Adapted from Jonathan Ames’s neo-noir novel of the same name, Lynne Ramsay’s flesh-crawling You Were Never Really Here is of a piece with the filmmaker’s three prior features, giving fearless texture to less-than-tenable mental states. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a PTSD-suffering veteran working as a hired gun, tasked with rescuing the teenage daughter of a New York state senator from a powerful sex-trafficking ring. His bum’s rush into the underbelly of elite corruption gives way to an abrasive working-out of pulp conventions, but while Ramsay’s choreographies are brutal, the film only indulges in these punishments to match its antihero’s queasy, spectral place in the waking world. Some critics dinged You Were Never Really Here for its ostensible feel-bad sensationalism after its Cannes debut last year, and the film could indeed be spun as “topical” in the midst of our #MeToo moment. But the Scottish filmmaker ultimately has on her mind concentric cycles of abuse that stretch back across centuries, epitomized today by the devaluation of young and powerless women. Ramsay has delivered a wild, tactile genre exercise that, even when it thrills, refuses to let its audience off the hook.
This is your third subsequent adaptation of a novel, and again the film is wildly textural. It’s about color and sound. Tell me about using the language of cinema to solve literary problems.
If I like a piece of material, whether it’s a bestselling book or a tiny pulp novella, I always just find my own angle to it, what I like about it, and I try and work with that. I’m very upfront with the novelists about doing things my own way, and they’ve been cool about it. The films are companion pieces, but that’s the challenge in itself. We Need to Talk About Kevin, the whole book was layered, a very literary creation. I’m thinking about sound a lot, quite early on, and how to get into the head of the character: how they move, what’s in their mind, and how to do things in a very economical way. I’m used to getting, you know, 29 days to shoot. One of these days I’ll get a Kubrick-length of time!
I hope so.
This film was frenetic—trying out this thing and that thing. I did a lot of drafts for the script. Tom Townend, my DP, came to visit me in Greece seven times while I was getting it right. We did a very short prep, leading to a really creative shoot. Joaquin came when Tom came—right away. I was so terrified. I had never met Joaquin, and suddenly we’re gonna drag him around 100 locations, all over New York. Preproduction was only six weeks, and we had to see 200 [locations], which is a lot when you’re driving around. Suddenly I’m watching everyone at the top of their game: a young crew, all really into it. We were sad to finish, we wanted to make another movie after, which is unusual.
Joaquin and I were living around the corner from each other in Brooklyn, so we were trying the whole time to push it, to get away from the clichés. Even things from Jonathan Ames’s novella, looked at in real life, we’d say “this a prop.” In the book, Joe had OCD, and he had to put on Latex gloves for everything, and he had a few gadgets…I think Joaquin was like, “This is bullshit.” So we were always peeling away the layers, trying to do the unexpected, not knowing what was gonna happen. The shoot had this kind of schizophrenia—the heat didn’t help—but I think some of that is in the film.
Did you shoot in Bushwick? At one point, I thought I saw the intersection of Bleecker and Wyckoff Avenues.
We went everywhere. It was the most locations I’ve ever done, easy. After all, he wasn’t Joaquin when he showed up, he was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, you know? He was playing Jesus in a film after mine so he had grown this big beard. He really just looked like a construction worker. There was no selfie crowd. He was very anonymous. It was great, as we could go back to the run-and-gun style of shooting a little bit, and we had a smaller team. My A.D. had worked with Sean Durkin and other New York filmmakers, so he knew how to work some of the regulations. But we had to be very specific about our shots. Luckily, Joaquin brings it in a few takes, and each one was very different.
Was the entire movie shot on location?
There were a few sets. I dunno if I’ll say which scenes, because Tim Grimes, my production designer, is amazing! But I think it’s pretty seamless. Tim and Sasha Springer, the location manager, found me some incredible spots.
So break this down for me further: The script was a loose template? Or you knew what you were getting in every shot?
Of course there’s material-gathering, but you’ve gotta be quite specific about how you’re gonna use it, right? We used everything we shot, maybe a moment or two we didn’t use in the mom’s house, other scenes that could be brilliant as DVD extras, that kind of thing, but it’s hard to choose. I had never shot digital before so that was real different for me but quite good in some respects. I had the discipline that comes from shooting film. I don’t cover, you know? It reminded me of Morvern Callar a bit, where I’m shooting long takes on film. Samantha Morton was so mesmeric in character, and so was Joaquin—so I’d keep rolling. It’s not that we have so many shots, it’s the length of the takes. And there was a lot of humor to it. There was a Harold and Maude film hidden in there, just from Joe’s relationship with his mother.
Tell me about the motel room fight scene between Joe and the NYPD black-ops officer. I’ve seen the film twice and the scene is crazy, the way the camera cranes up to the mirror on the ceiling.
That sequence came from quite a lot of things. That’s probably the fullest “action sequence” I’ve ever done. In the book, Joe is shot in the leg and he extracts the bullet—a good sequence, very well-described—but Joaquin and I were discussing the limp he would need to have through the rest of the film. It’s a kind of actor-y thing, and it becomes kind of a prop. So we decided to make the scene more about the face, and it’s just through a conversation we had in the backyard, where I was staying in Brooklyn. I was just, like, bam, I love that. I really started seeing the choreography in my head. Maybe it came from a place Joaquin had shot before, or a place I’d known for 20 years. We talked a lot about the mirror on the ceiling. What do we take away from the tableau? It was up to Tim to make that work. And we did the scene in four or five setups. That scene has the only handheld shot in the film. While shooting, I don’t think it was a conscious decision to avoid handheld at the time. But one take, and Joaquin and that stunt guy were really going for it.
