Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here premiered in Cannes last year in an unfinished version. Now fine-tuned, the thriller—based on a novella by Jonathan Ames—is a blood-soaked Descent Into Hell story, with Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a war-traumatized professional killer trying to save a young girl from a pedophile ring.

You Were Never Really Here

In Cannes, the film was something more than a work in progress, but it feels much more cogent in the completed version. What exactly have you changed?

[Producer] Pascal Caucheteux showed it to Cannes and they really liked it, but we’d only been editing it for five months, so it wasn’t quite there. We had to do the mix in five days, which is fine for a short film, but it was totally mental. I went there with mixed feelings, but it got a really good reaction. It was really hard to get that mix done, hearing gunshots the whole time. I’ve spent a lot of time since then with the sound, finessing it.

In the new version, there’s also quite a bit less of the flashback material of Joe’s traumatic experience at war. The Cannes version seemed to heavy-pedal that—now it’s a lot more concise.

That was something I’d worried about. We’d just shot those scenes. I wanted them to be like shards of glass in his head. I actually don’t like flashbacks myself, but I like psychological things. That was frustrating—we had to shoot that stuff literally just before Cannes, and the underwater stuff, and we just had to cut them in, like doing an assembly. I felt they were a bit obvious, and I wanted to make them more like Post-Traumatic Stress is supposed to feel. So after Cannes, I worked on the sound and those sequences—they’re just suggestive, you don’t need to know everything.

Was the project in the works for a long time? You seem to have turned it around very quickly after the abortive experience of Jane Got a Gun.

I started writing it a while ago. I was living in Greece for a while, and there’s not much to do in the winter. I wrote the first draft on spec, because the production company didn’t have the rights, so it was just, “Let’s see how this works,” and I started getting really excited by it. It was nice because I didn’t have the pressure, I didn’t know what was going to happen with it. I might be writing for no reason, but something kept happening, it came quite fast. We had very little time for prep, but because I’d spoken to the sound designer Paul Davies and the DP Tom Townend and the editor Joe Bini and [composer] Jonny Greenwood, and involved everyone at the script stage, it felt I could do it that fast because of Joaquin’s schedule. He came on really early and helped develop the character.

Phoenix really uses his body in this part. He’s very bulked up, and literally and figuratively carrying Joe’s scars on his person.

He started really bulking up in New York six weeks before. We had a small window, but I wanted him before I started writing it, which is unusual for me because I don’t usually have someone in mind. He was changing before my eyes, he put on all that weight, and then for his next film he had to lose it all again within a few weeks. He really puts himself totally inside something. It’s important for him to come in early, so he can really understand the filmmaker, where you’re going with something. He’s very intelligent—that makes you look at things that might be more obvious in the script, clichés. It was like jamming, working with him. It was brilliant because he works so much on instinct. I just had to get into his headspace as much as possible.

I recorded fireworks on the Fourth of July in this dark garden in Brooklyn. You couldn’t see them but you could hear them. I thought, “This must be what it feels like to be in a war.” I played it to Joaquin and said, “This is what’s going on in your mind every day.”

You Were Never Really Here

It’s a very spare narrative. How much did you take from the original book, and how much did you strip out?

Jonathan Ames is a really interesting writer. I read another book of his called I Pass Like Night, which is a bit like a more fucked-up older version of Holden Caulfield. He does a lot of comedy but he has a real dark side and an understanding of New York. You Were Never Really Here is quite pulpy. He wanted it to be that—it had a stripped-back B-movie quality, and I just ran with it. We talked a lot and become kind of friends over the Internet. He was open to me taking it where I wanted to, but he wanted it to be exciting. He said, “I like where you’re going.” It became its own beast.

I changed the whole final act. It’s more a Mafia story in the book. I guess I was watching a lot of documentaries about corruption and feeling very uncertain about the world. I didn’t want it to be a knight-in-shining-armor story. I think what’s there is the spirit of the character—he loves his mum, and he’s darkly suicidal. Joaquin and I wanted to make this character very unexpected—you don’t know what he’s going to do next. We could cut it very much in different ways. It was brilliant editing it as well. We could play it for laughs, or make it terrifying. We were shooting over 29 days, and it became more like a character study than what it was at the beginning.

Joe has a fascinating relationship with his elderly mother. You play with a Psycho reference, but it’s really a very different relationship, a lot more tender than we expect.

The actress [Judith Roberts] who plays his mum is in her eighties. She was a stunning-looking woman when she was young. We shot in chronological order as much as possible, and she just had the best time of her life. That scene came about because I was thinking about my mum watching TV. She likes Turner Classic Movies and I thought, what would she be watching? That scene was an improvisation. The only thing is that “ee!-ee!-ee!” noise [from Psycho] is really expensive—you can’t use that sound without paying 13 grand or something. And if you use it twice, it’s 30 grand. But they [Phoenix and Roberts] just did it off the cuff in the first take and I thought, that’s it, that’s the take we’re using. It was one of those moments of serendipity.

It’s a very different film from you. You’ve never done genre, and although you have made another film about a murderous male (We Need to Talk About Kevin), this time it’s from a very hard-edged male perspective.

