An epic conversation with Tilda Swinton
The struggles of getting 'Kevin' made and how independent cinema has changed in 20 years
Tilda Swinton has earned a reputation as an iconoclast. A rebel. A visionary. An artist. So, it was somewhat jarring to meet Swinton on the rooftop deck of the ritzy Montage Hotel smack dab in the middle of gaudy, downtown Beverly Hills. The best supporting Oscar winner for "Michael Clayton" wasn't staying there, mind you. She was spending the afternoon going from one locale to another doing interviews. In fact, Swinton was in the middle of an intense few days of press opportunities to promote a film she helped bring to the screen and stars in, "We Need To Talk About Kevin."
Ever since Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in May, Swinton has been on the shortlist for year end best actress accolades. She's already won the National Board of Review honor for best actress and should snag at least a Golden Globe nomination next week. Opening today in New York and Los Angeles, "Kevin" has also received raves from The New York Times, The LA Times and Time. The drama finds Swinton playing Eva, a sophisticated New Yorker who slowly begins to think there is something insidiously wrong with her son. Swinton has a challenging character arc to portray - over at least 15 years -- and delivers in spades.
I'd spoken to Swinton before, but only for short bursts during her campaign for "I Am Love" last year. This afternoon turned into a grand conversation about her work as a producer on "Kevin," the state of independent cinema and what awards shows should really give the winners, money.
Awards Campaign: I didn’t have a chance to talk to you there, but I was also at the Telluride Film Festival this year. I saw one of your honorary Q&A presentations and I loved how you were having fun with the medal they awarded you [Swinton tied it on her belt and swung it around like a little kid]. Do you still have it?
Swinton: Yes, my medallion; thank you very much. I don’t know when I’ll ever use it again. Maybe if I go to Telluride, I will wear it. I think medals are much better than statues.
Awards Campaign: Than statues?
Swinton: I actually think a piece of jewelry -- well, the main thing I think would be a check. I think a check is definitely the way to go. But failing that, a nice piece of jewelry.
Awards Campaign: Well, the good thing about if it was a check, especially if you make an independent film, it helps you make the next one.
Swinton: Or, it might pay you for what you just made over the last five years, maybe.
Awards Campaign: I’m trying to think of the last studio movie you’ve made? 'Burn After Reading'?
Swinton: Yeah, but even that felt like, you know, that didn’t feel like a studio film. And honestly, Greg, I’ve only made a handful of studio films. I’ve made about four. 'Narnia'...
Awards Campaign: 'Michael Clayton'?
Swinton: No, that didn’t feel like a studio film, just so you know. 'Button'? But here’s the thing, if you’re going to make studio films, don’t make special effect studio films, because then all the money goes to that. And all the studio films I’ve made have been special effect films. 'Constantine.'
Awards Campaign: Oh, right.
Swinton: And 'Button.' Anyway, I have no complaints. I’m just saying, it’s a rare, a rare excursion for me.
Awards Campaign: Well, let's talk about 'Kevin' in terms of all this. So, this a picture that you were trying to get made for a long time, correct?
Swinton: Not that long for me actually, only four years. Which is not that long.
Awards Campaign: But for other filmmakers, that would actually be...
Swinton: 'I Am Love' was 11, so everything’s against that benchmark now. Yeah, it was speedy work on Kevin.
Awards Campaign: How did the project come to you?
Swinton: I had read the book. Lynne was already working on it when I’d first talked to her about it. And I had read the book and I mean, in the first instance, very keen to know what she was doing because I, like most people who know her work, was looking forward to the next Lynne Ramsay film. And then when I discovered she was adapting this book in particular, that was very intriguing because it’s a good idea, a 'Lynne Ramsay version of this book.' But for the longest time, I didn’t necessary think that I should be in it. I was just very supportive of the film. And then relatively late on, I would say maybe about a couple of years before we shot, it became clear that it might be an idea for me to actually play the woman.
Awards Campaign: What convinced you or how did Lynne convince you to play the role?
Swinton: Well, it became something that I became intrigued by and it was, I hesitate to say, 'the drastic cut in the budget that forced the hand of the screenplay' because that always sounds like [the financiers are being] very draconian with filmmakers. But it was true, there was a point when we felt like we weren’t going to be able to make it for as much money as we thought we were going to need and the screenplay started to become much more interior, much less about the society and much more about this one woman’s interior life. And at that point, I became interested in it, because that’s sort of something I’m very interested in doing as a performer. It’s sort of the thing that draws me into performance these days, is that idea of someone being very isolated and numb.
