Balancing The Darkness And The Light; Talking With Writer Jonathan Ames About ‘You Were Never Really Here’

Sometimes, you just want to talk to people forever…

Opening this Friday in Toronto, You Were Never Really Here is a stunningly visceral and emotionally brutal piece of storytelling that while written and directed for the big screen by the incomparable Lynn Shelton, originally came from the mind of noted author and TV show runner Jonathan Ames.

Now if you traditionally relate Ames and his work to things a little more comedic like the show Bored To Death or Blunt Talk you’d be absolutely right, but sometimes in many walks of life you just need to go against the grain and try something different and the results not only ended up with a critically beloved piece of literature but a piece of cinema that is an early contender for one of the year’s best.

I got to talk with Ames in advance of the release as we talked about his inspiration for the story, working with director Lynn Ramsey, how an economy of detail allows for things to feel more electric and real, the struggles between juggling an existence between the literary world and the light of the big screen among many other topics.


First and foremost; congratulations to you because I was absolutely blown away by this story but I have to ask and this is probably something that you’ve been getting a lot of because tonally You Were Never Really Here is pretty different from work that you’ve done in the past; especially stuff that has been adapted for the screen.  Can you walk me through what the ultimate inspiration for this story really was?

Jonathan Ames: Yeah, I mean I originally wrote this as something on assignment for an e-book publisher.  A friend of mine was editing stuff over there and they were paying nice money for some nice word count and for years I had been reading a lot of genre, very ‘pulp’ fiction and this was actually during all the years that I was the show runner on Bored To Death.  So I took the assignment and decided that I wanted to write something that was totally non-comedic and something that was a real page turner because I just loved the sensation of reading something like that and I really wanted to see if I could do it.  So You Were Never Really Here is the ultimate result of that and I would say that my direct inspiration for this kind of writing would be Richard Stark which is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake who wrote 24 novels about a character named Parker which ended up becoming the film Point Blank with Lee Marvin that then inspired Payback with Mel Gibson.  The writing in these pieces was just so economical and on top of these I’ve always loved the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child and I was really drawn to the darkness of the short stories by David Goodis.  Francois Truffaut took one of his pieces and turned into the film Shoot The Piano Player but I would say that those three are the immediate influence on this.  Then the book version which is out now I expanded and is out now is longer than the original and more fleshed out due to some criticism I got but Lynne (Ramsay) was ultimately working from the original version and I had also sent her drafts of the sequel to the book that I am working on in order to help to piece the film together.

If you had handed this off to someone other than a filmmaker like Lynn Ramsay it could have really gone in another direction but Lynn really crafted it into this emotionally powerful and really visceral experience without necessarily exposing us to some of the violence, brutality that we are used to seeing in stories like this.

JA: Lynn and I corresponded pretty steadily for about two and a half years right up to the shooting of the movie.  It was very important to her on this that she both writer and director but I am just such a fan of her work it really was no question for me to be able to hand this material over to her, you know?  But she was very collaborative with me and sent me probably four or five drafts of the screenplay over the course of those two and a half years, then I’d give her my notes, and sometimes we’d just talk about life.  We’d be on the phone or we’d be on Skype or talk through e-mail.

Then I came to New York for about a week before they were shooting and had the chance to meet with her and Joaquin to talk things over some more before they started up; however it was always my mindset to let them do their thing with the material so that they could make it work as a movie.  She really is such a brilliant filmmaker and it’s just an incredible thing to witness because I really love the movie.  I think it really is this strong, unusual and hypnotic piece and Joaquin is just so mesmerizing as Joe that you really can’t take your eyes off of him.

Oh absolutely, he’s playing this character that is in such obvious pain but is also looking for a validation to it all and seeing it all play out is so compelling and the thing that really was so big for me was these moments in the film that we know are brutal and violent…but we never really see the violence.  I am really curious just how you do something like that in words, or was it an idea that Lynn used while crafting the film?

JA: I really think that was her way to deal with it in the book, because while I was writing I really didn’t go crazy with description.  Everything I wrote was just very to the point, there wasn’t a lot of colourful dialogue as it would be something like “Joe ran up the stairs and was met by an African America man, buried the hammer into his chest bone, then his back and then kicked him in the head”.  Very economical without a lot of flourishes and just to the point, Lynn really made it work though in the scenes with the security camera and I think she handled it really well.  I mean we still get a sense of the violence because we still cringe in these moments and it’s interesting about the violence because when I wrote this initially I was just so into the genre.  Admittedly I did have qualms later on about putting something violent like this into an already violent and chaotic world but in some ways I managed to justify because the character of Joe really is this avenging angel of sorts who is operating on the morally right side of things.  I don’t know if violence is truly ever necessary but the way Lynn handled made sure that none of it ever felt pornographic in anyway.  It’s not abusive and it just feels like you are watching an incredibly gritty and realistic story because let’s face it; life is violent.  There are car accidents, birth is a very violent act, we’re violent to each other as a species and I am really glad that none of it in this story is grotesque in anyway.

