Lynne Ramsay averages about two movies a decade, but when she does manage to get one from page to screen, it hits with the ferocity of a sledgehammer on a windowpane. The Scottish writer-director’s first two, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, established her as a fiercely talented filmmaker with a real mastery of the form. Her movies don’t look or sound or feel like anyone else's. Case and point: We Need to Talk About Kevin, the chilling portrait of child killer that was at once one of the most disturbing and beautiful movies of 2011.
Now, as the decade winds down, Ramsay is right on schedule with her fourth feature film—the searing and cerebral action thriller You Were Never Really Here. Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as a PTSD-suffering ex-Marine who’s been hired to rescue an underage girl from a sex trafficking ring. It’s brutal, and it’s punishing, and because this is a Lynne Ramsay film, it’s impossible to look away.
You Were Never Really Here is in theaters Friday, April 6.
Because we don’t get a film from you every year, and because you’ve been attached to films that haven’t come to fruition, this one very much feels like an event. What does it feel like for you? Is it excitement, relief, nerves?
It’s nice to make one and get out, but I’m trying to make the quality of the work as good as I can. Because I write my own stuff, it takes a while, and then there’s been a few things that fell through. But I’m at a really good point right now. It was so energizing to make this film with Joaquin. We didn’t even want to stop. Normally on the final day of shooting, you just want to go hibernate, but we just wanted to keep going. I’m feeling really invigorated and excited. I just hope it doesn’t take so long next time.
Did you consult with Jonathan Ames at all while you were adapting his novella?
It was a solo process, but I spoke to Jonathan, who had seen my work and liked it. I found the novella because it came out in France, and it hadn’t been out anywhere else. I read it in about 90 minutes, which is the same length as the film. I wanted to maintain that page-turner quality and how propulsive it is and the elements of the character that I really love, but I never wanted to use the word "adaptation." I wanted to do it my way, and he was cool with that. He loved my ideas when I spoke to him, and even though we never met, we kind of became email buddies. We started talking a lot about other things, like relationships and just life shit. It wasn’t always about the script.
Joaquin’s character in some ways reminded me of a superhero—his vigilantism, his tortured past, his fearlessness, his invincibility. He reminded me of Batman. What do you say to the notion that this is your take on a superhero movie?
Maybe in a kind of Alan Moore way, it is. Someone did say it was like a graphic novel, and I took that as a compliment. When I was a teenager, I had a boyfriend who had so many comic books, you actually had to make a passageway through all the comics just to get around his house. He bought me the original Dark Knight and Watchmen, which were the first editions. I found out years later that my mom threw them all out, not knowing they were first editions. But yeah, I love guys like Bill Sienkiewicz and especially Alan Moore. His stuff is really interesting because it’s the darker side of the psychology of the characters and more adult in a way.
Joaquin called me and asked, "Can you do [the film] now? I’ve got two months." I just thought, "Oh, my God. I haven’t even finished the script."
What do you think it is about your own personal psyche that gives you this ability to depict people who are broken or tormented in such a real and visceral way?
Maybe I’m just really messed up! No, I think you’re a bit of an amateur psychologist as a filmmaker. I love exploring the dark side and the complexity of characters. It’s just something I gravitate towards, that kind of neither black or white character. Joe is a killer, but you empathize with him, and he’s funny as well at times, and in the most absurd way. You don’t know what to expect from Joaquin’s character, and it was actually like that when we were making the film, which was super exciting. We just never knew what Joaquin was going to do next—every take was different, and it was exciting for both myself and the crew to be around that.
I read that you didn’t meet Joaquin until it was time to shoot. Was that a deliberate creative choice made by you, or did it just come down to scheduling?
Before I even put a single word onto paper, I put a picture of him up and said, "He’s it. He’s Joe." It sounds cheesy because I never knew it would be a reality, but for me, it was always him. One of the producers worked with him on Buffalo Soldiers, and he just passed on his email. I told him I was writing this thing, and it wasn’t finished yet but asked if he would be up for reading it, and he said, "Yeah, sure." Then we spoke on the phone, and he said he understood 50 percent of what I was saying. So even though he agreed to be in the movie, he probably didn’t even know what he was getting into. The bottom line was that a film he was doing fell through, so he called me and asked, "Can you do it now? I’ve got two months." I just thought, "Oh, my God. I haven’t even finished the script. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix, and I’ve got to do it." So we just went for it. And he came right away—he was there during the whole prep, physically changing, becoming this beast of a man.
