Perfect choice: Lynne Ramsay on casting Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

When Lynne Ramsay was writing her new film, she only had one actor in mind for the lead role. Luckily, Joaquin Phoenix said yes, writes Esther McCarthy.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here.

SHE’D never before written a role with an actor in mind, but as Lynne Ramsay penned the screenplay for You Were Never Really Here, her thoughts kept turning to Joaquin Phoenix.

The US actor, known for bringing intensity to his performances, loomed large within her story from the early stages, which intrigued her.

“I put his photo on the screensaver and said: ‘Why is it him?’ I think it was because I just thought he would bring a vulnerability, a sensibility to it, but also an unpredictability, do you know what I mean? Everyone asked me who I wanted to cast and I’d say: ‘Joaquin Phoenix, why do you keep asking?!’” she laughs.

“I think I telepathically willed him into the role because he’s really choosy. I actually dropped him an email and I said: ‘I’m writing this thing. I don’t know if you’ll dig it, be into it, but I think it’s getting quite interesting’. I was living in Greece, and then we spoke on the phone a few times. I found myself when I was speaking to him, it feels like I’m speaking to a mate I’ve known for years. But we never met each other until we got to the set.

“I don’t think that’s ever happened to him and it’s never happened to me.”

The resulting film has been earning the Scottish filmmaker rave reviews in an already stellar career.

Many pundits feel that You Were Never Really Here, following the success of We Need to Talk About Kevin, singles out Ramsay as one of the best filmmakers working today. There have even been comparisons to Taxi Driver in advance of the release of the movie, which tells the story of a man who tracks down missing children.

Ramsay is wearing the weight of such anticipation well. When we meet following the Dublin International Film Festival screening of the film, she is relaxed and chatty, pleased at how well the film is being received.

She started adapting Jonathan Ames’ novella on spec, enamoured with its lack of cliché and economical length. Watching Hitchcock and Bette Davis films with her mum when she was younger, she always loved shorter films — indeed her latest runs to just 85 minutes.

Still, it was an intense experience, with Ramsay having to go into production early because of Phoenix’s availability.

“He lived around the corner from me, so whenever I had five minutes, we were just talking about it and getting excited. It felt really alive. He would question things in the script that I hadn’t really thought about before, and it was good. It just became this… it was a hot summer in New York, and I’d lived in a quiet place with no cars, and it was like: ‘Oh my God I’m in madness!’

“I feltwe had a bit of an affinity in the way we worked. I’m not like: ‘I’ll do the big intellectual talk’ or anything like that. I’m more: ‘That feels bad to me’. Especially when I have my back to the wall - you go with your gut instinct. And it almost brings out a truth in you.”

Although there are some violent and bloody scenes in the film, Ramsay’s camera often interestingly focuses on its aftermath, letting the actual action unfold off screen. “I don’t think it’s reinventing the wheel or anything like that, but sometimes you forget about the power of imagination. One of the reasons I really love David Lynch’s work is that it really brings you into this world, a dreamscape, and nothing’s as expected.

“I was just very aware, there’s that mechanical violence, then it becomes very physically personal, emotionally personal. And then I think there’s a post-violence. You can fill in the gaps. You don’t need to see that. What am I saying by showing you something like that, another guy getting taken out?”

It must feel good for her to be creating again following a difficult experience on her last project. The director was attached to make Natalie Portman-starring western Jane Got a Gun, but quit just before the cameras started rolling, fearful she would not get to make the film she’d signed up for. It caused a furore and led to talk of legal action.

“I feel a bit like a chef,” she said of the experience. “If you’re really well prepped, you’ve almost made it. It wasn’t something I just lightly upped and said: ‘Yeah I don’t feel like it’. It took a lot out of me, but I just felt like I wasn’t going to make a film that either the producers liked or I liked. I was between a rock and a hard place. It was tough, but I didn’t get obsessed by it, I was like: ‘Pick yourself up, go on’.

“I’ve a strong Celtic spirit. People fixate on things like these, but every director I know has had one of these experiences.”

Before moving into filmmaking, Ramsay used to paint and studied photography in Scotland. Even starting out in cinema in her twenties, being described as a “female filmmaker” seemed strange to her. “I thought: ‘I love filmmaking. I’m really into filmmaking’. I didn’t really think about my gender as part of that. You do it if you like it. It’s a personality thing, you gravitate to something you really love, and you happen to be a woman.

“I suppose it’s a thing that you don’t get asked that as a guy, you don’t get asked: ‘What you bring to this as a guy? What do you as a man bring to this film?’ They just don’t get asked those kinds of questions. I think it’s getting better,” she said, adding that she was moved by the sheer numbers of emerging talent she encountered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Having spent much of her recent years out of Glasgow, she has returned to the city in the past few months. “My family are still there and I’ve got a three-year-old. I wanted her to see a bit more of her grandma. Actually Dublin and Glasgow are a bit similar. There’s a kind of vibrancy, a kind of non- gentrified, New York feeling that I really like.”

Though movie moguls will no doubt be offering her more crime thrillers following the success of this film, she is keeping an open mind about her next move.

“I’d love to do a comedy. Nothing’s off bounds,” she smiled. “I might go back to art school. I might go to Glasgow art school and paint for a while. You can just create and it’s just you and your materials. Film is a big beast, but you’ve got to know you really love a project. To be true to yourself, and hopefully that reflects back in the films you make.”

You Were Never Really Here is released on Friday


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