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Lynne Ramsay on her frenetic hitman thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix

‘You Were Never Really Here’ is scored beautifully by Jonny Greenwood and won Best Screenplay at Cannes – it’s a stunning return from the director of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

Joaquin Phoenix wiping blood off a hammer is a difficult image to shake off. We see him, early on, suffocating himself with a plastic bag; he gets up, acknowledges the body count, then anonymously strolls through New York. Seriously, Lynne Ramsay’s fourth film, a visceral, heart-stopping nightmare, isn’t for the faint of heart. In what is the Scottish director’s first feature since 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman with a potbelly, PTSD, and, yes, a weapon purchased from a supermarket. On the rare occasion Joe does speak, it’s with anguish; here’s a broken man, riddled with anxiety, unsure if he’s chasing or running from his demons.

It’s the kind of material apt for Ramsay, a visual storyteller through and through. To evoke Joe’s frazzled state of mind, she combines virtuosos editing techniques – jumping back and forth to mimic his trauma – with a pulsating, electronic score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Moreover, the thriller, mostly dialogue-free, doesn’t shy from dark subject matter. Joe’s mission involves rescuing 14-year-old-Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from an underage sex ring. His client, the girl’s father, offers one instruction: “I want you to hurt them.” But there’s also the serene beauty of, for instance, a dreamlike underwater sequence, and the gallows humour of a guy whose dying breaths are exerted on singing along to the radio.

Remarkably, You Were Never Really Here was shot at two months’ notice, a year ahead of schedule, when Phoenix suddenly had a spare month. Ramsay’s script, adapted from a Jonathan Ames book, was rewritten on set, and the subsequent raw punk energy of a last-minute production emerges in the film’s blistering pace and unpredictability. An incomplete cut, which premiered at Cannes, won two awards – Best Actor for Phoenix, Best Screenplay for Ramsay – but the final version, now 90 minutes, can finally be seen this Friday in cinemas. And really, there’s no other way to experience it.

For Ramsay, it’s four for four. The auteur has explored trauma before: in Ratcatcher, a kid blames himself for a friend’s death; in Morvern CallarSamantha Morton profits from her deceased boyfriend’s unpublished novel; in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton wonders if she can still love her son after a school massacre. Those films, though, are quieter, more meditative affairs. What You Were Never Really Here possesses is an instant adrenaline rush and an array of insidious action that might leave you, too, unable to forget the disturbing images on display.

You Were Never Really Here was rewritten a lot on set, and then it won Best Screenplay at Cannes. What did it look like on the page?

Lynne Ramsay: It was quite nice actually, that prize, because it’s a pretty visual, visceral film. There’s a lot of sound design and music. A lot of that was written. So even though we had a really short prep, my sound designer and DP knew it inside out. It was pretty terrifying to go in with so little shooting time. The script’s a real guide for me. I make the movie in my head. The shooting is gathering material. But when you’re working with someone like Joaquin, it’s another level as well.

This film, when it all went ahead, I was still working on the end. I was still figuring it out. And then suddenly, there was a bidding war on the script at Cannes. People liked the script. And then the next Cannes – there was no way I thought on Earth we would be in that next Cannes.

So the sale was Cannes 2016?

Lynne Ramsay: Yeah. It was the craziest year of my life, obviously.

Was Joaquin on board at that point?

Lynne Ramsay: He came on board around then. I was in Poland when I found out. But I was living in Greece on a tiny island, and it was like, “Pack your bags. Get to New York. You’re shooting in six weeks.” I was like, “Oh my God.” Especially because I was in a place with no cars. It was totally silent. Then the next minute, I’m in this crazy city. But I’m good when there’s a lot of pressure.

Joaquin told me you sent him MP3s of fireworks before the shoot. Were you going around with a recorder?

Lynne Ramsay: In the prep, it was the 4th of July, but I was in Brooklyn. My garden was pitch black, but there were fireworks. So I just recorded it on my phone, because I thought, “If you’ve been in a war, you know, there’s constant explosions.” I was thinking about Joe, and how his head’s full of broken glass and all these recurring things.

I recorded it, and I played it to him. But all he went was, “Yeah. I get it.” I think we were on the same wavelength. It was a brutal heat. It was a frenetic shoot. But it was energising as well. It suited it, for some reason.

What were your instructions for Jonny Greenwood? Because it’s really different from the score he did for We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Lynne Ramsay: He’d read an earlier draft of the script, but then it went really fast, and he was on tour with Radiohead. I was like, “Aw, I don’t know if we can do it.” But then I roped him in by sending him pieces of the film. “Here’s a piece, and here’s another piece.” So he was getting it in this chronological order, and starting to see this character going these different ways. I think the music became its own character as well. It’s got that kind of pleasure of being in a genre film, but then it kind of cracks up. It’s a bit like Joaquin – you never know what he’s going to do next.

I played him some stuff I liked. There was hardly any money. So it was like, “Let’s get some musicians now and record some different sounds that we think are right for this film.” I remember, I had to ask one of the producers for that money, and they were a bit reluctant: “Let’s do it at the end.” And I’m like, “No, let’s do it now. Please, we’re going to do it now.” That was so important.

He did a much bigger score than really we had the means to do. But he doesn’t score to picture. He just scores on instinct. He’s a bit like Joaquin in that way. It’s like, “This feels right.” And then he would send us music in the edit. It wouldn’t be like he would do the music to a cut. We’d get the music and cut to the music. It’s really exciting to work that way.

