In Conversation: Tom Townend
We talk to cinematographer Tom Townend about his work with director Lynne Ramsay on their latest film 'You Were Never Really Here' and how the role of digital tools are impacting the current cinematic experience.
This interview contains spoilers.
Cultural Bulletin: When I was looking back over the projects you’ve worked on, I saw The Worricker Trilogy [a three-part political drama written and directed by Sir David Hare] in there. I remember watching and enjoying that immensely. You were working with an impressive director.
Tom Townend: Yeah I did the latter two-thirds of it. It was sort of an anomaly in a way. I’m not a theatre-goer so I was blissfully unaware of David’s status. Which was probably not a bad thing.
CB: You think that helped going into it?
TT: Maybe, yes. I wasn’t overawed. I obviously knew his name but it was only retrospectively that I understood the full weight of his influence in the theatre world. Although he is the most easy going person imaginable.
CB: So how did things play out from there?
TT: Well the interrelatedness of things is always a little bit of a mystery. With regards to You Were Never Really Here, Lynne is probably my oldest association in the industry. I met Lynne by accident when she was directing a film in Glasgow [for the National Film and Television School]. I was a student in Edinburgh at the time and mutual friends mentioned that she was making a film so I volunteered to work on it. I’m not even sure of the specific role I was fulfilling - I was just generally helping out.
CB: So you two go way back.
TT: It’s been 25 years since then. Oddly I’ve worked on all her feature films but in different capacities. I was the unit still photographer on Ratcatcher (1999) and I was the camera operator on Morvern Callar (2002). Then on We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) I shot the tomato throwing festival in Spain. And that’s led me to shoot You Were Never Really Here. I’ve been getting a steady promotion I guess.
CB: So Lynne came straight to you and asked you to do it.
TT: In a nutshell, yes but it was also because the film came together superhumanly quickly. Probably two years prior to that, I’d talked to Lynne about it - she’d been looking at the novella that the film is based on [written by Jonathan Ames]. We had talked about it quite extensively but it becoming a reality all of a sudden snowballed in a matter of months before we shot the film. That was all to do with sudden actor availability. On final reckoning, I think the decision for me to work on the film was as much about us having talked about it for two years as it was because she needed to find someone in five minutes flat.
CB: And having worked with her, she knew you ‘got her’ and understood her vision for the film.
TT: She knew the measure of me yes.
CB: As a cinematographer, when you go into a film like this, are you aware of your influences or are you consciously trying to do your own thing? Can you even do your own thing nowadays?
TT: How I think about things internally - well I’ve never really stopped to query the process. A large part of the job, especially at the beginning, is the communication of ideas. That process depends a lot on the taste or personality of the director. Some relish having conversations that are purely in terms of reference to other films whereas others actively dislike that. So it’s important to tune oneself into how the others you are working with like to communicate.
CB: Where do you fall on that point?
TT: References are useful but I’ve found that the trick is to always have a healthy lack of commitment to them. People talk about films in reference to other films all the time but I think that it’s not actually very productive when it comes to making films. I tend to look at stills from photography but there’s no point trying to copy a photograph. I find that ridiculous. You’ve got to just let it influence you in some way.
CB: So you know the language of cinema, but when you come to working with a director, you like it to grow organically?
TT: Yeah but before any of that one hopes that the script has informed your job. I think that any good writing should provoke imagery so it's got to start in the script somewhere.
CB: You Were Never Really Here has a very clear visual tone especially with the end of the film practically being dialogue-free. The visuals are key to telling that section of the story. How did you see that section playing out before you filmed it?
TT: The very last scene of the film was approached differently to everything else because you see someone appear to shoot themselves in the head. Moments later they aren’t dead. The idea of having a scene where a character walks into a public space and shoots himself with everyone around them not reacting and carrying on as normal was an idea that Lynne had mentioned to me years earlier. That’s not in the book. I remember saying at the time that it sounds like a fantastic idea and then it eventually worked its way into the script.
It was one of the more logistically complex days of shooting, simply because we had to film the scene in the knowledge that there needed to be ultimate flexibility in the edit. That was in contrast to how the rest of the film was shot. The rest of it was filmed to go straight in. That was because there wasn’t much time to do it any other way.
CB: I read about the short amount of time you had to get it done.
