About a girl One directed the award-winning film Ratcatcher, the other's most recent screen outing was opposite Tom Cruise. Both are tough, uncompromising - and in love with Morvern Callar, the eponymous heroine of Alan Warner's novel. Could Lynne Ramsay and Samantha Morton bring her to the big screen without any fireworks? Danny Leigh finds out Saturday October 5, 2002 The Guardian It's strange the things that can draw people together: grief, unfulfilment, a need for adventure. In the case of Lynne Ramsay and Samantha Morton, it was a combination of all three, as embodied by the character of Morvern Callar, the supermarket worker at the hub of Alan Warner's 1995 novel. Some years ago, they both fell under the spell of the book, and of Morvern - a blank- faced girl from a Scottish port town, with a dead boyfriend on the living room floor and a head full of restlessness. Now brought to the screen by Ramsay, with Morton in the title role, the film had its UK premiere in Edinburgh this summer. Which is what brings us here, on a hazy afternoon. They seem, at first glance, an unlikely combination. On the one hand there's Ramsay: small, effusive, jet-black hair in cursory bunches, a fiercely grounded Glaswegian discussing what is, after 1999's acclaimed Ratcatcher, only her second feature. On the other hand there's her star: paler, taller, Midlands- born, often to be found "in her own little world". At 25, she is seven years younger than Ramsay, but has a mass of professional experience. Neither is renowned for her love of compromise. Morton stares at me. "I remember, when Lynne asked why I wanted to play Morvern, I told her it was because I'd read the book and I already knew her. And Lynne felt the same. So if either of us was just one note out, then it was this process of two very strong women learning to adjust. But she was also the first director I'd ever worked with who could really feel the character as I was performing it." Ramsay nods, then shrugs. "I must have looked like a real moron, actually. I was standing there doing the same thing as her all the time, like this weird Simon Says. But I was so compelled, it was like I had to follow her. I wouldn't know where to cut, because I was just watching her, thinking, where's she going, where's she going ... Where's she gone?" But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. For the sake of chronology, we should rewind to earlier in the day, when I meet Ramsay on her own, staring, baffled, into her purse. "Where's this come from?" she says. There's a crumpled £20 note in her hand. "Aw God. My mum must have put it in there. She wanted to make sure I got my dinner last night." Even on three hours' sleep (last night she shared a flat with her husband, Rory, and most of her family), Ramsay talks as she smokes, in swift, kinetic bursts. "It's funny," she says, "I'm always thinking I'm never going to get to make another film. Still fully expect to be back down the jobcentre. Because I don't have two pennies to rub together, d'you know what I mean?" Just three years ago, Ramsay was an obscure, albeit gifted, director of short films, regularly feted at the Cannes Film Festival, unknown outside it. Then came Ratcatcher: an audacious, lyrical portrait of childhood and mortality, set in early 1970s Glasgow. As debuts go, it was spectacular, and Ramsay picked up best director awards in Europe and America. Today, she admits the hubbub fazed her, not least as she saw the finished version of the film only this year, having been too anxious to watch it beforehand. Along with all the media attention came a fascination with Ramsay's background - which, on one level, was not that unusual: a photographer, inspired by (among others) the 1940s avant-gardist Maya Deren, she moved to London, studied film and began to make her own. Only that wasn't where the interest lay. Instead, people focused on her upbringing in Glasgow's Maryhill, where her mother worked as a cleaner and her father carried out what his daughter has called "bits and bobs of work". At school, her careers officer advised her to become a secretary for British Gas. The implication seemed to be that Ramsay's achievement in making Ratcatcher was all the more impressive coming from a working-class woman from one of Britain's most deprived cities. She grimaces. "I have to say that really pissed me off, this idea of, 'Oh look, here's this little Scottish woman.' It's just so patronising. I'd get people asking me about my terrible, poor childhood which, in fact, was very normal, and I'd think, would you be as interested in me if I'd grown up in Surrey? And it surprised me how much I resented that." By the time Ratcatcher was released, pre-production for Morvern Callar was already under way (it's in the nature of film-making: Ramsay is now fresh back from West Virginia, where she was researching an adaptation of Alice Sebold's controversial bestseller The Lovely Bones). It was, she admits, a difficult time. "To be honest, I was on the verge of thinking I didn't even want to be a film-maker, just because making Ratcatcher had been so tough. Afterwards, I was just ill. Knackered. And it's such a commitment, three years out of your life each time. So I was seriously thinking, do I want to put myself through this again? Is it worth it?" Ask what changed her mind and the answer comes instantly. "Morvern. I mean, we'd already done a fair bit of work on the script, but also ... I loved Morvern, you know? The way she saw the world, how she didn't take the road she was meant to. She's kind of a revolutionary to me." It's not just Ramsay who feels this way: Alan Warner's debut novel has been translated