Editor Joe Bini discusses how he helped craft a visually striking, subjective film by experimenting in the edit. This is the third feature in our Special Issue on You Were Never Really Here.
At 90 minutes, You Were Never Really Here is pared down to the bare essentials: not a frame is out of place; every shot has a purpose. Editor Joe Bini intricately weaves together a dense tapestry of visual information, immersing us in the unravelling mind of hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), creating both distress and suspense.
I talked to Bini about the different ways he experimented with the footage, cutting dialogue scenes versus image-based scenes, and being aware of ‘emotional time’.
Immersing us in Joe’s subjective headspace
Seventh Row (7R): How did you approach immersing us in Joe’s subjective headspace?
Joe Bini (JB): I always try to do things that make me look at the rushes in a different way. And when I say ‘rushes’, it’s not just picture: we consider sound design to be rushes. We consider music to be rushes. We like to get them as early as possible. [Sound designer] Paul Davies has worked with [director Lynne Ramsay] her whole career, so he’s providing sound from the very beginning.
Say I have scene 15, whatever that is. I have some sound for it. Here’s the images that are supposed to be in the scene, and the scene is supposed to be where X and X happens. That’s the starting point. Then, I like to immediately say, “What else is possible?”'I have some sound, here’s the images, and the scene is supposed to be where X and X happens. That’s the starting point. Then, I like to say, 'What else is possible?''Click To Tweet
Once I have all the footage, I have my assistant go through the entire film. I say to her, “I want you to pick out still images”. None of them should have Joaquin in it. It should 100% be about what’s going on in his head. What does he see? What does he think? And they don’t have to be images that necessarily end up in the film — just anything that feels psychological.
We gathered quite a few images. I would play them on an iPhoto slideshow in different, random orders, with different music, or no music, or with sound, just to see if anything connected.'I don’t like to overthink these things. I don’t want to analyse that because imagery speaks its own language.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you think about where to place Joe’s flashbacks?
JB: The first [flashback sequence] we edited was the scene on the train. Once we got that right — once we got what needs to happen in that scene — then you can say, “Alright, what needs to be planted before that?” We went backwards. It’s suspense: to me, the film is a suspense film, like We Need to Talk About Kevin. The audience keeps watching because they want to know what’s going to happen. What did this guy do?'The real breakthrough was when we started to say, 'What if we jumpcut the music?' Then you’re not only fucking with space — you’re fucking with time.'Click To Tweet
7R: There are a few moments when we’re removed Joe’s perspective, often to share the headspace of Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenage that Joe is on a mission to rescue from sex traffickers, instead. How did you think about where to place these moments?
JB: There’s this one significant moment when he goes into the brothel. Suddenly, you’re looking at a completely objective point of view: CCTV. Whose point of view is it? That was my first question. I love the idea of the CCTV, but what is it supposed to be? Am I supposed to be the watchman who’s looking at this? Or am I over-intellectualising it? But, to me, that was very important.'You never get the satisfaction of seeing the violence you think you’re going to see or getting the answers you think you’re going to get.'Click To Tweet
What’s bizarre [in the film], then, is it’s like you go down this rabbit hole, and when you come out, you’re in [Nina’s] mind. The first time you see her, it’s a blurry image, back to being in colour after the CCTV. She’s on the bed. You’re hearing what’s going on in her mind. She’s hearing this muffled version of the song that’s been playing in the space, and she’s hearing muffled voices. That scene, to me, is very much from her point of view: he rescues her; she’s in the car he’s driving.
I don’t like to overthink these things. I don’t want to analyse that because imagery speaks its own language. To me, that just worked. I passed through a kind of point of view portal into her mind. It was an idea of the convergence of the two characters: by rescuing her, he’s rescuing himself. But you don’t want to think those kinds of thoughts because they can be trite. It’s just about the imagery.'That dialogue scene seems straightforward compared to everything else in the film, and I knew it wouldn’t be. I did 50 versions of that scene in the edit.'Click To Tweet
Experimenting with the CCTV footage
7R: How did you approach experimenting with the CCTV footage in the edit?
JB: It was such a crazy shoot: things got changed at the last minute, and Lynne would just go with ideas. One day, [that footage] just shows up, and it’s like, “Oh shit, they shot that!” I didn’t know it was going to happen like that.