What kind of things were you playing for Jonny?

Lynne Ramsay: All these ridiculous things. A bit of Penderecki. I love Aphex Twin’s “Rhubarb”. Some crazy jazz stuff from the 70s. Just things I was toying with. “Peter Pan Death Wish” by Melkeveien. I was like, “I’m thinking this, I’m thinking that. A remix of this and that.”

When the editor and I got the music, we literally danced. We were so awe-inspired by some of the pieces he was sending in. When we got the music, we’d have this amazing day in the cutting room, just listening to the music and figuring out what to do.

Radiohead did a song called “Spooks” in concerts during 2006, and in 2014 Jonny recorded it as an instrumental track for Inherent Vice. What happens if you and Thom Yorke like the same demo? These were potential Radiohead songs?

Lynne Ramsay: Probably! Even on Kevin, there was so much great music he sent in. You can’t use every single piece, but they’re quite long. You’re like, “Oh my God.” I’ve got a few albums of stuff that people haven’t heard that’s amazing. I think this one in particular is so different from his Phantom Thread score as well. It’s super-special what he did with it, but he was original with it.

Does it annoy you that the film keeps getting compared to Taxi Driver? It really stands out as its own thing.

Lynne Ramsay: It’s hard to get annoyed, because that’s such a classic film. But people say things like, “Oh, it’s like Taken.” I’ve never seen that. But lots of great films have come up like Point Blank and Barb Wire. I’m like, wow, cool, that’s great. But they weren’t in the forefront of my mind when I was making it. Also, I think what annoys me most is the synopsis. This film shouldn’t have a synopsis.

“Lots of great films have come up like Point Blank and Barb Wire. I’m like, wow, cool, that’s great. But they weren’t in the forefront of my mind when I was making it” – Lynne Ramsay

It takes a while to realise what’s going on.

Lynne Ramsay: I know! It should just say, “Enjoy the trip.” It almost does it a disservice. It isn’t the film it seems on paper. It’s an experiential film. You have to experience it. You have to go with it.

Someone told me that when Joaquin imitates the noise from Psycho, it cost quite a bit of money. Is that true?

Lynne Ramsay: Yeah, that was an improvisation between Judith Roberts and Joaquin. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t scripted. I got inspired by my mum. She watches Turner Classic Movies really loud, and they’re thrillers. I was just thinking about what she’d be watching. But I didn’t realise you had to license the eee-eee-eee noise.

So was it something like £30,000 for a punchline?

Lynne Ramsay: Yeah, kind of. I think maybe we got it down, hopefully. They did it in the first take, and it was amazing. I knew I was going to use that take, but no way did I think you’d have to license that sound.

When that guy is dying and singing along to the radio, what made you pick “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene? For instance, Jonny could have given you the rights to “Creep”.

Lynne Ramsay: Well, I’m sure they’ve got a love/hate relationship with it, because everybody always wants to hear that – it’s a great song. But I thought the mum would have this easy listening channel on the radio. There was something quite nice about doing something quite light with something that was dark before your eyes.

But then my dad really liked that song. He worked in shipyards, and he’s quite a macho guy. And yet the song’s about a prostitute not really finding herself. He would find it really moving.

With the book version of Kevin, there’s an explanation towards the end about Kevin’s motivations which you don’t include in the film. Why is that kind of ambiguity rare in films nowadays?

Lynne Ramsay: I just don’t think people work like that. There’s no answers. Especially in this time, there’s no black and white. It’s hard to trust something completely. I think it’s an unsure time. There’s no good guy, there’s no bad guy. The guy that was meant to be the good guy is actually the bad guy. I think people are really complex. For me, the moment of catharsis in Kevin is that, despite everything, she [Tilda Swinton’s character] embraces him [Ezra Miller’s character] as her son. You don’t need every word of dialogue from the book to do that. It’s to do with the physical performance.

“The moment of catharsis in Kevin is that, despite everything, she [Tilda Swinton’s character] embraces him [Ezra Miller’s character] as her son” – Lynne Ramsay

You could have done a rubbish, sell-out version of The Lovely Bones, like the one Peter Jackson eventually did when he took over. [Ramsay was the original writer-director but left the project due to creative differences.] How important is it for you to only do these amazing films with complete creative control, rather than just getting your name out there whenever possible? You seem to be in the minority.

Lynne Ramsay: I don’t know. You’ve just got to be true to who you are. In that case, I started working on that before the book came out. So when the book came out, it became this massive bestseller. And then the audience really want exactly the same as the book. That went so in one direction. It was really interesting, but I would let down the audience for that book. So it just didn’t feel right.

But it was a good experience as well, because I learned loads. I started to get better at writing the mystery. Things were happening. Also, my friend who co-wrote Morvern Callar, she died quite young, but she’d worked with me on that. We were doing some really cool stuff, so you just take the positives from it. You can’t be like, “Oh, woe is me.”

Every filmmaker I know has had some kind of crazy, nuts thing happen. I know a guy that got kicked out of the cutting room on his own film that he wrote. So there’s all these horror stories. It’s quite a tough industry. I guess I know what makes me happy, in a way. I think if you sell parts of your soul, you don’t really know who you are anymore.

Is Moebius still going ahead? Your “Moby Dick in space” sci-fi?

Lynne Ramsay: It’s still in my mind!

You Were Never Really Here is out in cinemas March 9.