into eight languages and in 1996 won the Somerset Maugham Award (for British-born writers under 35), critics praising its eerie, deadpan narrative and the author's ability to get inside a young woman's mind. It's a book, and now a film, in which things happen apparently without effect, beginning with the suicide of Morvern's boyfriend and her theft of his just- completed novel, followed by adventures on the Spanish rave scene funded from the dead man's bank account - all filtered through Morvern's selective consciousness. With co-writer Liana Dognini, Ramsay began sifting through the novel, piecing together a script from a source that, for all its merits, consisted of a 200-page interior monologue. The screenplay was an attempt to give the story a more solid emotional foundation. "Morvern's detachment is what attracted me to her," Ramsay says, "but it almost got cartoonish and I wanted her to be much more of a real person. So I tried to combine that detachment with something authentic." That same balancing act informs the entire film. Hypnotic and elliptical, it's a film that takes time to process, a pure-hearted display of how spellbinding cinema can be. You're unlikely to see anything like it again. Occasionally, Ramsay's camera recalls the skewed brilliance of David Lynch, or the photography of Nan Goldin, but most often the film points to nothing but its own nerveless originality. Just as Ratcatcher weaved magic from rundown Glasgow tenements, so Morvern elevates the mundane into the extraordinary: drab supermarket aisles become epic, unfamiliar landscapes, the blinking lights of a Christmas tree a tender visual elegy. Intentional voyeurism is how Ramsay describes her approach. "I think the film's got a really sensual quality, and I wanted that to permeate through the imagery, the sound, everything. It's one of the best qualities of the medium, and it's just so underused, so I hope that comes across." The danger is that such boldness will lose a less imaginative audience. Already critics have griped that Ramsay's dense, fractured style stands in the way of a story. Shrugging, she says she'll always take hostility over indifference: "'All right' must be the one reaction I dread more than anything." All the same, there's a weariness in her tone. "Yeah, I get that a lot with my work. Always have. And there have been times when people have talked to me about the film and I've thought, fucking hell, am I going to end up walking out here? But after a while it's like, well, if you don't get it, I'm sorry, but that's OK with me. I can't lose sleep over people who need every last thing spelled out for them. Personally, I enjoy having a wee bit of work to do for myself." She's aware that, with Morvern Callar more than most, the film also belongs to her lead actor - not, initially, that Ramsay had the least idea who that might be. Her preference has always been for casting non-professionals (including her brother James and niece Lynne Jr, both of whom had parts in Ratcatcher). This time round, the hiring of the supporting cast was no different: the role of Morvern's best friend Lanna, for instance, went to Kathleen McDermott, a trainee hairdresser approached in Glasgow's Argyle Street by casting director Des Hamilton. The casting of Morvern was always going to be the clincher, the decision that would either elevate or ruin the entire project - and, by implication, the next three years of Ramsay's life. She was, she says, open-minded: it was one of those times where she'd know what she wanted when she saw it. Which, presented with a black and white photograph of Samantha Morton, she did. "And it didn't look like an actress's picture at all," she says. "It was just this woman staring into space, like she was in some kind of trance. And I actually didn't recognise her. I just thought, Morvern. That's Morvern. It was only when I looked at the name that I realised, oh yeah, right, Samantha Morton." The pair duly met to talk through the character. Ramsay liked Morton, she says, felt inspired. Only she kept looking, convinced it couldn't be that simple. Over the next few weeks, she began receiving letters, handwritten notes from Morton asking, politely but insistently, if she could please get the part. "And all the time I couldn't get her out of my head. I just kept coming back to the woman. Till eventually I just went with it and cast her. There was something she had that made me think she could do it. Something ... not quite of this earth. D'you know what I mean?" Later, sitting outside with Morton on a brick wall - she needed the air, she said - I see exactly what Ramsay means: the pensive, spacey intensity, the competing impulses towards candour and self-censorship. On screen, as Morvern, the effect is startling. In person, at least to begin with, it's faintly unnerving. Her eyes bore into mine, then dart off into the middle distance. Where's she going ... Where's she gone? I ask her if she'd seen Ramsay's short films before being cast. There's a pause before she says she had. "And ... it was almost ... " Seconds pass. One, two, three. "I just thought they were wonderful." And she'd seen Ratcatcher, too? A nod. What did she think of it? "I liked it," she says, in a manner that suggests that doesn't happen often. "I liked it a lot." She turns, makes sure she's got my attention. "I'm not very articulate. I'm not a writer. So I'm not very good at describing why. I know some people will talk about lighting and space, and make comparisons with film-makers from the past. I can't do that. But if I'm so drawn to what's being portrayed that I can forget I'm watching a film, that's pretty incredible