Film interview: director Lynne Ramsay on her new film, You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay PIC: Brigitte Lacombe courtesy of the Doha Film Institute
Lynne Ramsay PIC: Brigitte Lacombe courtesy of the Doha Film Institute
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Lynne Ramsay is back with her first new film in six years: a dark, edgy, New York-set thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a hammer-wielding ex-soldier. By Alistair Harkness

Meeting Lynne Ramsay is a useful reminder never to make assumptions about a filmmaker based on their work. Garrulous, funny, friendly, she talks a mile-a-minute about movies, like a Glaswegian Scorsese, thoughts and anecdotes spilling out of her with the sort of infectious enthusiasm that punctures the reverential aura that can sometimes develop around filmmakers as lauded as she is.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here

Watch her films, though, watch Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin or her new one You Were Never Really Here, and you’ll be confronted with taciturn characters responding to trauma in strange, intriguing, unpredictable ways; characters who construct emotional barriers to help them exist without verbalising their every thought. They’re enigmas, and it’s been tempting to view Ramsay as an enigma as well, in part because of the Terrence Malick-like gaps in her CV that have seen her make just four features and a handful of award-winning shorts in a 20-plus-year career.

Ramsay, though, doesn’t go in for that kind of analysis. When we meet on the morning of her new movie’s hometown premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, she rubbishes – in the nicest way possible – my theory that the evident rush she seems to get from filmmaking might be a pent-up response to her extended breaks between projects.

“Obviously some things haven’t happened for me,” she says, alluding to both the high profile adaptation of The Lovely Bones that she spent years working on before Peter Jackson circled it for himself and, more recently, the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun, which turned into a legal minefield following Ramsay’s last-minute departure. “But I actually just really love the energy of shooting. It’s not just the long times between, it’s more about having this kind of super-awareness on set. You can have lovely storyboards and ideas and blah-blah-blah, but you should always be s****ing yourself, you should always be nervous. It gives you this adrenaline rush that brings out the best ideas.”

From the sounds of it, You Were Never Really Here was made purely on adrenaline, something that contributes to its feverish, nightmare quality. An abstract thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a hammer-wielding, PTSD-afflicted veteran who specialises in exfiltrating sex-trafficked children for clients who don’t want to use the police, the film was financed at the 2016 Cannes film festival and premiered there just 12 months later. It came together so fast Ramsay found herself shooting in New York at the height of summer with none of the prep time a movie like this normally requires. “The whole thing was frenetic. It was boiling and grimy, but the film kept telling me it was going to be this thing: it was going to soak up some of the spirit of this sweaty, grimy New York.”

Artfully filming a lot of it guerrilla style, Ramsay capitalised on Phoenix’s ability to disappear completely into the role, his bearded, burly frame going unrecognised by passers-by. It gave her the sort of freedom she imagined filmmakers like William Friedkin enjoyed while making those great 1970s thrillers like The French Connection. She responded accordingly by finding innovative new ways to shoot New York, foregrounding a lot of the background chaos – especially the noise – in order to craft a sensory experience that puts us squarely inside the traumatised headspace of Phoenix’s Joe.

It’s an idea inspired by Ramsay’s own sudden immersion in the city again after writing the script on the Greek island of Santorini. “Coming from a village with no cars, into New York, I was closing my eyes thinking, ‘This is what madness sounds like.’” She’d moved there following the Jane Got a Gun debacle and found it a great place to write. “I was on a Greek island in the winter. There wasn’t much to do. The internet’s crap, you don’t get bothered, but there’s this great cafe that overlooks a volcano and I’d sit there for maybe four or five hours a day with my daughter, chipping away at this.”

The “this” was You Were Never Really Here’s source novel: a slim tome by American author Jonathan Ames, who also created the HBO hipster detective show Bored to Death. A production company had slipped her the book, even though they didn’t hold the rights, figuring it’d be right up her street. It was, so she set about adapting it on spec, just to see if she could do it. In the process she struck up a friendship with Ames, who eventually told her to make it her own – as long as she kept the compulsive page-turner quality of the book. “But I wanted that too,” says Ramsay.

Both book and film are genre experiments: the former a pared-down exercise in hardboiled noir (“I think he’d broken up with a girl and it was a reaction to that,” says Ramsay with a laugh), the latter a subversive spin on the sort of avenging angel thrillers typified by Taxi Driver, Hardcore, Spartan or, if you like your action movies trashier, John Wick. “It was a bit of challenge for me because I was thinking, “What the f***? I’m making an action sequence.’ So I tried to take a different tack.” One sequence in particular – it’s shot entirely with surveillance cameras – is so striking, so original, expect it to be ripped off the way Park Chan-wook’s hammer-smashing centre-piece in OldBoy was ripped off. “I only had a day to shoot it,” she beams. “Something just clicked in my head and I did a little test and took the risk.” The key, though, was always Phoenix’s character. The violence – or more specifically the aftermath of violence (you don’t see all that much) – reflecting the twisted journey this numbed, mess-of-a-man goes on. “In a way it’s a Lazarus story,” says Ramsay. “The walking dead come back to life.” n

You Were Never Really Here is in cinemas from 9 March.