I’m really interested in turning the clichés of the character inside out. So he’s a totally fallible man, he’s not successful at his mission… It’s kind of “masculinity in crisis”—that sounds a bit “pull quotes,” but that’s what we were talking about. He can’t save himself, he can’t even kill himself—but then you start seeing it as a sort of Lazarus story, about a guy who doesn’t want to exist, coming back to life in some way through trauma. That informed the final act, which is quite surreal—that was a brainwave, a light-bulb moment. But I don’t want to give any spoilers. It was quite a process. Every day we were challenging ourselves—where are we going with this?—and talking a lot about it. It was so exciting to work like that—it evolved with Joaquin coming on board, it became something else.

You Were Never Really Here


The idea of Joe rescuing this young girl from a pedophile ring takes on a mythic power, but it would be very easy for a story like that to come across as exploitative.

Obviously you don’t want any of those elements. You know as much as Joe knows. The young actress [Ekaterina Samsonov, who plays the girl] is Russian. She totally knew what it was about, but she wasn’t like one of those New York kids—they can be 14 going on 40. She was home-schooled and she’s still a kid, and a lot of the actors we saw all did theatre and seemed much older. She had an innocence about her that I liked a lot. I got her together with Joaquin, and he kind of improvised and she just went with it. Obviously you suggest things. I wasn’t interested in being exploitative—it could be a bit sleazy. [The film’s about] a world where nothing’s really black and white, and what you expect to be good is not—you don’t know where you are. I guess I feel a wee bit like that about the planet right now.

There’s very little talk in the film—it’s very much about images and sound. You don’t give us many signposts, we have to find our own way around, and even then we can’t be certain about that much.

I like movies like that. In a lot of ways it’s silent movie technique. I haven’t watched a lot of silent movies but they’re so modern, they feel so economical. When I watch a film, I like to do a bit of work, I like to get involved in a mystery even if I don’t know where it’s going to take me, or even if it goes somewhere crazy. I enjoy that experience—being spoonfed bores me.

You use the images in a very telegraphic way, almost like in a comic strip.

It’s funny, last time I watched it, I was thinking the same thing: it’s like a graphic novel. I was really into comics when I was a kid—Bill Sienkiewicz, Alan Moore… [We were shooting in] a hot sweaty New York, and the sounds were really driving me crazy. Tom Townend knows me really well—every day we’d go on night shoots and we’d discuss all the shots in the film. We hardly had time to do anything. It was like, “How do we do this in a one-shot or two shots?”

What about that strange disjointed CCTV sequence on the staircase, cut to the doo-wop song “Angel Baby”?

That was a temp track. Then you think, “Why does this specific thing work?”—and you never know. That whole surveillance camera thing was out of necessity. It was a sequence which would normally take a few days, we only had a day. I was watching stuff on YouTube and thinking, “God, this is really violent but you don’t really see what happens.” I was cutting something together as a little test, because it was quite a scary thing to film it in that way if it didn’t work, and some of the music jumped and skipped. Maybe it was just an accident, like a time slice or something, but I thought, “Oh God, I love this.” It’s strange the way it affects your brain. You don’t know why, but it’s disturbing.

Sometimes you think it would be nice to have time to shoot, but because of the time limitations we had, it just made things work. I quite like being in that position of backs against the wall. As someone who can’t decide what they want in a restaurant, I suddenly know my real feelings well, you’ve got to make that decision and you don’t question your instincts.

You Were Never Really Here

Jonny Greenwood’s score sounds like his own version of ’70s/’80s thriller music, but it’s extremely fragmented. How did the two of you decide on a musical signature?

When I was in prep, I listened to a lot of music, different things like Penderecki—Jonny loves Penderecki—Aphex Twin, John Carpenter, a track called “Peter Pan Death Wish” by Melkeveien that Tom found, that had this craziness about it. The French use it in the trailer, even though for me it was like a temp guide. It’s like something mechanical that starts falling apart—even if it’s not in the film, there’s something inspiring about it. And Boards of Canada, a lot of different things, and I thought, “God, this is going to have to be like a remix of four composers together.”

Jonny had read the script and we’d spoken about an approach, but I gave him the first five minutes, then the first 10, and he didn’t really know what was going to happen… We started going in directions that were more familiar at the beginning, then breaking that down and making it fall apart. A bit like Joe’s character. Jonny didn’t have a lot of resources or time, and I just thought it was amazing. He just recorded an album of it as well. He’s a super-creative guy—it’s like Jonny is Joaquin. It’s like he gets a chunk of it, and then more comes and more comes and it evolves from there.

You and DP Tom Townend go back a really long way, since your early shorts.

He was operator on Morvern Callar [2002] as well. We met on my first film Small Deaths [1996] and he made me laugh by talking about mise en scène. I don’t think I knew what he was talking about. He showed me a lot of films that stayed with me. I’ve known him since I was about 21. He’s amazing—when you have that shorthand with someone, you can just describe a shot and he gets it. That was necessary on this film, which was all shorthand, but in a great way.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.