people who are unconventional and get immersed in the character. I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some special actors — I think the best in the world.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 12:03:08 AM |

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