Director of Photography (DP) Tom Townend discusses working closely with Lynne Ramsay and adapting to on-set changes. This is the fourth feature in our Special Issue on You Were Never Really Here and 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 (TT): 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.
7R: I take it you don’t really want to do that?
TT: 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.'Anyway, long story short, we had no time, no money, and a glued-on beard.'Click To Tweet
7R: Isn’t You Were Never Really Here also a visceral experience that doesn’t necessarily require words to be enjoyed?
TT: 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.
7R: There are definitely elements of genre in the film. How did that inform your work?
TT: That’s all because it is based on a pulp novella. I don’t really care much about structure or story in a novel, as much as the prose. I like Jonathan Ames’ prose, which is very acute and spare. I think it’s genuine and almost self-consciously aping a kind of hard-boiled, Chandler-esque style.
I never understand why people adapt things like War and Peace, because anything on screen will be lesser, really. I think novellas, especially, are the perfect template for a screen adaptation, and the slimmer the better. Then, it’s all there for you to interpret it.'She was quite insistent that she was the one who would throw fake blood in Joaquin’s face.'Click To Tweet
7R: I read an interview with Lynne where she says that she changed the whole scene where Joe holds the hand of the guy he shot, which kind of changes the whole tone of the film’s ending…
TT: That scene is an interesting one. In the book, there are two assailants in the house; he accosts them, and I think he roughs one of them up for information — and for a lot more information than in the film.
I told Lynne that I thought it would be interesting if the scene was very protracted, with the guy that Joe roughs up slipping in and out of consciousness, and that we could communicate this with the music on the radio. She got all giddy about it, because she loves the idea of anything that involves spunky editing. So that was how it was written. But the sympathy with the guy and the singing came about very late in the proceedings. We were already shooting by that point, and it wasn’t until then that Lynne wanted to get the rights to that particular song.
7R: I also read that Joe’s appearance in the film was not what was written in the script.
In the script, there were all these descriptions of him looking muscular and powerful. Joaquin [Phoenix] showed up five weeks before we started shooting, looking … pretty lardy. He was sent for training each day, and in five weeks, did not lose a pound. He was eating all the time. He had just decided, in his mind, that this was the way to play it, and he was absolutely correct. Along with pretty much every decision he put into the film, this one was absolutely on the money. He just quietly decided, while reading the script, this is how it works.
Two weeks after we were due to finish shooting, he was going to be in Sicily playing Christ our Saviour [for Mary Magdalene]. The reason why he’s got the beard in You Were Never Really Here is because he was growing it to play Jesus, and couldn’t shave it off. He knew he had to lose weight, so in the last five days of the shoot, he just went on one of those actor diets, where all he ate every day was a lettuce with vinegar, which would put him in the foulest mood. Anytime anyone walked past eating something, he would be so annoyed. You could hear his stomach. He started to lose weight visibly, and Lynne was furious… She was worried, when we got into that lake, that with his clothes being wet, you could see that he’s lost weight. But it was fine in the end.
From what I’ve seen, he’s playing quite a chunky Jesus… And he’s wearing the Turin Shroud most of the time, anyway.'My father is retired now, but he was a surgeon, and I remember calling him up and going, 'So if someone is shot in the calf, can they still walk? Can they still run around?''Click To Tweet
7R: Was it quite an intense shoot because of the Cannes deadline?
TT: The film had been scheduled for a 31 day shoot, and we had done 29. Left to shoot were two or three specific scenes that couldn’t easily be shot in the main shoot anyway: Joaquin without a beard — for the flashback sequences in his earlier life — and the underwater sequence, because there isn’t really a tank facility in New York. We had this fleeting idea that we would shoot those scenes after the main shoot, probably in Los Angeles, and that we would shoot in the desert for the scenes of Joaquin in the army.
There was a lot of pressure to shoot the underwater stuff on location at the lake. Luckily, it turned out that the water was too murky, which was good, because it meant that we had an entire day to shoot that scene, instead of five minutes at the end of the day.
