Since graduating from Scotland's National Film School in 1995, Lynne Ramsay has had an astonishingly precocious filmmaking career, which mirrors the halycon early days of Australia's Jane Campion. Award-winning shorts lead to edgy, original feature films touted around the world, as Ramsay's Ratcatcher and now Morvern Callar recall Campion's triumphs with Sweetie and Angel at My Table.
Next, Ramsay moves into in her enviable The Piano phase, slated to direct the film version of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.
Has any of this swollen Ramsay's head? I don't think so. The young woman I met with at last fall's Toronto Film Festival was so darned nice, so totally ingenuous, a down-home gal from blue-collar Glasgow. "I'm not a film buff," she said. "Growing up in Glasgow, you don't see Jean-Luc Godard on the weekend. When I went to film school, I saw things I'd never heard of. Truffaut, Tarkovsky, and Terence Malick are people I learned about, and really like. The only Scottish director for whom I said 'Wow!' was Bill Douglas, though I know about Bill Forsyth's [terrible] experience in Hollywood. The warning I got: if you have the final cut, then fine. Otherwise, I don't see the point."
Not that doing independent movies in Scotland has been simple, Ramsay explained: "Making Ratcatcher was a struggle, really tough, and I had to fight [for respect] every step of the way."
Morvern Callar began as a 1992 novel by Scotland's Alan Warner, who made several tries at a screenplay before Ramsay took over. Though the story is the same-about Morvern, a Scottish party girl who, when her boyfriend commits suicide, puts her name on his unpublished novel and pretends to have written it--the telling is very different. "The film is a companion piece to the novel," Ramsay said. "It's a long novel, very existential, a monologue by the girl, almost as if she's being interviewed by a cop. She never analyzes her actions. She's a pragmatist, a survivor. She just changes the name on the book, and doesn't even read it, not a word! I like that! She's an anti-hero."
How does she imagine the boyfriend, who lies dead on Christmas day as the movie opens? "He's an intellectual in a relationship with a non-academic, simpler, almost autistic girl. Warner killed him off on page one of his novel, and Morvern, the supermarket-worker girl takes over. The book is very 'death of the author,' and, as a filmmaker I related to it. And to Morvern. I still feel I'm a girl growing up in Glasgow."
Ramsay relates also to her protagonist having no idea what's in the book she's claiming to have written. "I'm always being asked, 'What's in your next movie?' I don't have a fucking clue."
The funniest moments in Morvern Callar occur when the heroine is pursued to Spain by a very tony couple from a prestigious British publishing company, who are enamored of the novel she's supposedly penned. Again, Ramsay can empathize with Morvern being fawned over by upper-crust tastemakers. Casting Tom Boddington, the patrician book editor, Ramsay opted for a London-based power broker from her own world of film dealing: Jim Wilson, Deputy Head of Film Four.
"He's got a sense of humor," Ramsay said, of Wilson satirizing himself on screen. "I told him, 'Do it like you are at Cannes.' I love the fact that Morvern is so naïve, and they want a part of it. Here's someone hot! They hang on to her every word, even is she's almost autistic.'"
Morvern is played, sublimely, by Samantha Morton. Ramsay: "We met, we clicked, she has a similar approach to me. She doesn't measure and analyze the action. She's a chameleon. She has this ability to be very plain at times, and then transcend that and be very beautiful. I really think she's the best actress of this generation. She doesn't bring the baggage of Samantha Morton. Sometimes, she believes she's an alien from another planet."
Ramsay boldy coupled Morton with a total newcomer to acting, Kathleen McDermott, as Lanna, Morvern's pal who toils also in the supermarket. A casting director found her on a Glasgow street, and convinced McDermott to audition. She's also terrific, a freckle-faced Gwyneth Paltrow-as-commoner. "Kathleen didn't know who Samantha was, anyhow she didn't give a shit. I think that helped. She's very confident. She's a singer with a great voice, and she's now going to be a [professional] actress."
But what will happen to Morvern after she's completed what Ramsay calls "an emotional journey, even if it's a catatonic one"? After the movie?
Ramsay deadpans, "Maybe she'll write another book."