to me." Later, she will explain how she was drawn to the project both by Ramsay - "I'd have made a film with her, written a song, a book, anything" - and Morvern: "In a way she was a hero to me." For now, however, it's all measured courtesy and clipped enunciation. I am, in essence, being sussed out. Like Ramsay, Morton's success has come at the cost of media focus on her early life, a story told and retold: grim childhood on a Nottingham estate, a family sundered by neglect and alcoholism, much of her adolescence spent in care. She won't discuss the past: there are too many bad memories, made worse by too much tabloid prurience. In spite of this, there is still an unknowability about her as an actor, an enigmatic quality that has less to do with her willingness to engage (once you're past the reserve, she's disarmingly honest) than with an intrinsic otherworldliness. It's what makes her perfect for Ramsay's film - if there's something deeply cryptic about Morvern, the same goes for Morton. It's also what makes her, in professional terms, something of a one-off: while she has been compared to Christina Ricci and Chloë Sevigny, who have similar poise, you suspect few actors would be able to muster such sincere concern over the working conditions of set electricians ("Yeah, but they keep me safe, don't they?"), or launch into a discourse on consumerism that begins with the mall-zombie vacancy of the American midwest, takes in her late grandmother's problems with the local authorities in Nottingham, and ends with a sighed validation of acting as a trade in which "at least you're trying to put some good into the world". "It just feels like we're this marching army," she says, "and we're obsessed with fashion and celebrity and money. I get sad sometimes when bright people don't get access to art and things of beauty just because the media don't want to acknowledge them and they've had a shit education." Would she want to go back into education (she left school at 16)? "Not now, no. Part of me thinks I should, but I read, and I learn from people. I pick things up. It interests me when I hear people quoting great thinkers, because it's like, OK, but does that make you any brighter?" Since arriving in London at 16, her time has been spent picking her way through the creative morass of "women's roles" in a business in which a woman's willingness to grace the covers of men's magazines is routinely valued higher than her acting ability. As soon as she could afford to, Morton says, she began exercising a strict quality control over both scripts and the people attached to them. "I've had experiences where I've been so hurt, put so much into roles with emotionally cold directors, that I've learned to be careful. With Lynne, I knew very early on that she and I understood each other. And that's enough for me." The result has been a series of luminous turns in rarely less-than-interesting films, from the low-budget but accomplished Under The Skin (1997) to Woody Allen's jazz-age comedy Sweet And Lowdown (1999). The latter, in which she played the mute girlfriend of a philandering Sean Penn, was a precise study in benign vulnerability, executed without a line of dialogue. If most actors flounder in silence, the less Morton said, the more she thrived, her expression moving seamlessly through joy and optimism, disillusion and anxiety. She was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for the role. She didn't win; she did, however, become the first nominee to wear a Sex Pistols T-shirt to the awards ceremony. Ask her if she is proud of what she's achieved and she'll tell you, "I'm proud of my daughter [Esme, now two, whose father is the actor Charlie Creed-Miles]." Then she ponders the question some more. "In terms of me ... I'm proud of moments. But I'm an actress. I've never saved anyone's life. I mean, I'm proud I'm not on the dole and living in a council flat in Nottingham. I'm proud I got out of that." Her most recent screen appearance, less than a decade after leaving Nottingham, came opposite Tom Cruise in this year's Steven Spielberg juggernaut Minority Report. Is she comfortable with that level of success? She shrugs, says she's always been careful when it comes to jobs and that won't change. "You're a long time dead, d'you know what I mean? No matter how much money you've got or how nice your house is. But I could tell you so many things I won't ever do, and tomorrow someone I love could get ill and need a huge amount of money. I mean, I used to talk about how I'd never work in Hollywood, but I was young then. Just being a bit contrary." How long does she want to keep on doing this? "I'm realistic. I earn good money. I've got a family to support. At the moment it's fine. I enjoy it. I'm good at it. But I'd like to think I'll have the courage to stop the minute I wake up and think, God, this is killing me, where's Sam gone?" And she'd be prepared for anonymity? "Yeah, but I've never been very anonymous. I've always been noisy. That's the difference between me and Morvern. She listens to her Walkman and no one bats an eyelid. I was always the one on the train whose headphones were up too loud." Which brings us back to where we were, Ramsay slumped in a chair, the lack of sleep finally catching up with her; Morton curled up on a sofa. They're discussing the post-premiere party the night before. "He drinks like a drinker, d'you know what I mean?" "What, does he? Properly?" We talk about the shoot that followed Morton's casting, eight hectic weeks divided between a wintry Oban and Almeira, southern Spain. The potential for conflict was obvious: two combustible talents, each with a strong