It amuses me that people single out that sequence for the way it looks. Because the way it looks is simply a function of the resources we had left at that point. Lynne had done a much more elaborate underwater sequence for a short she made for the Olympics, Swimmer. I think it was shot at the same place. For that, there was a proper underwater set, with tree trunks and weeds, and all sorts of things.
Initially, we talked about doing the same sort of thing. There were all sorts of other underwater things in the script at some point… A whole underwater suplot! And the template for that was Shelley Winters in Night of the Hunter. There’s a moment where Robert Mitchum kills her, puts her in the car, and pushes the car into the lake. There’s a shot of her still in the car, underwater, with weeds around her. That’s a favourite film of mine. I’m a bit surprised that people don’t spot the connection between Lynne and that film more often.
If you want to hear about You Were Never Really Here‘s crazy production process, check back in the next few days for our interview with producer Jim Wilson. That interview will be available 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.
Anyway, long story short, we had no time, no money, and a glued-on beard… Joaquin had also done the Gus van Sant film in between [Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot], and when he turned up to do the reshoots, he still had the red hair from the Van Sant film.
I think stones in your pockets is kind of a well-known suicide trope, so we figured that a way to show someone changing their mind was to show them actually getting the stones out of the pockets! … Have you met Lynne?
7R: No, I haven’t.
TT: Alright. [long pause] Lynne is terribly serious.
7R: Really? I was going to say there are many funny moments in the film.
TT: Here’s a little insight into how Lynne’s mind works. When We Need To Talk About Kevin came out, and all the reviews talked about how dark and creepy it was, she was genuinely taken aback. She couldn’t quite understand the reaction, because she was absolutely convinced she’d made her comic masterpiece — that she’d made her Dr. Strangelove. For her, that film is absolutely structured to be funny.
7R: What makes the film such a roller coaster, to me, is that there are these darkly comic moments, but also scenes that are just horribly violent and not funny at all.
TT: There were gore days on set, when we were shooting the violent, bloody scenes, and Lynne thoroughly enjoys that aspect of things. She was quite insistent that she was the one who would throw fake blood in Joaquin’s face. She’d piss herself laughing; she was so happy. I’ve got photographs of her just caked in fake blood. And that’s easy to do. It’s fun, and nothing looks appalling on set. And then it’s edited, and you realise you’ve kind of had an Eli Roth moment.
7R: I actually think the violence is very well handled, because you only see it when it makes narrative sense to see it.
TT: Well, apart from the very gratuitousshot of Joe pulling his own tooth out.'So Joaquin goes, 'Wouldn’t it be more fun if I got shot in the face?'' Click To Tweet
7R: Oh right. But to me, this just looked like a dental procedure, not a gory injury. I know for many people this was hard to watch, but not for me.
TT: That idea, again, was Joaquin’s. In the book, at that point, Joe has been shot in the calf, in the leg. My father is retired now, but he was a surgeon, and I remember calling him up and going, “So if someone is shot in the calf, can they still walk? Can they still run around?” It wasn’t the first time I had to call him up for Lynne. He told me, “Yeah, if it passes right through.”
Cut to a year later, and I think it was the first time I’d met Joaquin. It was just him, Lynne, and me. We were just talking about shit in his backyard, and he goes, “Look, shot in the leg? That’s a Hollywood injury. That’s like Bruce Willis pulling a splinter out of his arm.” People who get a clean bullet wound then just carry on until the end of the movie? It’s bullshit. So Joaquin goes, “Wouldn’t it be more fun if I got shot in the face?”
So I called my dad again! “Imagine if a bullet went into someone’s mouth, and then out through their cheek… How much would it bleed?” And he goes, “It would bleed a lot, but he could carry on.” So I go back and tell them. Then Joaquin says, “Even better: I just mumble to the end of the movie, because I won’t be able to talk properly!” And Joaquin kind of mumbles anyway, so you could tell that he was super pleased about it.
When he was originally shot in the calf, you’d see him dressing his leg. With the mouth, this had to change, too. That prompted the second phone call to my dad: “Just imagine the bullet had sort of chipped a tooth or knocked it loose.” So it became that. We shot a test of that, just to see if it would look any good. Joaquin came, waltzing into the room, all ready to go, with his mouth full of fake blood, grabbed a couple of pliers and went “crack”. The reaction in the room was so good.