I think through experience you just get really clever about how you do things. One example is the surveillance sequence. I was gonna get half a day to shoot something that should have taken a few days. But it was good for that scene. Now, I think every film is different. Some really deserve length and time to shoot, but this was a lot of prep beforehand. Early on, we picked Johnny Greenwood, my sound designer Paul Davies, and Townend. I meet a stunt guy in New York and the first thing he wants to do is the super-cool stuff everyone does there: You hit a guy like this and he’s out, you know? Like TV. It’s exactly the kind of stuff I don’t want. It made me think outside the box.
So, the violence is really mechanical at first, but I was watching a lot of stuff on YouTube with the violence just a hair off screen, and I wanted to get into the sound and timing of it. Watching real violence, it disconcerts you, but you don’t know quite why. So I shot a test, using the stunt guy, and I cut it together with some music, and I could see this might really work. But it was taking a gamble because we were shooting our fight scenes a certain way, without any other coverage. I just felt it should be really depersonalized, and then it gets more personal for Joe, and then the aftermath, you know it’s happened so you don’t need to see it. Coming from where I thought Joe was in his head.
Joe abuses himself, opening the film in the act of de-asphyxiation, something that people do to make themselves pass out. But he’s not simply a victim at the beginning or at the end of the film.
I had been reading a lot about post-traumatic stress, and what happens when something traumatic is imprinted in your brain. It was in the script, but it became more economical. Also, my sister was an undercover cop in Glasgow, doing a lot of murder investigations. She was in a really long case, and she had to leave the force afterward because she just couldn’t handle it anymore. Having talked to her, and having watched a few documentaries too—when you have a PTSD flashback it’s not the way we think of it as a film term. It’s very lucid, complete, exact, kind of a dream. Moments of real banality can pop something in, like hearing something in the supermarket that brings you back, or people being totally paranoid when they’re driving.
There’s a scene in the film where Joe shoots one of his adversaries and sort of hangs out with him while he dies, slowly. He pours water on the man and slaps him with his necktie. It’s incredibly visceral. Eventually the two men sing together. Was that in the Ames novel?
No. It was mine, something I added.
Some people were like, “Oh, they might laugh at that.” Of course they might. They can do whatever they like. There’s humor and pathos to it. So many scenes where one guy shoots another, he’s dying, and then the audience gets all the information. When people are dying, gobbledygook comes out. They talk shit. They talk about their dog: “Where’s Buddy?” Both Joe and the guy he kills are so screwed up, I got the idea of the jump in time, death taking forever. There’s some kind of empathy in it. Joe gives him the painkillers even though he roughed him up. Weirdly, the most important thing for me, shooting that scene, was not the information for the plot. It was the song. My dad used to sing it and I loved it. It’s about a prostitute, but you’d see a guy in Glasgow, like a very macho-man shipyard worker, in tears, singing it in a pub. So I had to clear that before we shot the movie.
I’ve heard numerous times that there’s a difference between the cut of the film that premiered at Cannes last year and this one.
The biggest differences are the insert things. I shot them quite late, even after I had a kind of assembly form. They weren’t as woven in as they are now. We were still cutting up to the 11th hour. Joe Bini, my editor, and I had a couple hours for each little thing, and a temp mix—I had it mixed in five days, which is what you do for a short film. That was a difficult experience: being in that crazy-intense mix for five days, but we did it, on the proviso we could go back. Then there’s the catch-22: People loved it, it won a few prizes, and so on. They told me not to change it, but I really needed to make it more sophisticated, to do a proper mix, to work a bit more with Jonny’s music, including other pieces that hadn’t been explored yet. But there was something really cool about the Cannes mix. It was rough, and it gave us a good template for what we were gonna do later. Often, you only get one shot. I’ve never had the luxury of reshoots. I’m jealous when directors talk about that, because it’s always one shot for me. We were lucky that the sound and the music informed the picture cut and not the other way around.
You seem pleased at the experience of turning it around so quickly.
I hadn’t finished the script yet. I was kinda grappling with the last scene, because in the book it’s more about retribution, and I came up with the idea in the diner. I was just getting it together in my head. The script was in an okay place, Amazon bought it in Cannes after a bidding war, Joaquin said “yes,” and a week later I was in New York, and we’d have to shoot it over the summer. That doesn’t happen very often. And here I had been expecting to shoot the film in the fall, but I think it has a lot of crazy energy, and the breakneck speed drew a lot of good ideas from me, from us. But for four years I had been in Greece, in a village with no cars, then suddenly I’m in Brooklyn. The sound of the city was really overwhelming to me. There was one evening I was sitting in my backyard, it’s pitch black but I can hear all these explosions—and I’m, like, “What the hell is that?” I realized it was July 4th fireworks, but I thought, “This is what it feels like to live in war.” Because it just sounded the same, of course, I recorded it on my iPhone, played it for Joaquin and told him: “This is what it sounds like in your head, every day.”
Across my generation of movie lovers it’s hard to understate the influence of Morvern Callar. And yet it wasn’t that long ago.
I didn’t even know I was making an experimental film at the time. All the music was chosen by me, Samantha, and the crew. I love shooting film and I’m super-glad most of mine have been on film. You can’t just go “Yeah, it’s digital!” You have to be bloody specific: knowing the shots, knowing how much you need. If I was shooting Samantha I’d be shooting a 10-minute mag, the producer breathing down my neck about how expensive the stock is while it’s going through the camera. Joaquin was like her: It was never one tone. Sometimes it was blackly funny, sometimes it was terrifying—and sometimes he would call cut and I’d keep rolling. I’d just see what happens.