Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay has a thing for curtains. Ratcatcher, her striking debut film, opens on a Glasgow tenement, choked with reeking bin bags during the 1973 garbage strike. A boy who we presume is our protagonist twists himself in a netted curtain, not unlike a shroud. Annoyed by his carrying on, his mother smacks him out of the fabric. Shortly thereafter, he drowns in a local canal.
There are the billowing drapes at the opening of her impressionistic adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, accompanied by an ominous hiss of sprinklers. The unnerving suburban sight is a fragmented memory that haunts Eva, an outcast mother played by Tilda Swinton. Left alone and reviled after a school massacre carried out by her hollow-eyed son, played by Ezra Miller, we revisit this moment to macabre effect in the film’s final act.
“There’s something about them that’s very cinematic,” agrees Ramsay. She has a breezy charm, at odds with the darker edge of her films. “You know,” she mugs, “ ‘What’s behind the curtain?’ ”
Ramsay says that when she was a kid growing up in Maryhill, a historically working-class suburb of Glasgow, most cinemas in town still had lush velvet curtains. They elicited a thrill as they slowly pulled aside to reveal the screen.
Some of her fondest memories involve walking through the fields leading to Bearsden’s Rio Cinema – long lost to the encroachment of apartments. Back home, when her dad wasn’t commandeering the TV and the radio for the football, the Ramsay house was often abuzz with afternoon film classics on the public broadcaster or, later, the whirr of well-worn VHS tapes.
“I remember my mum crying at Imitation of Life by Douglas Sirk,” she says. “She played it again and again, and she was really into thrillers and Hitchcock, so we just had this real love of cinema that I think was really of that generation. I remember hiding behind the sofa watching Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg, and the beginning of that film is amazing. It was the first memory that really stuck in my brain.”
When Ramsay arrived at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in Beaconsfield, England – after a spell studying photography at Napier College in Edinburgh – she rediscovered many of these formative films on the school’s syllabus and recognised the head start she had been given. “It really was my mum and dad who got me started,” she says.
The morbid and the mundane mingle in Ramsay’s unsettling, visceral films. Just as Roeg’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier ghost story upended the horror genre with the grief-stricken domesticity of broken parents haunted by fleeting glimpses of their not-long-dead young daughter, You Were Never Really Here – Ramsay’s third feature – rewrites the vengeance narrative. Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled ex-marine struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder who now works as a hit man for hire, though one who loves his mum and isn’t without mercy.
As with Ramsay’s other work, it is pieced together from the shrapnel of half-glimpsed images and disconcerting clips of sound. Her pop sensibility, fed by her parents’ love of everything from Elvis to Barry Manilow to Donna Summer, is jarring, fuelling the sense of oddity. “You are Glaswegian too,” she says to me, “so you know we have a black, twisted sense of humour.”
This sense was there in Morvern Callar, as the spectral blinking of a plastic Christmas tree inanely illuminated a dead boyfriend. And again in We Need to Talk About Kevin, at the painful office party where Wham!’s classic “Last Christmas” provides a soundtrack to Eva’s unmooring. You Were Never Really Here peaks as Phoenix’s Joe clasps the hand of a henchman and indulges in a singalong of Charlene’s ode to female self-fulfilment “I’ve Never Been to Me” as the man bleeds to death on the floor of his kitchen, fatally wounded by a gunshot. It’s surreal and sublime.
“My [director of photography] thought I was crazy when I wrote that: ‘What are you on, man?’ ” she says. “But it was super important to me to get that scene right ... Rather than the bog standard expositional, there’s this weird kind of empathy. And dying in movies always happens pretty fast but, in reality, the guy is bleeding out, and it takes a while, and Joaquin gives him a painkiller and there’s a kind of camaraderie between these two violent men.
“That Charlene track came from my dad, who has passed away now. He worked in a shipyard, but he would cry about that song … You know, he would get really emotional about this woman’s life and he was this big, macho guy. So I had to clear the rights for it. It’s one of my favourite moments.”
Another striking fragment in You Were Never Really Here is the re-creation of Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene from Psycho, with Phoenix and actress Judith Roberts, who plays his mother. Roberts was meant to have a small role in Kevin but had to drop out of filming because of a broken leg.
“I always remembered her, and then I discovered that she was in Eraserhead,” Ramsay says. “She’s quite a rock’n’roll lady, in her 80s and at that point where she’s just having a bloody laugh instead of getting all het up about anything. They were just bouncing off of each other so well I could have made a film with just the two of them.”
Picking up on a conversation with Ramsay about her mother’s love of Hitchcock, Roberts improvised the scene with Phoenix. It made the final cut, with Phoenix voicing Bernard Herrmann’s iconic “eee eee eee” strings shriek from the original film.
