Joaquin Phoenix is electric in Lynne Ramsay's intense thriller 'You Were Never Really Here,' now on Amazon Prime.
When the 13-year-old daughter of a New York Senator is kidnapped into a high-society child sex trafficking ring, there's only one man for the job. That's Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex-FBI agent and war veteran, now a grizzled hitman whose audacity is only matched by his creator, Lynne Ramsay, director of You Were Never Really Here. Together, actor and director make a brutal pair whose jangled intensity fuel the thriller, based on Jonathan Ames's pulp novel of the same name.
Phoenix's face is a grim mosaic of unknown thoughts, feelings, and memories as he moves through his PTSD-riddled existence, never uttering more than a few words at a time. The film pulses with violence, both existential and explicit. Both the score, from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and Ramsay's camera are animated by a haunted fixation on the texture of chaos.
All told, You Were Never Really Here is a wild ride. It's only fitting, then, that the shoot was the same way. No Film School sat down with Ramsay to discuss shooting her genre-defying narrative, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
No Film School: This is a very difficult film to classify, genre-wise. Would you characterize this as a film noir?
Lynne Ramsay: I don't know what to characterize this as. When I read the novella, a lot of people were like, "This doesn't seem like a kind of 'you' film." But I don't know what a "you" film—a Lynne Ramsay film—is.
I watched a lot of noir growing up. The Postman Always Rings Twice. My mom and dad were obsessed with '50s movies. Bette Davis films. I like Sam Fuller, but that was later, when I was at college. I always thought he was really subversive but that was done within the framework of a B-movie. Fuller was doing things so ahead of his time. That subject matter was pretty subversive. I love movies like The Shining, which ostensibly people say is a horror movie, but it's really about a marital breakdown. It hints at all sorts of things underneath. It's a psychological film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin had some noir elements. So after that, I was like, "Maybe I should try the framework of a pure genre film, but do it my way."
I wanted it to be compelling and propulsive. The novella's a tiny, little thing. I read it in two hours. It's a page-turner, but it wasn't really finished. So I changed the whole final act. We wanted to give it to the girl. He's a fallible man; if he tries to save someone, he also tries to save himself. I think it was important for Joaquin and I that it was about a masculinity in crisis. We were always looking to rise above the cliches but also have the kind of energy and excitement of a genre movie.
I don't know what this film is. It's hard to explain. It's kind of a trip. People have said "fever dream." That's what it is.
"Because we've got all the tools in the box these days, sometimes people feel like they need to show everything. But what you don't see often implants in your mind—creates fear, tension."
My sister is an ex-undercover cop. She's a really honest person as well. I showed her a cut and she was like, "I just didn't know what he was gonna do next. I didn't know if he was a psycho at the beginning." We tried so many different things. "Let's do this funny." We wanted humor in it, like [the scene with Joaquin Phoenix and his] mom. It's kind of bonkers. We've got another film that I could cut that's Harold and Maude, or something, with just those two [characters].
I also wanted You Were Never Really Here to feel kind of terrifying. But you also see him intimate and soft. There are lots of different aspects of that character. So in the end, I ended up making a character study, which I always end up doing. Morvem Callar is. So is We Need to Talk About Kevin. So is Ratcatcher.
So now, here's this action movie. "I'll try that." It's kind of funny when some people say to us female filmmakers, "Oh, you don't do...this territory."
NFS: Did you feel like you had a complete understanding of the character's interior life?
Ramsay: The script was strong, but it was filled with certain things that were a bit of a hangover from the novella. Prop things, like he wears latex gloves and he does James Bond things. I remember Joaquin coming in and saying, "This is shit. Let's get away from this."
So we started taking different twists and turns. It was fascinating. Every time we were looking at the script, we were saying, "Let's try these different things you don't expect." If it felt wrong or cliched, we'd instinctively feel that. The film became more and more interesting when Joaquin and I met and went through this process of elimination together.
