Lynne Ramsay talks about her latest film, the current state of cinema, and the time Joaquin Phoenix punched an extra
Lynne Ramsay is a Scottish film director and screenwriter who specialises in visceral films with themes of guilt and death. She has been described as one of the best British filmmakers of her generation. Despite this lofty praise, Ramsay is one of the most down to Earth people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to.
Her latest work, You Were Never Really Here, is a gritty thriller based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. “A friend of mine is really into his genre films. He works with a lot of really interesting filmmakers like Jacques Audiard and so he sent me this novella. I read it in 85 minutes which is probably the same length as my movie. They didn’t have the rights to it so I started writing it on spec to see if it would work out.”
“I had a draft in about four weeks and I was getting into it but it’s a very pulpy, B-movie kind of novella. Ames wanted to make this dime novel but the character was unusual. We talked about the script but he was never prescriptive, the only thing he said to me was he wants it to have the feeling of a page turner and I wanted that too.
From beginning to write the script purely as speculation to the finished film, there were many twists and surprises “It was strange for me with the script because there was a bidding war at Cannes and I was like what this isn’t even finished yet. Then Amazon bought it and then we were in Cannes the next year it was so fast.”
“Sometimes when you’re under the gun you have to kill your darlings a little bit. I knew I had 29 days to rewrite and prep, it was a nightmare. I don’t think I slept but I think that’s why it’s a bit of a hallucination. It was also super hot in New York — never shoot in summer in New York it’s totally brutal.
“There was something about going there when I had previously lived in a village with no cars, it was driving me mental. You shut your eyes and it’s just noise. I think that really went into the sound design. I hate to say it but some of the limitations actually brought around brainwaves when you have your back against the wall but it would be nice to have a bit longer time though.”
Part of what made it possible to prepare the script in under a month was the length of the book, at just 96 pages. “With my last film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, it was a huge book and was armchair edited. In order to get the money and edit it, we had to cut huge parts of the book out and it was so forensic. For this one, it was about 70% from the original book though it is quite different. Obviously, I would never want to do a straight adaptation.”
The main performance in the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe. Phoenix was haunting in his role and ended up winning Best Actor at Cannes but his collaboration with Ramsay began quite unusually.
“I think it was a first for both of us. I’ve never not met the actor before but I knew I wanted him to play Joe before I wrote the script that I didn’t even have the rights to. I think I was telepathically willing him to be in the movie because he’s quite choosy. He arrived as soon as we, the crew, arrived, and I was terrified. I had six weeks to look at 90 locations in New York which takes weeks and he was building up and becoming this beast. It was exciting how it evolved really.”
“No-one recognised Joaquin that much, which was great, they thought he was a construction worker or a bum. I remember someone throwing some coins at him when he was on the floor tying his shoe. That meant we could run and gun in a way, there wasn’t that crowd with iPhones or anything. I saw French Connection at this screening in LA and was blown away at how they shot it, without permits! It was just really inspiring because the car chase in that is one of the best car chases ever.”
During this time in New York, she found out her film was going to be in Cannes, just one year after her script was purchased by Amazon. “I got this call from this French company saying I have a meeting in London for four hours. I put two days aside in the schedule I had to shoot stuff in New York and I was just thinking ‘oh my god he’s not giving us the rest of the money to make the film’. He just said to me ‘it’s in Cannes’.”
“It was a lovely thing to hear but I had my head in my hands. Cannes is quite a brutal place and I was still only writing the script, it was kind of surreal, a bit like this film was telling us it was going to be crazy the whole way through. I edited this one in half the time of We Need to Talk About Kevin but it had the same frenetic energy that the prep and the shoot did. Sometimes a film tells you what it’s going to be and it just felt like a nervous breakdown the whole time in the coolest possible way.”
In order to convey the feeling of a nervous breakdown, Ramsay turned to sound. “The sound is like music. It’s subconscious. You don’t know why it works but it does. It stirs you or takes you into a dream. For me I worked on the sound really early, I never understand why some people only think about the sound at the end. With this is was very much the opposite, we’d do a cut and then do sound so that the sound could inform the cut.”
