By Damon Wise
Lynne Ramsay has only made four feature films since her debut with Ratcatcher in 1999, but each one has made a splash at the BIFAs. “I think I went there for the first time probably 20 years ago,” the Scottish director recalls. “It’s always been a really nice evening. I think it’s important to have an alternative, I guess, to the more conventional awards. That can only be a good thing, I think.”
Over the course of those four films – Ratcatcher, Morvern Caller (2002), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and now You Were Never Really Here – Ramsay has established herself as a unique voice in British and indeed world cinema, having had a four-for-four hit rate with prestigious Cannes premieres for each. Her presence on the Croisette is starting to become a given, but her films themselves are anything but predictable: in her first she tells the story of a little boy from a poor family in ’70s Glasgow, in the second, the focus is a young Scottish woman, passing off her dead boyfriend’s novel as her own; in her third, a middle-aged American mom confronts her fears as the parent of a teenage school shooter.
In Ramsay’s latest, she switches things up yet again: the central character is Joe, a New York hitman charged with chasing down runaway teens. Played with simmering, physical intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, Joe leads an ascetic, ghost-like existence, much of it spent caring for his mother. Joe is careful never to leave a trace, but his ordered life starts to unravel when a simple missing-girl case turns out to have links to a high-powered political conspiracy. Ramsay packs into the ensuing 88 minutes what many directors can’t manage in their entire careers, propelled by a brilliant, ever-evolving score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
What’s not so surprising is that, once again, Ramsay’s work has been embraced at the BIFAs. With eight nominations, it is the third most nominated film of 2018, behind The Favourite with 13 and American Animals with 11.
You Were Never Really Here is quite a surprising project for you. How did it come to you?
I’ve got a friend in France who works for a production company called Why Not. She’s really into thrillers and things like that. She’s just a really cool woman called Rosa Attab, and she sent me the book. I was living in Santorini, in Greece, at the time, and I started reading it, and I just thought there was something really interesting about this character and I wanted to see where I could take it. So I started writing it on spec really, and then I contacted the writer, Jonathan Ames, who’s since become a friend. We became pen pals, really. I said, “Look I’m going to do something really different with this.” The only criteria he had was to make it as fast-paced as the book is. I mean, it’s a real page-turner. It’s, like, a tiny little novella, but it was more like a jumping off point, to be honest. When I started writing, something really good started happening, and I was enjoying it. It was winter in Santorini, where the internet’s terrible and there’s nothing to do, so I wrote the first draft in about a month. Then it just spiralled from there,
What pulled you in?
Really it was the character; a middle-aged guy who’s going to seed a bit – the total antithesis of James Bond, I guess. I was interested in the psychology of the character, so I started doing something really off the beaten track with it. It just flowed out. The ending’s completely different, I added some scenes and the mother stuff I really expanded. Luckily, Jonathan was OK with that. He’s seen the film about, I think, 20 times. He says it’s inspired him to write another book, so I’ll see what he comes up with, because the film’s obviously quite different. I’ve been lucky, in the fact that I’ve never really done a straight adaptation of anything, but the writers have liked it, so that’s always a good thing – because it’s their original material. But for this, it really was about that character. I felt it was an interesting character for me to explore.
How long did the writing process take?
I’d say about a year. Maybe less. But I wasn’t consistently working on it. Maybe six months to a year, and then it went really fast. It was really strange. My producer, Jim Wilson, had worked with Joaquin Phoenix before, on Buffalo Soldiers, but I knew that I wanted Joaquin straight from the beginning. That’s never happened with me before. [Laughs] He was on my screensaver, y’know? I know Joaquin’s really choosy, so I was kind of telepathically willing him into doing the film. Then I got his email address and we just started speaking. He said he only understood about half of what I said, but I’m sure it was a little bit more! I said, “Look I’m writing this thing. It’s not finished yet, but I’d love you to read it.” He did, and then things started moving really quickly. There was a little bidding war on the script, even though I was still finishing it. So it was all a bit crazy. Then it was like, “OK, Joaquin wants to do it, d’ya wanna go to America? He’s only got a two-month window…” I’m like, “Oh my God!” I mean, it doesn’t often happen like that, that you just get the green light right away like that, but this one did. I was thrown right into the deep end, and all the fantasies I had about shooting in New York in the autumn, which is a nice time to shoot, went out of the window, because it was this really hot, sweaty, crazy summer. You soon realise why everyone leaves New York in the summer…
How was the shoot?