I wrote a different final scene. I don't think Jonathan Ames felt he finished [the novella]. You get to the ending and you're kind of like "Ugh." It just felt not satisfying. You get to this big finale, and he finds this guy...I don't want to say any spoilers, but it's not what you expect. It involved the girl in a very virgin kind of way.
[The final scene of the film that I wrote] is kind of a Lazarus Project. A guy coming back from the dead. He goes to the point of madness and you go with him.
NFS: I thought that that final scene ended up being really powerful.
Ramsay: It's funny. I never make film adaptations. I'm just straight up with the writing of it: "I'm gonna go on this route, if you're cool with that."
The Lovely Bones became a best-seller, but that was after I started writing [the movie], and it's really hard to change because people really want it to be exactly the same. I didn't think it would work exactly the same because a book and a film are different. It was quite heartbreaking.
You gotta be honest with yourself. I'm not gonna make something that people really like if they loved this book, because I was going in such a different direction with it. That was unfortunate but it happens.
NFS: You mentioned to someone else that this film was particularly stressful to shoot, but from the audience's perspective, I think that only adds to the suspense onscreen.
Ramsay: Yeah. You can never tell if that's gonna really happen. The DP's got a black sense of humor. Joaquin's got a black sense of humor. It was just the whole vibe of the thing. And kind of everything gels, you know? Even if we're in a pretty intense situation, time-wise.
"This film has a lot of explicit violence, and I don't really like violent films. But I think psychologically violent films are really interesting."
I love when things evolve. You gotta keep thinking when you're making a film. And push yourself. I never want to make the same film twice. When people go "Oh, my favorite film of yours is Ratcatcher..." They're all my babies, you know. I love them all in different ways. I have affection for them in different ways. You look back at yourself as a young filmmaker and you go, "I don't know if I'd do that again." Or you see it twenty years later and you go, "This is pretty cool." I hadn't seen Ratcatcher for years. I saw it at the American Film Institute with students. I was like, "Oh, this Is great." I was surprised by it.
NFS: It's like a time capsule.
Ramsay: It kind of is. I've only made four features. I'd like to make the next one sooner. It's like cooking, making a film. You've gotta be prepped. Once you're prepped and you know what you're doing, it's just about getting there. I love the editing process as well. I watch really intensely with Joe Bini, who's a brilliant editor. He's really at the top of his game. And Jonny Greenwood. I was working with these amazing people. Joaquin Phoenix. Tom Townend, who's not done that many features but this guy really knows his stuff. I've known him for years. So it all just came together somehow in a very lucky, fast way.
NFS: How was it stressful, particularly?
Ramsay: It was a very short prep. Only twenty-nine days to shoot it. I was in Poland when I got this call from Joaquin...we'd spoken on the phone, but we'd never met each other. He had a short window of time and I'd always wanted him right from the beginning. He came on at the same time as the crew.
It was quite a thrilling kind of shoot—real seat-of-your-pants kind of experience. I had to cut the script because we didn't have enough time to shoot things. So you're rewriting and you do that in the middle of the night. I don't think I slept the whole time. Maybe three hours a night.
NFS: Wow, that's crazy.
Ramsay: Yeah, but it was so exhilarating as well. We shot in the summer, which was brutal. You know what New York summers are like. We felt like we were going to faint, but it was a lot of night shoots. Because Joaquin looks like a bum in the movie, a lot of people thought he was a construction worker. We could film in such a way [where he blended in], a bit like those films of the seventies. All the energy from the cast and the crew kept me going.
NFS: Can you tell me about that incredibly innovative sequence you shot in the hotel brothel, where Joe goes on a murderous rampage and we only see him from the vantage of security cameras?
Ramsay: I thought I had three days to shoot it. I had one and a half, including the color. I was like, "I have to think of a new approach, but I need to think on my feet here." So I did a test with a stuntman. The stuntmen come along and they're like, “You want me to do it like CSI?" They want to show you all their moves. And I'm like, "I don't want you to do it like that at all. You hit someone with a hammer hard, they go down pretty quick."