One of the biggest questions of the scene was: what is the sound going to be? Logically, there shouldn’t be any sound. But the thing that made it work, for me, was the first time I took that piece of music and turned it up and down in volume on the camera cuts. As he moves up the stairs, the music gets louder. You start to get a sense of place. The real breakthrough was when we started to say, “What if we jumpcut the music?” Then you’re not only fucking with space — you’re fucking with time.
I think the whole idea was disorienting you, disorienting the audience.
Sound is so vital to You Were Never Really Here‘s impact that we had to interview sound designer Paul Davies for our issue. That interview is available now to Seventh Row members only. Become a member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
Depicting violence in You Were Never Really Here
7R: This film completely takes away any cathartic thrill from the violence. It makes you feel uncomfortable and disoriented, instead. How did you think about subverting the tropes of typical hitman, genre films?
JB: There was a decision not to show the violence. At first, the screenplay was pretty graphically violent, and it became more and more clear that this was not the way we would want it to go.
The scene towards the end of the film, where he goes to the governor’s mansion expecting answers, and he finds the guy dead, so he can’t satisfy his desires… that scene is a mirror scene for both him and the audience. You’re not satisfied. You never get the satisfaction of seeing the violence you think you’re going to see or getting the answers you think you’re going to get. That whole feeling is what keeps you watching the film. It’s almost like a sexual thing: you keep watching because you’re expecting some kind of satisfaction that never happens.'I did 27 films with Werner Herzog that involved lingering on shots not just one beat longer than you expect, but two, and maybe even three. That’s a really powerful tool that not a lot of people utilise.'Click To Tweet
Getting involved early in the process
7R: When I talked to producer Jim Wilson, he told me that Director of Photography Tom Townend worked with Lynne on the script, as a script editor. How were you involved during pre-production?
JB: On the two films I’ve done with Lynne, I got involved quite early. We talked about the idea. I read early drafts of the script.
I knew from planning that there were certain scenes — dialogue scenes — that were going to be difficult. When you first meet McCleary, [Joe’s] boss, I knew that was going to be a hard scene. They talk; you see that there’s a friendship there; he gives him the job… It seems straightforward compared to everything else in the film, and I knew it wouldn’t be. I did 50 versions of that scene [in the edit]. We did a lot on the screenplay trying to work out ways they could talk to each other that would make sense.
Working with Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay
7R: You worked with Andrea Arnold on American Honey, which is a very long film that lets moments play out naturally — the complete opposite of the taut You Were Never Really Here. How did your collaboration with both directors differ?
JB: I don’t think the films could possibly be farther apart. They were two fiction films in a row for me. It was a pretty radical departure.
I’d worked with Lynne before, so I knew what I was in for. I had not worked with Andrea before. It just couldn’t be a more different approach, in a lot of ways, but it’s driven by these very strong personalities of those two directors — people who trust you. I got some amazing trust from both of them.
Andrea creates this whole world, and she shoots a documentary in that world. That was kind of my way of thinking. There was so much footage, and it was all good. I knew it would never get to this level of polish of Lynne’s films, because it was going to be a task, alone, to get it into some logical shape.
We had a first cut of [American Honey] that was three and a half hours long, and it was great. It was like, “What do you want to cut out?” That was always an issue with that film, just how do you get it down? When is it over with? I felt like I could be cutting it for four years.
'There was so much footage for AMERICAN HONEY, and it was all good. I knew it would never get to this level of polish of Lynne’s films, because it was going to be a task, alone, to get it into some logical shape.'Click To Tweet
Paring things down to the essentials in You Were Never Really Here
7R: You Were Never Really Here is very short and stylised. There’s a sense that we’re only getting exactly what we need and no more. What was the process of paring down and streamlining this film?
JB: There was never a long cut of the film. It just didn’t support that — didn’t need to support it. But what’s marvellous about Lynne’s films is, unlike some filmmakers, the order of the imagery actually matters. The difference between “he puts the milk glass down now” as opposed to “he puts the milk glass down later” is huge.
That was the kind of stuff that we did after we went back [to finish the film after] Cannes — just making sure all of that stuff was right. It wasn’t streamlining from the standpoint of “let’s make it shorter.” We never felt we had to make it shorter. We just had to get it right, and so that’s what we did in the last leg of it.'It’s this idea of retrospective emotion for an audience. Here, you’re with him in the moment, but you’re also thinking about all the shit that’s happened to him up until then.'Click To Tweet
Transferable skills from working with other filmmakers
7R: There are several moments where we linger on empty spaces after Joe has left them. How did you think about when to hold on these moments?
