The You Were Never Really director talks framing violence and working with Joaquin Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood.
Nightmares and dreams exist side-by-side in the films of Lynne Ramsay. A blood-flecked hammer, sunlight bouncing on water. Formative years as a painter and photographer have informed the intensely visual imagination of this softly-spoken giant of cinema whose four feature films are each powerful works of art. You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s most overt foray into genre cinema. We spoke to the director about it.
LWLies: Is this a vigilante film?
Ramsay: I didn’t think about those kind of movies so much as The Samurai or maybe noir? I don’t think it’s a vigilante film. It was based on a novella by Jonathan Ames that’s a hard-boiled noir type thing. I suppose it does have that aspects, but I tried to make it my own. I grew up with noir movies, like Mildred Pierce and All About Eve and thought it would be really interesting to start to delve a little bit more into genre. My last one We Need to Talk About Kevin is a little bit like a genre film, but not quite. It was a really propulsive novel, and Joe was a super interesting character because he’s not your typical beautiful hero. He’s a pretty beaten up guy. I stuck Joaquin Phoenix’s picture up as soon as I started writing it.
What is it about Joaquin Phoenix?
He’s brilliant. He’s just the best actor in the world. It’s because he’s real. He’s got something about him. He’s not a pretty boy but he’s beautiful. It’s a mystery, I don’t know, but he’s really special.
Is he easy to direct?
We loved each other but he tested me and I tested him, in the best possible way. The character in the novel wore gloves and he was like, ‘I’m not going to wear that, that looks ridiculous,’ which is completely right. To me, he’s like another filmmaker. He’s always exploring, always asking questions, and that’s something I found really special. It was an amazing experience working with him.
You have a striking way of channelling the unique suffering of your characters. They’re all lonely or haunted by something.
I’m making a comedy next.
Are you really?!
I’d like to. It could be fun. I think a comedy is a really hard thing to make. It’s one of the most challenging things to make people laugh.
There are some funny moments in this one.
I always look for a bit of humour, but then everyone goes, ‘Oh, you’re just a dark motherfucker.’ Maybe I’ve got a dark sense of humour, I don’t know. I think Joaquin shares that a little bit. He’d be great in a comedy – he’s really funny, just naturally.
When did you first read the novella?
A couple of years ago I was sent the novel by a company called Why Not who work with Jacques Audiard, and it was very tiny, only seven or eight pages. The writer, Jonny Ames, would say, ‘I just wanted to write a bigger novel I just couldn’t be bothered.’ Not couldn’t be bothered, but he wanted to do this novella, and I think he loved the character, but he didn’t know how to end it. I think he will do another novel of it. It was kind of one of those books where you go duh duh duh duh duh duh [mimes flying through the pages].
Were the social issues in the film from the book?
All the elements of a genre film are in the book, but it was more about mafia and I thought it would be interesting to do it about politics because of the nature of the world now. But yeah, the book was about corruption but for me it was really about a man failing. He’s scarred. He’s not James Bond. That’s the point, these people can’t really be like that, so for me he’s a human being.
When you were writing the script, did you work together with Jonathan Ames?
I spoke a lot with my crew, the DoP. I lived for a while in Santorini in Greece, and so he came out a few times and I’d show him what I was working on. He really knew the material so that was good because before we shot, he was really aware of that I think and that really helped.
Is it a coincidence that your last three films have been book adaptations, or do you prefer working from something else?
It’s kind of a coincidence actually. I want to do something original as well – my first one was original. All the book adaptations are quite different from the books. I’ve got an original project on the go, and there’s a sci-fi that I’d like to do but that might take a while.
Was there a need to do any research into child prostitution rings?
I read a lot. I don’t even watch films actually, I watch documentaries. I read a lot about political corruption and there’s been cases in Italy. More than that, it was the idea of the character that brought me into it. I was fascinated by Joe. He wasn’t the normal hero. The idea that he’s scarred, that he’s suicidal and he lives with his mum, that brought me into it.
A lot of Joe’s character is filled in by score. How did it work to collaborate with Jonny Greenwood?
He doesn’t work in a conventional way. He doesn’t score to the picture, like, ‘Oh, this is exactly for the timing,’ so it’s more about ideas and a kind of feeling and an instinct, and talking to you about the character and what you’re trying to achieve. He gave me a lot of really lovely stuff. I’ve got probably three or four albums of Jonny Greenwood on my laptop – someone will steal that! – that are just amazing.
Do you think about political landscapes when you make movies? Because this is an American story, not in your home country?
I guess the world’s just a bit of a mess at the moment and, like I said, because I tend to watch a lot of documentaries, it’s about the environment of corruption and things like that. I find it more interesting to learn things from documentaries about how the world is now. So I guess it bled into the work a bit.
Your style is very… it’s not like documentary, it’s very…
Stylised, tell me something I don’t know!
What informs your visual imagination?
I was a photographer, and when you work that way, you think in images. I work with a brilliant DoP, he’s my ex-boyfriend, we were together for several years and he understood where I was coming from. But I’ve always only shot it in film, and so I was really freaked out by shooting in digital, but it worked. It was good for actors because you get long takes and you’re like, ‘Wow’, but then you take longer in the edit because you’ve got a lot more material – so I feel like it’s a different discipline. But yeah, I come from painting stills.
Do you still paint?
I’d like to go to art school now, because I never went. I got up to a good level at 18 and then stopped. My niece is an artist at the New York school of Painting, and she brought me to New York and I was wired by it.
What ideas do you think you could explore via art that you couldn’t in cinema?
You don’t need so many people to work on it. You can be on your own, it’s a very individual thing. Painting is a different experience from a film. I love looking at paintings and finding smaller things inside it. It’s just nice to think that you could just be on your own with a paintbrush, rather than the whole kit and kaboodle.