vision of the central character, working with an inexperienced crew and minimal creature comforts. That the conflict never came surprised them both. "I did expect fireworks," Ramsay admits. "We're both pretty tough characters." Morton smirks, admits she "can be a bit of a madam. I've been on my own since I was two, so I've always done everything for myself. And in my work now I'm quite solitary." Both the film and the relationship could have gone either way. To their evident relief, far from tearing each other apart, the pair established a lasting bond, cemented by their attachment to Morvern, whom they talk about like a missing friend. This despite the fact that the long hours filming outdoors in Scotland on a low budget meant both women arrived in Spain with bronchitis. They mull over the relative worth of money in film: when she saw the latest Star Wars, Ramsay says, all she could think was that the makers would have been better off giving the cash out in the street; Morton recalls that Woody Allen's frugality resulted in her losing money on Sweet And Lowdown (her salary barely covered the cost of her accommodation). "Of course, he makes a lot himself," she says, more matter-of-fact than pointed. "But then," she says, "I also think you can have too much money available. You need that balance between having enough to get the thing done, and not having caramel macchiatos coming out of your eyeballs and four runners doing your toenails while someone else gives you a blowjob under the table - which does go on, believe me." Ramsay's laughing hard. Morton glances up, schoolgirl guilty. "Sorry." Then she talks of Ramsay allowing her to "unlearn" the mechanics of acting for the camera, before Ramsay explains how Morton often broke from her own performance to help the unseasoned Kathleen McDermott, "which I think a lot of actors of her experience would be snotty about". "The funny thing," says Morton, "is I remember having these long talks with Lynne and almost having this cocoon period of waiting to do the film." She falters. "I've gone off at a tangent, haven't I? But film is funny because it's this huge chunk of your life, but what we don't have is time. So you have these relationships very intensely for a few weeks, then by the end you've got this real intimacy, and it's already over." "I really felt that when we finished shooting," says Ramsay, "because it felt like a hippy commune in Spain." Morton interjects: " 'Where's my family gone?' That's what I thought! 'Where's my family gone?' " The film maintains a constant emphasis on improvisation, reflected not only in Morton's performance but in the shoot itself. Constrained by time and money, there was, they say, no alternative. To create the right atmosphere for the film's one sex scene, Ramsay and her crew decamped to another room, leaving Morton and her male counterpart to "fuck about" - a choice of words that makes the director bury her head in her hands. Another day, for one of the film's most pivotal sequences, the director took charge of the camera herself as Morton ran riot in a tiny bathroom, knocking back brandy in lieu of the usual cold tea,"because we'd done so many takes I was going to be sick otherwise. And I'm there in the bath with this make-up guy squirting me with blood, me in the nuddy, tits hanging out, Lynne standing there, doing take after take, and part of you thinks, God, this is ridiculous. But you've got to make it work somehow, haven't you?" Animated, she turns to Ramsay. "It was the same with Kathleen, wasn't it? She had to do that topless scene and she was so nervous. She didn't know either of us from Adam. We could have been making some B-movie porno. So in the end you took your top off, too, didn't you?" She swivels back to me. "So we're all there, and Lynne was like, 'Right, OK, we've all got 'em out now.' And then we just got on with it." Ask them how important their gender is in the film's execution and they both say it isn't, then qualify themselves. After all, they're both aware that, while they may not define themselves that way, in an industry filled with what Ramsay calls "public schoolboys pretending to be geezers", they are marked out by their sex and class. Morton is suddenly reflective. "When it comes to practicalities, some male directors can be incredibly cruel. Because, as a woman, there's certain things you can't hide. It's like ... " She clamps her hands over her mouth. Ramsay and I peer at her. What? "Oh, fuck it. I was doing that sex scene and I was on my period, and me and Lynne were both like, well, what are we going to do, because my Tampax string was showing. And in the end she just stopped the camera, leaned over and cut it off. And for all sorts of reasons, I can't imagine a man doing that." "But then," Ramsay says, "some women are so not in check with their sex, they're so overtly trying to be accepted by the men, that they become even more unbearable and macho than them. I just remember being at film school, lugging this 35mm camera around in my high-heeled platform boots. Because I would not conform to Timberlands. I just wouldn't do it. It was, like, give up my femininity for this bunch of wankers? No fucking way." They start laughing, two women who should, by rights - had they listened to convention - currently be in the dole office or part of a secretarial pool, escapees from circumstance who came together to create something that will endure. "It just never entered my head to give up who I was," Ramsay says. "I know it might have been easier that way, but what's the point of easy?" Morvern Callar is released on November 1.
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