By Ali Moosavi.
In 90 years of Academy Awards, only one woman director, Kathryn Bigelow, has been awarded the Best Director Oscar. The recent stories of women harassment in the American film industry has shown that it has indeed been a man’s world in Tinsletown though this is surely changing now. One of those rare women director successes has been the Scottish filmmaker, Lynn Ramsey. With her first film, Ratcatcher (2000), she won the BAFTA for the Most Promising Newcomer. In addition to winning a number of British Best Film awards, she was named Best Director by Edinburgh and Chicago film festivals, and the London Critics Circle. Ratcatcher was also shown in the Un Certain Regard of the Cannes Film Festival. Her next two films, Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) were also serial award winners at international film festivals and critics circles. With her latest film, You Were Never Really Here (2017), Ramsay made a triumphant return to Cannes, where her film won the Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix) awards at the main competition section.
You Were Never Really Here is a violent film noir. Using flash backs, Ramsay makes us aware of her protagonist’s troubled childhood and then psychological suffering at war. The pain he has suffered as a child has made him very sensitive to child abuse and he becomes obsessive with finding a kidnapped child and hurting her abductors. Ramsay has made expert use of sound and music (by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood). She also uses old, innocuous songs when showing vicious, violent acts (think of the use of songs “Blue Velvet” and “Sea of Love” in the films of the same name).
Film International caught up with Lynne Ramsay at the Dubai International Film Festival where You Were Never Really Here was being shown.
Notwithstanding the fact that some time ago Glasgow was named the European City of Culture, there are still some tough neighbourhoods there. Did growing up in Glasgow had an impact on your filmmaking, especially with regards to childhood themes in your films?
It’s hard to say. I left Glasgow when I was about seventeen to go to college. It was a tough city but now it’s a very different place. It’s very cosmopolitan now. It was a working class, macho place but in a cool kind of way. The women are really the ones in control. I remember it as a good childhood. Glasgow has a very black humour and people tend to do tough and straight talking. I think Joaquin and I got on very well because he is a bit like that too; straight talking, no bullshit kind of thing. I think it was a certain kind of landscape; beautiful but dark. The humour is dark; especially in my first film, Ratcatcher. I started that film from the canal, this mysterious place. However, I don’t think it was as dark as people thought.
Childhood features strongly in Ratcatcher.
It was inspired by a place that was mysterious and beautiful and you went with your boyfriend. I never saw it as a social realism piece. I saw it as a piece in a child’s mind; a magic realism. It always surprises me when people refer to it as “kitchen sink drama.” I was a kid when I made Ratcatcher and I was talking about a place I knew and a lot of those ideas were inspired by that landscape.
Where does the darkness and violence in your films comes from?
That’s humanity, you know! Darkness and violence is everywhere. It’s around us. I watch documentaries most of the time. I’m interested in the psychology of the characters. Just a couple of nights ago I watched this great documentary about Vietnam by Ken Burns. You just see the circumstances where humanity can be twisted and where a lot of violence brings another set of violence. The world is now an uncertain place and there is no easy resolution. I don’t think my films offer easy resolutions and tell you that it’s going to be a happy place. At the same time, we try to explore some truths in the character. You Were Never Really Here is a genre movie. I grew up on Hollywood movies. My mum and dad were film buffs. We would watch Double Indemnity and I was a big fan of Sam Fuller’s. You can take a film like The Shining. It is not a horror film. It’s about a man going mad.
The characters in your films tend to keep a lot inside them. I think you prefer to show their emotions and feelings visually than through dialogue. Does the visual side of the medium interests you more?
Well, I love great dialogue too. Like I said, I grew up on some of those films with the most fantastic one liners, great dialogue and sharp stuff. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I just think that I’ve got an instinct for what works in a film. I think Joaquin’s got that too. When he feels something is BS or wrong, he just doesn’t feel like doing it. I was a photographer when I started. I look at the details of the characters a lot to see the bigger picture, but it’s really hard to explain. I just love cinema, the sound and the picture. I love silent movies and Hitchcock. Cinema is a massive art form and tells stories through images and sound. It’s a subconscious element. I do the sound design really early. A lot of people, probably producers, say that you stick it on at the end. But I could never work like that. So, the sound is a big deal to me and the music as well.
