What I learned from Lynne Ramsay: ‘You Were Never Really Here’ at LondonSWF

At the last festival, Shooting people sent their top reporter Adem Ay, to send daily… no hourly reports on his experience. We will post these over the next few days as it gives a great insight into on delegates experience… Over to Adem…

Good Morning Shooters.

‘You Were Never Really Here’ is my favourite film of the year, so imagine my delight when I opened the London Screenwriters’ Festival Delegate Guide and saw there was a Q&A session with not just the film’s director and writer LYNNE RAMSAY, but also the film’s cinematographer TOM TOWNEND. I punched the sky and got there five minutes early I did.

But why the cinematographer as well you ask, at a screenwriters’ festival? Well read on my inquisitive friend, because all will be revealed in my top five nuggets from the event.

  • Although not credited, Tom Townend actually co-wrote the script for YWNRH, itself an adaptation of a novella by Jonathan Ames. Ramsay and Townend are old friends, and he has worked in some capacity on all her films (he shot the amazing tomato fight opening of ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’). Ramsay was living on a Greek island, and invited Townend there for a few weeks holiday to discuss the novella that she was thinking of adapting. The discussions turned into actually writing the script – and not just writing it but actually blocking the scenes out as they went (most of the film is just two characters interacting). Prior to this, Townend had no writing experience at all!
  • Joaquin Phoenix was a huge creative force in YWNRT, and the overall impression I got was that the actor was a mad philosopher king – both revered for his artistic genius and feared for his tantrums and oddities. Described by Townend as an ‘excellent filtration system’, Phoenix was involved very early in the production, questioned everything all the time, and had very exacting standards (he terrorised a young prop designer by turning up weeks before the shoot, going through the props, and tossing most of them to the floor, branding them ‘bullshit’). Interestingly he is a major reason behind the (brilliant) economy of the dialogue. If he didn’t agree with a line in the script, he would just frown and refuse to say it. Literally. Huge amounts of the script just never made it to screen because of this. He would also improvise (brilliantly) so no take was the same and Ramsay had problems knowing when exactly to say cut on set (and a nightmare mound of footage for the edit).
  • Ramsay had little to no experience directing action sequences, and the production was on a remarkably tight budget and schedule, so the key action sequence where Phoenix beats a series of assailants with a hammer was a real headache for the team (pun intended). It was only during location visits in New York that Ramsay noted the security cameras and decided that the whole sequence could be shown via CCTV as one camera set-ups. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • The ending was a real problem. The original novella just didn’t have one, with Ames choosing to leave the story unresolved, and the one in the script, all agreed, just didn’t work. Ultimately it was Phoenix’s obsessive questioning of his character, and Ramsay’s chronic lack of sleep from all the production stresses, that brought about the idea for the hallucinatory faux-suicide diner scene. Keep being you Phoenix, you crazy diamond.
  • Ramsay and composer Jonny Greenwood (dear God listen to YWNRT’s score if you haven’t already, it’s on Spotify) want to work together on a sci-fi film. The story is currently about an Ahab figure hunting a Moby Dick space monster made of sound. Yes you heard that right. It is currently on the back burner but yes please.

That’s it from Ramsay and Townend. Despite their towering talents, both were gentle, decent, self-deprecating folk who were an absolute pleasure to listen to. Join me Friday for a video game writing special. Interactive multi-branch storytelling may still be niche, but it’s the future baby.

You can get £30 off your pass with the code SHOOTERS.

Adem Ay

Shooting People