TT: It wasn’t an impossible amount of time - no worse than a television schedule. But it didn’t allow for any umming and ahhing on the day.
CB: That final scene seems quite different from the other scenes of violence throughout the film. I’m thinking of the section that’s shot through CCTV cameras. It happens more in your mind than in front of you.
TT: The only really violent acts you see in the film are ones that the lead actor performs on himself. Shooting himself, pulling his teeth out. That kind of thing.
CB: Yet at the end of it all, you still feel like you’ve experienced a very violent film throughout.
TT: When shooting it, I don’t think myself and Lynne realised quite how potent some of those scenes would end up. It’s interesting because when you have all this sticky fake blood on set, it gets all over everyone’s hands and clothes it very quickly becomes a preposterous situation. The atmosphere is often quite silly.
I’ve got this theory that some filmmakers end up creating things that are excessively violent on screen simply because they got carried away in the moment. You know, you’ve got blood spraying everywhere and they get it into their heads that it’s really entertaining.
CB: Everyone chanting: More blood! More blood!
TT: Exactly. There’s a whole genre of cinema that’s devoted to that. You can see the appeal but I think some filmmakers are putting things in their films that are more disturbing than they think they are. Lynne genuinely doesn’t like screen violence. She’s as upset or shocked by it as the next person. For her, it’s quite important that things don’t appear on screen without them wincing. As they should.
CB: Another scene that was interesting was when Joaquin squashes a jelly bean. Although it’s an inanimate object, there’s a certain undertone of violence. It reminded me of the part in We Need To Talk About Kevin where Kevin eats the lychee. It got under my skin.
TT: The way the sugar sort of squishes looks great. When you see it you think: I can remember a time in my childhood where my whole world would’ve shrunk down to appreciate that. Whereas when you’re an adult you stop thinking of those things. That’s a really good example of the understanding between Lynne and Joaquin. That was something he just did in the scene but it was Lynne that suggested we just film an extreme macro shot of him fucking around. I think Joaquin thought: OK I’ll do this because I’ve been asked to do various close-up actions with my hands which is an inherently ridiculous thing for a human being to be asked to do. Therefore on one take I will just squash the jelly bean. Just because.
I do remember at that exact moment Lynne was palpably excited.
CB: Let’s talk about the music in the film. Jonny Greenwood must’ve been very exciting to have on board. He’s worked on some brilliant films, and with some of the very best filmmakers. How did you find his influence?
TT: Well I had that process comprehensively spoiled for me. I never got the full impact of his influence because every time a track arrived, Lynne would be incredibly excited and send it over to me. Therefore, I’ve had the opposite experience to the rest of the world. I was intimate with the score for the best part of a year before the film was completed. Then I went to see Phantom Thread [Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest collaboration with Greenwood] and was knocked sideways with how different the soundtrack was.
CB: What’s next for you? Anyone out there who you’d like to work with?
TT: Good question. The honest answer is I have no idea. Between films I shoot commercials so that's what I'm currently doing here in LA. I can never answer the question about who I’d like to work with. As far as I’m aware [directors] all have their guy or their girl. Answering that is making the assumption that you’d do a better job than them.
CB: It was interesting following the award season and seeing Roger Deakins finally winning an Academy Award (Best Cinematography, Blade Runner 2049) after 13 nominations.
TT: That’s how the Academy works isn’t it? Eventually, you'll get one for longevity. Then the argument rages, did he really get it for his best work? People make the same argument about Guillermo Del Toro [who won Best Director for The Shape of Water] you know. Obviously, it would be amazing to win one but for me, it would be slightly coloured by the rhetoric around the fact that they are rarely handed to the most deserved individual.
CB: Is cinematography being contained and limited by studios?
We are at an interesting point in history. On one hand, I feel cinematography is mildly in crisis. It’s got nowhere left to go. There’s been a rise in digital tools that have homogenised things to a certain degree. I think it’s at peak dullness at the moment. There’s a very curated, samey, corporate look. As a way of countering the inevitable exodus, studios are very keen on curating a premium product. That extends to the look of a film, the locations, the casting, the explosions.
There is a certain amount of panic afoot. Where will the audience be in 10, 20 years time? Will they all be at home? Will they be going to the cinema?