Joaquin came to prep right away. I got to New York, and he was there a week later, so that was amazing. A lot of actors will just turn up a couple of days before – if you’re lucky. Just having him there was so helpful. I kept working on the script all the way through prep, even though I had my two-year old with me. I didn’t have a minute. I was doing a recce in a million locations, so it was pretty fast and furious. Luckily, I think some of that energy went into the movie in the end. In fact, when we got to the end of the film we all looked at each other and were like, “Shall we just go make something else now? Let’s just keep going!” That was the first time I’ve felt like that at the end of a shoot. Normally you’re exhausted, but I was actually so energised by it that I was like, “I wish I had another script set in New York.” It was great.
What kind of script was it? Or rather, how do you script a movie like this? It’s a very visual story…
I don’t write in shots, but I think I learnt a lot when I made We Need to Talk About Kevin, because that script was so [heavily] edited. I was about to shoot it, and then there was a financial collapse. I was out casting it, and it all fell apart. While we were waiting, I had to get that script so tight, because it was based on a much longer piece of work. It was almost armchair-edited, because it’s a lot of different timelines. I don’t like writing in shots, but I will mention sound, and music. You do get a sense of the visuals from the script, but I also want it to be exciting to read. There’s probably less dialogue in the film than it was in the script, just because Joaquin’s so good at expressing things without saying too much. But… it’s hard to describe. [Pauses] The DoP must have read it at least four times, so he really knew what the approach was going to be, and we talked it through visually as well. That’s the reason I could make it work in such a short period of time, because everybody was on board really early. A lot of the prep was already done, so we could make it work quickly. If we hadn’t done that, I don’t think we’d have been able to shoot it in the time that Joaquin had. There were a lot of discussions with everybody upfront.
What kind of discussions did you have with Joaquin about the character? How does he work?
There was a couple of things in the book that we felt weren’t quite right. Joe has gadgets, and he wears these latex gloves, and there was all that kind of prop stuff. I was like, “Why do we need that?” It just felt a bit clichéd. We were always pushing it. In the film he gets a wound to the face, whereas in the book it’s a wound to the leg, which meant that he’d be limping his way through the rest of the film. You have to act that, y’know? So then I had this idea of, “Oh God, what if it’s a tooth?” There’s something visceral, and horrible, and personal about that kind of violence when it’s a facial wound. There were lots of things like that. We would always be unlocking it, and thinking, “How can we make this better and less predictable?” We thought that you should be watching the film thinking you don’t know what the hell’s going to happen next – and that’s exciting.
Was there a lot of dialogue between the two of you?
We had a lot of late-night conversations. He lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn, thank God, so I could run in with a computer at 6am or something, going, “I’ve got this idea…!” And throughout those discussions he was just really starting to create the character – his shape, and how big he was. I thought that was really interesting. Instead of being the ripped kind of guy that Joe was in the book, Joaquin really took it to extremes – physically, in the way he was moving, everything. I was able to see that appear before my eyes in a way that you don’t often get to see on a movie, because of that two months he was there. I think he was just digging deeper the whole time, y’know? That was just a really special time. I’ll always really be grateful for that, because I was still working on the script all the way through prep and I was able to do that with the actor in front of my eyes. Seeing that transformation was invaluable for this film, I think.
How did you approach the violence? It’s not a very explicitly violent film, but, as you say, it’s a very visceral form of violence.
