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The Explosions Within: Lynne Ramsay on You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here, photo by Alison Cohen Rosa, courtesy of Amazon Studios

Joe uses a hammer.

A tough guy for hire — one who specializes in cases involving pedophilia and child trafficking — Joe owns a gun, of course, and he uses that, too. But for the jobs that truly matter, ones triggering the dark memories that clank painfully around inside his brain, he prefers the brutal simplicity of a simple hammer that can fell an adversary with one silent, well-timed swoop.

Arrestingly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix in Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s fleet, impressionistic work of hardcore noir, You Were Never Really Here, winner of the Best Screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival,  Joe is a bundle of contradictions. He is a hulking, menacing presence, yet he is also able to move unnoticed through Brooklyn streets, child brothels and inside the elegant mansions of the uber-powerful. And while he operates professionally with an efficient precision, “world weary” does not begin to describe his mien. Joe carries with him an overriding sense of exhaustion — physical but also spiritual. He has seen a lot, and because he has seen these things, he’s able to do other things the rest of us can’t — even if these encounters of his only serve to traumatize him again and again.

You Were Never Really Here has a simple storyline, one that involves Joe being hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a politician’s aide. Of course, as both Joe and the audience come to realize, it’s not that simple. There’s a hint of Taxi Driver here, as well as the New York neo-noir novels of Andrew Vachss, but You Were Never Really Here, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death, The Extra Man), is suffused with an odd, yet heartfelt tenderness and a take on its antihero that veers far away from crime fiction orthodoxy. (Joe seems consistently near suicide, for example; has little in the way of a crew and nurtures one enduring relationship: his cantankerous, equally fatigued mother.)

Following Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk about Kevin, You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s third literary adaptation in a row, and, like these previous films, it’s a virtuosic fusion of inner and outer space. With haunting cinematography by Thomas Townend, incisive editing by Joe Bini, Paul Davies’s expert sound design and a propulsive electronic score by Jonny Greenwood, Ramsay penetrates through a sweaty, pulsing New York landscape riven by all of today’s moral indignities into the brain of a man— a veteran — whose life was long ago derailed by the traumas of America’s past. Operating on a plane high above the ambitious strivings of today’s so-called “elevated genre” titles, Ramsay’s film harkens back to the 1940s and ‘50s noir programmers she watched on television as a child even as it quite elegantly processes a wholly different form of social, political and psychic confusion.

I spoke with Ramsay by phone from Glasgow, where she’s returned after nearly two decades away. You Were Never Really Here is released this April by Amazon Studios.

Filmmaker: For various reasons, including the way America feels at the moment, I’ve been thirsting to read or watch a really dark work of noir. But I had been having a problem landing on something that has satiated that thirst until I watched your film. I know why I’ve been desiring a violent work of art that takes place in a morally compromised world, but why were you attracted to this material? How and why did this become your next project?

Ramsay: The book was sent to me by a French company, Why Not?, which has worked with Jacques Audiard. My friend Rosa Attab there said, “Have a look at this,” and I read it really quickly. It’s not the normal, hard-boiled, pulpy kind of book, and I really loved the beginnings of this character — he’s quite a misanthropic guy, but he loves his mom. He’s quite a fallible man — not the hero, the guy who rides in [and saves the day]. He’s a mess.

Filmmaker: So, tell me then about the process of adapting Jonathan Ames’s book.

