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“It was pitch black and I could hear all these explosions,” said Ramsay. “And I’m like, ‘What the hell is that?’ I thought I was going crazy, but it was actually the Fourth of July and I couldn’t see the fireworks.”
Ramsay recorded the sound of the fireworks and played it for Joaquin Phoenix, who was getting ready to play Joe, a PTSD combat veteran-turned-hitman in “You Were Never Really Here.” As she played the recording, Ramsay told him, “this is what goes on in your head every day.'”
The Scottish director had never met Phoenix before the weeks of furiously prepping her first American film – needing to take advantage of a small summer opening in Phoenix’s packed schedule, just one month after having secured financing at the Cannes Film Festival – but he more than confirmed her instincts that he would be perfect for the role. In particular, Ramsay loved the child-like quality the actor brought to a violent and unpredictable character.
“When you have that repeated trauma you can sometimes get stuck,” said Ramsay. “There’s something very naive about you that’s probably beautiful, yet one moment it can feel terrifying, the next minute it can be funny, you just don’t what you expect, but I also think that makes an exciting film to watch.”
While Ramsay’s previous protagonists have all experienced a major trauma, Phoenix’s hitman is something different. In “Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin” her characters are forced to try and to pick up the pieces following one tragic, life-altering event that happens early in he film. On the other hand, “You Were Never Here” has the narrative structure of shattered glass, designed to put the audience in the shoes of a character whose mind is unraveling under the cascade of traumas – flashbacks of his abusive father, PTSD from combat and the disorientation of a revenge mission that forces Joe to navigate a hazy world of men with their hands on the levers of power and an under-age sex ring.
“I think we’re all getting a little PTSD from right now, it’s a crazy time,” said Ramsay in response to the question if her fourth feature was in part a reaction to the state of the world today. “Nothing’s black and white any more or reliable, there’s so much information. I did go off the grid for a while [to write the screenplay].”
It wasn’t a world gone mad that Ramsay was reacting to when she disappeared in the winter of 2013-2014 with her daughter and husband to Santorini – a Greek island that in the middle of winter is largely empty – but the fallout of “Jane Got a Gun,” which the director quit right as filming began. After Ramsay concluded the producers would never let her make her version of the film and left the film, she became the victim of horrible rumors and a lawsuit – neither of which were why she seeked refuge in Santorini.
“I thought I was going to make a film and I didn’t and that was really painful,” said Ramsay. “I made the film in [my] head, I learned so much and in a way it informed this [movie]. There was a lot of furry, there was a real pitch to make something really special and take the good stuff from a painful experience.”
Removed from outside world in the peace and quiet of the island, Ramsay found the focus and vision of how to adapt Jonathan Ames book into a cinema of disorientation. When she emerged from the quiet of her sojourn she was immediately able to hear her new film.
Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios
“You get plunked in New York after writing the script in a village with no cars in Greece and you’re off the grid and close you eyes and hear the elevated train, you think, ‘this is the sound of madness,'” said Ramsay. That disorientating madness became the driving force of Ramsay and her sound designer Paul Davies’ collaboration as right from the start of the film the audience is grounded in the unsettling frequency of Joe’s internal state.
To get the narrative drive she needed out of her soundtrack Ramsay was desperate to get the unique talents of her “We Need to Talk About Kevin” composer Jonny Greenwood (“Phantom Thread”) onboard, but the Radiohead guitarist-turned-Oscar nominated composer was on tour with the band. Ramsay would send Greenwood, who had read the script early on, five to fifteen minute pieces of the film while she was editing with the hope of luring the busy musician. Eventually she would receive back minutes of music – Greenwood doesn’t compose to picture – that Davies and Greenwood’s sound engineer would edit and incorporate into the film’s soundscape.
“Jonny would react to the reel [and] send us stuff,” said Ramsay. “The stuff was pretty incredible from the get go [because] it was about this character – it was a world you were familiar with and then became something totally different.”
Combined with Davies sound design and Phoenix’s performance, Greenwood’s music was a final layer of subjective unease, but then shifts gears toward the unfolding mystery of not knowing what will happen next. That forward thrust, that sense of both character and audience not knowing how he’ll react, or what he’ll do next, gives the film an exciting narrative drive.
Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios
In a film where Ramsay was pushing the boundaries of the viewer’s relationship with her protagonist, she admits the first Cannes audience was the most nerve wracking moment of her career. As the film started to elicit gasps Ramsay started to relax – the 2000-person theater eventually breaking into a seven-minute standing ovation at the film’s end – she had found a way not only to capture that storm of explosions going on in Joe’s head, she had found a way to engage an audience in his story.