Interview: Tilda Swinton talks budgets, struggles, and survival for 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'
Tilda Swinton is one of those people I was eager to sit down with precisely because I knew I wasn't going to get something cookie-cutter and overly-managed out of her. I think she's a fiendishly smart performer, with an underground sensibility that still makes her feel like she's resolutely outside the Hollywood system, even after winning an Academy Award.
Her work in "We Need To Talk About Kevin" really shook me up, and I was excited to sit down with her and discuss the way the film came together. It was first thing in the morning, the third or fourth day I was in Cannes, and we met at the special beachfront pavilion that Moet Champagne had set up. She was dressed in a knee-length green dress, with minimal make-up, and couldn't have been more striking.
As soon as we were seated, I started talking to her about how much the film rattled me, and how it's full of moments that any parent can immediately understand, no matter what their relationship with their child. In particular, we spoke about the way most movies romanticize the process of parenthood, taking out all the ugly and unpleasant and unhappy moments, which is really what "Kevin" starts with. I asked her how early she became involved with the material, and how much she helped to shape the approach they took. "When we first talked about it, there was no script. There was a book," she said, "but more than the book itself, there was this attention paid in the book to this… this survival. The film really is about surviving. I don't think you have to be a parent to know the nightmare fear that can be involved. Even if you were just left with someone else's kid for the day. There was no script, so there was only the question of how to extract that feeling from the book, which was incredibly dense."
I commented on how the book really doesn't immediately lend itself to adaptation, basically consisting of letters that are very specific to voice. "You're right," she replied. "The book is almost entirely communicative, and it's about how communication does or doesn't work. It's about explaining yourself to someone, and from the very beginning, from those first conversations with Lynne [Ramsay], before there was a script, it was obvious it was going to have to be a film about loneliness. And it was going to have to be about the impossibility of ever talking about this. It may be called 'We Need To Talk About Kevin,' but there is no way of ever talking about Kevin. There never has been a way to talk about these feelings. That's what you picked up on, that no one has ever really done this material. And yet, we all know that it's just been waiting out there, this feeling of chaos and violence, and not just in the child, but in yourself. We knew we had to circle around that and keep that with us as we tried to extract a narrative from the book."
I told her that one of the things I find most impressive about the film's approach is how subjective it all is. The film is meant to impart the point-of-view perception of Swinton's character, Eva. You see and feel everything with her in the film. It is a unreliable narrator if I've ever seen one, and Swinton's performance sells it for me. She is in every moment of the movie, basically, with this mounting dread that the world has turned on her and things are always just about to go terribly, terribly wrong. "Well, everything has gone terribly, terribly wrong," Swinton replied. "Even in the first few narrative scenes. What's the first thing we see? This woman, who we've never met before, has had her house smeared with red paint. What has she done? Who is this woman? The second thing we see is her being really, really smacked in the mouth, and then she immediately says when a passer-by comes to help, 'No, no, no, this is my fault.'" It's true… Eva is like a battery for pain in this movie, just absorbing whatever the world throws at her, and we always see it through her eyes, feeling it as she would. There's a great Halloween sequence that manages to be both completely innocent and almost overwhelmingly malicious. "It's funny… the movie really deals with post-traumatic stress. This woman has survived, and all these horrifying things we happen to her like being smacked in the face or being spooked by these neighborhood kids… nothing can ever be as horrific as what she's been through. There's something… it is about a kind of purgatory. When people come back from conflict situations, they say you are dismantled as a human being. And the problem is not the going in. The problem is coming back. How can Eva ever come back into life? What's going to happen to that woman? She's never going to be intact again, not until she dies. And if he comes out of prison…"
That's a very real threat in the movie, Kevin being released back into society. I asked how you would ever manage to reincorporate a monster like Kevin back into normal daily life. "Well, there's that moment in the book and in the film when she's watching him on television, and I find it strangely moving. She's watching this interview and she can't get enough. She's like, 'Yes, tell me, tell me.' He tells the camera more than he's ever told her, and she needs that. She needs to hear it. It's almost like he comes to life in front of that camera in a way she'd never seen."