Awards Campaign: Well, in a way, that’s sort of like your character in 'I Am Love.'
Swinton: Exactly, it’s a sort of a continued interest of mine. That feeling of someone who’s really isolated and inarticulate and who’s alone a lot. That’s something that’s just, you know, up my street as an audience. I like looking at that, so I’m very interested in working with it.
Awards Campaign: So, you made those two films and there was a break in between, obviously…
Swinton: Well, there was not a break in between them.
Awards Campaign: Oh, really?
Swinton: In the sense that we started working on 'I Am Love' 12 years ago. And we were working on it all the time and then meanwhile, at some point, you know, I did a variety of other things including a film with Eric Zonka ['Julia'] , which I also developed for that five years. And then this one. So, yeah, they kind of dovetailed.
Awards Campaign: All three of those roles in 'I Am Love,' 'Kevin' and 'Julia,' they’re heavy roles. These aren’t characters who are light and comedic. It's a misnomer that many moviegoers assume these roles are tough on an actor emotionally, but there are those actors who will say 'Yes, it weighed heavily on me to play the part.'
Swinton: I’ve read some actors saying things like that. I’m not one of them. I’ve never found performing anything other than play. I don’t carry it with me like the, sometimes the professionals say they do. No, not at all. All three of those films we mentioned, 'I Am Love,' 'Julia' and this one were very tricky films to get made for very similar reasons. They were very ambitious films -- and I mean, ambitious in the sense that they’re cineastic films made by [uncompromising] filmmakers and all of them relatively tricky subjects. So, finding the money for those projects was tricky. But the actual shooting, I mean, this is one of the great things about working on productions from the very beginning. The struggle of getting the money, the struggle of getting to shoot is such that when you get to shoot, it’s just great. It’s just gravy. [You're] so happy you’re shooting, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting a scene where it’s in the garden of death and your husband and daughter are covered in arrows, whatever. It just doesn’t matter because you’re so happy to get to shoot, finally, having planned it for five years.
Awards Campaign: What's the most exciting part of the process to you? Bringing the film's to fruition with financing or is it being on set and actually having the play time?
Swinton: They’re all really different. I always think it’s like throwing a party. First of all, you got to have an idea of what you’re going to make and then you got to go out shopping for it. And to a certain extent, the going out shopping for it, for all the ingredients, in many ways, that’s what the shoot is, actually. The shoot is not actually the party, the shoot is going out and getting the ingredients. And then you have to cook it, which is editing, which is a bit I’m really interested in.
Awards Campaign: Really?
Swinton: Yeah, really interested. I’ve always been really, really intrigued by it. And then the party in fact is the final product you invite people to see what you made. To see if they like it.
Awards Campaign: So, if you enjoy the editing process, when you’re on set do you like to look at dailies? Do you like to look at scenes?
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Awards Campaign: Some actors, they just don’t want to see it, they feel it like hinders their performance. They just want to go on like what the director’s telling them. But do you learn something from it?
Swinton: You don’t necessarily learn anything, but when I look at dailies, I’m not really looking at myself, to be honest with you. It’s something about reminding oneself of the tenor of the film and the sort of the way the camera’s working. And something about the weight in the scenes. But at the same time, I can happily not look at anything. If it’s impossible, if you’re shooting in a place where you can’t look at dailies, it’s fine, I don’t mind. It’s a luxury, but it’s not important.
Awards Campaign: I’m guessing you don’t, you have any problems watching your films on screen. You’ll sit through a premiere.
Swinton: No, but I don’t see them actually that often, to be honest. What I quite like doing is waiting for about ten years, because it feels like the cut is always such a hard thing to remind oneself of. Even now, for example, with 'Kevin,' I’ve probably seen this completed film about ten times, but I still have in my mind the previous cuts. So, I still haven’t got it ingrained in my mind what it is you guys are all seeing. But in ten year’s time, I might have forgotten those previous cuts and I’ll be able to see it for sure.