Violence in movies is generally problematic. I was always sensitive to it as a child, I remember, especially to things that seemed painful or sadistic. I remember, when I was 18 or 19, going to see Terminator 2, when it first came out. It’s a film I’ve seen a trillion times since. I find it structurally flawless, and very well made mechanically — I don’t think Cameron is given enough credit for his script-writing abilities.
But what sickened me in that film was the scene where Schwarzenegger is being told that he can’t kill people by Edward Furlong, and then in the very next scene, he kneecaps a security guard and says, “He’ll live” or something. And I just remember thinking, “That man may never walk again!” A hundred people cheered at that moment. They thought it was hilarious. Because the joke is he hasn’t broken the rule about not killing people, but he has horrifically maimed the guy.'Violence in movies is generally problematic. I was always sensitive to it as a child, I remember, especially to things that seemed painful or sadistic.'Click To Tweet
7R: That’s what is interesting to me in YWNRH: the most realistic death is the suicide at the end, which isn’t even real. Everything else is shown in a less direct way, showing us just the aftermath, or showing the attack via surveillance cameras. But not even seeing it properly makes it even scarier.
TT: One thing that Lynne and I struggled with was that the story was essentially about paedophilia — which is obviously such a monstrous subject — and you couldn’t really remove it, otherwise the whole thing collapsed and there would be no point to it. We wondered, if you accept that this is the lynchpin of the plot, how do you make sure that you don’t do a disservice to how horrific that is, while not exploiting it? It’s the same with sexual violence and rape scenes, in general. Show me a good one. I don’t think I’ve seen one that I thought the film absolutely needed.
We knew that Joe would go into this space to get the girl, and there would be a bunch of kids in there, but we didn’t want to see any child nudity, or anything explicit. We didn’t even want to go as far as the end of The Shining where you see some sort of misframed, offscreen activity. Because it’s just so beyond the pale.
Lynne has been going around town telling the story about how the CCTV was sort of the practical solution to not having the resources to do it any other way, and that’s pretty true. The trouble is, when filmmakers say things like that, they’re always playing up a narrative which is, “Well it was raining, so we just did this!” as though there were no other intellectual consideration.
But I did sit down with Lynne during pre-production on the film, and we had, on the page, a description of Joe going into a building and killing various assailants one by one. I kept teasing Lynne saying that it was like a video game. She had just no idea what I was talking about.
When we started to break down how we would shoot it, we did sort of panic, that’s for sure. But the CCTV element was always in the script, and we’d cut away to it. I think showing things on monitors is a good way of heightening tension: you know that someone will come; you won’t be unobstructed; someone will see that you’re there.
If you want to hear about how Editor Joe Bini on You Were Never Really Here worked on the CCTV footage and more, read our interview with him, which is part of our Special Issue on the film.
7R: Why was it difficult to do it any other way?
TT: In the script, he walks through the door, and there’s a guy immediately inside the door. [Joe] sees him, runs towards him, swings the hammer a couple of times, takes him down. The normal organisation of shots for that would require about ten individual camera set-ups, a stunt coordinator, different angles to disguise the substitution of the real hammer for the rubber one, possibly some sort of CGI… It would be quite a mission.
I shouldn’t say Lynne is lazy; she isn’t. But when something starts to look like it’s going to become a chore, like you’re obliged to do things a certain way just to make them work on the screen, rather than deriving actual enjoyment from each one of the shots, she’s rapidly not interested. She wants a bit of exploration. And you can’t have much exploration unless you have a lot of time and money in that situation.'When it feels like you're not deriving actual enjoyment from making each one of the shots, Lynne rapidly loses interest. She wants a bit of exploration.'Click To Tweet
7R: I think this is the first of Lynne Ramsay’s features shot on digital.
TT: We shot digitally just because of economics, unfortunately. It was going to be on film right until the eleventh hour. We had to change because there was no laboratory in New York at the time, although there is now. The film would have had to have gone to Toronto, or somewhere, to be processed, and because it was going out of state, there would have been a tax break loss that translated into quite a sizeable sum of money, so we didn’t do it.