It isn’t very violent compared to a lot of films. There’s a lot of unseen violence, which is kind of a double-edged sword, because people love the catharsis of an action sequence. I’d love to have had time to shoot something like that, but I had very, very limited time and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do these big, balletic sequences. So I just tried to make it much more psychologically violent, y’know? There’s lot of offscreen stuff. I thought that was really interesting because, again, I didn’t want to approach the violence in a way that you’d already seen. Violence often becomes banal. Your brain switches off, like, “Oh, right, it’s going to be one of those sequences.” But this film doesn’t really let you off the hook like that! To me, I made a sort of separate script in my head, dealing with how the violence would work. I thought that, at first, it should be very mechanical – which is what brought about the surveillance camera sequence. It’s just really tick, tick, tick. Then it should become really, really personal. Then it should become almost like post-violence – you don’t even need to see it to fill in the gaps. So I kind of figured it out myself, because I’d never done anything like that before. That was the challenge. But hopefully next time I’ll get a bit longer to shoot.
The surveillance camera sequence is very interesting, because of the jumps in the soundtrack. A lot of people in Cannes thought that was a mistake.
Yeah, I’m sure they did.
Why did you make that choice?
I did a test, and there was a jump or a skip in the soundtrack, and I thought it was really interesting, psychologically. You know something’s wrong but you’re not quite sure what it is, and it just adds a kind of tension. I thought, “OK, we don’t have all that long to shoot, but I can use the sound to really ratchet up the tension.” And it does it in quite a subtle, subliminal way. There’s something about sound – sound works in your brain in a way that I think an image can’t. It can do more than an image, y’know? It’s a bit like music, where you don’t know why it works but it works. I think I just trusted my instinct that, in light of the fact that I would have a very short, precise way of shooting, so I would need to really work on how the soundtrack would work on your brain, to make you feel uneasy. There’s something about a skipping track that does that, and it’s a weird sensation because you can hardly tell. It feels a little bit trippy, almost. And you’re entering such a surreal world in the film that it felt right.
How did you approach the score?
We didn’t put sound and music on at the end, which is a conventional form. We were cutting and then getting the music. I would send Jonny the first 10 minutes, and then I’d send him 20 minutes. The music started becoming a little bit like Joe, the character. And Jonny doesn’t score to picture, so I would get these 25-minute [pieces] … There was so much good stuff, it was actually like getting a box of presents at Christmas! The amount of work he put into it was just incredible. When he got the last reel, I remember him saying, “God, it’s bonkers – but I love it.” And then the music in the last reel really goes off somewhere pretty crazy, in an amazing kind of way. Just having them there really early was special, and unusual. Basically when I got the music, often the music and the sounds would inspire the cut rather than [the other way round]. Maybe the length for the track he’d done would lead me to choose a different cutting point.
Was anything left over?
There’s some stuff we didn’t use and all of it’s brilliant – I’ve got an amazing Jonny Greenwood album on my computer. He was there all the way along, even though we had to work remotely because he was on tour with Radiohead. It was this incredible process. Again that doesn’t happen every day, that you’re able to start early. But I talked to the producers and said, “This is the way I want to do it.” Luckily, they agreed, because it can cost more. But I don’t think I’d have been able to get the film ready for Cannes if I hadn’t worked so early on the sound and the music. There’s no way. Luckily, there was pre-mix for Cannes, and I was able remix it again. You can use any music that you want at a festival, but there were some things we couldn’t use [afterwards].
What kinds of things?
At one point there was a Bon Jovi song, but that cost something like 40 grand, unfortunately. So I had to get a wee bit inventive, because some things I couldn’t use. Some of those things were annoying. [Laugh] Even the Psycho music, y’know? When Joe goes “Ehhh! Ehhh! Ehhh!” – that cost, like, $15,000. I was quite shocked by that because he only makes the noise! Some songs were meant to be temp, like the Rosie And The Originals track, Angel Baby [in the surveillance camera sequence], but every time I tried anything else it didn’t work. So, yeah, I did have to kill a few darlings, but I also fought for the stuff I needed.
