25 Feb 2018 | Miranda Sawyer| Observer
“I’m not sure what I think film directors look like (Do they wear visors? Carry a loudhailer?), but I am very sure Lynne Ramsay doesn’t look like one. In her big beanie hat and jumper, her jeans and boots, Ramsay is a dead ringer for an art student bunking off lectures.
Before she sees me, I spot her smoking a roll-up at a table outside the west London cafe where we’re meeting. She’s making notes in an exercise book; she looks perfectly happy.
Art is where Ramsay started. Born into a working-class family in Glasgow, she used to paint and studied photography at Edinburgh’s Napier College before graduating in cinematography and directing from the National Film and Television School. She still sometimes wields a camera during a film shoot, gets the shots she wants.
And all her movies walk the line between art, film and entertainment. They’re immensely watchable, gripping studies of damaged people; but there’s also an aesthetic, often an intimate focus, a mood painted by the pictures. Each film is a distinct, original work. They remain in your mind for a long time.
She’s modest about her artistic talent when I bring it up. “I gravitate towards character studies,” she says. “And I try and avoid cliches, I suppose.” Actually, she says much more than this. Words gush out of her: ideas, opinions, memories, all tangled up and in motion, not fixed like an actor’s hackneyed anecdotes. Lots of ‘you knows?’; she speaks as though she wants you to join in.
Anyhow, despite her modesty, all Ramsay’s feature films – Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here (out on 9 March) – have won awards. It’s also noticeable that all of them, aside from Ratcatcher, are based on books; but they’re not the usual straightforward filmic translation.
Perhaps we could call them remixes. They’re certainly Ramsay’s vision: she writes her own scripts, is involved in every detail, from casting to location to costume. By reimagining a book’s imagining, she creates her own new world. You can love the book and love the film as well, for completely different reasons.
Her movies are successful (our own Mark Kermode named …Kevin his best film of 2011), but You Were Never Really Here has pulled off a first: it won best screenplay and best actor at the Cannes film festival last May, before it was even properly finished.
“We were only five months into the edit […Kevin took 10 months], there were still scenes that were just storyboards, and the producers told me they’d entered it into Cannes, which was two months away,” she says. “I just put my head in my hands. But the whole film had a kind of crazy punk rock energy – this was just more of the same.” In Cannes, the film came out of the sound-mix and went straight before the audience. It got a standing ovation.
Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, it’s the story of Joe, an experienced hitman, and a job that goes wrong. A familiar film trope, but Ramsay turns the genre inside out, giving us the oppressive, fear-filled tension of a gun-for-hire movie, but one that’s flooded in existential sorrow.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, so bearded and big it took me 15 minutes to recognise him. He rarely speaks, but we are always right next to him, involved in everything. We see the detail, the clearing up of the mess. We share in his irritating, intimate home life; we feel his sadness, understand that he’s struggling. “I felt like his head was full of broken glass,” says Ramsay. “He’s a middle-aged guy, he lives with his mum, he’s suicidal, he’s sticking around just ’cos of her. He’s like a ghost in his own life.”
I felt a bit stupid not recognising Phoenix, but actually he disguised himself so well that Ramsay was able to film with him on the fly in New York, capturing him taking photos for Japanese tourists, or slumping on the ground like a tramp, all without a selfie-crowd gathering.
The pair formed a great rapport – “he’s like a brother” – during the making of the film. Ramsay had written the part for him, and he’d accepted without them ever meeting, so there was a risk that they wouldn’t work well together. They talked on the phone a couple of times before he arrived on set, but that didn’t really help: Phoenix barely understood a word Ramsay spoke, because of her Glaswegian accent.
“I said yeah, a lot,” he told Vanity Fair, “but then spent most of the time trying to figure out what she was saying.” Luckily, they understood each other very well during the shoot, and the whole film was shot in a sticky 29 days.
