Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has made just four features in almost 20 years, which on one hand sucks, if you’re a fan of quality cinema. But on the other, it means her batting average is 1,000. Her films—1999's Ratcatcher, 2002's Morvern Callar, 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin, and this year’s You Were Never Really Here—are stellar across the board and entirely unconventional. Though her scenarios are grim—a young woman figures out what to do next after her boyfriend’s suicide; a mother attempts to sort out her life after her psychopathic son commits a heinous tragedy; an aging veteran/former FBI agent finds a second career in rescuing trafficked young girls—her movies are fueled by a fascination with and love of humanity.
There’s a strange sort of hopefulness that emerges when following flawed, broken characters so closely, attempting to piece together why they’re doing what they’re doing, stumbling through their lives alongside them. Ramsay’s tremendous empathy, her refusal to spoon-feed her audience (Movern, Kevin, and Here are all based on books and none of them contain voiceovers), her at times impressionistic approach to layering sound and images, makes her among the most inarguably visionary filmmakers working today. I’d argue that she is also one of (if not the) best.
You Were Never Really Here, based on Jonathan Ames’s novella of the same name, is as swift and deadly as a chop to the windpipe. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, the hammer-toting veteran who performs the aforementioned task of rescuing trafficked girls. The gig the film focuses on finds him exposing layers of government corruption as well. It’s hallucinatory, disturbing, sometimes hilarious. (One of the standout scenes involves Joe and a guy he just fatally injured singing along to Charlene’s ’70s easy listening staple “I’ve Never Been to Me.”) As oblique lines connect Joe’s trauma to his current situation (including his PTSD), the past and present blur, and so do reality and fantasy. You Were Never Really Here is as much a collage as it is a narrative.
So is Ramsay’s way of explaining her work. She speaks in collages of thoughts, uninterrupted streams of ideas that fork abruptly, surge, and then fork again. Like her movies, I found her intelligence to be nearly overwhelming and entirely exhilarating when we talked on Wednesday in the lobby of the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan. I also felt like I was sitting with royalty—it’s rare that I get to meet an artist I admire as deeply as Ramsay. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
JEZEBEL: What attracted you to the source material of You Were Never Really Here?
LYNNE RAMSAY: It was kind of the character, I guess? The writing’s interesting and it’s a page-turner. Jonathan Ames is, I guess, neo-noir, pulpy. It had a side of New York that I thought was interesting. People were like, “You doing a genre movie?” But I loved films when I was growing up like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Sam Fuller’s work, and felt within a genre you could explore really interesting things. I thought I was making an action movie but I ended up making a character study…I don’t know what the hell it is! A trip. I read it in one sitting, probably in 90 minutes, which is pretty much the same length as the film. But I didn’t have the rights or anything so I write it on spec. And then four weeks later I had a draft. I was like, “I know I’m not going to do a conventional genre film, but I’m really interested in some of the elements of this thing, what I can do with them.”
So many other people, when adapting this material, would have used voiceover. You’ve adapted three books to film, none of them have direct-to-audience narration. You are allergic to voiceover, it seems.
I like some voiceovers. The voiceovers for me that really work are kind of almost…non-narration, like in Badlands where it’s thoughts or Scorsese’s work can have some really amazing voiceovers. But to me, [a voiceover in this movie] was never really an option. I always think in images first. To say the inner thoughts was a bit wrong to me. It was kind of a show-don’t-tell type of thing.
What I gather for that is you have a tremendous respect for the intelligence of your audience.
Yeah, I think audiences are really sophisticated, these days especially. I mean, TV’s really amazing, some of it. Maybe that puts pressure on the cinema to be almost more of an experience. I was hoping to make quite an experiential film where you’re really immersed in it to go inside the head of this character, in a way that you can probably only in a theater. You can watch on a small screen, too, but I like it when people are watching it together because of the certain vibes that you get. Some people jump or say, “Holy shit.” People were crying at Cannes, and then some people found it really funny, which is good, I think. I don’t love talking about films ’cause the film talks for itself, but the best part for me is hearing people’s reactions to it.
Your last three movies all provoke and reward curiosity to some degree. You present a protagonist and it’s not always clear why that person is doing what she or he is doing, but that’s the fun of it. To interrogate that.
Yeah. To me, the thing about this character and what Joaquin brought to it was I never knew what the hell he was going to do next. The audience feels like that as well, I think. We didn’t play it as one tone. This guy’s got a lot of good in him. You feel empathy for him, but at some points he feels terrifying or psychotic. He’s falling apart at the seams, he’s funny. It’s super interesting to me to explore all the aspects rather than something that’s 2D.
Do you think this reflects a larger sense of your appreciation for humanity? I feel a sense of fascination with it from your movies.
When I was a painter and photographer, I always did portraiture. I wouldn’t do landscape that much. It was always people. And I always watched a lot of documentaries to explore the world. I’m not on social media. I find it hard to keep up. I lived on an island that didn’t have great internet and no cars for a while and was a bit off the grid. I find the filmmakers I like are kind of amateur psychologists. I mean, I love Kubrick and Bergman and Hitchcock.
When people say things like, “It’s a dark movie,” or, “It’s grim,” I’m like, that’s so lame. That’s just one thing, and I hope to have a lot of things. I never want to be like, [deep voice]: “It’s this dark movie and we’re trying to do something really heavy.” It was really important to me that this had a bit of humanity and humor. Especially the stuff between him and his mom. That in the book was a bit more idyllic mother and son, but one thing Joaquin and I talked about was that when you’re taking care of an elderly person, it’s like as much as there’s a lot of love there, there’s a lot of frustration. And that brought humor as well. She drives him nuts, but he loves her. It added an extra dimension as opposed to just a very poetic kind of loving son.