Awards Campaign: So pictures you made, let’s say a decade ago…
Swinton: Well, I had this very interesting experience last year, Sony Classics released 'Orlando' after 18 years and seeing that again was really interesting. Although, having said that, I’m now going to completely contradict what I just said and say that as I watched it, I could remember all the previous cuts, so, yeah, 18 years didn’t help. (Laughs.)
Awards Campaign: When you watched it, it didn’t surprise you at all?
Swinton: No, completely fresh. The weird thing about making pictures as well is that, you know, what you see when you see the piece of work, it’s all a sort of visceral experience as well. Such as remembering who you were at that point and what was going on at lunch the day you shot that scene, you know? It’s all still happening and so it’s like having a living family album.
Awards Campaign: And something like 'Orlando' which I hadn’t seen since when it first came out and then I saw it again -- actually, I think I saw it on cable -- but I was surprised, not that I thought it would seem dated, but I thought it was as fresh and as great as it was...
Swinton: How fresh it is, it’s completely, completely!
Awards Campaign: Is that like reassuring at all? That the projects you’ve carefully picked will resonate that way? I know when I see 'I Am Love' in ten years it should stand the test of time.
Swinton: I think it is. I think it’s of course reassuring about the films and it’s a nice feeling of being one of the filmmakers. But at the same time, there is something slightly disconcerting when you see a film that’s 20 years old and it’s fresher than a lot of the stuff that’s being produced today. I mean, I do think there’s something interesting about films from that particular moment, you know, late ’80s, early ‘90s moment.
Awards Campaign: ‘90’s, yeah.
Swinton: There’s something about independent cinema from that time, before it was appropriated, in a way and blew away, in which it strangely managed to be over the last 10 years, 15 years. It’s just got a kind of handmade investment in it, anyway.
Awards Campaign: That’s such a great point. I go to Sundance -- like this is my eighth year in a row going -- and it's like there’s a formula for everything that's there now.
Swinton: Emerged, it has emerged. But you’ve been for eight years?
Awards Campaign: Eight years in a row.
Swinton: Because I haven’t been for a while. I was there for 'Patch' and I’m trying to think when I was last there. I feel that it’s so, so nine years ago [Swinton was actually last in Park City in 2010 to promote 'I Am Love'] But then maybe that’s Sundance Lab, I don’t know where the—
Awards Campaign: It may be. But I feel like it’s gotten to the point where, and I’ve seen this at other festivals too where none of the movies surprise me anymore.
Swinton: Because you know there are so many people here who love that formula, they’ve actually constructed it, because it means it can be relied upon.
Awards Campaign: Yes.
Swinton: I mean, there is an argument for, I mean, all the different flavors of the formula. There are arguments.
Awards Campaign: It takes away the surprise, though. And that’s what’s so disappointing. I’ll go to a premiere and I’ll think beforehand, 'O.K., I knew what this is going to be' and it becomes as predictable as a Hollywood studio comedy, you know? And it doesn’t mean it’s not necessarily a good film...
Swinton: Well, we are told by people who talk like they know, that that’s what people want. And the fact that we don’t feel that way makes us feel like freaks. I’m with the freaks, I believe that people really, really want to go on a journey when they go into the movie theater. A feeling, a kind of rhythm. But I would happily sacrifice that [comfort] for knowing that you’re going on some adventure every time and you don’t know where it’s going to end up.
Awards Campaign: I just want to be surprised.
Swinton: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Awards Campaign: But it’s interesting, most of the choices you make are not those sort of films. Every once in a while you seem to take a film that maybe has a great filmmaker but maybe you clearly know the direction it’s going to go, but often your films are the 'surprises.' The same thing with 'Kevin.' I had heard about 'Kevin' before I saw it, but it was not…
Swinton: What did you hear though, Greg? I’m curious to know what the early buzzes are, you know, because now you’ve seen the film, you know what our, you know, potential concerns might be. You know, you don’t want to hear the wrong thing. I mean, I’ve spoken to people in the last few days who said, 'I really didn’t want to go and see this film and if I hadn’t known I was going to have to come talk to you, I wouldn’t have gone and seen it, but I’m so glad I did because of this and that and the other.' So, I’m very curious to know what the pre-word is.
Awards Campaign: The pre-Cannes word to me was -- and I hadn't read the book -- it had been pitched to me that, 'Oh, that’s the movie where Tilda and John C. Riley are dealing with their son and it’s about like their...' it was much more like about their relationship.