“God, it was so hot,” remembers Ramsay. They hadn’t planned to shoot during the summer (of 2016), but Phoenix was suddenly free, so they brought everything forward, even though Ramsay still wasn’t settled on the film’s ending. She now thinks the mad heat and time pressure created an extra energy that went into the film, “the grime and sweatiness of it”.
They really didn’t have much time; on the first day everyone was getting ready too slowly for Ramsay’s liking so she just set up the camera and started filming. “The sound guy was running over, he’s not even set up, and Joaquin was like, ‘Are we shooting?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’”
Ramsay is nothing if not committed. Phoenix has described how she “would experience what the character was feeling”; she physically went through scenes with him, testing the weight of a hammer in her hands, saying “OK, this feels right”. And when she had him do an underwater scene, in a “scuzzy” Russian baths, she got in too.
“The water was freezing cold, like sub-zero, and it didn’t look too clean. I was wearing this hairdressing robe I’d borrowed from the makeup artists, because [I’d been] so hot. Joaquin got in and I could tell it was intense. I thought, ‘If he’s doing it, I’ve got to do it’. So I waded in, in my gown and sandals. He thought it was hilarious.”
There is bloodshed in the film, but, thankfully, much of the carnage takes place off-camera. One pivotal sequence is shown via surveillance cameras, an eerie experience.
“Well, in American films you see very expressive violence all the time,” she says. “Everything on a plate. I wanted to approach it in a different way, to make it exciting and intense but not, you know, sexy and cool. The minute you get to New York, it’s all these stunt guys that have been in CSI and they show you all their moves… And I love my stunt guy, but I was like, “No, no – that’s what I don’t want.” Because when you get hit with a hammer you’re going to go down quite quickly. There’s no… ballet to it.”
You Were Never Really Here came after a tricky time in Ramsay’s life and career. We Need to Talk About Kevin was a success, but it had taken five years to get from script to set, and followed a time where she had been asked to write and direct the film of The Lovely Bones, only to be dropped in favour of Peter Jackson.
Anyway, after Kevin, she was sent the script of a western, Jane Got a Gun, written by 22-year-old novice, Brian Duffield. She loved it – “super-dark, gritty, right up my alley” – despite the fact that she usually works with her own writing. Finance was secured, actors were cast – including Natalie Portman and Jude Law (“I was so involved, I’d seen every extra”) – and she learned how to film horses. Everything was ready. But on the first day of filming, Ramsay didn’t turn up. She walked out, never to return.
This caused enormous ructions. Directors don’t leave films. Sometimes they are removed, but to abandon a movie – all those people, all that money! – that you’ve developed and prepped is pretty much unheard of. The producers were furious, calling it “an irresponsible act by one person”. “I have millions of dollars invested,” said one, Scott Steindorff, to the press. “We’re ready to shoot … it is insane somebody would do this to other people.”
“I heard that some people said, ‘Was she on her period?’” says Ramsay, when I bring Jane… up. What happened, according to her, was that she gradually realised the producers weren’t thinking the same way she was. They seemed unhappy with the ending. They were asking for covering shots – meaning they had re-edits in mind. “But I don’t work like that.” She felt that her precise vision for the movie was about to be compromised. So she left.
“It was really at the 11th hour I realised, ‘You know what? The guys who are financing this film want a totally different film from this script’,” she says. “A happy ending… And the budget went up, but yet it wasn’t on the screen. No one had any money. The props guy didn’t even have a budget – he kept having to use his own credit card. I’d said I was gonna leave loads of times but then I would kind of get what I wanted, so…”
She gathers herself. “The bottom line is, it’s not a light decision for me to do that, and it wasn’t quite how it was reported either.” There was suing, and counter-suing, which seemed to end in a draw. The film went ahead with Gavin O’Connor at the helm, and did OK.
Ramsay doesn’t do social media, so she was shielded from some of the fallout, but it was a bad time. She was a long way away from her family, living in New Mexico (where the film was going to be shot), and her marriage was also coming to an end. So she upped and went to Santorini in Greece. She wanted a holiday; some quiet, some inexpensive beauty, some time to think.
