An Interview with ‘You Were Never Really Here’ Cinematographer Tom Townend

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here uses each of its 90 minutes to spectacular effect. Even in its most quiet and contemplative moments, the film hums along in a stride that remains unbroken until the end credits finish, way before an audience could release themselves from the picture’s spell.

When reading the bare plot summary, You Were Never Really Here can appear to be a rote thriller — one can picture the turns, the quips, the intrigue: the twisting, convoluted conspiracy and the conflicted killer who has to choose between right and wrong; the film’s obsession with seedy violence and the elongated final showdown. In reality, You Were Never Really Here has none of this. It has no interest in entertaining clichés or eschewing clichés. Instead, it barrels ahead, each moment informed by the last, too much its own contained idea to be bothered by anything outside itself. It’s a precise film carved out by expert hands, lean but fulfilled, nothing out of place.

One of the film’s experts is cinematographer Tom Townend. He is one of Ramsay’s frequent collaborators (and director of photography on 2011’s under-appreciated Attack the Block). In this interview, we discuss the film’s economic approach, use of surveillance cameras, film violence and more.

You’ve worked with Lynne Ramsay for years — since Ratcatcher, correct? How did you two meet and how was it working with her again?

I first met Lynne in the summer of 1995 while she was directing her film school graduation short [Small Deaths] in Glasgow. I honestly can’t remember what my official capacity was on that job — “helper,” probably. But it was as a direct result of that experience and meeting [cinematographer] Alwin Küchler and [editor] Lucia Zucchetti that convinced me to attend their alma mater, the NFTS (National Film and Television School).

What was the pre-production process like on You Were Never Really Here?

In a word, accelerated. Between the funding falling into place, the unexpected availability of Joaquin Phoenix and the start of the shoot, there were approximately six weeks. Pre-production mostly involved seeing all the potential locations as quickly as possible, but since Lynne was seeing them all for the first time, too, it was a pretty instructive exercise in determining how she envisaged most scenes to play out.

You Were Never Really Here has this genre thriller concept but with all the more obvious hallmarks removed — it’s such a lean movie.

From the script stage, there was the ambition to approach the thriller genre from a less expected angle. Joaquin’s involvement furthered this process, as he would wrinkle his nose at everything that either struck him as cliché or didn’t align with his physicality. When actually shooting, there was a continual efficiency drive simply to make the schedule, and this would lead to more cuts until anything extraneous was abandoned. Of course, what constitutes “extraneous” in Lynne’s mind doesn’t necessarily include certain digressions but could include things like “plot.”

This subtraction of the unnecessary extends to the amount of violence shown on screen — the movie seems to have little interest in violent acts and, more often than not, the audience sees the aftermath alone.

That came about due to a variety of impulses. First of all, screen violence is generally time consuming and complex to execute effectively — not to mention expensive. Economically, it’s best avoided. The conceit of showing very little actual violence was refined in the edit, but this is in no small part to Lynne’s distaste for it. Nothing ever looks particularly distressing out of context when one shoots it, and I think that a lot of filmmakers unwittingly go further than they imagined simply because they become inured to what they’re seeing. Lynne has the hilarious ability to be moved by things — even of her own creation — once she’s at a remove from the process of shooting them. Her intention was never to shock, nor to offer violence up as entertainment; simply to allude to it when it served the function of the story.

Joaquin Phoenix and Judith Roberts have such filmable faces, and Joaquin has such interesting physicality. How does one capture a physicality like his or a face like Judith’s?

The honest truth is that they make the job immeasurably easier. Judith Roberts was a striking beauty in her youth and that never really goes away, even with age. She’s elegant looking. Joaquin, at the time, had features that in a different film might have given me pause for thought — fairly hooded eyes, a fat stomach, etc. But he is completely void of any sort of vanity about his appearance, so I never had to pander to any sort of illusion anybody might have had about how he’d look onscreen.

The sauna scene was especially arresting — I love the lighting of the sauna and how other bodies take up the frame.

The saturated blue light was something that existed at the sauna. When Lynne and I first saw the location, we were taken with the counterintuitive idea of lighting a hot steamy room with a colour usually associated with a cold room. Naturally, we had to add our own lighting, but the idea for the colour came from a solitary blue light bulb that was there already. Lynne is fairly obsessed with the rituals of masculinity, and the nudity, and — sometimes — physical grotesquery that occurs in a private setting like a sauna. Casting a bunch of fat sweaty dudes to populate the frame was key to understanding how Joaquin’s character operates in a city that is completely indifferent to his comings and goings.

This is your first collaboration with Ms. Ramsay that was shot in digital, right? Did this change your dynamic or how you normally work?