JB: That stuff is pretty easy for me. It comes naturally, because of my work with Werner Herzog. I did 27 films with him [that involved] lingering on shots and letting things play longer in time — not just one beat longer than you expect, but two beats, and maybe even three beats. That’s a really powerful tool that not a lot of people utilise, because you always get comments like, “Well, it could be shorter.”
[Lynne] shot those things, obviously. But I think that’s part of what she likes about my filmmaking when we collaborate. She likes that we share an aesthetic sensibility, but she also likes that I’m willing to be bold with things like that.'As an editor, you have to be really aware of emotional time.'Click To Tweet
Changes in tone in the film
7R: Even though the film is very claustrophobic, there are also breaks from that intensity that give us a moment to breathe, like the time Joe spends with his mother at home. How did you think about when to place these moments?
JB: The tone of all the scenes with the mom was quite different. Part of it is this stepping away from this violent world, this world that he seems to be in — but then you see he’s in this world.'We had 50 different endings. We always knew it was going to be kind of an oddball ending. But what was going to be appropriate?'Click To Tweet
The scene after his mom dies, and he drives her body out to the lake: it was this one, long, beautiful piece of music that Jonny [Greenwood] composed. That just felt so tonally right, to let [Joe] have this moment. It’s peace, but also he’s just lost his mother. He’s contemplating suicide.
It’s this idea of retrospective emotion for an audience. Everything is in present tense in film: everything is now; everything is happening in front of you. [Here,] you’re with him in the moment, but you’re also thinking about all the shit that’s happened to him up until then. You have to have the time to do that. As an editor, you have to be really aware of emotional time.'It was a moment of incredible inspiration that came after 500 moments of shit that didn’t really work.'Click To Tweet
Finding the humour
7R: The film is occasionally very funny. Even in the final shot: this dramatic scene ends with us cutting away from Joe, mid-sip of his milkshake, in quite a comic way. How did you think about when to include moments of comedy?
JB: I really like Lynne’s outlook: the films are dark, but they do have comedic moments. Kevin has a lot of comedic moments, bizarrely. But they usually come out of natural things.
[The final scene] was another scene that we cut 50 times. Again, it’s a dialogue scene. We had 50 different endings. We always knew it was going to be kind of an oddball ending; we wanted that. But what was going to be appropriate?
[Joe sipping the milkshake] was just something I found. It actually happened much earlier in the scene. It just felt right. It was a moment of incredible inspiration that came after 500 moments of shit that didn’t really work.'It’s all about images. That’s what matters. Less what people say, more what images you put on screen.'Click To Tweet
The breadth of Ramsay’s image-making
7R: When I interviewed Lynne, she told me: “What you don’t do is put lots of beautiful images together, because they cancel each other out”. There’s gorgeous, surreal imagery in the film, and then there’s also more grounded, mundane images. How did you think about balancing those?
JB: I think it’s just totally lovely to get somebody who shoots this range of stuff. It’s all about images. That’s what matters. Less what people say, more what images you put on screen. When you think of music, something loud and ugly sounds louder and uglier when it’s next to something that’s soft and beautiful. You’re always looking for that. But to pull that off, you have to have images that are both ugly and beautiful. She’s able to do that — and a lot of other levels in-between.
Want to read the whole of our You Were Never Really Here issue as soon as it’s available, including our member exclusive interviews with sound designer Paul Davies and producer Jim Wilson? Become a Seventh Row member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
Editing documentaries is a difficult and under recognised job: It requires culling through mountains of footage to shape a narrative. Our Documentary Masters eBook explores how different directors approach this process in different ways, e.g. Frederick Wiseman meticulously watches back all his footage, whereas Gianfranco Rosi tackles the edit more instinctually.
If you enjoyed this editing-focused interview with Joe Bini, then look out for our next interview with an editor in a few weeks: Jonathan Alberts will discuss his work on Lean on Pete for our Special Issue on the film. In the meantime, read our interview with Andrew Haigh on his previous film, 45 Years, where he touches on his approach to editing.