After walking out on ‘Jane Got a Gun’, the director emerges, reputation enhanced, with the brutal revenge thriller ‘You Were Never Really Here’
The acclaimed Scottish director has her revenge
In spring of 2013 Lynne Ramsay, the award-winning director of Morvern
Callar and We Need toTalk About Kevin, walked off the New Mexico set of the Natalie Portman picture Jane Got a Gun, two days before she was due to start shooting. Original cast members Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper and Jude Law followed the Scottish auteur out the door. The fallout was noisy: a breach of contract and fraud complaint filed by producers sought more than $500,000 in damages, and called the filmmaker “abusive” and “disruptive”. All parties settled quietly and out of court by the following spring, but not before Ramsay heard crass jokes about her “being on her period”.
It’s hard to reconcile words like “abusive” and “disruptive” with the softly spoken, unassuming director. Last May, when You
Were Never Really Here premiered at Cannes, she responded to this newspaper’s query about the film’s economical length with characteristic good humour: “I didn’t want to bore you all at Cannes,” she smiled. “There’s nothing worse than being at the end of the festival and watching a two-and-a-half hour long film with self-indulgent scenes. All of my films are 90 minutes. Though they might feel like two hours to some people.”
Today, as the same taut thriller debuts at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival, Ramsay is both philosophical and surprisingly cheery as she recalls the aftermath of Jane
Got a Gun, and a departure she has always simply attributed to “creative differences”. Was she ever concerned that the incident might tarnish what had been a glittering reputation?
“Not really,” smiles Ramsay. “I just thought I’ll pick myself up and get on with it. Every director I know has had a crazy experience. Lots of directors have worked on a film for five or six years and then had it taken off them. Or somebody else came along and made a successful movie of something they had been writing. It’s one of those jobs, you know. Things don’t always work out. It’s a pattern. You prep and prep. But all my energies ended up going into the next one.”
They sure did. You Were Never Really Here, which won two major prizes at Cannes – the best actor award for Joaquin Phoenix and the best screenplay award for Ramsay – looks certain to silence the writer-director’s critics. An intense New York revenge cycle, the film sees Joe, Phoenix’s damaged mercenary, dispatched to rescue a politician’s underage daughter from a brothel. The mission is far more complicated than what it seems.
“Jonathan is just a great writer and normally very humorous,” says Ramsay of Jonathan Ames, who wrote the source novel. “This was a different direction for him. It was a very strong page-turner and I wanted to carry that quality into the film. But it was a different direction for myself and Joaquin as well. We’ve never done an action film or anything like this. Whatever this is.”
The film shares recognisable DNA with such dirty thrillers as Taxi Driver and Death Wish. Ramsay’s location manager Sascha Springer, a native New Yorker, somehow scoped out parts of the city that seem largely unchanged since the 1970s. A sense of fevered panic, powered along by Jonny Greenwood’s score and Phoenix’s performance, was partly assisted by the logistics of the shoot.
The director and Phoenix didn’t meet for the first time until the actor showed up to shoot following the sudden postponement of another project he was attached to. The production lasted only 29 days. Ramsay rewrote the script and Phoenix improvised as they went along. His dishevelled appearance allowed them to shoot across the city without anyone recognising him.
“He looked like a construction worker,” she says. “So that added to the crazy energy, too. Films don’t happen overnight. But this one almost did. The script was already in quite good shape. And then Joaquin became available and my producer called up and asked: do you want to go to New York and do it? And then next minute, I was in this crazy city with just 29 days to go. Joaquin and I talked a lot about things that were in the book that seemed cool but that felt gadgety outside of the book. I had to kill a few darlings.”
When Ramsay unveiled You Were Never Lynne Ramsay: “Every director I know has had a crazy experience.”
Really There at Cannes, some seven months later, the film still didn’t have final credits attached. Mind you, Cannes has always been welcoming to the Scottish director. Having studied photography at Edinburgh’s Napier College and cinematography at the National Film and Television School, she won the Prix de Jury in 1996 for her short graduation film
Smalls and Death, and again in 1998 for her third short Gasman. Her debut feature film
Ratcatcher premiered in Un Certain Regard (2000) winning Special Mention. We Need to
Talk about Kevin was the only British film nominated for the Palme d’Or in 2011.
“I didn’t know I’d be a filmmaker,” says Ramsay. “I didn’t go to college with that idea. It was only after I started experimenting with cameras. I liked drawing. I was a kid you could leave in the corner with a paper and a pencil for hours. I thought I’d go to art school. And that became still photography, then the shorts. But my mum and dad were really into movies. They were of that generation that went to the pictures. I remember mum telling me about going to see Dorian Grey in a cinema out in the countryside and having to walk home because she didn’t have her bus fare. And how the film had frightened her. I’d watch movies at film school and I’d realise: ‘Oh. Douglas Sirk. I know this movie.’ Because I’d already have watched it with my mum.”