What is your philosophy about blurring the line between fantasy and reality? Why do you do that?
I’m uncertain about what reality is in this world. There’s no black or whites. There’s nothing sure or certain anymore. We’re past an age where this is good and evil and this is a person you can trust. I think that leaves you in a place where you don’t have a certain footing and things are falling apart. I’ve always been interested in surrealism because I feel like it’s an inverse kind of reflection of madness in a way. And certainly where Joe’s headspace is at, certainly toward the end of the film, everything certain in his world has collapsed, so I think I was able to go somewhere that felt like a heightened reality.
What about your approach to violence? A lot of it in this film we catch the tail end of or see just after it has occurred. Why frame it like that?
Violence is so out there in the world, it’s so explicit, we’re so used to it that it’s actually become quite banal in a way. So it felt that taking stuff away, not showing it, is more extremely violent to people. It’s kind of like what you don’t see and what’s left to the imagination…it leaves you the space in your head, you know? It’s like when you’re reading a book. It’s the mystery of that. And also I think the audience is sophisticated enough to fill in the gaps. You don’t need to see 10 guys taken down. You see the aftermath and you get it.
But with the violence in this film, I felt it should be really mechanical at first, and then it should be personal, and then it’s kind of post-rage. You see aftermath. I’ve never done an action movie or anything like that and I was terrified. It’s easy to fall into clichés and so it was like, “How do I think about this?” And a lot of the stuff had limitations as well. It wasn’t like, “I have four days to do this sequence that’s choreographed”; it was, “I’ve got half a day.” I had to sort out where this violence come from and what is it? Is it in the mind? Is it how he operates? Where’s he at? That led to the mise-en-scène in a way. It was really fun to shoot those sequences. It was exhilarating. But after coming into [this] thinking, I’m going to make this action noir, I go back to where I always go, which is kind of the study of a man. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, maybe in this case. I gravitate toward characters, but the characters tell you how to shoot those things. You have to find a logic to it.
That said, there is a brutality to this movie, and that’s uncommon subject matter for a woman filmmaker. Do you have any thoughts about that or have you received any pushback as a woman who’s made a brutal movie?
Someone was just saying [in a previous interview], “Lynne Ramsay should be making films about women.” I’ve made films about women. There’s no subject off limits. For me, it’s completely patronizing and sexist for people to go, “You’ve got one subject matter.” That’s ridiculous. I’m a filmmaker first; I don’t really think about my gender. I happen to be a woman. I don’t even know what that brings. But I think as a filmmaker, life is interesting and that can be many aspects and different walks of life, so I think to say that because of your gender you’re only allowed to make a certain type of film is total bullshit.
What about the external stuff—being a woman director is still a rarity. Do you get a lot of shit because of your gender?
It’s hard to say. There’s a big quote about me that was actually misquoted about me being difficult or something. That actually was in response to someone who asked me a question, like do I get accused of being difficult. I’ve always had a really happy set. I love making movies, I love my team, my crew, my actors. That was an answer to a question when someone asked me if I was difficult, but I think the answer to that is: It’s in the job description of director. You have to make a call on things, you have to say what feels right, what feels wrong. I always go with my gut instinct, and I’m excited when I make films. When people bandy those words about, it’s because you have a vision. Maybe when you’re a guy it’s seen as artistic, like, “Wow he’s so creative,” whereas if you’re a woman like, “We really need to do it this way,” maybe it’s like a “difficult” thing.
I really don’t know, can’t speak for everybody, but I guess when there comes a time when like I’m always asked, “What does it feel like to be a female filmmaker,” a man is asked, “What does it feel like to be a male filmmaker?” maybe we’re getting somewhere then. It’s hard to say what that brings. I just feel like I’m good at what I do. That’s something I found out at film school, it was something I felt I could naturally do. Sometimes you just find something and you’re like, “Yeah, this works. This feels right.”
What do you think about the fact that in 19 years you’ve made four movies?
Wish I’d made more. I’d rather make four movies that I really believe in and feel really good about than a lot of movies than I don’t. Or half-assed. I put my heart and soul in everything and I write as well, so that sometimes takes a long time. It’s quite a tough industry, as well. Things can fall through for different reasons. With Kevin, we had a longer script and it was a financial collapse. I found Ezra Miller, it was cast in New York, I had the whole team up, and then it was like, “You need to go reconcile that with half the budget.” But I knew I was never gonna give up. That taught me a lot. Sometimes the bad experiences teach you more than the good experiences, which is a cliché, but it’s true. It’s just tough out there. You either have spectacle films or certain kind of other films, and trying to make anything [presenting] your vision on screen can be hard sometimes.
But I’ve been really lucky as well. I was in my late 20’s when I made my first feature, so I feel quite privileged. Every director I know has had a crazy [experience]. They’ve worked on something for five years and then someone else made it. Or they checked out the cutting room and were like, “Oh my god, really?” I don’t think that’s specifically about me. Filmmakers I respect, I don’t think any of them have not had a tough time. It’s tough to make good work. I’m enjoying it so much more now than when I started. Before it was more like life and death, and it still is, but you sort of have to look out into the world sometimes. I’ve had so much fun with this movie that I’m chomping at the bit to get going again.