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Lynne Ramsay is back behind camera

DAN KOIS

NYT SYNDICATE

BACK in 2002, Lynne Ramsay was a film director on the verge. Her second feature, the gorgeous, impressionistic drama Morvern Callar, made its debut at Cannes and grabbed the attention of serious moviegoers; in The Times, the critic Elvis Mitchell called it ‘‘one of the most important pictures’’ of the year.

Meanwhile, a dark first novel that Ramsay was preparing to adapt and direct surprised the publishing world by landing at the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

Ramsay had an art-house hit under her belt and a best seller primed as her next film.

Now it’s nine years later, and Ramsay’s next film is finally here—but it’s not based on that best seller, The Lovely Bones, which was plucked away from her and given to Peter Jackson. Ramsay’s new film is We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teenager implicated in a deadly school shooting. It’s a harrowing portrait of parenthood gone awry and a great reminder of Ramsay’s talent — which will make her fans mourn anew the decade of film making she lost to the Hollywood development machine.

Ramsay had read The Lovely Bones, the fictional story of murdered teenager Susie Salmon, well before it was a published— before, in fact, it was even finished, which meant that there were parts of Alice Sebold’s manuscript Ramsay was prepared to discard.

Her version, Ramsay told me recently, had a bereaved father, driven mad by his grief over his daughter’s death, imagining Susie in heaven even as he unknowingly befriends her killer. ‘‘I really didn’t like the ‘My Little Pony, she’s-in-heaven, everything’s-OK’ aspect of the book,” she said.

But when The Lovely Bones became a bona fide hit, ‘‘the book became like the Bible,’’ she said.

Soon she felt pressure from FilmFour to make her screenplay conform. “Where’s the voice of Susie we know and love? Where’s the voice over?” she recalled them asking her. Meanwhile, a FilmFour deal with Dreamworks—and the interest of Peter Jackson—made Ramsay expendable.

‘‘I kept getting e-mails from friends who are directors in Los Angeles who told me, you better watch your back.’’ Ramsay left the project in 2004 and Jackson took it over, and his version — weighted down by CGI after-life effects that ran the budget to a reported $65 million — was a financial and critical flop. ‘‘I’m surprised he took so long with the script,’’ Ramsay said. ‘‘It’s completely like the book. It should’ve taken two weeks to write. You know?’’ The experience ‘‘was heartbreaking,” she said. “It killed me for a while, because I’m a perfectionist, and you feel like a failure because you didn’t do good work.’’ She paused, then added sharply, ‘‘But it wasn’t that.’’ As to her extended absence, the Scottish filmmaker explained that she thinks the film-making process is different for her, and other writerdirectors, than it is for directors who don’t write their own material. ‘‘Nicolas Winding Refn or whatever, he didn’t write Drive—that takes two minutes to direct.’’ She mentioned Alexander Payne and his recent film, The Descendants, which was released seven years after his previous film, Sideways, in 2004. ‘‘He’s a great filmmaker, and great filmmakers, if they write and they’re really delving into a project, it takes longer.’’ Her voice takes on an edge. ‘‘It’s really unfair to say, ‘Where’s that person been?’ We’re still alive. We do have a phone. And anyway,’’ she says with a sigh, ‘‘we’ve both been screwed on other projects.’’ We Need to Talk About Kevin very nearly didn’t happen as well — Summit Entertainment, the company behind the Twilight movies, backed out of a deal to co-finance the movie. This forced Ramsay to rewrite the script and cut the budget nearly in half. “I don’t want to say this, because producers will be rubbing their hands, but it forced me into new ways of thinking.” Given the eventual fate of The Lovely Bones, it seems Ramsay found the right vehicle with Kevin.

In any case, it’s easy to agree with the film’s star, Tilda Swinton, who explained why she stayed attached to the film for so many years. ‘‘Like anybody who had ever seen a Lynne Ramsay film,’’ Swinton told me, ‘‘I was longing to see another one.’’

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