Joaquin Phoenix’s buzzy performance in the new film You Were Never Really Here — in which he plays a haunted rescuer of sex-trafficked girls — is drawing attention to the Jonathan Ames novella on which it was based. Best known for creating the cult HBO TV series Bored to Death, Ames chatted to EW about how his story ended up on screen, working with Phoenix and director Lynne Ramsay, and whether Bored to Death will make a comeback.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you feel about the reaction to the film so far?
JONATHAN AMES: I love the movie. I think it’s a tremendous piece of cinema, and then this over-the-top, bravura performance by Joaquin…the film was fantastic, and then I love that people are blown away by it. It’s all very gratifying in an abstract sort of way.
You Were Never Here is definitely darker in tone than your other books. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
I got commissioned to write something from this e-book publisher, and I thought I really wanted to experiment and write something that wasn’t comedic. For years, I’d been reading a lot of crime novels and pulp fiction, and it was giving me great pleasure, and I wanted to re-create the pleasure that I had been receiving from those books. I was inspired primarily by the crime novels of Richard Stark. I also really enjoyed the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. I really wanted to write a page-turner, something compulsively readable.
Was the writing process different from your other books?
The writing process was the same, which was fear, self-doubt, procrastination, coffee, trying one’s best. So the same process. It’s a short novel, a novella, and I’m working on the sequel now. The thing is, I really wanted to create urgency for the reader, a page-turner, and that part of the process was a little different. I tried to write quickly and hopefully make the urgency come across.
How was it watching your book come to life on screen?
When Lynne Ramsay [We Need to Talk About Kevin] approached me, I was thrilled. Her movies were sent to me, and I thought they were so strong. And then for about two years, she and I would correspond about the script — she would send me drafts of the script, and then I’d give her my notes, and then about a week before shooting I visited the set. Lynne approached Joaquin, which was amazing. He’s really incredible in this movie. It’s almost like a camera was put in a lion’s cage, and you just see a lion doing his thing. Maybe a cage is the wrong notion; put the camera in the grass in the savannah. He’s just so incredibly natural, and in the world of the character in the film, you don’t have the sense of someone acting in front of a camera or director.
Any updates on Bored to Death?
At one time, HBO had commissioned me to write a Bored to Death movie, and I’ve written some drafts that didn’t quite work. At the moment there’s nothing in the works for Bored to Death, but I have some ideas for how to revive it. I might write a Bored to Death novel because the show came out of a long short story, sort of the way You Were Never Really Here did. So I’m thinking of returning to it in prose form.