Ramsay: I took a lot of liberties, changed a lot. Whenever I write an adaptation, they are not straight adaptations. They become their own things but hopefully retain the spirits of the original. But Jon was cool — he knew I was going to do my own thing. I wrote it on this island in Greece, Santorini, in a village with no cars, next to a volcano, and internet that hardly worked. I wrote it on spec. Jon and I hadn’t met, but we became e-mail buddies; we had so many things in common. I told him I was going to take it my way, and he said the most important thing for him was to retain the kind of tension that’s in the novella. And that’s one thing I really wanted to do, too — to retain the pulse of the tale, where you didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I grew up watching film noir. My mom and dad are working class and total film buffs. I loved those movies that were only 85 or 90 minutes long, and I felt this book had that structure but that there was something I could do to make it more — the idea of a world where you’re not quite sure what’s going on, like the world is now. I was interested in filmmakers who had taken genre and done something quite subversive with it, like Sam Fuller or Stanley Kubrick. The Shining is a horror film on one hand, but it’s really about the breakdown of a marriage and a man going insane. So, the film became kind of a receptacle for a lot of ideas about the world I had been thinking about in general. There’s this feeling of not having a foothold anymore. Nothing seems real. Peering into an abyss. You know as much as [Joaquin’s character], which is not really that much. Also, I was watching tons of documentaries about corruption — that’s kind of where it started. Because I’m not on social media, for me, watching docs is just a way of feeling out the world. I watch as many as I can.

Filmmaker: What kind of docs?

Ramsay: Sometimes the ones on VICE, like short, more populist stuff. Herzog and classic stuff. I’ve always been a big fan of the Maysles and of [Frederick Wiseman’s] Titicut Follies. I’ll watch docs on prison population issues, treatments of mental illness, post-traumatic stress and the environment. I suppose that’s my version of social media, to watch as many docs as I can and make up my mind for myself what’s going down, you know?

Filmmaker: I was struck by how you incorporated flashbacks, which don’t feel so much like flashbacks with a narrative purpose as they do moments in the present.

Ramsay: Sometimes flashbacks can be amazing, can work really well, but it depends how they are approached. What was important here about [the flashbacks] is [knowing] that there’s a violence, a trauma in him that recurs. My sister is an ex-undercover cop, and she left because she had trauma. [Images] recur, sounds recur, and they’re quite elusive, you know? So, for me, there were, like, shards of glass in his head — they poke through; they come back when everything falls apart for him. All the violence in film links back to violence he’s seen as a child and to other parts and pieces of his life. They were written in, those things, but one thing I was really clear about is that I wanted them to be very impressionistic rather than tell the audience, “Here’s the backstory.” I saw the violence as its own script, in a way.

Filmmaker: Tell me how you worked with Joaquin Phoenix, who has, as he does for many roles, really transformed himself here.

Ramsay: Joaquin came really early in prep, along with the DP and me, and that was slightly terrifying because I had so much to do — there was no soft prep. He came straight from another film, and the way he created his body for You Were Never Really Here — he was like the hunchback of Notre Dame! He’s got scars and a belly — he’s becoming this huge guy. He’s not what you’d expect — he’s out of shape but still a threatening person. He built all that weight up, and for the next film he had to lose nearly half his body weight — that’s the extreme he’ll go to. But he’s such a kinetic guy, and I just felt like I met a soulmate. There was a lot of creativity in the prep. Joaquin and I were trying to question everything, to get rid of everything that was phony or clichéd. There were a lot of props that worked in the novella but were a little James Bond [for this film] — like a phone jammer and these other devices. We were like, “Let’s just get rid of this. This is bullshit.”

Filmmaker: You and he captured a certain kind of fatigue or an exhaustion. A protagonist who is exhausted should go against the concept of this sort of drama, yet he’s compelling, hypnotic to watch.

Ramsay: These guys are normally really strong and invincible, and he’s almost a schlubby version of that. He is really tired — a guy who doesn’t really want to be there. But there was a freedom to the character that we both agreed on. He can go from terrifying to then kind of sweet, or funny. The scenes with his mum — there’s a love between them. In fact, there’s a whole other film we could have cut, a Harold and Maude film.

Filmmaker: This is the second film in a row you’ve shot in New York or the New York area.

Ramsay: Well, Kevin was only one day in New York. We shot in Connecticut because of the tax rebate there.

Filmmaker: Okay, but still the United States, and the tri-state area. As a European filmmaker, could you talk about what it’s like for you to make movies here and in the American independent system?