The film was intended to be 35mm film until very late in the pre-production process, so Lynne was wary of the enforced switch to digital acquisition at first. My assurance to her was that she would see and feel no tangible difference on set, which was true in every respect other than the pressure to fit everything into a certain daily allocation of film stock, and that everything would be interrupted every 10 minutes to reload the camera evaporates — a consequence of which was that takes would often go on for much longer than they otherwise would. The sauna sequence makes a good case in point. The principle angle of Joaquin performing strange ritualistic stretches probably ran for 15 minutes without interruption or comment with Lynne thoroughly mesmerised by what Joaquin was up to whilst the camera crew sweated into their socks. She did mention during the edit that this practise had led to an overwhelming level of choice in the footage she had, whereas previously there would have been a natural cut-off when a magazine of film ran out.

You Were Never Really Here makes New York seem especially dirty and hot and, when taken alongside the sound mixing, a kind of oppressive atmosphere forms. Was New York especially hot and dirty while filming or was that something you had to seek out? It was also clearly New York — not a stand-in city.

New York IS exceptionally hot and dirty in the summer. Everywhere. Unavoidably. Lynne was always very insistent that she shot in New York, in the face of the usual financial restrictions that engenders. The more common studio movie approach would be to shoot four-five days of your lead actor hailing cabs in Times Square and taking a scenic stroll in Central Park then decamp to Toronto to shoot all the interiors and studio sets. As soon as we started looking at potential locations, especially in the outlying boroughs, as opposed to in Manhattan, Lynne and I were struck by how little of suburban New York had been seen on film. One has to go all the way back to Saturday Night Fever to see a really thorough look at Brooklyn, for instance.

I love the repetition of the bridge commute — and the pinkish-hued sky during one commute.

That’s the solitary use of a 2nd unit on the shoot. There was pressure to collect “general views” of the city which Lynne totally resisted, as using that sort of establishing footage is pretty redundant in her thinking and approach to editing. But one day, we did send a 2nd camera out to cross the bridge at different times of the day as that journey is actually taken several times during the story.

Could you tell me about composing action in You Were Never Really Here? Very little seemed to be done in handheld, and all of it is extremely readable to the viewer.

I have to credit the 1st AD (Tomas Deckaj) with coining the perfect description of that style which he called “heavy camera.” There’s little camera movement and a deliberation to how it does move. There’s a lot of reliance on hand held cameras to generate a veneer of verité and tension, but Lynne and I have too much snobby reverence for composition to have allowed that approach.

How does one light and film an underwater lake sequence?

The underwater sequence was earmarked early on as a day that would exist outside of the main schedule — mostly because there isn’t an official underwater filming tank in NYC. The visibility underwater at the lake location was poor due to sediment, so luckily we weren’t expected to try to pull it off on location which meant we had an entire day to tackle the sequence.

However, when we came to shoot it, there were only a couple of weeks left until the film was due to be screened in Cannes, so it wasn’t without some degree of pressure. Luckily for me, Lynne was very receptive to the idea that once underwater, we could abandon any pretence of verisimilitude and that the depths would be inky black, and there would be a single shaft of sunlight that everything would be staged in. Hence, one light.

I don’t dive. So the actual underwater camerawork was undertaken by a fellow named Mark Silk who specialises in such things and has an entire team of divers who support underwater shooting. Lynne and I sat on dry land at the edge of a tank and watched the monitor all day. It’s the only sequence in the film not shot with anamorphic lenses, as they don’t fit into the underwater camera housing.

Was the surveillance sequence done out of economy? It’s so elegant — it leaves just the right amount to the imagination while also being visually exciting and different.

In the script, there was a careful description of every action beat that takes place in that sequence, as it’s mentioned in dialogue that Joaquin’s character is keen to determine how many adversaries he’ll encounter and where exactly they’re positioned. So, our first approach was to break that sequence down, as anyone normally would, to determine what angles would be shot, what was required of the location — which was still being looked for — and what stunts, VFX, and specialised props the other department heads needed to know about. It was through this process that we started to realise we’d struggle to make the schedule, and there was zero leeway in that department. CCTV was always in the script as a device to illustrate the scale and sophistication of the security surrounding the location, so we realised that by leaning into that aesthetic, we stood a good chance of covering otherwise complex action in a far more simple fashion. Finally, Lynne decided to go the whole hog and present everything between Joaquin entering the front door and reaching his goal with no other coverage whatsoever.

The story of it being purely an economic choice has already entered into the mythology of the filmmaking process, but the reality is that we thought long and hard about the decision until we were satisfied that it wouldn’t come across as a stylistic affectation nor rob the situation of the sort of visceral impact Lynne wanted. As it happened, the end result adds a level of surrealism and dispassion that I don’t think would have been there had it been filmed in the more conventional fashion.

We shot test material during a location scout, and Lynne played around with it to determine whether the hard cuts in the music soundbed would work. We both loved the robotic nature to the editing one could get from having a series of fixed viewpoints that play out in a loop.

From my perspective, the entertaining conceit was that by lighting the CCTV footage with Infrared lamps, Joaquin’s predominantly black costume photographed as white, which seemed a pleasing counterpoint.

Sam Ankenbauer (@SamRupertGiles) lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In his spare time, he is a programmer for the Cinetopia Film Festival in Detroit. Along with Vague Visages, he writes for Bright Lights Film Journal.