Enigmatic Affinity: Realizing ‘You Were Never Really Here’ from Book to the Big Screen

Exclusive interview: The Scope Weekly speaks with Jonathan Ames, book author and film producer, and actress Judith Roberts.

You Were Never Really Here is the latest effort from cutting-edge, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames.  Ames was a producer on the project, featuring veteran actress Judith Roberts, which tells a dark and twisted story one could argue alludes to a post-modern Taxi Driver.  It follows the pursuits of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a traumatized war veteran tasked with rescuing girls from sex trafficking.  His latest charge, however, draws him and the victim into a terrifying conspiracy, threatening to shatter the already precarious restraints holding him back from descending into chaos. The Scope Weekly had the opportunity to chat with Jonathan Ames about the film adaptation of his book “You Were Never Really Here” and with Judith Roberts about her iconic role, playing the mother of Phoenix’s character.

An Unorthodox Vision

You Were Never Really Here is noteworthy in that it isn’t overly exploitative, nor tediously sentimental in the way of traditional American movies.  It doesn’t fully allow immersion into its world, instead offering dark spectatorship on private, painful moments.  The result is a surrealist caper in the mixed vein of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, lurid aspects presented in Ramsay’s matter-of-fact way akin to previous efforts We Need To Talk About Kevin and Ratcatcher respectively.  “Lynne allowed us so much opportunity to improvise and move around inside our characters,” Roberts commented to The Scope Weekly.  “She has this wonderful approach of making you feel like nothing is stupid and nothing is crazy, which enables such freedom.”

Acting opposite Phoenix, the pair would often improvise their scenes together, additional footage not seen in the theatrical cut solidifying the characters’ chemistry and dynamic with each other.  “There is a bonding between the two of them that is given,” Roberts clarified.  “Especially when she’s teasing and poking him in the opening scenes.  And not in a typical mother-son way.”

Photos courtesy of Why Not Productions.

For Ames, the entire experience of seeing his characters come alive is surreal, let alone through such gifted actors and a capable director.  “The book originally came out in France and the UK in late 2013,” Ames reminisced, noting its American publication realized just this year.  “A French producer named Rosa Attab read it and sent an English language version to Lynne.”  This resulted in a two-year correspondence between Ramsay and Ames, the latter trading in notes while receiving the former’s script drafts. “One of the things I expressed to Lynne early on was that I wanted the story to be entertaining,” he added.  “I wanted it to be a real page-turner.  The film should have that same quality, being something of a popcorn movie while also being an art film.”

On Adversity

Indeed, Ramsay succeeded with this approach, the film being equal parts guilty pleasure movie, and a genuine drama about a broken man’s chance to be heroic.  Ames described Phoenix’s portrayal of the character as gritty and compelling.  “We’re jumping into basically twenty-four hours of his life,” he said.  “He goes on such an agonizing journey through the film.”  He notes that while he approves of Ramsay’s creative choices in realizing his story, part of what is so enjoyable about the film is she truly made it her own.

“My feeling is that she swallowed the book whole, having read it so many times,” he said.  “It’s ultimately like she almost forgot she read it.  It was as if it had become part of her unconscious.”  He adds, “if you read the book and see the film, you will really feel a deep connection between the two.  It’s really first class moviemaking on her part, smacking of originality and artistry.  She’s a real auteur that way.”

It’s notable for a female director to be involved with testosterone-heavy material.  Ramsay, however, isn’t held back by any barriers.  “It was quite a macho world I grew up in,” she said in an interview with The Guardian.  “But it was always cheeky and funny, and the women were the ones in the background that were really in control.”

Challenging Perception

Roberts, playing Phoenix’s mother, feels similarly.  “She hasn’t taken on any male qualities,” she said.  “Twice I’ve heard her mention that she comes from a working-class background.  I can relate to that because I was born in the thirties.  But she doesn’t just bring a feminine aesthetic to the material, she brings a young woman’s working-class perspective to it.  What is so extraordinary to me is how lovely, warm, and human she is.  But I remember thinking when I first saw the film, ‘wow, what brought her to this?’”  The relationship between Joe and his mother is one of the lighter points of the film.  Despite the latter suffering from early onsets of dementia, in many ways she could be interpreted as the purest character in the film despite illness.

“She is the only one not involved in the killing, and who doesn’t know about it,” Roberts told the Scope Weekly.  “She does know darkness in her own way, because she was abused, so it results in behaviors like telling Joe she wants her own space.  There’s this crying out, so it’s not a typical mother-son relationship.  But there’s a vulnerability to every character, in spite of how much they’ve been tainted.”

The film is heightened by its melancholic, almost fairytale-like approach to typical thriller material.  A particularly pertinent example is the main character attempting to commit suicide after the death of his mother, the film transitioning from an unflinching murder to a man sinking into the depths of a lake.  Ramsay remains a perfectionist when it comes to blending the surreal with the intensely visceral.  A scene intercutting between the mind of a young sex slave and a man gruesomely dispatching of her johns is another highlight of technique.  The latter represents a more grounded aspect of the film, a heightened reality revolving around the real-life horrors of a human trafficking subplot.

“For me, the character I wrote was like a tormented Jack Reacher,” Ames said.  “I also was very much inspired by these novels by Donald Leslie, under the pseudonym Richard Stark.  In the books, the protagonist was named Parker, and he was a real anti-hero.  I wanted to make a dark figure, but give him a worthwhile mission.  Like an avenging angel.”  He also constitutes the gravity of the plot to the current political climate.  “I first wrote the story in 2012, and it feels even more current now, in a way,” he said.  “A dark shadow has overcome the country, and we’ve lost even more faith in elected officials.  Now they’ve always been corrupt and horrible, but it’s reached new levels of darkness. Someone said recently that the current administration has made everything plausible for filmmakers.”

“The world Lynne comes from, I have a feeling, has a real understanding of struggle,” Roberts said.  “She seems to be interested in focusing on people who struggle, and who want to overcome.  I don’t think masculine or feminine ultimately has anything to do with it.  I think her background really feeds her work, as well as her struggle to really bring that kind of material to life as a filmmaker.”  This is shown through unflattering, and contrastingly graphic depictions of an upscale brothel Joe raids at the beginning of the film.

“I don’t know Lynne’s exact quote, but she said something to the effect of, ‘I’m not a female director, I’m a director.’ She’s a human being.  She approached this material with her sensitivity and her soul, and I can’t parse out what her having two X chromosomes has in contrast to a male director taking on this sort of thing,” Ames remarked.  “She’s an artist, and she’s showing how talented she is.”

You Were Never Really Here is rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity.           

Production Company: Why Not Productions
Starring  Joaquin PhoenixJudith RobertsEkaterina Samsonov
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay
Producers: Rosa Attab, Jonathan Ames
Director of Photography: Thomas Townend
Editor: Joe Bini
Venue: Cannes Film Festival 2017

Photo courtesy of Why Not Productions.

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