“When you’ve got a gun to your head, that’s when you get the best stuff...” Lynne Ramsay talks directing Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here (exclusive)

Lynne Ramsay’s bold and brutal revenge thriller You Were Never Really Here is in UK cinemas tomorrow.

To celebrate, we sat down with the brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin director to discuss working with Joaquin Phoenix, how they decided to feminise the action genre, and what she thinks about those Taxi Driver comparisons…

Yahoo Movies UK: I’d like to start by talking about your short film Swimmer, because it felt like there’s a connection between that short and You Were Never Really Here, especially in terms of the sound design, did it feed into this film?

Lynne Ramsay: Swimmer was a commission for the Olympics, and the brief was ‘inspiration,’ which is a kinda very uninspiring brief. I started on this little journey, because it was quite a loose thing, I could make it more organic than anything else.

It started becoming all about the sound, really. I started really playing with the mix, it became a bit of an odyssey. Even though on some level people could read it as an art piece, there’s a journey in it. So, I think that’s when I was really enjoying making a film in a much more organic way rather than it being super set.

That’s definitely an approach you took onto You Were Never Really Here

With [You Were Never Really Here], I had a pretty solid script. Amazon had bought it, and I was thinking I’d probably do another draft and shoot it in the fall, but then Joaquin had a window and suddenly I’m in New York, closing my eyes and thinking this is how it feels to go mad.

A lot of the sound design elements were coming in when I was listening to the city on the fourth of July, sitting in this dark garden in Brooklyn, I couldn’t see anything. I was thinking ‘What if you heard this every day?’ because it sounded like explosions… So I played that to Joaquin and said ‘This is what’s in your head.’


[laughs] The organic nature of making Swimmer was great, because it was really fun to be aware of what was happening. We were in this river in Plymouth and there was a fun fair, so I thought we should do something where he gets out of the water…. It was evolving much more, you don’t normally get that opportunity.

Can you talk about the pre-production period with Joaquin?

Joaquin came really early, he came when the DP came, when I came – I’d never met him, we’d spoken on the phone, that had never happened to either of us. Then I was totally terrified, because I thought ‘How the hell with this short prep am I going to be able to hang out and talk about this?’

But I think it was really important to him, and important to me, that we just started to figure out this character. I didn’t really want him to be this six-pack guy. He was becoming bigger and bigger, it was slightly terrifying seeing this beast evolve.

We were living around the corner from each other, which was good because every spare minute I had, or any time at the weekend, was spent really trying to take every cliche thing [away].

The book is a fantastic little novella, it probably takes 85 minutes to read, which is strange because it’s the same time as a movie, it doesn’t take that long to read. But the greatest thing about it was the beginnings of that character Joe, and it also had this propulsive nature, you wanted to get to the end quickly. But it still had these little things, gadgets in it, and props…

Joaquin met the prop master, who was a really young guy, who came out shaking afterwards, because Joaquin was like ‘This is bulls**t, this is bulls**t, it’s all meaningless crap.’ He’s a really funny guy.

We always had these conversations about how to get beyond what could be a good noir, and elevate it into something else.

What other changes did you make?

We changed the whole end. Also, I had to rewrite. I was thinking, ‘This is quite a short script’, it was only 115 pages… then I realised that with the budget we had, and with 29 days [to shoot], I thought ‘My god, there’s no way we can make this.’

So I’m cutting 20 pages during this crazy prep period as well. But it was a super creative experience, there was a scene towards the end that I was never happy with, and then suddenly a lot of brain-waves were coming.

Sometimes when you’ve got a gun to your head, when you’re in adversity, that’s when you get the best stuff. There were a few lightbulb moments. Joaquin was certainly a part of that, he said ‘Let’s make it more about the girl.’ That was always something I wanted to do.

The interesting thing is, Joe’s a mess, he’s a fallible man, he’s suicidal, and it’s blackly funny – he’s sticking around with his mum. We started seeing it as a Lazarus thing, that’s he’s brought back to the present tense later on in the film. Things really change.

The internal becomes external as part of a purge…

That’s where we were getting to in these talks. It was one of those crazy things. It was a Friday night – the good thing about shooting in the States is you do these five day weeks, but you still work weekends when you’re directing – it was a long day, and it was a Friday night, and I suddenly thought ‘Oh my god, I think I know [how to do this].’ I talked about some of my ideas, and Joaquin got really excited.