Initially, Lynne was apoplectic. She just didn’t want to know about new technology. There were a couple of very tense days in pre-production, where she wasn’t talking to the producers, she was in tears… I mean really. I got sort of stuck in the middle like a marriage counsellor. She didn’t want anything to do with it, so I went off with the camera.
There was this guy, one of the production drivers — he looked like the sort of quintessential, late ‘70s, California surfer dude, with long hair, very chiseled. Anyway, Lynne had mentioned his appealing appearance on more than one occasion, so I said, “Bring him!” We stood him on a street corner outside PanaVision, and we filmed him crossing the road, looking around, looking hunky, on 35mm and digital format.
Then, I kind of cheated. I took the digital footage to a laboratory and said, “Guys, just make it look insane”. We did a side-by-side screening and Lynne reluctantly admitted that the digital looked good.
The only difference is that, on film, you can shoot for ten minutes. Then, there’s a natural interruption. On digital, there isn’t. I said to Lynne, “Don’t worry, it will look exactly the same, but the picture on your monitor will actually look good now.” And she was like, “Yeah, yeah, I never look at it anyway…” But with digital, we could shoot for 28 minutes flat. In the past, Lynne would not cut so much as let the film reach its end. Which means, this time around, she ended up with a fair amount of 28-minute long takes. This suited her and Joaquin at the time, but months later, she confessed to me that in the edit, the amount of footage she had was overwhelming. But then I shot with her the last week, and the same thing happened!
There was no discussion that I would shoot the film, initially. I remember telling Lynne from the outset: “Don’t think I’m getting involved just to generate an opportunity to shoot the film. Let’s see.” Maybe I wouldn’t have been offered the job if it were not for the fact that she went into production very suddenly, when Joaquin became available and the funding was there. By sheer coincidence, I was in Greece on a different island when she called me. I popped over and saw her, and she went, “Fuck, I’ve got to go to New York next week! Will you shoot it?” I replied, “OK, how would 35mm sound to you?” She said “fine”, and that was it. But with the lenses, generally you would use more light, just because the focus was more iffy, so shooting digitally did mean that we avoided focus issues.'In the past, Lynne would not cut so much as let the film reach its end. Which means, this time around, she ended up with a fair amount of 28-minute long takes.'Click To Tweet
7R: I was impressed by how good the blacks look.
TT: That’s because films like the Marvel ones have a specific corporate grade. There’s a Disney-wide dictate about black levels. It’s crazy.
7R: So they want them to look grey?
TT: I don’t really understand it, but yeah! All these films look kind of muddy.
7R: There are quite a few shots in the film that are not absolutely necessary to tell the story, like the shots of Joe just wandering in the streets. Considering you were on quite a tight schedule, how did you work these out?
TT: There was tremendous resistance to shooting in NYC because of the expense. Lynne put forward an argument about how the city in the film wasn’t just a generic city, it had to be New York. As soon as we got there, she then point blank refused to send a crew out to shoot the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc.
It’s funny, because that’s very much the Hollywood model: you take your principal cast to New York; you shoot for about five days; you get Anne Hathaway to walk across Times Square a couple of times, and then you go to Toronto to do the rest. Boom. It works, and 99.99% of the world population, they watch that film, and they believe that they’ve seen a film that’s actually shot in New York.
As soon as I went to look for locations for Lynne, to Queen’s, to the Bronx, to Yonkers, I realised there’s very little of that New York in films. I’m trying to think… Rupert Pupkin’s house in The King of Comedy? Where he lives with his mother? In my mind, that’s a template for an American domestic setup. In fact, we talked about that, because I don’t think you ever see Rupert Pupkin’s mother in the film. She’s just an offscreen irritating voice, and that was kind of the joke.
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.
Cinematographers (DPs) have a very unique point of view on the filmmaking process because of how closely they work with directors to develop the visual aesthetic. In our series Behind the Lens, we talk to great cinematographers about how the approach their work and what it was like collaborating with directors. DP Jakob Ihre talked to us about the making of two films with director Joachim Trier: Thelma and Louder Than Bombs. We also talked to British DP Joshua James Richards about his work on God’s Own Country and The Rider.