Playback: Lynne Ramsay on ‘You Were Never Really Here’ and Economy in Storytelling

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has made a steady career of stripped-down narratives, showcasing lean visual storytelling kissed by the influences of Ingmar Bergman, Nicolas Roeg and David Lynch. Her latest film, “You Were Never Really Here,” finds Ramsay forging ahead five years after she walked off the production of western “Jane Got a Gun” amid a dispute with the film’s producers. Based on a book by author Jonathan Ames, she was drawn to how tight the story was, and the cinematic ideas it conjured.

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“It was quite a short book, which I found really interesting, in a way,” Ramsay says. “It’s unlike ‘Kevin,’ which was a huge book that was in the form of letters. That was a really difficult adaptation, whereas this, you could read it in 90 minutes. I love movies like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ that are based on short novellas. I grew up on film noir. So something attracted me about this very short book. It meant I was almost able to take it and run with it in different ways and explore it in more detail.”

Ramsay’s first digital production, the filmmaker enjoyed a run-and-gun approach to filming in the streets of New York with an unrecognizable Joaquin Phoenix. She looked at movies like “The French Connection,” in awe of what director William Friedkin was able to pull off in the urban setting. On the page (she won a screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), Ramsay gets into scenes late and out early, making for a propulsive narrative, while packing in expressionistic visuals throughout.

“I guess it was an approach of, ‘Do we have to see everything? What’s left to the imagination,'” Ramsay says. “I think audiences are quite sophisticated. It was a real exercise in economy for us, and what space does that give people to think about it? And what is this character’s headspace? I don’t really like traditional flashbacks, but there was a post-traumatic stress element to it that I saw as shards and broken glass in his head, and I felt that one or two images would tell enough.”

Speaking of Phoenix, Ramsay felt a kinship with the actor, who is focused on the work first and foremost and weathers his share of headlines intimating that he’s not press friendly as a result.

“I think people these days are looking for sound bites. It’s like an angle,” she says. “There is so much media and social media … I think you just need to strip away the bullshit, especially when you’re making films. Joaquin is kind of about the work. And he’s been great with the press and he’s lovely and charming. For me it’s like when you finish the cut or the mix, then the work is done. Sometimes you just want to go hibernate. You’re so exhausted. He’s just in it for the work, and I really respect that.”

For more, including thoughts on the sound design of the new film and what she took away from walking off “Jane Got a Gun,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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