What was the first response of Joaquin Phoenix when you reached out to him?
‘I don’t understand you!’ No, I think he’d seen some of my other films, so there was trust in me as a filmmaker. He had this tiny window to do it in, because he was doing another movie and then was doing a Gus Van Sant one, so I had no prep. It was very hot in New York in the summer, it’s a horrible time to go to New York, never go to New York in the summer, it’s boiling and we only had four or five weeks prep so it was like run, run, run… Maybe it was all a bit of a fever dream, and it all went into the film. I’ve been running the whole year for this.
Did you discuss Phoenix’s physique beforehand?
We didn’t want perfection. We wanted imperfections. He bulked up a lot when he was doing it, but he still had his belly. We wanted it to be real, you know? That and then the scars. He’s a filmmaker because he brought that character to life as much as I did.
Speaking of your style of directing, Joaquin has said that you jumped in the pool with him at some point. Do you always immerse yourself like that when making films?
I think you just need to know what the actor is going through. We were in this rushing bath for that scene, the water was really quite disgusting and it was super freezing. And he was like… I mean he doesn’t complain ever, so I just went, ‘Okay, I have to get in,’ so I just stepped in with my sandals on and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is super freezing I’ve got to get him out of here!’ So he was right. I got in there with him just for the shot, we literally did one shot of this because it was like an ice pond.
You say you watch a lot of documentaries… Would you like to make one? With Brexit going on in England now, is that something that you could think about?
Maybe. But Brexit is weird because in Scotland 90 per cent of the people don’t want to leave [the European Union]. So maybe there will be independence, I don’t know. It’s an interesting time… after living abroad for a while and coming back, you really feel that the landscape has changed. We’ll see. I’m moving to Glasgow, that’s a new cultural city now. It’s cool there.
Is it easy to direct a violent scene, especially to make it just violent enough – not brutal, not grotesque?
Yeah, I had to think about that a lot. I didn’t want to show violence like you normally see it. So I used a lot of post-violence, like you don’t see what happened but you see the aftermath. Or very distant, so we’ll really step back. Weirdly, people think it’s more violent than it really is. It’s pretty violent, I know…
It seems more about what it means to come from violence.
Yeah, it’s about the death of violence in a way. He’s got a violent past and he sees bodies all marked and that catches up with him. And he’s also suicidal. But he ends up coming back alive. So I was hoping to put a bit of hope in. I know it’s a dark film, but I feel like Joe comes out the other end.
Was it important to Joaquin to know which part of the film goes on in Joe’s head and which parts are real?
You’d have to ask him. He came like seven or eight weeks before we started shooting, so he’s that kind of guy. Even though I had a lot of prep – because I was doing locations, cutting bits out of the script because we didn’t have enough money, and it was a 29 days shoot – I was really grabbing every minute we could to kind of think about what’s in Joe’s head.
How do you go about constructing the state of loneliness cinematically?
I don’t know… It’s quite hard to answer. Going back to watching documentaries, maybe it’s about understanding humanity. That’s what filmmakers love to do. You’re a bit like a psychoanalyst – ‘What if this character is like that, or this character is like that?’
Does it help inspire you to be on location?
Yeah, because Joaquin looks so unrecognisable, no one knew we were filming on that. So it was great, we could run down the street with a camera or just be covert. And I don’t think you can make films in New York anymore – it’s very hard because you need permits. Of course we were a union film and we still had rules, but we tried to make it feel fresh as well. And the locations were really cool. I mean it’s an amazing city. It’s really noisy! Really terrifying in a way, but I love it. I think locations can be inspiring. I like shooting sets too though, that’s when you’ve got control.
Were there any sets in this one?
No I’m talking about Ratcatcher, my first film, the canal was a build and so was the apartment – and that was because we couldn’t shoot tenements in Glasgow, it’s so tiny you can’t get a camera. So I had a brilliant production designer, and at the time I was like, ‘Oh I don’t want to shoot in a set, there’s no way. I want it to be authentic,’ but she has a brilliant eye and in the end I loved it, because you could move the walls, you’ve got control, you know. And you’ve got control over the sound and stuff so… I kind of enjoy both worlds.
When you’re building up your massive crew and all your collaborators, how do you know if you can trust them to deliver the film you want to deliver?
It’s just friendships a lot of the time. Derek Jarman came to our film school and he was like, ‘Ah, I just work with my pals – life is too short.’ And it was good, it was a nice inspiring thing to say. Tom [Townend] I’ve never worked with him as DoP but I’ve worked with him as a camera operator years ago, but I know he’s a wonderful stills photographer. Alwin [H Küchler] my first DP was amazing, German DoP, I worked with Natasha Braier, an Argentinian DP who’s amazing and a lot of great production designers: Jane Morton, in particular who did Ratcatcher and a brilliant sound designer, Paul Davies. I’ve got a kind of team that I’ve built up over the years, but I’ve swapped DoPs a lot I guess.
Your films are too few and far between – is that because you’re picky?
Oh no, I had a baby. So I’ve got a two and a half year old daughter, and then I wrote a script that didn’t happen and was a real pain, it was a painful experience but it was just not going to work out. I wrote a script, prepped the film, had a baby, prepped this, and then shot it. So it’s been quite eventful actually, the last six years.
You Were Never Really Here is released 9 March. Read our review.
Published 8 Mar 2018
It’s hammer time for the famously intense leading man ahead of his starring role in You Were Never Really Here.
Joaquin Phoenix and director Lynne Ramsay combine forces to deliver a sensational cinematic sucker punch.
By Tom Williams
Lynne Ramsay’s masterful second feature from 2002 offers a visceral depiction of grief and longing.