Plus I think that adds to the intensity of it all as well as it goes back to your original intentions as it allows for an economy of action that keeps everything to the point which allows the reader and now in this case the viewer to fill in the blanks which can make things even more visceral.  Did you get a lot of time on set during the shoot or was it like you said “Just making sure that Lynn could be Lynn” while making the film?

During the shoot I was very hands off, not only by design but also because right while they were shooting the film, I had to go to Canada and shoot a TV pilot that I had written.  I was in Vancouver so I had to be on a completely different set of a comedy which unfortunately won’t see the light of day…and I thought it was really good.  It was about an asylum where in the inmates take over…

Damn, I’d have watched that!

I know right!  It was really good and the spirit that I tried to bring to that project was the French film;  King Of Hearts which was a comedy, but anyway I had finished filming that and then I went to the New York set and I got to catch the last two days of that part of the shoot.  It was great though because I was there at night, and I actually got to be there for when Joaquin pulls the tooth out of his mouth.  There were several takes of that scene, and then he just did one where he laughs and I immediately exclaimed “Oh, that’s the one!”  In hindsight I really shouldn’t have influenced the director that way but in the moment at the monitor I was pretty sure that we all felt that way but it is the one that she did use.  Lynn is just such a brilliant filmmaker and I trusted her and it’s just wonderful because now my book gets to come out in the world now also.  I’m writing the sequel for the book now which ends differently then Lynn’s film, and I hope it doesn’t confuse people if they pick up the book after seeing the movie or vice versa and maybe there’ll be a second movie at some point, but that’s a problem that we can all figure out at another time.

I really enjoyed that aspect of the film as well as there was a certain degree of uncertainty in everything that happens, there is no definite end, which really is life itself and so much of this story revolves around not just the brutality that can come in life but in finding a way to push past it all.

Uh huh, yeah Lynn somewhat drew from the beginning of my sequel for the film as I had sent her some early drafts but things really do differ from the book and the movie and I don’t want to spoil either for anyone but with my book I really did set it up in more of a cliff hanger type of fashion.  I had always intended to continue it and then after I wrote it I ended up getting very involved on my TV show; Blunt Talk. I ended up having a hiatus from this kind of noir writing for a few years.

Now this is something that really has always fascinated me.  How do you manage to strike a balance between working in a literary world or a journalistic type of world versus the purely entertainment driven world of TV and film because there are some VERY big differences that at first glance seem like they’d be a little incongruous.

JA: You know, ultimately whatever form that I am lucky enough to be working in and try to get paid in so I can pay the rent like we all need to do, I manage to boil it down to the basics.  On the writing side for me there’s the pure enjoyment of trying to write a good sentence that you hope will resonate in the mind of the human being that is reading it.  I once read a quote from PG Woodhouse where he says “I try to get pleasure from every sentence” so if it’s writing books, or TV scripts or something comedic or writing more noir like You Were Never Really Here it all comes down to me taking pleasure in the sentence.  Then after that the goal really is to entertain the audience and to give them something.  They really are very different worlds because I truly am enjoying working on the sequel to the book right now after having three years in TV because in many ways there’s no one that I have to please or answer to.  Granted on the flip side of that, it doesn’t pay nearly as well (Laughs) but in many ways it is a lot more rewarding and really in anything that I have done there is a lot of stress and pain behind it all but there has also been some great joy getting to be on the set of some of my TV shows to see the actors having so much fun getting to play in the moment and create something.  I’ve had a really interesting career and I am pretty grateful for it.

Do you think that professionally going forward with anything that you create will you always be conscience of trying to find a balance between the comedic material that you are so well known for and the dark noir like We Were Never Really Here or is this just a one off universe that you felt compelled to explore?

I think I have this fantasy of being more of a pulp style writer; if only just a little bit.  In the moment though I am definitely working on another piece of noir which continues Joe’s story and I also see his character as something that I could return to even years down the line if I wanted much in the same vein of Raymond Chandler’s  Marlowe or something like that.  I kind of have an idea and a vision for a third book in this universe that could then propel, multiple books if I was that lucky.  However I am also missing writing things that are a little lighter.  I really do hope that long term I find the inspiration to go between comedy and darker material; working on both sides of the clown’s mask.

You Were Never Really Here opens in Toronto on Friday April 13th before rolling out in other markets across Canada throughout the month of April.