The casting of the three boys who end up playing Kevin is inspired, and it feels like they shot the film in real time, just waiting on the young actor to age properly for each new section of the film. "They're amazing, and they're great kids. We all know the perils of shooting kids who grow up. It's not about finding signifiers that make them look similar… it's about removing the signifiers that make them different. I find I am easily distracted in the cinema. I'll really study things and faces. That middle kid, Rocky, the one with the ball? And that look he gives. We talked a lot about that look, all of us. There's a really beautiful photograph taken when we were shooting the hospital scene, and all of the boys happened to be there having their hair cut and dyed and we all got around the bed and we all gave the look. It's pretty hardcore, this photograph."
I talked about how hard it's been as a fan to wait for Lynne Ramsay's next film, and asked Swinton about her collaboration with this commanding film artist. "Well, I think too much can be said about the circumstances around a film, and I honestly believe that this film in particular is as good as it could be even under the best of circumstances. Having said that, when you know the circumstances in which it got made, because we had so little money and so little time, and we had to make compromises that made us weep. You would never know it now. The thing I found incredibly impressive about my friend, who've I known for a long time, is that when you are an actual filmmaker, to not be shooting is a nightmare. Planning a film is one part of it, but to not shoot, to not be on a set and shooting, is really tough. Bresson had a great quote: 'I am in cinema like a fish is in water.' And I would say that about this particular filmmaker as well. And so to not shoot is tough, but to turn around and hit the ground running and to have to shoot it all in 30 days after spending four years planning it, and having had another film not happen before that. It turns out that's all right. Energy… it's not recycled, because that sounds reductive, but energy will always be used. And we benefit with this film from that blue-balling. To hit the ground running in the way she did was awe-inspiring to me. The second we started shooting, she was right there. She worked incredibly fast. I don't think we ever did more than two takes unless it was for a technical reason."
We talked about that inertia that sometimes grips a filmmaker, and I mentioned how hard it's been on Guillermo Del Toro, who hasn't made a feature since "Hellboy II: The Golden Army." "We like shooting," she said. "It's that simple, isn't it? We like to shoot. I made a little short film with [the director of her recent film 'I Am Love'] last week, and it was such a relief to be back on a set. It's already been two years since we made that film together. We need to keep Lynne going now. I don't want to dwell on the difficulties, because it is worth it at the end of the day."
One of the trickiest things about the film is the relationship she shares with John C. Reilly, her onscreen husband, since the film deals with a couple unable to communicate properly. I asked her about how they built that onscreen rapport. "As the project became more and more clear in terms of the budget we were able to raise, we became clearer about what the film needed to be. Both Lynne and I are underground kids, so we know how to work really cheap. We know that if our budget gets slashed by half, we're still going to make it work somehow just in terms of the concept. 'Okay, so we can only have eight extras. We will deal with that.' The script was constantly evolving to match the clock we had. But in the heart of that, we knew we had this Greek tragic structure. We needed a series of boys, a man, and this daughter, and we considered everything else a luxury. At the end of the day, that's the cast we absolutely needed. The father was unbelievably important, because it is largely the story of a marriage and a father's relationship with his son. John's name came up very early. We needed a contrast. There's much made in the book of Eva's background and the fact that she's from an Armenian background and feels like a foreigner and she's this world traveler. And Franklin, in the book, is very much an American. We needed someone who felt ilke they could be half of this great couple with me, and it all could have been a lovely story if we didn't have kids. We could have been really happy together. And as soon as we started talking about John, we couldn't see anyone else. And he responded to the script immediately, which… not that many men, and particularly fathers, might. It would have been very easy for actors to not want to go there, especially actors with children. We needed him to offer a proper sort of unconditional lovingness that could look week, and the fact that he has the nerve to show that says so much about his intentions. His whole 'hey, buddy' riff was so attractive and lovely and at the same time, so sinister, and I can't think of anybody else could have done it better."
The last time I saw Swinton was at Sundance '10, and I had just finished interviewing Reilly about "Cyrus." I was on my way out of the venue, and she was on her way in, and she saw John. The two of them crossed a room immediately to talk, and that chemistry was apparent there in the room, just as it is onscreen.
I'm pleased that "We Need To Talk About Kevin" got picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and that you'll get a chance to see it later this year theatrically. It's an exceptional picture, and my thanks to Tilda Swinton for taking some time to talk about it in the middle of a crazy busy festival.