“At first, I was gutted, you know? That was a massive amount of work from me, and it was heartbreaking. But I pulled myself together. I felt like, ‘Well, I’ve already made that film in my head, I’ve learned so much, even things like working with horses. And I’m not going to just curl up and die.’ I guess I’m a bit of a fighter – I’m from Glasgow. It all fuelled a kind of spirit, like, ‘I will prevail. I’ll just put all that energy that I had for the last film into a new one.’”
She wrote the script for You Were Never Really Here, and stayed in Santorini for months. Did you do a Shirley Valentine? I ask, as a joke, but blimey! She did. She met a curly-haired Belarusian chef over a roll-up cigarette, and they’re still together. While in Santorini, Ramsay got pregnant. She had her daughter in an Athens hospital – “I was in the hospital doing the film deal!” – and got on with her new reality. It was a life shift.
You Were Never Really Here was filmed when Ramsay’s daughter was 18 months old (they hired a manny – “A quarter of my fee went on childcare”). Ramsay found working with a baby both healing – “a restorative thing after a dark period” – and self-disciplining. “Now, I enjoy when I go to work. I’m not hoovering and cleaning because I’m stuck in a script. I use my work time really, really well. There’s no ‘whither me’ struggling.”
Her daughter is three now, and Ramsay and her partner are still deciding where they’re going to settle. Ramsay likes London, but you need too much money there for what she really wants: a place to live and a place to work. Her friend, the Turner prize-nominated artist Darren Almond, has a studio in Queen’s Park, and she’d love something like that: “I want to paint again. I’ve got this fantasy of a barn.” No chance in pricey London. How about Margate? I suggest. “Yes, or Amsterdam. Berlin. I went to Ghent, that was nice. We’ve got a couple of years before my daughter has to be in school, and she loves planes and boats so maybe we’ll just stay travelling for a bit.”
Still, she needs to make some cash. Surely most independent directors do this by making ads? But she’s only made one, for the UN. She’s just joined an agency, so she’s hopeful. “I’d like a perfume ad maybe – I can do those aesthetics.” Of course, she can do pretty much anything when it comes to film, but she feels that sometimes those high up need convincing.
“I’ve got a reputation for being difficult,” she says, “and yet with my crew and my cast, I’m super-collaborative and we get on really well, and they like working with me. So to me that always feels like bullshit. You’re doing a tough job, where you’re the captain of the ship, and there’s always tough decisions to make, and sometimes you’ve just got to go, ‘That’s not right for this’. You’ve got to stick up for what you believe in. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience, because you’re making something really diluted. And if you do that when you’re a guy, you’re seen as artistic – “difficulty” is seen as a sign of genius. But it’s not the same for women. It’s a tough industry, and if you’re a woman it’s harder, whether you like it or not.”
Ramsay really is worlds away from high-end movie moguls, though her rapport with those at the artistic end is palpable. Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly, who starred in We Need to Talk About Kevin are her daughter’s godparents; she thinks she and Joaquin Phoenix will work together again; the initial director of photography on Jane Got a Gun, Darius Khondji, has described Ramsay as one of the greatest living film directors.
“You know, I grew up in a place where people appreciate it when you’re very direct,” she says. “I think that helps cut through a lot of bullshit with filming. Straight talking and going on your instincts was important when I grew up. And being funny. It was quite a macho world I grew up in, but it was always cheeky and funny, and the women were the ones in the background that were really in control. Where I find things tough is when things are hidden, and people don’t say what they mean. When you’re less trusted than you should be, and you feel like by now I should have proven myself. I don’t think it’s just me. Don’t get me wrong, I feel really privileged to have this job. I feel like a very capable, strong director. They don’t ask me to do Batman, but I could do it.”
You Were Never Really Here is in cinemas from 9 March