Swinton: Pre-Cannes, you said?
Awards Campaign: Yes, pre-Cannes. And then after Cannes, it became, 'Oh, Tilda gives a fantastic, amazing performance and it’s all about her trying to deal with her son who’s done this shooting.' But, even then, none of what Ezra [Miller's]character is, none of that came across. And it made it seem much more singular than when I actually saw it and there was more scope to the film when I actually saw it. I actually thought, and this is just my opinion, one of the clips that was released at Cannes? I thought, was a detriment.
Swinton: Which was it?
Awards Campaign: It’s the table scene.
Swinton: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Awards Campaign: And I felt like that made if feel very, like in the house, enclosed. And then I saw it and I was like, it immediately starts and she’s living in the other part of town. And I was like, 'This is not what I thought the movie was at all.' So, that just goes to show you if you put something out there it can create a major misconception. And then the funny thing is, I was in London last month and taking the tube and whatever, and there’s all those billboards and— congratulations, it doing great, from what I’ve been told.
Swinton: And it’s being embraced by audiences.
Awards Campaign: The U.K. distributor is obviously selling it a much different way than they’re going to sell it here.
Swinton: Very different.
Awards Campaign: And it’s smart, but it was like, 'Wow, this is a really commercial pitch and it could be interpreted in such a different way.' But having seen the film, I feel as though the way they’re promoting it now in the U.S., it can work.
Swinton: It’s interesting because I had just come through the whole difference in launching campaigns for 'I Am Love' in the U.K. and here. And we had a happy experience with that film, too. [Initially though,] we were concerned that the launching campaign that Metrodome used in the U.K. was too broad, was pitching it too High Street. And actually, they were right. It was a poster that you could really see in the underground.
Awards Campaign: Yeah.
Swinton: That really stood out, that looked kind of, quite vulgarly attached to something like Closer magazine. If you had had the elegant arts poster that you’d had here in the U.S. the U.K. it would have blended much more in and I think there is a placement here for a kind of art cinema, but actually it’s difficult to find in the UK. You just have to skew it to more—
Awards Campaign: You have to go broader.
Swinton: You don’t have to mess with the film, you just have to go broader [in the marketing] and you can. So, that was very interesting, and again, [for 'Kevin'] Artificial Eye persuaded us that they wanted to go with a kind of more multiplex image and they seem to have been born out. Because, you know, it opened really well in the UK.
Awards Campaign: It's funny to talk about the business side, but do you feel like moving forward that you’ve learned lessons on these last couple films?
Swinton: Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, and also the landscape is changing all the time. I mean, I, as a producer, I started learning about what it is to be a producer with Derek Jarman such a long time ago. The landscape was entirely different -- even though the work was, for all intents and purposes, more underground than anything we’re talking about now. In terms of distribution, there was a place for it in the culture, which meant that a film like 'The Last of England' which is a super 8 film blown to first 5mm silent file with a soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner, non-merited, was shown at the Prince Charles Cinema, which is off Leicester Square, the really central cinema in London and had huge reviews in all the mainstream papers. It was like a broadsheetly reviewed piece. Now, it’s almost impossible to imagine that. The work was more underground in terms of its kind of cultural content, but it’s impact was much broader and someone like Derek Jarman was known in the mainstream press. He was a cultural phenomenon, in a way that is much more difficult for someone coming from left field to be now. It’s a whole different story.
Awards Campaign: It’s so funny that you say that, because even a decade ago, a movie like 'I Am Love' or 'Kevin,' you would’ve been on the top of the New York Times or the LA Times arts section on opening day. It would’ve been in front of everyone who got that paper. And maybe they wouldn’t have seen it in the theater, but it would’ve made an impact. You would’ve heard about it.
Awards Campaign: I went to film school in the mid ‘90’s and I saw these films, and I would go to art houses and I would feel like, 'Oh, there’s an impact to these films.'
Swinton: Yes, yes, yes.
Awards Campaign: And then I went back and looked at the box office years later and was like, 'Oh, my God, it actually didn’t do that well.'
Swinton: It’s true. It wasn’t about making money.
Awards Campaign: And now there’s films that do $5-10 million and I’m a journalist not having even seen them and they’re art house films and maybe I don’t see them because I’ve heard they’re okay or mediocre, but it’s that formula they’re playing. It’s really interesting, I don’t know if it’s better or worse.
