Joaquin Phoenix and a Hammer: The Story Behind the Year’s Most Unforgettable Action Sequence

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Lynne Ramsay is a bad ass. The Scottish writer-director of modern classics such as Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar is also a brilliant writer and visual poet and one of the most important living filmmakers we have, but at the end of the day, please do not forget: Lynne Ramsay is a bad ass. Her films, which often deal with some configuration of decay, grief, and youth, are tough as nails without sacrificing an almost terrifying beauty, and her career has had the kind of trials and tribulations that would flatten less assured artists. In the process, she’s gained a reputation as a bit of a fighter.

But You Were Never Really Here, her fourth feature film in almost two decades (again, trials and tribulations) is her first brush with real rough-and-tumble action filmmaking. And of course, she approaches it in a startling, completely unexpected way. The film, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a self-destructive ex-Marine turned hired gun who is assigned to rescue a senator’s daughter from a sex-trafficking ring. The lean, pulpy source material is as efficient and brutal as the hammer that is Joe’s weapon of choice. But in Ramsay’s hands, the violence is turned inside out, seen through surveillance cameras and mirrors, and no less impactful for it.

When I spoke to Ramsay at a Vulture Insiders screening of this film this week, I learned how truly appropriate the word lean was as a descriptor: The film was shot in a mere 29 days, and the unconventional fight scenes were as much an artistic, character-driven flourish as they were built out of necessity. (Side note: Please give Lynne Ramsay more than 28 days to shoot a feature.) Ramsay turns economy into high art, and anyone who gets a chance to see You Were Never Really Here will walk out wondering if there’s anything she can’t do as a director.

The last time I saw this film was during the premiere at Cannes, and it was brand-new — there weren’t even credits on the cut. I think I read that you had locked it, what, a few hours before the screening?
Well, we were about five months into the edit, and Cannes had asked to see it. But we really thought we were going to Venice or something; there were no credits, we hadn’t mixed it yet. And I got this phone call, and they said, “We want it.” And it was a real honor, but I was like, “My god, this film isn’t even ready!” I think I must be one of the only people to hear “your film’s in Cannes,” and to be like, “oh, no!” [Laughs.] So I had to shoot some stuff just before Cannes, and I had to do the sound mix in five days. And you heard all the gunshots in the film — I felt like I had post-traumatic stress before [the festival.] It was like boom, boom, boom — five days, over and over again.

So, yeah, the film had no credits [when it premiered,] some of the music changed. And I was like, “I’m still cutting the film.” But of course, after Cannes, [Amazon] was like, “Well, everyone likes it! You don’t need any more time!” And I was like, “No, I do. That’s a promise.” So I spent more time with the sound, and I spent more time honing the things that were shot a couple weeks before Cannes. So you saw a slightly different version, but it hasn’t changed dramatically. But the sound has.

This is your third adaptation. At this point I think you’ve established yourself as a pretty atypical adapter or interpreter of books, you have a very intuitive, nonliteral approach. And Jonathan Ames’s novella is a very lean, pulpy work.
It’s a pulpy, B-noir book. A good one, a page-turner. But it is that, and that’s what he intended it to be.

But you really tap into something instinctive or more internal about this character, which makes one able to appreciate the film as almost an entirely independent work. How did the adaptation process work for you this time around?
It’s funny, Jonathan Ames is at a screening right now, too, and it’s the fifth time he’s seen it. So he must like it. He said we made it quite operatic, which is a nice compliment.

I think I thought I was making an action, pulpy, B-noir movie, but I actually did what I always do, which is make a character study. We’ve got this guy coming apart at the seams, and he’s a ghost in his own life. And he somehow has to come back to life. And I think I said to Jon right up front, I’ll never make a straightforward thing out of this, but if you like my work, then we’ll start from there.” I didn’t know if I could do something like this — I’ve never done anything like it, or any action sequences, ever. And I was quite terrified of that, but also quite exhilarated.

So I just started writing the thing on spec. We didn’t have the rights, but a friend of mine who’s in development knew Jon. And four weeks later, I had a script. I was on a Greek island, and there was absolutely jack shit to do, and the internet didn’t work that well. And I just started writing this thing, and it started evolving and coming out. And I started speaking to Jonathan about how I was going to do it. I really wanted to retain what I liked about [the book,] which was the bones of that character, and also the page-turner quality it had. It’s really like you read it in one go. But it had no ending yet, he was still writing it. So it was kind of like running with the ball, finding our own end. And a lot of the things, like the mother relationship, is [emphasized] much more in the film.

The book has a lot of descriptions of the violence, and everything Joe does with a hammer (or any other weapon) is written about pretty frankly and graphically. One of the remarkable things about your action sequences is how little of the violence we actually see. You see all the aftershocks, all the immediate results of the violence, but many of the actual hits are offscreen or obscured. And yet, you still feel them.

I mean, I like cool, balletic sequences as much as the next person. But, to start with, we only had 29 days to shoot the film. And we would have needed four days for some of those sequences, we’d need that kind of time. [The scenes we ended up shooting] were a half a day, maybe a day at most. And that was good because it forced me to think about [Joe’s] character, which is always connected — the mise-en-scène always kind of comes from the characters. It has to do with where this guy is at that time in the story.

