Lynne Ramsay on the magic behind the velvet curtain

For our #MyDreamPalace campaign, the director of Ratcatcher and You Were Never Really Here remembers stylish old haunts in Glasgow and London, and the electricity that lights up a great public screening.

The auditorium of Glasgow’s old Salon cinemaBruce Peter

My mum and dad were film buffs. They were really into Hollywood studio films – Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder films. My mum loved Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). We must have watched that 20 times. They were working class people. I never realised how much they were film buffs until later. They went to the cinema all the time. In Glasgow we’d call it going to the pictures. Everyone would go. It was a big deal. But I never saw anything alternative until I went to the Salon or the Glasgow Film Theatre in my teens.

The first cinema I fell in love with was the Salon. It was in the West End of Glasgow. It was tiny and a total flea pit but it showed really unusual films. Now it’s a restaurant and a bar. I went with my punk-anarchist boyfriend when I was 15. We saw Blue Velvet there. Half of the audience walked out. I also saw Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul there, which was also a revelation.

Later when I moved to London to go to film school, the cinema I went to most was the Camden Parkway. It was an Art Deco cinema, deep red inside with these huge chandeliers – a fairytale cinema. It was like stepping into a different world, like going into a womb.

Photos of the old Camden Parkway Cinema
The ticket kiosk at the old Camden Parkway cinema

Most of the cinemas I have loved have closed down. The Camden Parkway is an Odeon now. I think I nearly burst into tears when that cinema shut in 1993. It was a landmark. Derek Jarman and other people really campaigned to save it. It was a travesty to change anything about that cinema.

The last time I was in a cinema was at the BFI Southbank with Tilda Swinton for the retrospective of her work where we showed We Need to Talk About Kevin. I didn’t watch the film – I never watch films I’ve made. But the way the audience reacted afterwards made me wish I had watched it. You really feel the atmosphere of a film when you watch it in a cinema. As much as I like streaming, you can’t step into a film like that.

Lynne Ramsay and Tilda Swinton discussing We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) on stage at BFI Southbank

In all my favourite cinemas it’s felt like you’re going behind the velvet curtain. It’s a completely different experience to watching a film holed up in your flat, wearing headphones. The thing that really defines the cinema experience for me is the immersive sound and visuals and the collective experience of being in the audience. Even with a great system at home you don’t enter the world of a movie in the same way as it being on the big screen with the magical atmosphere of the space you enter.

Everyone’s worried about the future of cinemas. But I don’t think they will ever go away. People will always want to watch big spectacles and superhero movies on the big screen. I hope there’s always an alternative to that too.

I may be optimistic but the cinema experience is a bit like vinyl records. People will always have an appetite for it. I’m really missing the NFT now. I want to go every night. After the pandemic, I think people will want to gather and react to a film together, and talk about it afterwards. My parents were from a generation that went to the pictures all the time. I hope we can reclaim that.

  • Lynne Ramsay was talking to Isabel Stevens