Easily one of the best movies of the year so far, You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as an ex-FBI agent and military man named Joe who now works at finding and rescuing young children that are kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking. Joe’s own experiences as both a child and adult have turned him into a deeply damaged avenging angel, capable of both ruthless violence and great tenderness. But even he may not be able to survive a case that brings him face to face with a horrifying, wide-ranging conspiracy.
The movie, directed by Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and featuring a stunning lead performance by Phoenix, is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, whose many years writing comedy for the stage and TV are a jarring counterpoint to the darkness of this story.
Before this, Ames is probably best known as the creator of HBO’s Bored to Death, which starred Jason Schwartzman as a would-be private detective, and the Starz series Blunt Talk, which featured Patrick Stewart as an out-of-control cable news journalist.
With You Were Never Really Here expanding into more theaters today (and please see this movie if you can), Den of Geek recently had the chance to speak with Ames about the creation of the book, the character and the movie, his thoughts on his two TV shows and which medium he enjoys writing in the most.
Den of Geek: This novella was certainly very different from the kind of stuff you’ve done before. Can you talk about how it came to you?
Jonathan Ames: Well, I’ve always had a fascination for private detective novels, which very much led to my TV show Bored to Death, in which a character has read so much Raymond Chandler that he thinks he can be a private detective, like Philip Marlowe.
The first version of this that I wrote was in 2012 and I got commissioned by this website, Byliner, to write something, a long piece of fiction. I thought, you know what, I want to write a thriller. I want to write something that’s not comedic. I want to write a page turner. And, so that’s what I did and it was a fun new form to try. For years, I’ve written comedic novels, comedic essays, comedic TV shows, and so I published it as an ebook. It then came out as a small book, like a little crime novel, and this French film producer read the book in French, and then got an English translation, and it also came out in England and she got it to Lynne Ramsay. And then, Lynne wanted to make it, and away we went.
I did expand upon the original version, so the book that’s out now from Vintage has, like, 20 additional pages. I sort of fleshed out some things towards the end of the book. And I’m now working on a sequel to the book, continuing in this kind of hard-boiled page-turner style.
Joe is very much a modern spin on that kind of hard-boiled character. Where did he come from?
He came from my own fractured psyche. I loved to make him a tormented, avenging angel who’s not entirely sane because of everything he’s been through in his life. He was a metaphor for where I was at that time in my life when I first began writing the book. As I write in him now, I can still get into the skin of this character because he is also operating in this very bleak and dark landscape which is, you know, a lot of modern America is in a very shadowy time. So he’s kind of like the character of where we are as a nation and as a planet, for me anyway, to express my concerns for the world through this man. It was like me looking in a broken mirror.
Were you familiar with Lynne’s three previous films before getting involved?
I was not. Once I heard she was involved, her films were sent to me and I loved them. She and I were then corresponded for the next two years about the script. She would send me drafts and I would give her my thoughts and notes. I really enjoy her films and did express that this book was a departure for me because I kind of saw it as a page-turner, and I wanted the film to have a similar feeling. That somehow, it’d be a blend of her great arthouse cinema skills while also being something that’s like you’re just on the edge of your seat; you’re on a ride. And she agreed.
Would you say it’s unusual to have a collaboration like that between author and filmmaker?
I guess I would say it was unusual. It may be because I have also established myself as a script writer. I’ve written five seasons of television. I also think it was reassuring for her to be in touch with me, who wrote the original material and kind of loved the genre. And I am a producer on the film, so I was pretty closely involved. I came to the set, I met with everybody before they started shooting. I don’t know about unusual or usual, but that was my experience.
Seeing Joaquin in the role, did he sort of embody Joe the way you saw him in your mind, and does seeing him in the part impact your own image of Joe for future stories?
Well, I’m already about halfway through the sequel, and I still see the guy in my mind because anyone who writes fiction, you see a movie in your head that you’re trying to get down into sentences and paragraphs for the readers. So I still see the guy I created who’s his own sort of mythic creature who probably, in some ways, looks a little like myself.
Joaquin made him his own unique force of nature. I mean, Joaquin’s performing is stunning and brilliant and totally natural and subtle, and the movie is this own work of art. What you experience reading a book and what you experience seeing film are two different things, so I absolutely loved his performance and I love what Lynne did. I mean, I think they’re two genius artists and I’m very lucky to have collaborated with them.
What format do you enjoy the most, novels, teleplays or something else?
Ultimately, I would say in terms of pleasure and freedom, writing novels is the most enjoyable because you’re not dealing with networks and a lot of people commenting of your writing and not having to please scores of people to get something approved. I’ve gotten to write stuff that I really want to write in TV, but I still have to please people. And then there’s also the constraints of production. You can’t get to write an elaborate scene if you don’t have the money to film it, you know? You can write whatever you want in a book. The budget is unlimited, except that you’re not paid well for novels as you are for TV. But that’s the beauty of novels, when the budget of your imagination is unlimited.
If you had to recap the experiences you’ve had on TV with the two shows that you created, how would you sum those up?
Both experiences were amazing. I mean, like, getting Bored to Death was like winning the lottery. It was like, “Holy shit!” It’s like starving, struggling, jobless, got a TV show. You know, I did a lot of work to get to that moment, and then I have to work on the fly ’cause I just had never been a showrunner before, and the learning curve was huge, but exciting, and a lot of stress of course. And then I made all these wonderful friends. And then that got canceled, and then it’s like, “Oh, shoot, I have all this knowledge now on how to do things.” And you don’t know if you’re going to get another shot, you know? Not everyone’s Norman Lear.
But I did get another shot with Blunt Talk, and again, it was another fantastic experience, and then I could use all I had learned on Bored to Death. And again, in both cases, between the crew and actors and the writing staff and the directors, a family formed both times. I mean, you work together so much. So yeah, I feel very grateful for my five years in television.
Would you want to continue Bored to Death as a movie or even a book?
There was talk for years of a Bored to Death movie, which I think is looking like it won’t happen. Too much time has passed. But I had thought of rebooting it perhaps as a book because Bored to Death was originally based on a short story I wrote. So I’ve been toying with that idea, and I shouldn’t talk about it too much ’cause then I won’t do it. You know, when you talk about something, it’s like, you don’t do it.
So many people know and revere Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it was so interesting to see him in such a different light on Blunt Talk. What was it like working with him to create that character?
Well, it was a hell of a lot of fun. I gave Patrick some incredible range in his portrayal of Walter Blunt, and kind of like Captain Picard he was very much the leader of our set, you know? Patrick has a regal bearing, you know, Sir Patrick, and so it was just a hell of a lot of fun seeing him do silly things and putting him in silly costumes and yeah, he was just a joy to watch and work with.
Are you developing anything for TV now?
Well, right now, my focus has been on this sequel to You Were Never Really Here. I think I’ll only be able to do one thing at a time. I am trying to get a third TV project launched by tasking myself as an executive producer, for someone that would supervise. I don’t know if any of those projects will come to fruition, and I’m trying to help some friends, but those aren’t things that I wouldn’t necessarily, you know, be the showrunner and the engine for. But yeah, right now, my focus is on the sequel to You Were Never Really Here. My book ends differently than the movie, so the sequel picks up where my book had ended. But it would be so cool if Joaquin and Lynne did it again, it would be amazing.
You Were Never Really Here is in theaters now and expands around the country today (April 20).