Q&A by Tom Dawson
What made you want to adapt Alan Warner's novel Morvern Callar
for the screen?
LR: "The moment when she changed the name of her dead boyfriend's novel to hers, I thought "Wow, this is really punk rock". She was such a compelling, unconventional character, yet people might question her morality. In the book she does follow her boyfriend's wishes to the letter - she buries his body, and publishes the novel which had been written for her. It's the completely oddball way she does it that is interesting.
Also the book is a monologue which is existential - it doesn't tell you about any motivations, it's more like, "I did this, I did that, I went there". It doesn't say why she does things. For me it felt like a natural progression of that use of language to do it in a visual way."
To what extent did you have to streamline the original novel?
"It was all about getting back to what I found interesting about the book, which for me was her character. A lot of the book is spent on describing how mad the town Oban is. I was more interested in her character in the universal sense. It could be Nowheresville anywhere. I think it has an appeal to young people, because the world has become a much more homogeneous place. You could have written a film about the mad Oban scene that Warner is writing about and stuck to her journey and almost made it a road movie."
Did you think about having a non-professional lead as you did in Ratcatcher?
"Definitely - that's where I thought I would find Morvern. And then I actually saw a photograph of Samantha Morton and I didn't recognise her. It just didn't look like a photograph of an actress, it looked like a girl sitting on a train and staring out of the window. It looked as though she was on another planet, but there was something quite angelic about her as well. I thought she had a really interesting face. I'd seen Under the Skin and Sweet and Lowdown but I wouldn't have recognised her from the photograph. I don't think that you recognise her from film to film which is a real gift. I found that she's a very intuitive, instinctive actress, she doesn't talk a lot of stuff about motivations.
Sam doesn't act in front of the camera - she is. It's like filming a documentary. She just seemed to know exactly what Morvern would do and she he doesn't bring the baggage of another character from another film. In real life though Sam is much more gregarious and loud than Morvern."
Were you thinking of the soundtrack as you were writing?
"I loved the fact that music was integral to the narrative. Sometimes If you just put music over a scene, you can feel conned by the music - it's the thing that is pulling the emotional strings rather than the content of the actual scene. I based the character of the dead boyfriend, the body, on Alan Warner- he's a writer that I knew and he'd written the book. He's a muso and an intellectual, I imagined him with a girl who was non-academic, which wasn¹t that hard to imagine. So I thought about his record collection, he did a lot of great track-listing in the book. I had to make it work in terms of a journey as well - I didn¹t want it to feel like a pop promo, which can be a danger if you¹re using lots of contemporary tracks. For the club scenes I was trying to convey the real feeling of being a clubber and the visual sensation rather than the cliches of everybody waving their hands in the air. Actually for the party scene, some people were having a real party and we let the actors go in and join them."
Did you feel under pressure after the success of Ratcatcher?
"I felt I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown after the shoot of Ratcatcher. It was a really tough shoot with non-professional actors and we had to actually build a canal. I'd only made short films before, with 15 minutes being the longest. I felt under a lot of pressure to change my style of working, and then I thought "Why did you ask me to do the film?". I stuck to my guns but it was a completely exhausting experience."
Were the films backers worried about the looseness of the story in Morvern Callar?
"The financiers knew what to expect after Ratcatcher. It has quite a tight script, although it seems like she's drifting, she takes on somebody else's identity. In the pitch there sounds loads going on - there's a dead boyfriend, she buries the body, she goes off to Spain, she tries to tell her best pal, she gets money for a book she didn't even write. It's a black fairytale."
Do you have another film in development?
"It's the Alice Sebold novel The Lovely Bones. I am writing script with Lianna Dognini, who co-wrote Morvern Callar, and who's much more analytical than me, which makes for a good balance. I had the rights to this quite some time ago and it's since become a best-seller. In America the book is a really big deal. I read the first half in the manuscript stage when it wasn't even a finished book.
There's a heavenly/supernatural element to it - it's about this kid who has been murdered by the neighbour but is speaking about death from the perspective of a limbo land. It's a film about grieving and it's a way of looking at smalltown America through my eyes. It's about a girl who is very angry that she's lost her life, she wants revenge. She thinks she can communicate but she can't. It's about her letting go and her family letting go of her. It's a real ensemble piece. I might get non-professional actors in the limbo section. There might be a role for Samantha Morton - I'll definitely work with her again at some stage."