Lynne Ramsay talks subverting hitman archetypes with gentleness, humour, and beauty. This is the first feature in our Special Issue on You Were Never Really Here.
Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature, You Were Never Really Here, is a brutal thriller that breaks down genre boundaries. The premise — PTSD-stricken hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is tasked with saving a young girl from sex traffickers — probably sounds familiar. Narratives of male saviours rescuing female innocents are baked into pop culture: if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, Taken, or Drive, then you know how these things go. But Ramsay’s film sets itself apart: amidst the violence is gentleness, beauty, and a delicacy and variety of style.
At the Glasgow Film Festival, I talked to Ramsay about making a subversive film, depicting violence, and her approach to visual storytelling.
Seventh Row (7R): Joe is a very stoic and emotionally repressed character, on the surface, but you subvert that common characterisation by revealing gentleness underneath. How did you approach giving us glimpses of his softer side?
Lynne Ramsay (LR): Casting Joaquin Phoenix. I felt he would bring a vulnerability. Everything we try to do is to humanise [Joe], to not go down that route of the cliché of these kinds of movies — but at the same time, make a really compelling and propulsive movie. For me, it was about bringing that character to life by showing his flaws, his vulnerabilities, his humour, his breakdown…
7R: It’s such a brutal film, and yet there are moments of comedy — especially between Joe and his mother, like when he teases her by screeching the Psycho theme, or when he’s playing around with a knife while waiting for her to leave the bathroom. Why was it important to include comedic moments?
LR: We didn’t want it to be a one-note thing. [Joe and his mother] have quite a crazy relationship, but it’s really beautiful and tender. She drives him nuts, sometimes, so humour gives a kind of authenticity. We’re always trying to play each take showing some other aspect of the character, so that they feel well rounded.
[Joe]’s a mess. He’s not a white knight that comes in and rescues the girl. It’s not that at all. It turns on its head. I changed the whole fourth reel — it’s completely different in the book. We were looking at Joe’s impotence, in the end: the fact that he fails, but also the fact that he comes back to life, in some way, through the girl.'Sound can bring you into the film’s world in a subconscious way — often in a more powerful way than the image does.'Click To Tweet
7R: You juxtapose upbeat music with graphic violence a lot, like the scene where we see Joe’s killing spree through CCTV footage. That scene starts with romantic music and the promise of violence, which led me to expect some kind of cathartic thrill from the contrast, like we’ve seen in other genre films. But you don’t do that at all. The music jumps about in time and volume, so it’s really uncomfortable to watch. You feel trapped in Joe’s warped mind. How did you work with your editor to make us share his fractured headspace?
LR: That sequence was meant to be filmed over three days — and then we realised we had one day to shoot it. So I had to think about, psychologically, where he’s at. I thought, “What if we do it in a really mechanical way? What if we do it in a way that feels like a machine?” Somehow, that led to the form taking shape. But it was quite a bold thing to do, because if it didn’t work, we didn’t get a second shot at it.
I don’t even like violence in films! [Stunt choreographers] always want to do this balletic stuff from working in a lot of TV. But [in reality], you hit someone and they go down, you know? Also, I was watching a lot of stuff on YouTube where you were seeing slightly out of frame violence from surveillance cameras and stuff like that. It felt like what you didn’t see was somewhat more violent — without that explicit, glamorous, ‘this is cool’ kind of thing. But also, it was important that the film felt exciting to watch.
There was a lot of experimentation with the sound design and the music, which was the part that I really loved. Sound can bring you into the film’s world in a subconscious way — often in a more powerful way than the image does.
Sound is so vital to Ramsay’s filmmaking and You Were Never Really Here‘s impact that we had to interview sound designer Paul Davies for our issue. That interview will be available tomorrow, exclusive to Seventh Row members. Become a member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
I started experimenting in prep, taking time slices out of it. Normally, you see continuous music in a film, or continuous play-over. It’s all phony, of course. The music would never continue that way — but it’s the magic of film. When I started time slicing the music, the editor, [Joe Bini], and I did tests, and I was like, “Oh my God, there’s something that does, psychologically, that I find really disturbing!”
When we did the mix, my sound designer, Paul Davies, was playing certain things backwards, and certain things were like, “I don’t know why that makes me feel uncomfortable, but it does.” I think what sound does and what that kind of aural landscape does is… you might feel like the music continues, but it does something to your brain that kind of messes with it.
7R: Your films tend to explore gritty subject matter, but they have really gorgeous images. How did you think about when to use those kinds of images and when not to?
LR: I came from a still photography background, so when I first went to film school, I learned very quickly that what you don’t do is put lots of beautiful images together, because they cancel each other out. So, I think it’s all about mood and choosing where you look.