Swinton: I don’t know either. I’m still working it out. It’s different. I think the most, the way to keep reading it, is to say it’s different. It’s a whole different time and exhibition, it’s all about exhibition. Exhibition is a completely different deal now. I mean, the fact that art cinemas are really an endangered species now. Although, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, because I’m very optimistic about the whole pop-up movement and the whole, you know, stride. And certainly in Europe, the whole stride there is to find new ways of exhibiting films.
Awards Campaign: Really?
Swinton: In every little town in Europe, there is at least one cinema-shaped hole, which is now your [movie] market. And you’re dependent on the multiplex, which is half an hour away, which shows Harry Potter in it.
Awards Campaign: Right. Well, so how do you feel then about, maybe it’s a double-edge sword, something like VOD. I know a lot of people who saw 'I Am Love' on VOD.
Swinton: It's the same with 'Julia.' I think we put out two prints of 'Julia.' It was very hard to find in the cinemas, but it was put out quite widely on VOD and, you know, it had a life. If it hadn’t, it would not have had a life. But it’ll move again, it’ll shift again, I think. We’ll meet again in ten year’s time, we’ll have this conversation, going to be completely different.
Awards Campaign: Let's back to Kevin for a second. Are the reactions you hear from the film that both excite you and sort of, and I don’t want to say disappoint, but you’re like 'Hmm, this is not what I was expecting' or maybe surprised you?
Swinton: So far, there hasn’t. I mean, I haven’t really been around much reaction, to be honest with you. Normally I would read reviews, but I’m just very distracted at the moment with life in general and I just haven’t got around to it. But, no, I mean, to begin with, it’s a huge relief that the film was made in the first place, because it was such a tough one to get made. It’s a real relief that it’s being distributed and it’s a relief that it’s not being immediately rejected. I mean, my line is that it’s the feel good movie of the year. If you have children, you’ll just oh be so happy that it’s not your story and if you don’t have children, you’re just so happy it’s not your story. (Laughs.) It’s like a win/win situation and there’s no one who isn’t going to feel better about their own life having seen it. And I feel that there’s generally that feeling, it’s not being regurgitated in the way that I thought it might be.
Awards Campaign: I know you've shot Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom,' do you have anything else that’s on the way,?
Swinton: The only thing that’s on the way that’s been around for a while, is a film with Jim Jarmusch that I hope we’ll make next year.
Awards Campaign: And that would be the next thing that you’ll do?
Swinton: Yeah. But apart from that, I’ve had a huge harvestry from me and I’m really ready to kind of bit chewing a straw and look at a big plowed field for a long time. I’ve got some things to seed with people, but they’ll take a long time to come up, I reckon.
Awards Campaign: So, you’ll go back to Scotland?
Swinton: Go back to Scotland, yeah.
Awards Campaign: Nice. Well, I hope you come back for a number of award shows. I know you’re not a huge fan.
Swinton: I might diverge from the [season] you know, but very nice to be here today. I will not be sorry that there’s no call for me [if I don't get nominated.]
Awards Campaign: Did your kids ever wonder 'Where’d the Oscar go?' Do they ever wonder like if they can see it?
Swinton: They barely know what it looks like.
Awards Campaign: That’s impressive.
Swinton: I took it home for like two weeks. The main reason I took it home was because I couldn’t resist traveling with it. I had one fantastic moment which was, I traveled home like the day after, or the day after that, whatever it was, and I was changing planes in Heathrow to get on the plane in Scotland, and I had it in my hand luggage, because I just did not know what to do with the damn thing. And I had it in my hand luggage and it went through the x-ray and there’s this woman sitting there like really like fried, like 7:00 AM in the morning, bright and early plane, and she just went [Tilda's eyes go wide] and I went round behind her and I looked, and it’s the most perfect black Oscar-shaped thing [in the monitor.] I don’t know what’s in the middle of those things, do you? And so that was a great moment, but apart that, I took it home and it sat on the kitchen table. I had already given it to my agent, I had asked him if I could take it home and then I gave it back to him.
Awards Campaign: Well, I hope you come back for the ride, it’d be fun to have you.
Swinton: Thank you very much.
"We Need To Talk About Kevin" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.
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