“That cost $15,000,” says Ramsay. “I didn’t realise you need to pay for that, just to say the sound, and we used it twice, so it was a bit of a fight for that, but I was like, ‘We’re keeping it.’ ”
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Ramsay is a filmmaker who would test the bottom line to try to find the budget for a knowing reference in the soundtrack. She traces her interest in shifting soundscapes back to watching Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s 1943 experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon, which plays out a looping fever dream about a menacing, wraith-like figure with a mirror for a face. Ramsay saw the film while she was studying photography at Napier; her favourite tutor showed it both with sound and on mute.
“I was just amazed that this woman had made the film in a weekend with her husband, and it was a pretty phenomenal piece of work. I got so inspired that I applied for film school at the 11th hour.
“My boyfriend wanted to go [to the NFTS but] didn’t get in, and I think that was the end of the relationship.”
At film school, Ramsay’s focus on sound set her apart from her classmates. “It was funny because I went to all of the sound classes and they thought I was a bit of a turncoat because I studied camera first, and there’s a notorious thing between camera and sound. Sound is seen as an appendage, but to me it does all the heavy lifting. It’s a subliminal thing that works like music. I thought: Oh god, I really need to learn to use sound like a camera.”
Rather than follow the conventional route and work on a picture cut – adding sound effects and music at the end of post-production – Ramsay prefers to thread them through the narrative as she goes. “[Radiohead’s] Jonny Greenwood was scoring while we were cutting, and Paul Davies, my sound designer, was there also. It just works for me, but sometimes you need to explain that sound is the bigger picture. I’m a frustrated musician at heart, because the mix to me is one of the most exhilarating parts to making a film.”
You hear You Were Never Really Here before a single image appears – a muffled, underwater pop and gasp. Then another of those Ramsayian recurrent visions – a plastic bag, which functions as both a Ratcatcher-like shroud and a means of escape for a world-weary Joe, auto-asphyxiating, caught halfway between eroticism and annihilation.
Shot during a stifling New York summer, the film adds another to Ramsay’s clutch of Cannes Film Festival darlings, which began with her shorts Small Deaths (1996) and Gasman (1998). The new feature co-won Best Screenplay – with just an early draft that still included storyboards – and nabbed a well-deserved Best Actor award for Phoenix.
The opening watery grave, wrapped in plastic and returned to later, is also a baptismal rebirth of sorts. “I did start to think about it as a bit of a Lazarus story,” Ramsay says. “It almost felt like Joe was a ghost and we kind of filmed it like he’s the walking dead. But even though it is a dark film, it was important to me and Joaquin that it wasn’t just one tone, that there was a feeling of hope, almost, at the end. Life goes on, you know?”
As with Judith Roberts, Ramsay expanded the role of Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a politician whose kidnapping sparks this brutal quest in the Jonathan Ames novella. “The final act is totally different,” Ramsay says, “because I wanted to give her a bit more agency, and Joe is quite a childlike character, in a way, but one who’s having a midlife crisis. So bringing them together more works.”
You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay’s third adaptation of a book, after Morven Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin. “I think that has a lot to do with working with really cool writers who are quite up for that and know a film is a different beast from a novel. Lionel and Jonathan really saw [the films] as a kind of companion piece. He came to every screening. Like, 12 times.”
As much as she lets authors into the process, though, Ramsay is a filmmaker known for her singular vision. Her proclivity for loose adaptations has created challenging moments, such as when she was replaced on The Lovely Bones by the far more literal-minded Peter Jackson, just as she was dealing with the death of her father as well as her best friend and writing partner, Liana Dognini. Later, she walked away from the Natalie Portman-led Jane Got a Gun at the last minute, citing creative differences.
Those who understand her way of making movies tend to stick around. “We’re all pals. It’s very intense, making movies, so your ups and downs are crazy, but you’ve been through this experience and it’s a bit like going to live in a commune for a while.”
Writing You Were Never Really Here in Santorini, Greece, Ramsay met her current partner and fell pregnant, moving back to a much-changed Glasgow, after filming in New York wrapped, to be closer to her mum. She and her daughter regularly hang out at Tilda Swinton’s Scottish pad. “She is so special in so many different ways and has a really simple life as well. She has chickens, so my daughter has learned where eggs comes from, and also how to make French toast,” Ramsay says.
But it’s Joaquin Phoenix – her neighbour back in her Brooklyn days – whose craft she admires most. “I mean, the guy is insanely talented and I felt I’d met a kindred spirit. You never know what he’s going to do next and it was super exciting to shoot that with a young crew of filmmakers, where the average age was about 30.” The film was mostly captured in first takes. Ramsay says the crew felt so energised they wanted to go straight into another movie. “They were so buoyed up by him and that was buoying me up.”
I ask whether that means it won’t be another six-year wait for her next feature.
“I’m not going to do that,” she says with a chuckle. “I’ve got a daughter now, so I’ve got to speed up. I’ve just written 160 pages of a script. I’ve been through so much, but I’m really energised through making this film and working with Joaquin. I’m champing at the bit.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 8, 2018 as "Sound decisions".
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