In that respect, it was more organic than something like We Need To Talk About Kevin, which had so many timelines and so little money that it was edited on paper – armchair editing: ‘It goes from here, to here, to here, and the sound goes from that to that…’ Kevin was completely a puzzle that had to be worked out. This was a different kind of puzzle, but filmmaking is a puzzle.

I think all directors have one moment on set, no matter how long the shoot is, where they say to themselves ‘Oh s**t…’

[laughs] Yeah, yeah – the reality bites kind of thing.

… ‘Have I got my head around this?’

Yeah, yeah.

…I imagine that’s more intensified on a shoot like this. Did you have that moment, and how did you bring it back?

There’s one sequence in particular – I don’t want to go into spoilers – but I decided to take a risk and shoot it in a way that could work, or it couldn’t. I think you know what sequence I mean. We filmed it in a way that was pretty unconventional. A lot of it was to do with limitations, what I thought was going to be a three-day shoot turned into a one-day shoot.

Then you meet the stunt-guys in New York and they want to do all the balletic moves, and I’m like ‘This is totally not what I want’ and you have to get them on page.

They do a lot of TV and want to show you their best moves, and I’m like ‘No, it’s one strike and you’re out – violence is a strange thing.’

And I was watching quite a lot of stuff on YouTube when you were seeing stuff slightly off-frame, on CCTV cameras – and the violence of what you didn’t see was so much more effective.

I was almost trying to make script from that; it’s mechanical at first, it’s personal, and that gives you the idea of how you’re going to shoot it – it’s mechanical, personal, and he doesn’t give a shit to the extent you don’t need to see what happened, it’s post-violence, you know? It came from where I thought Joe was at in the film.

These are sequences you see so many times in films, it’s about how to make it still exciting and good to watch. I enjoy an action sequence as much as the next person, Oldboy, Tarantino… there’s a pleasure in it. But this became so much more psychological.

You must have been relieved when you saw the sequence in the edit.

Yeah, I knew that ‘S**t, if this doesn’t work I’m screwed, I don’t have a second pop at this!’ There wasn’t any days we could go back, there was no reshoots – when I hear directors say ‘Oh, we went back and we reshot this whole other sequence.’ I’m always like ‘Lucky you’ – there’s a slight envy there, because I’ve never, ever had the chance to do that. But that can be good as well, because you have to be super sure of how you feel about what you’re doing.

When I tested the sequence, I was playing around with music and I made a mistake – I cut a time slice in the music, so there was a jump. Then I was like ‘Oh god, that does something to your brain.’ You don’t feel like it’s a jump, but it is. So there was something really disturbing in that.

Often you have sequences in movies where there’s continuous music, but the editing is jumping in time. But instead of doing that, I said, let’s treat the music like we treat the image. It was a risky thing to do, if this didn’t work, that’s that – I won’t get to do this again.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a film about trauma, and it’s also about women’s powerlessness against idiotic and evil men – this film feels like it explores some of the same themes.

I was watching a lot of news channels from around the world, about corruption and situations where power is beyond reproach, and that bled into it. You’re peeking into the abyss, into this darker place. The one thing we really changed from the novella is that the girl was more present in the movie.

She’s like a whole different metaphor for how power can corrupt and how that can impact on self-esteem…

Yeah, in a way I started thinking that her and Joe were the same character. That Joe’s her projection in a way, I don’t know where that was coming from. I remember Johnny Greenwood seeing the last reel, and saying ‘Wow, it’s so tripped out.’ The bit where he’s imploding, I had a few brainwave moments like that.

There’s been comparisons with Taxi Driver, for obvious reasons – it involves a young girl, it’s in New York, and it has a character that feels like he does. But Joaquin and I felt like we were feminising this film – we were making it more about her than him, in a sense. It made it more interesting than how these things normally resolve.

What have you got planned next?

Right now, I’m talking to Joaquin about another film.

Is it a comedy? I’ve heard you talk about doing one…

Yeah, I think comedies are really, really difficult to make. I just want to do something that challenges me, challenges the actors I’m working with. I’ve got a couple of things on the burner right now, and I’m meeting Joaquin on Sunday to talk about some of those things, so we’ll see.

You Were Never Really Here is in UK cinemas on 9 March.

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