Director Lynne Ramsay Gets Real Sweat And Grime In 'You Were Never Really Here' [Interview]

You know you're not going to see an average genre piece from writer-director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin). With her new Joaquin Pheonix-led movie, You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay has made an unflinching thriller that follows its own rules instead of conventions. Based on Jonathan Aames' (Bored to Death) novel, Ramsay uses a few familiar genre elements to tell a story that's as much about PTSD as it is about an assassin searching for a kidnapped teen.

A thriller told through Ramsay's lens has the physical action play off-screen, and what's going on within Phoenix's character take center stage in almost every frame. The way Ramsay and her collaborators depict the character's point-of-view and New York City is unnerving, sometimes hellish. Even a shot of a jelly bean is hard to shake after watching You Were Never Really Here.

We recently spoke with Ramsay about her fourth feature film, her first experience shooting digitally, making her first genre piece, Johnny Greenwood's score, and more.

This is your first full-on genre piece, and I know you didn't want to feel restricted by genre. Where did you find your freedom in the genre?

It was an ongoing process. I'd say from the get-go I've never done a straight adaptation. I even worked on the first couple drafts on spec, you know? 'Cause I was like, where will I take this? But I really love the page-turner qualities the book had. I read it in 90 minutes or something. I love that there was a ... It was a lot of freedom. You work with something that short 'cause you can embellish it. Then Joaquin came in and added another embellishment. So, it was really liberating, I've gotta say that.

And I love a lot of genre films made by filmmakers that I've really loved that are something else in disguise, in a way, you know? I think The Shining's super interesting, and I think Sam Fuller's work's really interesting, in the guise of a B-movie.

So it was kind of like, can I make this work? I've never done anything like it, but it was liberating. You can explore certain elements of things without it just being that one thing, and it's still within a framework as something, I think, that can be a movie, you know?

It's a very lean movie, too. 

It became very lean. Even the assembly was not that long. We were always distilling, and that happened with the DP as well. It's like, how many shots can we tell this in? We have 29 days to shoot it, and we don't have four days for the scene that's an action sequence, so what started off with 20 shots would become three. How can we do it in two, or how can we do it in one? That's an amazing puzzle.

I'd worked with the editor before on We Need to Talk About Kevin, which had set definite timelines. The last film I did was juggling a lot of balls in the air, editing-wise, but that'd also been quite edited within the script; it was very specific in what sounds and images. Because I had so little money to make it, it had to be almost armchair edited on the paper. So, this was an exercise in economy. Someone said it was like a graphic novel that I did. I was like, "Yeah, it kinda is actually."

How did you and your DP want to depict New York? What sort of atmosphere did you want to create?

Well, the DP knew the script inside-out 'cause we didn't have a lot of time in prep and stuff, so he's actually got a script editor credit as well. He really knew what I wanted beforehand. We've known each other 25 years, you know? I can just tell him an image, and he just gets it like that.

But in terms of New York, bringing in Tim Grimes as production designer, he did an amazing job and so did the locations manager, Sascha Springer. They found this real other, dirty, kinda another side of New York, you know? The locations manager, she just knew these cool places in Queens and New Jersey. We weren't looking for the Manhattan skyline.

Partly his look, with Joaquin's look, nobody knew who the hell he was. He looked like a bum or construction worker, you know? So we were able to have this freedom I think you don't always have.

Did you enjoy your first experience shooting digitally?

I've never shot digital before. First time I've shot digital. We did a lot of tests. I love the discipline of shooting film, because you don't cover everything, and I'm glad that I learned that way. It was a lot of night shoots in this, so it was good. We found a look quite early on, you know, which was quite raw. We talked about the shots way back from the script, and then we reacted very much to New York.

There was one shot in particular that I ... We were coming back from Yonkers, and we just set up a camera and filmed the whole of New York for that 60-minute drive or whatever, and used quite a lot of that. It had this feel, a strange feel of its own film, of just driving through the city, you know?

The challenge of this was like, how can we show this, tell it, and be able to do it in the space of time? 'Cause it felt overwhelming at first. It was always a short script, but I had to cut 20 pages when I got here just to make it within the timeframe, as well as all this crazy prep and seeing a hundred and odd locations. Joaquin was there really early as well, so I don't think I slept, which maybe is why it's such a trip.