Ramsay: I think the two films I’ve shot in New York I’ve had the best experiences, in some ways. You know, when you first go there, there are definite rules [you have to abide by], but there are ways to talk to people about how you work and to make that clear. It’s like, “Oh, she’s coming from a different planet!” But then people get into your groove, onto your wavelength — even the Teamsters were into [this film], which was really lovely. And because of the way Joaquin looked, people didn’t recognize him. They thought he was a bum or construction worker, so we could in some way harken back to having that [location-shooting] freedom, like The French Connection. I saw that right after [the shoot] at an Academy screening, and William Friedkin was there. The story of stuff they did then was completely crazy — for the car chase, there were no permits! We had to work within the rules, but at the same time we could break them — or not even break them, it’s just that no one thought it was Joaquin Phoenix.

When you have eyes on a city that’s not your own, not your place, you’re a bit like a photographer who’s fresh — you notice things. I’ve always liked the first features from European directors in the States because there is that openness — seeing things in a slightly different way. Also, the sounds of New York — it’s such a noisy, crazy city, especially for me, coming from a completely silent island for four years. It was actually inspiring. I thought, I’m going to heighten all the sounds that are in his head to reflect the state of mind he’s in. I remember one day, we were in prep, it was the fourth of July, and there were fireworks going on. I was sitting in a little back garden in Brooklyn, and you couldn’t see the fireworks — you could just hear the explosions. It was really intense, so I recorded it and played it for Joaquin. “This is what’s in your head every day, these explosions. And if you shut your eyes, it’s not fireworks, it’s bombs, IEDs.”

There’s a real energy about New York in general, even though the summer is brutal to shoot in. It was so grimy and hot, and there was almost an electricity in the air. But, in a way, some films just speak to you; they say, this is the way they are going to be, these are going to be the limitations.

Filmmaker: What were some of the limitations? I’ve read in other interviews that you had to compress scenes or cut locations because of the location costs here.

Ramsay: Having some of those limitations meant that I thought about things differently. For instance, the surveillance camera scene: Originally, that was a three-day sequence. We only had 29 days, there were a lot of locations, so what was meant to be two or three days to shoot became a day. I was like, “I can shoot this as a balletic action sequence, but we’ve all seen that before.” Oldboy is a great example. I tried to think psychologically, about who Joe is and how he operates. Sometimes those limitations force you to think of the most creative way to solve a problem, of a way that’s related to character. The stunt men came in, and they had all these great moves, but I said, “I don’t want any of that. If Joe hits someone, they go down.” I thought, Joe’s very mechanical, machine-like — it’s just a job. So, I made the violence super mechanical as opposed to being very personal. And then, post-violence, it becomes more personal to him. He’s so beyond rage, you don’t need to see what happens — you fill in the gaps yourself. So [in that sequence], I just showed the aftermath. And that gave me a script for how violence and action work in the film. Even though people say it’s such a violent film, there’s a lot of violence that’s offscreen.

Filmmaker: There’s a lot of quite distinctive coverage in the film. How much do you use storyboards?

Ramsay: Storyboards can be useful, but you can get a bit in love with the drawings, you know? First of all, it’s about the space. You have to figure out the space, and then you’ve got the economy, which to me is always important because you never get enough time to shoot. I think most of my films, there aren’t that many ways you can edit them, you know? I don’t do every shot — you know, your classic wide shot to medium shot to close up. I try to make bold choices that feel instinctively right, and sometimes that feels quite risky. About the surveillance camera scene, I did a test and then I started cutting it to music, to the time slices. I was like, “This is really interesting” — it disturbs you but you don’t really know why. It’s like a subconscious thing.

Filmmaker: The underwater sequence is another incredible scene, one that’s almost the opposite. It becomes bigger and grander than we expect it to. Where did you shoot that?

Ramsay: Weirdly, some of it was shot — and this was really strange — but of all the lakes and places we could have chosen in New York we chose the one that Jonathan grew up around. He was kind of flabbergasted — we chose the place where he and his mom, who passed, used to walk. It was a pretty special place for him.

Filmmaker: So, you shot there and matched it with a tank or some kind of CG?