I was struck by his body and how deformed it looked.
It reminded me of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. But to have that prep time was amazing for me. Not many actors show up that early, so we were able to look through everything I had written and really get excited about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to approach it, and that went all the way through shooting. It had this energy. It happens very seldom that you shoot a scene that lives up to how you had conceived it, and everything often goes wrong. But there are these few moments when you’re shooting a scene, and you think, "God, it’s even better than I imagined," and it’s an electric kind of moment. That happened in the first two days. The standard was set, and I knew something special was happening.
Do you see you and Joaquin as kindred spirits, in terms of your feverish commitment to your work and your no-bullshit attitude toward Hollywood?
He’s just a very honest person with a lot of integrity. He’ll kill me for saying anything more, but I definitely felt a kindred spirit. Something definitely clicked. He thinks I work very well under pressure—that I come up with my best ideas with my back up against the wall. The whole thing was sometimes teetering, and we could have failed, and I think that was very exciting for him to be a part of. It was a trial by fire kind of thing, and I think we both enjoy that way of working.
When you break for lunch, can you just sidle up next to him and ask him how his salad tastes, or is he just totally in it?
We were working super hard, but we had so much fun as well. You have to find a break maybe just by teasing each other or getting the best of each other, cracking jokes. It’s not like we’re in this dark world of intense stuff all the time. I shot We Need to Talk About Kevin, and we all kicked together and cut loose after long days. I don’t think it’s what people expect or think. It’s quite the opposite of that.
This follows a tradition of movies that are have a very intrinsic feel of summer in New York City. Something like Dog Day Afternoon comes to mind. What is it about that season in that city that lends itself so well to crime stories?
In my mind, I was going to shoot in the fall, but we went into production so quickly right in that brutal part of the summer. Later on, I realized it couldn’t have been any other way. Sometimes a film is just telling you something. Ratcatcher was meant to be all sunny days, but then it rained the whole time. But even though everyone started hallucinating and felt like they were going to faint, and you realize why everyone leaves New York in the summer, there’s a heightened sense of being in that extreme situation, of doing a lot of night shoots and being sleep-deprived that suited the mood of the film. I was also super aware of the sounds of the city after coming from a village with no cars where it’s totally quiet, to being plunked in New York and feeling like I’m going to pass out and closing my eyes and thinking, "Oh, my God, this is what hell sounds like." That definitely affected the film.
You have a very a distinct approach to layering sound and images that feels unique to you. Do you see yourself as an auteur?
I don’t think about it like, "This is one of my movies." I think about it as cinema, about being immersed in the experience. It’s my version of reality. I love it when people are really, truly inside of a character. I like to use every element of what makes film such an amazing art form. Yes, a film can be really well-shot, but it’s not just about that. It’s everything together—the performance informs how you shoot it, the sound informs a subconscious part of of brain. When I start cutting my film, the sound informs each cut, and the length of it. Jonny Greenwood’s music would come in, and then I would recut it. He didn’t score it to picture. I would send him 5 or 10 minutes, and his score would develop as Joe’s character developed, and it was kind of amazing.
This was the second time you worked with Jonny, who’s very selective about the films he scores. Do you feel kind of blessed to have him as a collaborator?
I knew this would be the most scored film I ever did. We didn’t have a major budget, but the music I got was integral. It felt like a present whenever I got some of his music—I would be just gobsmacked and blown away.
Your films feel very much intended to be experienced in a theater setting. But a lot of your colleagues are experimenting with television. Do you ever see yourself going that route?
I think my work lends itself very well to the big screen. It’s about sound and music and being immersed. But I think there’s a lot of very sophisticated TV being made right now. I’m a huge David Lynch fan, and he makes incredible work on television. I’ve definitely been asked to do things, and there’s something about the length of TV and how you can explore characters in a certain way that would be interesting. But I love the spectacle. I love seeing audiences react. In London, during a screening of this film, there was a big bucket of popcorn that was spilled everywhere, and people were crying and laughing, and I just love the kind of experience we can all have together.