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From Book to Film: Jonathan Ames on 'You Were Never Really Here'

April 11, 2018Ben MK

Unlike the main character, Joe, in Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s latest, Jonathan Ames' weapon of choice isn't a hammer. Instead, the author of such novels as The Extra Man and the creator of HBO's Bored to Death would much rather be entertaining readers with his words. Specifically, those of the humorous variety.

Now, with Ramsay's big screen adaptation of Ames' novella, You Were Never Really Here, hitting cinema screens, we're seeing a whole different side of the Oakland-raised author. The story of a war-veteran-turned-vigilante who's tasked with rescuing a U.S. politician's daughter from the clutches of an underground child prostitution ring, You Were Never Really Here is a dark and gritty thriller that features a career-best performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and I caught up with Ames to find out more about the film, the book, and the sequel he has in the works.

You're best known for your work in the humor genre. What was it that made you want to write such a dark thriller of a novel? And from a creative standpoint, did you approach it any differently than your other writing?

Ames: Yeah, after years of writing comedic novels, comedic essays and a comedic TV show, I had the opportunity to write something of a fairly large word count for a website at the time, which was called Byliner, and I thought, "You know what, I'm gonna write something non-comedic. I'm gonna write a thriller." And because that's what I had been reading so much of for several years. And it was sort of like a musician who's been listening to one kind of music, and wants to make that kind of music himself or herself.

And the music I had been listening to, in a sense, were the novels of Richard Stark, which is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake. And Donald Westlake, in the film world, is known for writing the screenplay for The Grifters. But he was a prolific novelist, and under the pseudonym Stark, he wrote these brilliant novels about a criminal named Parker — 24 such novels — and they became movies like Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, and Payback, with Mel Gibson.

So it was just really wanting to try my hand at such a thing. But having read so much of it, that was kind of my education. And so I don't know that it was different than writing comedically, except I wasn't trying to be funny. I was just trying to make the reader turn the page. I had a fascination with trying to write something that was really propulsive.

Because you typically write from your experiences...

Ames: You know, in my novels or in my essays, there was a lot of autobiographical content. And in this case, the autobiography was more subliminal. Joe's psyche was sort of a metaphor for my psyche at the time of the writing, and the whole thing was a kind of odd metaphor for some aspects of my life.

His relationship with his mother was very much based on my relationship with my great aunt, who I was kind of the caretaker for the last 20 years of her life. So in a weird way — in a shattered way — it was somewhat autobiographical.

So, I assume you've already seen the film?

Ames: Yes, I've seen the film several times.

Because it feels like it might be darker than the novella, simply because it's missing your narrative, as you set up the various scenes in the book. Did that ever come up when you were working with Lynne Ramsay in turning it into a film?

Ames: Not really. I mean, she did a great job of taking what's internal, in the book — you know, the book has no comedy, and the character is very suicidal, and you read about this. And she kind of showed it. You also hear about his history. Again, she just did in images a lot of what he was going through, and followed the general line of the story, though her ending derivates.

The main thing I conveyed to Lynne when we collaborated — we corresponded for about two and a half years as she was writing the script, and she would send me drafts — what I conveyed to her from the beginning was that I wanted the movie to be an entertainment of sorts, kind of in the Graham Greene notion of an entertainment. Graham Greene — you know, he wrote The Third Man — sometimes he wrote books that he thought were high literature, and other books that he wanted to be like a pulp novel, and he calls those "entertainments."

And so it was very important to me that the film be an entertainment. Lynne is such an artful filmmaker, but I still wanted the movie to kind of feel like a thriller, because that's what I had wanted from the book. And so she really captured that.

Was there ever a time where you were going to adapt this book for the big screen yourself?

Ames: No, I might have, but when Lynne wanted to write it on her own, and I very much wanted her to make the movie, so I turned that over to her.

How does Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of the main character, Joe, compare with the vision of the character that you had in your head when you were writing the novel? Was his performance as intense as you imagined?

Ames: Joaquin, I think in many ways, humanizes him. Joaquin has like some lighter moments. And there's some gentleness to the character in the book. But there's something very — perhaps because it's a movie and because of Joaquin's incredible charisma — that, you know, he really makes the character so three-dimensional. And I love what he's done with the character. He's different from the guy I'd written, and I'm writing the sequel and I don't think of Joaquin as I write the sequel. But I love how Joaquin took this character and made him his own creation. Really impressive.

Was there a moment in the movie — in his performance — that you found cemented him as that character for you?

Ames: That's a good question. You know what moments I really have come to love for some reason [laughs] — I love when he's drying the soap bubbles on the floor of the bathroom, when his mother makes a mess. There was something so beautiful about that scene to me, and I felt like, for some reason, it made me think of him as a samurai. Down on his knees, doing this very simple task. You know, he's just splendid in every frame. So, I think from the very beginning, he's that character. It's a bravura performance.

You've also done some boxing, so I'm interested to get your take on the violence in the book (and in the film). Just as boxing could be considered cathartic, do you find the violence in the book and in the movie cathartic as well?

Ames: Well, I boxed for like romantic, deluded reasons. I got into the ring like a kid who puts a cowl around his neck and pretends it's a cape. You know, it wasn't necessary for catharsis, it was for playing a hero. And I don't find the violence in the film or the book cathartic myself — in fact, I wrote this out of a love for the pulp novel, but I was concerned about putting out more violence in a violent world. But in the case of the book, I guess I justified it in my mind, because Joe is an avenging angel, and he has his own misgivings about the violence, especially as the book goes on.

But the way Lynne Ramsay handled the violence, I think was quite something. And it's not exploitative or grotesque. I mean, there are few moments which are deeply disturbing, but she doesn't brutalize the audience with it. It's more the film brutalizes you with its emotion.

You've also expanded the novella, and you mentioned your sequel to the book as well. Can you tell me more about that?

Ames: The book that's out now is 20 pages longer than its original version. Because originally, like I said, it came out as an e-book, and then this summer I added 20 additional pages fleshing out certain scenes towards the end of the book. And so it's still probably the length of a novella. It was a short novella before, and now it's a slightly longer novella.

And now I'm working on a sequel, which will be a full-length novel. Not a long one, but yeah. My book ends differently than the film. The sequel picks up just like a few hours after the action in the book ends, so my sequel, it could be confusing for people when it comes out if they've only seen the movie. But we'll worry about that later.

Last but not least, you’re also the creator of the HBO show Bored to Death, which I personally loved, in addition to STARZ's Blunt Talk. Any plans to return to film or television yourself?

Ames: I don't have any immediate plans, only because I tend to only do one thing at a time. Right now, I'm just trying to get the sequel done, and I've been a bit distracted with the movie coming out and doing readings for the book and stuff, but after I finish the sequel then I'll see what's next. And to come up with an idea for a TV show, it's like you really gotta hit the perfect idea, something that can keep telling stories forever and ever [laughs], and then you have to attract all the talent. It's a lot to come up with just the right formula.

There's also — I have thought of turning my novel Wake Up, Sir! into a movie. Maybe I would write and direct, but I don't know if that will happen. Right now, my primary focus is to write a followup book to You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here is in theaters April 13th.

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