And that led to this surveillance sequence. I felt [Joe] was super mechanical at that point, and it’s just this kind of in-and-out thing. But it was really risky, because I’ve never had a reshoot in my life, I’ve never had the luxury of that. When directors talk about doing reshoots, I’m always super jealous. [Laughs.] So it was risky to do that, but it also felt really appropriate. I thought that the violent parts should be more personal, like him losing a tooth, or the emotional violence with his mom … And we’re so used to explicit violence and cartoon violence and that kind of thing. People will go, “Oh, [your] film is so violent!” but you see so many more films where 150 people are taken out in the first scene. But that’s more of a movie thing. I guess it’s quite surprising, in a way: By omitting stuff, it’s more shocking to some people.

How did you get the idea for how that surveillance-camera scene was going to work? The way the camera angles and the sound worked together is incredible, it’s one of the most memorable things I saw in a theater in the past year.

Well, it was partly due to the limitations of time. At first I thought, oh yeah, I’m going to do this huge balletic sequence, and then realized that there was no way on earth that I could do it like that. And it wasn’t really appropriate, either, you know? The thing was evolving. And so I did a test, using a stunt guy, during our prep. And that was the other thing — we use a great guy called Christopher Colombo, but he wanted to show me all his great moves, and all these great things with a hammer that he could do. And I was like, well, if you hit someone with a hammer, they just kind of fall down, very quickly. And so we just had to get him into the vibe that I wasn’t looking for that, I was looking for something else.

So we started walking through the whole sequence, and the DP shot it, and I started thinking about how I was going to use the sound. And I started to think, you know, this feels right for that moment in the film. It’s a risky thing to do, but it was kind of a light-bulb moment, when our backs were against the wall in many ways. But it was also something where I felt, once the idea was set, that, “Okay, this might not work,” and it was a little scary, but it was very exciting as well.

And then for the sound stuff, with the skipping music, we tried a lot of different things; we tried using just room tone. But “Angel Baby” was the first track I tried, and I thought, maybe it’s just an interior track. And we were playing with it, and it kind of messes with your brain a little bit; it comes out of different speakers. And then the idea of the time slice, where you take little pieces of the song out, so the cuts “jump” even more. It sets up sort of a startling tone. So once we kind of hit on that, I was like, we’re kind of using the music in a different way — you don’t exactly know what or why, but it does something to you.

There’s also that sense of lost time — you’re not even sure you’re seeing events in linear time, and it’s disorienting and stressful in a really effective way. It’s another way in which you withhold that sense of a classic, cathartic action sequence.
At the same time, I also wanted to make a film that people would be excited to watch, where you didn’t know what was going to happen next. Certainly, Joaquin Phoenix brought that to it. We played some things for humor, other things were terrifying. I mean, I didn’t know what he was going to do next sometimes, and it was quite a sight to watch. That bit with the drug dealer, where he pushes him into the door? He just kind of did that, and I was like, “Wow, we’re really going to go there.”

But it was like watching this amazing thing where every take, he would give you something different for the edit. So it wasn’t just one tone, it wasn’t just like, “This is a heavy movie, it’s so dark.” We wanted some humor in there as well. We wanted a bit of psychosis in it. He cracks up, in many ways, in the last reel. So I was helped immensely by [Joaquin]. And what we were speaking about, in the very short prep I had, was ideas like that.

So that scene came up, the tooth came up — because in the book, he gets shot in the leg, and we thought, would he have to limp for the whole movie? And then the idea came up of [something happening to] his face, which would feel really personal. Or the hotel sequence, with the mirror, where we pan up … I thought about the space, and I thought, [the camera] will stay on him the whole time. And that whole sequence is probably shot in half a day as well. So, you know, I had to be really economical about my shots, and really know them. And the mirror idea came quite early, I think in the script. A lot of the stuff is in the script, but a lot of it evolved. And we had to kill a few darlings in prep, because we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot, even for a short script.

You’ve had a lot of heartbreaks in-between films, as far as projects going awry or not panning out the way you’d hoped. You’re releasing You Were Never Here with Amazon at a time when there’s a lot of hand-wringing about indie film and the theater experience and tech giants like Amazon and Netflix. After all you’ve been through, what do you think is the most welcoming or promising space for filmmakers to take their projects?
I don’t know! It’s a strange time, a lot of people who go to the cinema now are just seeing big spectacle movies — big superhero movies with Atmos sound and stuff. But to me, this is a spectacle movie in a different kind of way. It’s a film about sound, in many ways, and I hope that people see it in a cinema. At the same time, I appreciate that a lot of people don’t. It’s just hard for me, because I think my work is such a visual-aural experience. But I still believe that the people who want that experience want to have it together. It’s really interesting, when you’re in a screening, to feel an audience go a certain way. And every screening’s different. It’s definitely a collective experience.

So I don’t know, but I think it means that the films that are out there can’t just be a straightforward story anymore. Well, they can, but we have such great TV today as well, and the plus side of that is [storytelling] keeps getting pushed up a level and up a level.

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