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01 May 2011

Five years in the making, Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin has experienced a fraught journey from book to screen. But it's one that's been rewarded with a selection to the Cannes Film Festival. Tim Dams reports

Just one film will be flying the flag for the UK in official competition at this month’s Cannes Film Festival (11-22 May). Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from the best selling novel by Lionel Shriver, will compete for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.

Other possible British Cannes contenders –including Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Terence Davies’s screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea and Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth – didn’t make it. Either they weren’t ready in time, weren’t selected or decided on a different release strategy than premiering at Cannes.

Starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and with a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of an American mother whose malevolent teenage boy goes on a killing spree at his high school.

Tipped as one of the most highly anticipated films to play at Cannes this year, it’s Ramsay’s first film in more than a decade – even though the Scottish director has long been regarded as one of Britain’s top film talents. She first came to attention when she won the 1996 Cannes Prix de Jury for her National Film and Television School graduation short film. Her debut feature Ratcatcher played in a sidebar competition at Cannes in 1999 and marked her out as an auteur director with a strong visual style, and was followed by Morvern Callar in 2002.

Stuck in development

Since then, nothing. Ramsay, it seems, famously fell victim to the bruising ways of the film industry. The story goes that she signed up to adapt Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones when it was at manuscript stage, only to be shoved aside when the novel became a runaway bestseller and Hollywood heavyweights began to show an interest. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson eventually directed the poorly received adaptation.

But Ramsay moved on, partnering with BBC Films to adapt We Need to Talk About Kevin. That was in 2006 – meaning it’s taken five years to get from book to screen.

Why so long? The film’s protracted development and production saga reflects the dramatic changes that have swept over the film industry since then. Initially Ramsay, BBC Films and producer Jennifer Fox tried to set up We Need to Talk About Kevin as a mid-budget ($12m) American independent film with financial backing from the US. But the US recession was just starting. Independent US distributors began struggling, the big studios closed their speciality divisions and equity funding dried up.

“We had several attempts at funding the film which didn’t come to anything, but they did involve protracted negotiations and labour that just didn’t come right,” says head of BBC Films Christine Langan.

The project was also a difficult one for potential backers to make their mind up about. The book has a loyal following, but the subject matter is distressing. And Ramsay is a respected auteur film-maker, but hadn’t made a film for a long while.

“Along the way potential investors have been lured by the appeal of Lynne and they also love the material, but they were also nervous in a very insecure market with so much change happening all the time,” adds Langan.

Rethinking, rewriting
By 2009 it was time to change tack. “In the end, we figured that the best way to go about it was to cut our cloth and make the film on as low a budget as we could possibly make it,” says Langan. This meant almost halving the original budget and switching the focus back to the UK in a bid to raise finance from European backers.

Luc Roeg’s film sales agency Independent was approached initially as a sales agent to raise finance, but said soon they would like to come on board as a producer of the film. Roeg recalls: “Once we got involved we sat down with the partners – the BBC, UKFC and Lynne – and said if we are going to get the film made, now is its moment, let’s really attack this from the ground up and make the most economically viable film.”

Ramsay then rewrote the script to suit the pared down budget. It was at this point that the film became less of an American movie, and more of a Lynne Ramsay auteur film. It also allowed the producers to begin tying down production and logistical elements more clearly.

“It was a massively demanding task for Lynne,” says Langan. “One that many writer directors might have baulked at. But she completely rose to the challenge. The scripts that emerged from that moment were lean and wonderful – very typical of Lynne but also very true to the spirit of the novel.”

At this point, Tilda Swinton was attached to the lead role of Kevin’s mother. Swinton is described by Roeg as “a champion and driving force behind the film.” Langan adds: “You don’t just cast her and she turns up on the day – she was utterly passionate about this project, continually promoting it…it really galvanised the whole process.”

Roeg also began knitting together a complex patchwork of finance for the film. Asked to describe how the money came together, Roeg pauses and with a sharp intake of breath, says, “My goodness, it was a huge process…”

The film was structured so that it could qualify for the UK tax credit, which can be worth up to 20% of the qualifying production costs of the film. Its certification as a British film was helped by having a British director and lead actress and also arranging post production in the UK. The film was, however, set up to shoot in Connecticut in the US, also allowing it to take advantage of the state’s spend based tax credit. The UKFC (now the BFI) had already committed to invest in the film, alongside BBC Films. Post production partner LipSync Productions made an investment. Equity financier Piccadilly Pictures also came into the picture, and then Independent pre-sold rights for the UK to distributor Artificial Eye and a number of other smaller territories. A gap financier, Footprint Investments, also boarded the film. Adding further complexity was the fact that it was a dual currency budget – in sterling and dollars – subject to fluctuations in exchange rate.

The casting also came together. Ramsay already had an ongoing dialogue with John C Reilly about playing the father, and this was soon formalised. Then the real energy went into casting Kevin. It was a painstaking exercise, with Ramsay spending time on the East and West Coast looking for four young actors, from baby up, to play Kevin, with Ezra Miller eventually signed to play the lead role.

The film was shot by Oscar nominated DoP Seamus McGarvey. It’s a complex piece, with narrative switching time frames. Emphasising that Ramsay is a very visual director, Langan says, “It’s about the landscape of a woman’s mind, her life and her relationship with her child. The film is an incredibly intimate exploration of what is going on in the mind of this mother. It’s very visceral, and you really experience her mood, her feelings and point of view. For any parent, there is an awful lot to identify with…”

The Cannes platform

We Need to Talk About Kevin will be seen for the first time in public at Cannes, which is now the key launch pad for the film. Roeg says winning a place in competition at Cannes, “isn’t as straightforward as sending the film in and waiting for a response. There’s a process of discussion, lobbying and at certain times just being patient and tolerant.” This was helped along by the film’s French distributor Diaphana, which bought We Need to Talk About Kevin at the European Film Market in Berlin in February, and acted as a ‘voice on the ground’ in France during the selection process.

Cannes also has a reputation of being very director focussed, of discovering new talent and then sticking with and championing them. It means a Cannes alumni like Ramsay will always be a strong contender. “But above all,” adds Roeg, “you have to deliver them a movie which they think is worthy and credible for the festival.”

The very fact of selection to Cannes competition is a significant boost to We Need to Talk About Kevin’s cinema potential around the world – it’s where the film will be introduced to the market and to international buyers. In particular, the producers will be hoping to make a key sale to a US distributor.

“It absolutely has an impact on the market and the movie’s life,” explains Roeg. “That’s because visibility for independent films is just so imperative. It’s a very crowded market, there are some wonderful films out there that don’t get the opportunity to be discovered, and this is a great way of beaming a spotlight on the movie.”

And this particular spotlight is one that Ramsay will share with world class directors such as Pedro Almodovar, Terrence Malick, Nanni Moretti and Lars von Trier.


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