Ramsay: We couldn’t do the underwater stuff in New York — we needed to shoot a tank elsewhere. There’s a way of approaching it, and I had done a short film called The Swimmer for the Olympics, so I knew a lot about underwater stuff and had worked with some amazing underwater photographers. I knew what I needed, and Joaquin was good enough to come to the U.K., and we shot it with a very small crew. We could have used a double, but both of us didn’t want to. Sometimes, the producer will go, “Oh, you make it subjective; you don’t need to see Joaquin.” I’m like, “No, Joaquin is coming. I want him, he’s going to be in it — we need the actor!”

Filmmaker: The sequence where Joaquin’s character goes downstairs in his mother’s house to confront the two thugs was, I thought, extraordinary. You do what are essentially matching singles of his gun, with a brief time cut in between, and then you cut to his face bisected by the door frame. It’s a completely unusual way to cover a shootout, and yet the actual gunplay flies by in seconds. And then the scene continues in this very unexpected way.

Ramsay: You know, you have those sequences — someone gets shot, and then they give up information, and then they die. But what if it doesn’t happen like that? What if the information is almost like gobbledygook? Any experiences I’ve had, for real [involving someone dying], there are a million things going through your mind. The tone is totally mysterious.

For me, [that sequence] was all about the layout of the space — it would have been dumb to have [Joe] running down the stairs — and the silence and the jump cuts. And I knew I wanted to use the sounds coming off the radio. So, there are two shots: You cut to the wide and then to the guy crawling [across the kitchen floor]. It was the most economical way to shoot it but also the most powerful way; instead of having all those spaces in between, you know? And then somehow that cut to the door was important to me because it gives you the space but also cuts Joe in half.

[That kind of scene] is normally shotlisted for me. Because I used to be a DP, I think in shots. I love comic books, you know, the ones that are really good — the important scenes are in, but not the frames you don’t need. My DP and I, we get up pretty early, and even though we’ve done it before, we shotlist again for the space, and we try and be aware of the space when things aren’t working. It’s a real problem-solving exercise — that’s one of the most exciting things about being a filmmaker. You’ve got a gun to your head, it’s costing a lot of money, people are waiting on you, and you have to think on pure instinct. When something doesn’t work and you don’t try to re-figure it, you’re flogging a dead horse. There’s something I like about solving puzzles, about problem solving, that I find extremely creative as well. I think often the best comes out in me when my back is against the wall. It’s exhilarating, because it’s like your true self comes out and you have these lightbulb moments. Everything looks like it’s all going wrong and then, suddenly, this is how you solve it!

Filmmaker: Do you ever walk away from a day feeling you didn’t get it? Or when you’re in post?

Ramsay: Always! Any director will say, “I should have done that, or gotten that other shot over there.” There’s always that thought. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times where I’ve thought, “Oh my god, it’s perfect. I got better than what I wanted.” Ratcatcher was made to be shot on “the most beautiful summer in Glasgow; it’s all sunny.” But it rained the whole fucking time! And I had to get around that. It was supposed to be kids in t-shirts, but again you just have to go with what the film is telling you, and the best things come from that. I don’t really watch my films after I make them, but I saw Ratcatcher, which I hadn’t seen for 15 years, maybe, at an AFI screening, and film students were there. I was like, “Oh yes, not bad! Maybe I could have changed that shot….” You’re always remaking the film, in your head, always — you’re still there, you’re never really finished. I don’t think you ever go away going, “Oh, yeah, give myself a pat on the back.” I think you know when you’ve gotten something good, but you’re always looking to find something else. But those thoughts that come [after] those days are always there. You don’t dismiss them. You think about how you can incorporate them [on a later day].

I think you should always be nervous making a film. I mean, you always are, but if you’re not nervous you’re not going to get good stuff. You have to be on edge but in a good way — it doesn’t need to be traumatic. And I don’t think you should ever be too self-satisfied. You should always be searching. Those moments when you’re like, “That’s great” — I’m always like, “I’m not sure about that.” It’s normally searching, searching, searching, looking, looking, looking. Trying to jump over something you think you did really well, trying to do it better. You’re always a student in many ways — there’s so much to explore.

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