Cinematographer Tom Townend discusses working closely with Lynne Ramsay, adapting to on-set changes, and how the job goes beyond just camera and lights. This is the fourth feature in our Special Issue on You Were Never Really Here now available as an eBook; the article is also the latest in our Behind the Lens series of DP interviews.
Although films often feature moments that get under your skin and which are felt on a profound, physical level, few can be described as one complete and consistent visceral experience. You Were Never Really Here is one of them, and it is hard to imagine that such unity could have been achieved without a very fluid and free collaboration between all of its makers.
Tom Townend has worked on all of Lynne Ramsay’s feature films in some capacity, but only gets credited as cinematographer on You Were Never Really Here. Like most of the people involved in the film’s making, Tom Townend is an old friend of Lynne Ramsay, which partly explains why his involvement in the film easily spills out into areas beyond cinematography.
I sat down with Townend to talk about his work on the story and Joaquin Phoenix’s collaboration on it, how time constraints affected the shoot, movie violence, and working with Lynne Ramsay.
Seventh Row (7R): When did you first hear of the project, and when did you first get involved?
Tom Townend: I think it was about 2014… Lynne sent me the novella and told me she might want to adapt it. And we talked about it so often on the phone — two-, three-hour long conversations. She was living on a Greek island.
In 2015, I went [to visit her] for a two week holiday, and the idea was we’ll sit down and talk about it, which just turned into writing. So I ended up going there probably four or five times.
I’d never written before, and Lynne has only ever written stuff for herself. She had a writing partner that she had met at film school who unfortunately died. The agreement was always, “We’ll see how it goes. If we just end up arguing over stuff, we’ll stop.” And it went OK!
I’m in the credits as a script editor. But I didn’t want to take any credit for it. It’s a weird hyphenate. I think the pantheon of DP-screenwriters is pretty limited. There’s a long history of directors of photography turning to directing and making some of the worst films I’ve seen.
Seventh Row: I take it you don’t really want to do that?
Tom Townend: Not really. I mean, the exceptions to prove the rule would be Nicolas Roeg, and… Jan de Bont made Speed before it all went terribly wrong. That’s a fun film. All the rest are… horrific. Horrific, visually over-indulgent films.
I never quite understand why it is that people in other disciplines don’t put a tremendous amount of analysis into the writing. It’s also a bit of a curse. I read stuff all the time, and if I don’t like the writing, I’ll be dismissive of it. I’m often being told, “This stuff has all sorts of fantastic visual opportunities.” But if I don’t like the writing, I can’t do it.
Seventh Row: Isn’t You Were Never Really Here also a visceral experience that doesn’t necessarily require words to be enjoyed?
Tom Townend: Now that the film has come out, I will spend an hour a day scrolling through Twitter on a “You were never really here” search, just to pass reactions. People talk about the film as being a visceral experience.
In a way, that was definitely intended. Lynne and I share fairly similar politics, with both a big and a small ‘P’. We knew that we would be engineering situations that would have that effect. We both love those things ourselves.
Everyone always wants to believe films come from some kind of nebulous creative place beyond words, but they don’t. Stuff gets written down, and obviously, it changes. The fact that it was a book adaptation gave us a road map. It was only later that we started to be analytical and wonder, “How will people feel?”
There was always a rumour that Alfred Hitchcock would have two scripts: one which was the actual script, and another one where he would have drawn literally a flow chart of where he expected the audience to be emotionally. He would look at that, in the abstract, and decide whether it had the right form and shape. And he would keep that alongside the script even as he shot, just to make sure he wasn’t deviating from it. I can imagine this story was generated by Alfred Hitchcock, who was a great self-publicist and a liar. But in a way, we were sort of trying to do that. I mean, I can’t write dialogue for shit. Nor Lynne, really. We would really struggle with that. We’d try to sort of play-act it across a table and it was horrific.
The rest of the article is available in the ebook You Were Never Really Here: A Special Issue which can be purchased here.