“After that, we’ll get a piece of music from Johnny Greenwood and it wasn’t like that’s the exact place you need to use it. You were looking at the pieces and it was a bit like a puzzle. Joe Bini, the editor, and I were getting all these pieces of music and they were amazing.
“We took them and put the right piece to the right part of the picture and then cut the picture to the music. It’s not a very conventional way of doing it, but that works for me. If you ever watch a non-mixed film you instantly know, it’s a different experience. We were premixing ours the whole way through.”
With a runtime of 90 minutes, Ramsay keeps this film lean. As a result, it never drags, and just as Ames wished, it truly feels like a page-turner. That said, there were quite a few scenes that didn’t make the cut. “It was never really a long assembly but you could have made a Harold and Maude type film with the stuff with Joe and his mum. There was so much good stuff, some amazing scenes.”
“I was constantly thinking that it could be a different film, this hitman living with his mum, a totally different tone. Plus his takes were all so different, sometimes he’d do something funny and other times you’d just think what the hell was that. You just have to let this animal loose. Like in that scene with the drug dealer he really did punch that guy and we were all shocked. Luckily the extra was pretty cool about it. It’s the same improvisation with the scene where he’s singing on the floor of his house with the agent.”
Phoenix punching an extra isn’t the only problem Ramsay had with her extras in New York. “Well, there’s a thing called a tier system in New York. If you shoot something super low budget then you can use who you like but after a certain kind of budget, you have to use a union like SAG extras.
“You can’t even speak to them; there’s this weird system where only the assistant director can. I had this experience with We Need To Talk About Kevin with SAG extras where the shot was down a street in New York and I was saying ‘why are these extras all walking so slowly’, it’s because they all wanted to be on camera for ages. So I was getting into trouble for telling these guys to hurry up.”
“I also remember with Kevin I had to get quite a few waivers because there was a kid that just hung out on set in a Halloween scene. There was a SAG guy who was telling me I can’t just pull someone in like I can do in the UK. I got fined by SAG that day for making a girl cry, but she loved it, she came up to me and went ‘that was the best experience of my life’. It was because I was telling her to really feel the emotion.”
At Cannes, Ramsay also won Best Screenplay for her film, which drew comparisons to iconic films such as Taxi Driver and Léon: The Professional, something which meant a lot to her: “Just to be mentioned along with those films is amazing. What was great was when I was in Paris on the radio. They did a trailer that was dubbed and asked me about my film.
“Afterward, they played an old clip of Paul Schrader talking about Taxi Driver saying almost the same things I did. It was weird was I thinking along the same lines as him?”
“I was talking to someone recently about the film Five Easy Pieces, a character study of Jack Nicholson. Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché but where are those movies these days, with the real conviction behind them. There’s such good television these days I think we need to elevate the movies. The cinema needs to be a spectacle and not just a marvel one.”
“The first time I went into the cinema and felt like I was in a complete other world. When I came out I was still in it for another couple of hours. That was with Blue Velvet when I was 15. I went with my boyfriend at the time and had to lie about my age because he was a bit older than me, but then he found my school bus pass.
“Half the audience walked out of that film because they didn’t get it, and they really didn’t. It’s quite a scary film. The way Lynch uses sound, like in Lost Highway, I think it’s very inspirational. You can only get that feeling by being in the cinema.”
Looking forward, Ramsay isn’t quite sure what her next film will be. “I’ve no idea. A comedy. I’ve been thinking of a few things for a while but you don’t finish a film when it’s finished anymore. It gets a release and then you have to go here and here and then talk about it and try to explain it.
“I’m used to being behind a camera not in front of one you know. I know people who have been doing screenings and such a year after. The thing that makes me feel the best as a human being is just creating stuff so it doesn’t feel that great talking about it, but I think it’s all a part of getting it out there.”