Talking about music, in some of the violent scenes in the film (You Were Never Really Here), you use very innocent sixties songs. How is your approach to music?
Sometimes it’s a really strange thing. I mean some of the tracks came from – I don’t want to give a spoiler away – but the gunman singing scene, that was a track my dad listened to. I just remembered him listening to it. What was strange about it was that my dad was a macho guy who worked on the shipyards. He loved this song (I’ve Never Been to Me by Charlene), which is quite a cheesy song about a prostitute. He would sing this song with tears in his eyes. We had to get the rights to that before we shot and sometimes you just find a track that fits. I tried lots of different things, really modern things. I was playing a lot of music when I was in prep which were sent to me by Jonny Greenwood (film’s composer). He is a big Penderecki fan and so am I. He likes eclectic stuff. I don’t think he knew that he was getting in the score. When you find the right track, whenever you try another one, it doesn’t fit. We had a limited budget as well. Jonny was in Radiohead and I thought he’s never do the score, he’s too busy. So, I’m giving him 5 minutes and then 10 minutes and he’s getting quite excited. The score became a character in itself. It starts off with something you think you know and then it just implodes and goes somewhere else. I think he really got that. I was getting sent this music from him, it was all remotely, and I was saying my God, this is some of the best music that I have heard and we don’t have any money for this. We were trying to get musicians for little money. It was just this amazing thing where I think we just did it in the spirit of the moment. Jonny is very instinctive to what he has seen and he doesn’t score to picture. So he would give me a track which is 20 minutes long. I used a sound engineer and we were all involved early on so that we could choose the pieces and fragment it together. It was super exciting. I love music and in another life I’d been a mixer!
You provide some flash backs about Joaquin Phoenix’s character: what happened to him when he was a child and then going to war. I think that you don’t want to dictate the character to the audience. You want them to define the character themselves. How was your approach to defining that character?
Well, I thought he was a bit like Picasso. Everything about him is off kilter and his mind is full of broken glass. I don’t like flashbacks very much. They are telling the audience something about the past. But this was more like fragments. That’s why I say broken glass in his head. Also, I was living in Greece at the time in a little village with no cars. Then I go to New York and I get the violence and noise of that city. I was playing the same tracks of violence and explosion and was thinking in terms of how mind works with regards to repeat images. I was trying to dig deeper into those things and making them like shards, rather than dictatorial flashbacks.
Was Joaquin Phoenix always your first choice? When did you start thinking about using him?
Right away. He was on my screen saver before I wrote Scene One!
I’ve read about your next intended project, Mobius, reported to be a sci-fi version of Moby Dick. Can you say a little bit about it and whether it’s still on?
It’s one of those projects which has been fermenting for a while. It’s funny saying Moby Dick is a sci-fi in space, because it’s not that. In fact, it has some of the things that I am interested in, like impotence and revenge and chasing ghosts for no reason. These are the things that made me look at the bigger things in the book. But I’ve still got these ideas going round in my head. I’d love to do a soundtrack based on the things that I’m thinking about before I make the movie. Right now, I want to write because I’ve just done a film and when it’s born into the world, I probably don’t watch it again for 20 years!
What’s your take on the sexual harassment in Hollywood and cinema? Have you had any personal experience of this?
I’ve had experiences with really powerful guys who were bullies and situations that you don’t want to be in. So I can relate to it in that respect. And I’ve been put into situations that if you say no, your career could be in jeopardy or your film might be put on the shelf. So, I think it’s a good thing that these things are shattered. My experiences with being in uncomfortable situations and with bullies have not been of a sexual nature, but definitely of a psychological one.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).