Economy of shots is so important. We have so little time! The challenge I would give to the D.P. was: how do we tell this in three shots? Now, how do we do it in two? How do we do it in one?'What you don’t do is put lots of beautiful images together, because they cancel each other out.'Click To Tweet
I’ve known [D.P. Tom Townend] for [about] 20 years. He’s a really good still photographer, too — and he was my ex from a million years ago. He knows how I think, visually, and we have this kind of shorthand language. It was about knowing how to tell a story almost immediately, in a few shots, and then boiling it down, so it’s economical but you still get all the information.
I think quite visually. That comes from my visual background; I started painting when I was a kid. I probably learned from watching silent movies more than anything else. [The Passion of] Joan of Arc [(1928)] is one of my favourites. It’s just an amazing film, and quite modern, still. I think it’s that the visuals don’t just come from pretty pictures. They come from what you’re trying to say about this character. What’s the psychology of this moment?'I think quite visually. That comes from my visual background; I started painting when I was a kid.'Click To Tweet
7R: You Were Never Really Here and We Need to Talk About Kevin are connected in many ways. They both deal with trauma and violence, but the two characters inflicting violence are doing so for different reasons. Kevin is more of a psychopath, whereas Joe is dealing with something in his past that’s reverberating through to the present. But they feel, to me, stylistically connected. The editing is non-linear and really intricate, creating meaning through the juxtaposition of these tiny details. What do you think separates your approach to dealing with trauma and violence in these two films?
LR: I think they’re quite different, in the sense that, in Kevin, you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator. You don’t really see anything that happens. Eva can only imagine what happened, and retrospectively, too. She’s coloured by how she looks at her own son, as well. She’s got a certain attitude towards him, and she wonders about how much she’s to blame for that. So that, in a way, was about reflecting on her guilt as a mother. There’s probably another companion piece to Kevin that’s Kevin’s story.
[You Were Never Really Here] was more [about] post-traumatic stress, where a guy has these crazy few days and is on the edge of cracking up, if not cracking up. What happens with post-traumatic stress is that you have recurring flashes, like fragments of glass in your head.
I remember listening to fireworks on the fourth of July, in Brooklyn. I couldn’t see the fireworks, but I was in my garden which was really dark. And I thought, ‘God, this is what it sounds like to be at war, the whole time’. I recorded it on my phone and played it to [Joaquin], and I was like, ‘This is what’s in your [character’s] head every day’. So, I was just trying to look at splinters of images rather than a backstory. You just get slithers of information; these moments that recur that are part of this brain that’s becoming unwired.'I was trying to look at splinters of images rather than a backstory. You just get these moments that recur that are part of this brain that's becoming unwired.'Click To Tweet
7R: This being your first full out genre film, were there things you could explore that you hadn’t been able to before?
LR: A lot of films I really like seem to be genre films, but they’re not. One of my favourite films is The Shining, which you could say is a horror film, but then, on another level, it’s about the breakdown of a marriage, the relationship between him and his son, and many other things. Every genre film that I like has something more to it.
I think, within the framework of genre, you can make something people might just be excited by, on the level of, ‘This is a movie, it’s a noir, there’s action sequences…’ But some people see other things in it. So, it gives you this ability to explore the psyche of your character within a familiar framework and then elevate that framework into something else. I think that’s really interesting. Cronenberg’s done it and Kubrick certainly did it. For me, it was exciting to do that.'Genre films give you this ability to explore the psyche of your character within a familiar framework and then elevate that framework into something else.'Click To Tweet
Every new film’s a different challenge. I’d love to do a love story. I’d love to do a comedy — but approach it in my way. Those things are really difficult, as well. I love that I can make any movie.
It’s surprising when people think, “Oh, wow, these films are not made by female filmmakers”, or whatever, like you’re not allowed. It’s such bullshit. The world is open for us to make anything we want. I just think about what sort of film I’m going to still want to be with, because it takes a long time to make them. I need something I’m still going to be passionate about if it takes two years to do it.
Want to read the whole of our Special Issue on Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here as soon as it’s available, including our interview with sound designer Paul Davies tomorrow? Become a Seventh Row member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
We’ve gotten the chance to interview several other narrative masters, like Sally Potter, Kelly Reichardt, Yorgos Lanthimos, Céline Sciamma, and Rebecca Miller. For past Special Issues, we’ve talked to Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper, Terence Davies for A Quiet Passion, Luca Guadagnino for A Bigger Splash, and Joachim Trier for Louder Than Bombs and Thelma. We’ve done the same for our upcoming issue on Lean on Pete, so read our previous interview with Andrew Haigh for 45 Years in anticipation.