So we created that whole sequence out of limitations. I think it also inspired some interesting ideas in terms of thinking about the violence in the film. Joe thinks of violence very mechanically. So this is a kind of post-violence scenario. We know [what happened]. We can fill in the gaps as an audience.
"I learned a lot from watching silent films."
I think because we've got all the tools in the box these days, sometimes people feel like they need to show everything. I try to think about it from the characters' point of view. What you don't see often implants in your mind—creates fear, tension. Those are things that I think are super interesting as a filmmaker.
This film has a lot of explicit violence, and I don't really like violent films. But I think psychologically violent films are really interesting. With [We Need to Talk About Kevin], that was an interesting experience, because a lot of people are going, "Oh, god, that film's terrifying." It had genre elements but it's not really a genre film. There's not a lot of onscreen violence in Kevin. It's all imagined.
That's the technique in silent films. It's not something new. I learned a lot from watching silent films. Some of my favorite directors, like Hitchcock, tell a story very visually because they started in silent movies. Learning from those kinds of masters is invaluable. I'm just interested in what cinema can do. I love Lynch's work because I feel you go into a different world. It's mysterious.
NFS: Interesting that you started by watching silent films. Your sound design and use of music is so sophisticated in terms of how it moves the narrative. That's especially the case in this film, but also as far back as your short films.
Ramsay: I love working with sound. A lot of the sound design comes in very early [in my process]. It was hot, sweaty, grimy, noisy...I live on an island without cars. Imagine going to New York after that! But that inspired a lot of the sound design as well—me being in this place where there's total quiet, and then coming New York and thinking a bit about the character and what's inside his head. I played Joaquin a lot of sound, and we sang a lot of music while we were shooting.
And the music! Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead. He's done an amazing job. The crazy thing about that is he was on tour with Radiohead. I didn't think he could do it. I was sending him pieces of the film. "Here's the first five minutes." And he was like, "This is exciting. What's the next piece like?" I could only send these little piecemeal parts remotely because he was really busy. But he was amazing.
The sound crew we had was fantastic. We had an amazing Swedish dialogue editor. It was like she was composing. Then we had this wonderful film school student called Morgan Muse who Paul Davis, my sound designer, mentored at film school. She was amazing. She recorded all this diner dialogue that we put at the end, that I wanted but didn't really know how to get it. Especially the mix for Cannes. For that, I only had five days.
"I don't know what this film is. It's hard to explain. It's kind of a trip."
NFS: Talk to me about Cannes! That was a whirlwind turnaround.
Ramsay: I didn't even submit to Cannes. So I was completely gobsmacked about [getting into the festival]. We were only about five months into an edit at that point. So to do a mix in five days...it was crazy. But it felt like we were a band. "You do this, you do that, you do that." I was standing in the middle of the floor, waving my arms about.
I suppose the good thing is I didn't have any time to think "Oh, the film is in Cannes," or get nervous about the terrifying experience Cannes can be. It can be pretty brutal. I was just so tired when I got there. It wasn't until the first night—and I'll remember this for the rest of my life—that I saw it with an audience.
I'd seen it with some people. Maybe four people. But the audience at Cannes was kind of going with it and getting really involved. I was a bit overwhelmed by the reaction. That was more special than the actual prizes or anything—just that reaction. People were crying. It was crazy.
It's been a really rock and roll, crazy, punk-rock film. I like going in and seeing what happens. It was just always going to be that kind of movie.
A movie sort of speaks to you. It was telling us what it was gonna be and how it was gonna be made. It was the most exciting thing I've done, but also the craziest. And the craziest, shortest edit. And everything came together. Really exciting.
At the end of the shoot, I felt so sad. I was thinking, "Let's do something else now. We have this amazing team." You become such a band of brothers.
NFS: A family.
Ramsay: It is. Especially in the circumstances we had, which was a lot of limitations. Everyone pitched in and did their bit and more. They gave it their all and believed in it.