Resilience is the key to survival in this business, especially for directors, and after weathering a public feud over the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay is basking in the Cannes sunshine after receiving a seven-minute standing ovation last night for the premiere of her in-competition noir You Were Never Really Here.
Four years ago, Ramsay left Jane Got a Gun on the pic’s first day of production. Controversy promptly ensued with a slew of finger-pointing between Ramsay and producer Scott Steindorff, followed by a chain reaction of castmembers dropping out, and a legal battle that ended in a draw.
Looking back on that mishegoss, Ramsay says “I was really devastated. I really wanted to make the film. It was a hard decision to do that (walking away), but it was becoming a different movie. In my head, I made it. That was a tough time, I wouldn’t bullshit about that.”
Ramsay retreated to Santorini, Greece and began writing, and within less than a year’s time, adapted Jonathan Ames’ novella You Were Never Really Here about a PTSD Gulf War vet/former FBI agent-turned-addled assassin who gets hired to bust a senator’s daughter out of a sex-trafficking ring.
Critics are already hailing the film as one of Joaquin Phoenix’s landmark performances with the The UK Telegraph raving, “Joe comes to life in an almost gruelingly subtle and interiorised performance, up there with Phoenix’s very best work for James Gray or Paul Thomas Anderson.”
Ramsay took to the novella’s protagonist of Joe for his anti-hero attributes, saying “He’s a flawed character, the scarred man, he wasn’t James Bond, he lived with his mother and he’s a bit schlepy.” She zeroed in on Phoenix to play the role; he adoring how the material broke the mold of the standard Hollywood crime action hero.
“We wanted to get away from that type, and focus on the impotence of masculinity,” says Phoenix.
A window opened on Phoenix’s schedule and he asked Ramsay whether she could get production up and running in two months. No problem on her end, which impressed Phoenix greatly. That hit-the-ground-running mentality not only marked the production’s atmosphere, but also played into its final genius with last minute decisions being the best ones ever made.
Additionally, actor and director fit each other like a glove: Phoenix is stimulated by collaborative filmmakers who can massage his character’s arc if necessary while Ramsay isn’t beholden to her own script. Their zone: Working on the fly and making discoveries in the moment. Or as Ramsay says, about the 29-day sweaty New York City summer production, “We made the movie in a fevered pitch, like punk rock.”
Ramsay went into production so fast that there wasn’t a concrete third act for the movie. So, she hatched one during production with Phoenix. Another challenge she conquered during filming: Having to cut 20 pages out of the script “because the locations were too expensive in New York.” What was lost? “Oh, nothing important,” says Ramsay.
One quintessential scene where Ramsay worked off book entailed Phoenix’s Joe shooting an intruder in his house. Joe, who is already high, then drugs the dying intruder for information, but soon lies next to him as they both sing a groggy version of Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me”.
Talking about her inspiration for the scene, Ramsay says, “In most films, someone gets shot and they die right away. So, what if we had a situation where it took a long time, and Joe had to get information from him, and a camaraderie forms between the two and it’s through a song.”
“In between takes, we were changing and adding dialogue,” says Phoenix about the scene,” There were a few different songs she was thinking about, and she talked about different ways she might cut it: ‘There’s a version where you guys are holding hands, and another where you’re not even lying next to each other'”
During scenes where Phoenix had questions about blocking, the actor describes Ramsay playing out the scene herself in front of him, as a way to guide the actor; something Phoenix has never seen before on set.
Says Phoenix, “She would experience what the character was feeling. So, my character is walking down the hallway with a hammer and we’re talking about the speed at which I should approach someone, and Lynne would take the hammer out of my hand, walk down the hall with it and say ‘Ok, this feels right.'” Ramsay and Phoenix were so hellbent about breaking the crime genre’s form, that they even nitpicked over how Phoenix’s Joe would enter a kitchen with a gun, and cover himself. When filming that scene, Phoenix said, “‘Lynne this is stupid, this feels like NCIS.‘ But she got it, knew it felt weird and said she’d solve it in the editing room.” Indeed, Phoenix’s entrance in that particular scene isn’t what we’re use to watching on CBS primetime.
You Were Never Really Here was submitted incomplete to Cannes with storyboarded scenes wedged in the pic’s cut. When the movie was screened for the press earlier this week, it had literally come out of the sound-mixing bay. Commenting on editing so close to deadline, Ramsay says “It’s kind of mental and I have a two-and-half-year old,” but it’s also how she stumbled upon such avant garde moments where she abruptly cuts a scene or a song short, further emphasizing Joe’s psychedelic drama. You Were Never Really Here runs at a brisk 85 minutes, and Ramsay says she still has more editing to do, specifically add more of composer Jonny Greenwood’s tracks. “He doesn’t score to picture, his inspiration comes from the film and you get these pieces that are 20 minutes long and you’re trying to edit them down” says the director.
Amazon landed rights for You Were Never Really Here a year ago at Cannes for $3.5M as Deadline reported exclusively. The pic marks her sixth time at the festival over a 21-year time span. In 1996, Ramsay won the jury prize at the festival for her short Small Deaths. She was invited back, and continued to wow: Her 1998 short Gasman also won a jury prize, followed by two wins (Award of the Youth and the C.I.C.A.E. award) in 2002 for her feature Movern Callar. Previously, Ramsay was in Cannes six years ago for We Need to Talk About Kevin which played in competition. Up next, the filmmaker hopes to make a Civil War movie starring Casey Affleck entitled Call Black Horse, but that’s still in early development.
Says Phoenix about Ramsay’s gifts, “She’s a person who always sees different compelling ways to tell a story that’s not fixed on one thing, especially when she wants it to be alive.”