The film is very faithful to the book for a while, and then it suddenly becomes very different. Why did you decide to make those changes?
I think it was quite an unfinished thing in the first place. I was keen to get away from the kind of idea that there was going a big showdown at the end and then Joe kills the bad guy. It felt obvious to me, and I think I wanted to pass the baton on to the girl, so that she saves herself. Joe’s really losing it at that point, so the ending’s much more about impotence, about him having all that rage, and then getting there and not being able to fulfil that, y’know? He doesn’t get that catharsis, and he kind of implodes a bit. I thought that was a really interesting way of approaching it – looking at interior violence in a different kind of way. At least that’s what we were trying.
In the book, it also feels as though Jonathan Ames might be setting up his character to return in another novel…
Yeah. He probably was, I think. He’s probably quite pissed off at me for changing it! But I know Jonathan loves the film, and we talk a lot, and he’s so into the film that he wants to continue [this version]. But this ending sets up a story for a different kind of film. So let’s see, maybe he’ll write something like that. We talked about the whole idea of the end being a fantasy, which it is to a degree. I think Jonathan was inspired by the film, but, yeah, it doesn’t give you the obvious setup for a second movie, so he’ll have to work a bit harder on that.
What kind of reactions have you had to the ending? It’s quite ambiguous…
Really good. It’s a bit unexpected. I remember thinking about that scene as I was writing it. It was one of those moments I had a light bulb moment, and I was like, “God, it should just be like, ‘The world goes on.’” Because all along in this film Joe has wanted to commit suicide, and now he’s got the chance to do it. In a way, this kid brings him back to the present tense. He’s always been living in the past, living with the violence of the past, and he sort of comes back to life. I always thought it was kind of Lazarus story about a guy being reborn. I think I phoned Jonathan. I was like, “I thought of this scene and I think it’s great.” He was like, “Yeah ,go for it.” That was good. It doesn’t happen every day that you get those moments. The surveillance camera scene was a bit like that as well.
Because it was a born out of one of those moments of despair where you’re like, “Shit, I’ve got half a day to shoot this, not three. You need to be really clever here. But also you need to do something really truthful.” Suddenly you’re back’s against the wall and you get those moments – but they don’t happen every time.
What are your strongest memories of the shoot?
There were a lot of times with Joaquin where I was getting the hairs on the back on my neck standing up. I was like, “Oh my God, this guy’s great.” He was doing one or two takes every time, and everything would be different. Sometimes it’d be funny, sometimes it’d be really terrifying. When you get an actor like that, it’s super-exciting. But it was that kind of shoot. I mean, I think the oldest member of the crew was 32. They were all ex-Columbia/ex-NYU students. They were so excited in the making of this film, because we did it as chronologically as possible. That really buoyed me up as well. It was exciting every day, because of the tension of the limited time, and the heat. There was electricity in the air – a good kind.
What’s next for you? Do you have anything to go to, or are you going to take some time off?
Well, I wrote 160 pages of a script just after doing all the press for You Were Never Really Here, because it’s hard to keep talking about the same films. But I was really inspired by making this film, so I’ve started writing this epic environmental horror thing. [Laughs] I don’t know what it is yet, I just kept writing and didn’t look back. But I’m working on a few other projects as well. They’re all quite exciting, but they’re just in the writing process at the moment.
When do you think you might be back behind the camera?
I’m hoping to be up and running and shooting something sooner rather than later. I don’t want a big gap, if you know what I mean. I don’t really take time off, it’s just that some things have worked out and some things haven’t. It’s just the nature of the beast, really, but you learn something from all of them, even if they don’t work out. Hopefully, you’re just getting better and more experienced.
Do you have any goals?
I want every film to be different. I’d love to make a comedy. People go, “Oh, your work’s so dark.” I’m like, “Is it?” Because I always put some kind of comedy elements as well. [Laughs] You’re always exploring as a filmmaker, y’know? But it takes a while to make films, unfortunately. Especially if you write them as well.