In You Were Never Really Here—a new film from Amazon Studios—Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a war veteran-turned-muscle-for-hire, earning a black-market living by finding girls who have gone missing in and around New York City. He's completely undeterred by violence, especially his own, courting it as a salve for his own damaged psyche. He's a man of few words, preferring a hammer as his blunt tool of vengeance and cosmic justice. Got dirty work? Joe's your man. He gets the job done.
But even Joe has limits. When he accepts an assignment involving the daughter of a local politician, he confronts harrowing scenes of abuse and exploitation that draw him into an insidious conspiracy, pushing him to the edge of complete darkness.
And this is dark stuff, for sure. But in the hands of director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, among others), You Were Never Really Here becomes a taut, thrilling neo-noir. Ramsay—who earned a nod from Cannes for her minimalist screenplay based on a novella by Jonathan Ames—progressively ratchets up the tension as Joe is pulled further into the murk. As the crux of every scene, Phoenix carries a heavy load, but his typically immersive, intense performance earned his own award from Cannes. Add a propulsive score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and you get a film reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's '70s classic, Taxi Driver.
But it all started with the book. We spoke with Ames about the origins of the story, the "ugly beauty" of New York, and how French sensibility made the movie possible. You Were Never Really Here is currently in select theaters, open everywhere on April 20th. (Tickets are available here).
What was the original inspiration for the story?
Where anything comes from is hard to say, creatively, where exactly the idea came from. But it originated out of my desire to write a piece of genre fiction, to try to write a page-turner. I'd been reading primarily mysteries and thrillers for about a decade, well maybe not quite a decade. And so when I wrote You Were never Really Here, this was my attempt to write that kind of fiction. And also I wanted to write something that wasn't comedic. Everything I've written, my other books and my TV shows, has been comedic. This was my attempt at something very hardboiled, and also scary and somewhat violent.
Did you ever think that You Were Never Really Here would make good film material?
When I wrote You Were Never Really Here, I immediately thought, "OK, I think this should be a movie." I sent it to my film agent at the time, and he didn't really respond or get back to me. I thought, "Alright, I'll let it get out in the world, and I bet someone will be drawn to this as a film." It took a while.
A French film producer read the book. The French gave the book rave reviews because it was so noir, and we know that the French love noir—Jim Thompson and people like that. This French film producer, Rosa Attab, sent the book to Lynne Ramsay, and Lynne really responded to it. And the it turns out that Lynne's agent was my agent! Once Lynne was interested, things began to happen.
Ramsay wrote the screenplay from your book. Was it difficult giving up control of the story?
Lynne wanted to write the screenplay on her own. I didn't want to lose her—I very much wanted her to make the film. She did send me drafts of it over a few years and I would give her my notes and thoughts, but it's very much her own creation.
It wasn't hard to let it go. Some of my other novels I spent years writing, and I had a great personal attachment. One thing I did convey to her—which she was in agreement with—is that I wanted the film to be entertaining in the sense of being a thriller. Kind of like Graham Greene, who labeled some his books "entertainments." I wanted this to be an entertainment. Obviously it's not a happy entertainment. But I wanted the viewer, just as I wanted the reader, to be gripped and held, and for the story to have kind of an compulsive sense to it. I think Lynne really captured that.
You Were Never Really Here official trailer
I'm not the first to be reminded of Scorsese's Taxi Driver. But the New York of that movie vs. this one are very different. Was there a different kind of "scum" and "filth" that you were interested in?
New York, as we all know, especially Manhattan, has gotten so cleaned up and gentrified--almost becoming like a museum. When I wrote this, [I] was capturing the edges of the city in a way. The brothel is on 48th St. in my book, near the U.N., which is where fancy brothels would still be. Joe lives pretty far out in Queens. He ends up in Brooklyn, Coney Island.
[Lynne] hasn't spent a lot of time in New York, so she had such a fresh eye on the city, and she captured New York kind of like a '70s film--The French Connection or something like that. She made the city feel alive with dirt, in a sense. I've often said in interviews that a colon needs bacteria to be healthy and functional. There's something about a city needing some dirt, some grit to feel like a vital place. And a lot of the grit and dirt has been bleached out.
The French have a phrase, "beautiful ugly" or "ugly beautiful." I think she found some of the ugly beauty of New York, of the streets.
What was it like working with Joaquin Phoenix?
He's a real sweetheart of a guy. I met with him and Lynn about a week before shooting began. We just had one talk, and I told him some of my thoughts that had gone into creating the character, writing the book. But like with Lynne, I said to him, "This is yours to make of what you want. My book—and the character—is a leaping off point." He really is an incredible conveyor of human emotion. His portrayal of Joe is tormented, silly, brutal, lost, wounded. He's really fantastic in the part. He's just a sweet and wise young person.
What's next? Will you stick with the hardboiled fiction, or return to more humorous fare?
One of my favorite writers of all time, P.G. Wodehouse, said "Try to give pleasure with every sentence." I want to give pleasure to the reader, whether it's the pleasure of the hardboiled sentence and feeling compelled to turn the page, or pleasure by making them laugh, maybe making them feel less alone with their foibles and vulnerabilities.
Right now I'm writing a sequel to You Were Never Really Here, continuing where the book left off. But writing this kind of stuff.... I'm now looking forward to writing comedically, or writing in a more light fashion and being able to acknowledge maybe more of the beauty of being alive, as well as the silliness.