The film is a very intimate, up close and personal thriller, but Joaquin Phoenix is such a big, hulking character that his presence makes the scope much bigger. 

Yeah, certainly. We were seeing him develop physically, like this beast in front of us. Because he was in the gym the whole time, and his shoulders and the way he walks, and ... You know, [the DP] Tom and I thought about his physicality, and also that we were gonna shoot a lot of close-ups but make it feel really epic. That was something that certainly Tom and I talked about – this kinda epic close-up way of doing it.

But it was also having this feeling and grime. I mean, we didn't know we were gonna shoot it in the brutally hot summer, you know? I thought I was gonna shoot it in the fall. Then suddenly that screws you on a whole other thing. But the sweat and the grime is very real in the film. It was really intense making the film, just in the heat. New York ... you can see why everyone escapes it in the summer. Now, it really feels like we couldn't have shot at any other time. It's a dirty, raw, noisy film.

I was plugged in this film. Literally, when it hit production, I was staying in a village in Greece, an island in Greece, with no cars that's totally silent, so coming to New York was just like, what the fuck? I just shut my eyes and thought, "This is what hell seems like."

Visually and through sound, how did you want to depict the point-of-view of someone with PTSD?

Again, I think we talked about this kind of close-ups. I talked about this with the editor – it should never feel like flashbacks. Really like narrative flashbacks, but much more like pieces of broken glass in his head poking through every now and again, and that I applied to the sound as well.

It's like that experience I was having of just coming into New York, he's feeling everything, feeling really heightened. And then I thought about the character a lot. One day during prep, I was setting in my back garage in this little flat I had in Brooklyn. It was pitch black, and I could just hear all these bombs go off. I'm like, "What the fuck is happening?" Then I realized it was the fourth of July. I recorded these sounds that sounded like explosions, 'cause you couldn't see anything, 'cause it was this little enclosed space. I played it to Joaquin, and I was like, "That's what goes on in your head every day." His answer to that was just, "Yeah. I get it."

So I worked quite early on with sound. It's in the script. I think about it. I don't mean that everything's so technically there. You're still hoping the script is really a page-turner, but I will refer to how something feels close-up, or intimate, or wider by the way I write it, rather than technically in lens size or something like that.

And then [sound designer] Paul Davies started the sound work really early on when we were picture cutting. It wasn't put on at the end. It was like, he would do sound from ideas from the first picture cut, and then we'd re-cut it to the sound. Then we'd get the music from Johnny and re-cut it to the music, you know? So it wasn't like, "Here's the picture cut and we plunk the sound on at the end, and we plunk the music in the end." So I was lucky. I always have to kind of fight for that, you know? 'Cause that's the way I edit, I always get the sound involved really early and sometimes because it's a convention that you put it all on at the end, people don't wanna pay for that. It's so important when you saw the film evolve the sound was another part of who this character was.

I read you were listening to John Carpenter's scores and other musicians when you were writing for inspiration. Was there anything else you were listening to?

We weren't saying that specifically we've got these references in mind. We don't even actually have a lot of references. Music, I started listening to this track that the DP turned me onto called "Peter Pan Death Wish" by a band called Melkeveien, which ended up in the French trailer. I was like, "You're cheeky, I wanna use that. You just got the idea from me." It has a really kinda propulsive, whippy, crazy kinda "where the hell's this going?" thing, and that felt kinda appropriate. I was listening to that more as I came out. This is how this movie's gonna feel in the end.

Then Aphex Twin's "Rhubarb" I listened to a bit, just 'cause it's so beautiful. It felt like the more quiet moments of the film. That's one of those tracks that's so great that you never ... I think I've always tried to use it, but it's so much its own thing. Putting images to it, it's like, why would you do that? I've never found something that quite fit with that track.

Then [composter] Krzysztof Penderecki came out, and Johnny loves Penderecki. We talked about, again, the Carpenter stuff is more like mixed with Penderecki with ... I suppose it was a lot of kinda atonal sounds and things that we were playing with. Then it was a more score direction, like it starts off as one thing, you think you're going in one way, and then it just kinda implodes on itself, and a bit like the character does, I think.


You Were Never Really Here is now in theaters.