Jonathan Ames recently took New York Magazine on an outing to discuss his new Byliner novella You Were Never Really Here as well as the film adaptation of his canceled HBO show Bored to Death (which he’s working on in addition to adaptations of Bernard Malamud’s Pictures of Fidelman and Donald Westlake’s 361). Problem was, we were discussing them, in typical Amesian fashion, in a steam room — not the usual forum for an in-depth interview. So for a more substantial update, we grabbed some chow (He opted for some bratwurst, sauerkraut, and split pea soup), and wound up with more material than we could even fit in the magazine. Here are those outtakes. Enjoy!
Jonathan Ames, the character in Bored to Death, is a soft-boiled detective. Joe, in You Were Never Really Here, is pretty hard-boiled. [He’s an ex-FBI agent who rescues women from the sex trade.] A little like Jack Reacher?
He’s a combination of Jack Reacher and Richard Stark, [Donald E. Westlake’s] Parker series. It’s not necessarily high literature, but there’s something in the prose and the pacing and the singular character of Joe that draws the reader in. I had been absorbing those Reacher and Parker books. Like most writers, you’re responding to other writers. It was the same thing when I had read all this Wodehouse, and I wanted to write something that in my own way was a response to Bertie Wooster [in Wake Up, Sir!]. And this is my response to the kind of compulsive, entertaining storytelling of Lee Child and Richard Stark, and Richard Stark is the one I most love. [Drinks arrive] Cheers!
I wanted to show that Joe is very damaged. But maybe he will find himself, you know what I mean? I mean, Reacher is not tormented at all. Parker is like an amoral sociopath, but he’s so amoral that you respect him, because he operates on a real code. One wishes one had his certainty, you know? I don’t have any certainty about anything. The reason it’s hard for me to tweet is I don’t want to pronounce anything, and Twitter is for pronouncing.
Is that why, after joining a Twitter conversation involving New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz regarding the criticism that Girls faces — noting that you had faced it as well, but perhaps not as loudly — you jumped out saying, “Very complicated topic for Twitter“?
I find it very hard to parse things out. I admire people who are able to do it, actually — it’s sort of like reading runes. I quit Twitter at one point, and I lost all my followers. Twitter and Facebook, they were bothering me. I felt like I was only using them to self-promote, and that annoyed me, you know? But it is hard to get the word out on anything if you don’t do it, so I thought, Well, I’ve got this novella about it, I want to tell people about it. I came back on Twitter in October, and but I don’t know if my announcing it on there actually does anything. It’s weird because it’s silly and it feels like a time suck. I find it very constraining, and it’s hard to talk about anything sensitive like that.
Twitter is constraining, but so is Byliner — its very purpose is to put out short stories that you can read in a few hours or less. But you don’t mind that constraint.
Twitter is so severe, you know? And it’s completely for free, it’s scattershot, and it’s very easy to feel embarrassed. It’s hard to be artful with it. It’s like a ticker tape. It’s not a forum that’s worth mastering, you know? Tweets can seem frivolous and demeaning to the art of writing, and I feel embarrassed by them, so I haven’t taken to it as a forum. At least not at this time. So the constraint, I wasn’t really constrained by Byliner. When you read a lot of Dashiell Hammett, there’s a point in the story where he’ll often just sum it up, because he’s got so many threads going, and it felt kind of cheesy, but I did it, and pulled this Dashiell Hammett trick. I just want to keep following Joe. And I do plan to have the girl he’s trying to save [from underage prostitution] become more of a character in this next chapter. He’s going to free her. I think it was partly to give him a noble task. He’s a weapon, but at least his task is noble.
Have you been to a lot of brothels? The one you have in the story feels authentic.
I haven’t had a lot of experience with brothels. I mean, I’ve written about things, but I think I went to a brothel when I was 20, in Vienna, Austria. Maybe another one in my twenties in New York for a day? But you know, I don’t really know how a brothel operates. I think it was more gleaned from the NY Post than anything else — the Westchester Madam stories, you know what I mean? Maybe I picked up some phrases from reading Chandler. Or Hammett? I don’t know where I picked it up.
Ah, okay. The image one gets from your New York Press columns and other works is a little different.
Yes, but here’s the thing, and I can explain it very easily: People change. I’m not the same person who was on the set of Bored to Death nude. I’m not the person who fourteen years ago was writing essays in the New York Press. If someone reads something I wrote from the year 2000, for them it’s pretty immediate: “This must be what the guy’s like.” Which is fine, but I feel like I change so much day to day. I’ve moved on to a place where I don’t want to have a negative impact. I want to have a gentle path. I’m generally much more shy than your perception of me, but I don’t disagree that you should have that perception. And it’s not that I don’t have shame. I’m almost all shame. There’s all-NBA, and there’s the all-shame league. [Chuckles] But that’s why I don’t like writing non-fiction anymore. I don’t want to reveal myself, or something I did at one time. I did a lot of it, but this story is new and fun for me because this is not playing with my identity.
Which brings us to the other Jonathan Ames, the Bored to Death Jonathan Ames.
I’m going to write the Bored to Death movie, but that’s my name, and not my life at all. [Chuckles] The show was a farce. I had people talk about interesting things, but with sentiment, and it was not from my life, you know what I mean? The guy had my name, because in the original short story that I wrote, I had been playing with that very issue. Whenever people would read my essays, they would say, “Oh, you made that up.” When they would read my fiction, they would say, “Oh, why don’t you call that a memoir?” No matter what I did, I couldn’t win, whether it was made-up or an exaggeration. So I wrote the short story “Bored to Death” about Jonathan Ames, and I wrote it in my essay style, and then shit hit the fan. It was published in McSweeney’s originally and it was pretty dark and violent. Dave Eggers actually emailed me and asked me, “Did this really happen?” When it became a TV show, it became a comedy, and all the violence was taken out. But it was an issue, should the character have my name? The essay style didn’t translate to a TV show, but there would still be the frisson of that people know this is the creator, and the question, “Did this really happen?” It wasn’t autobiographical, but I used a lot of my identity — the way I dressed, the places I lived, obviously my concerns — but through all three characters. So it wasn’t just the character with my name. The point is, I’m not interested in autobiographical stuff anymore, and I haven’t done it in a while. My last essay book was in 2009. Okay, it’s only been a few years. [Laughs]
You said before that if you got a fourth season, you were going to put Isla Fisher’s character, Jonathan’s half-sister, in a sanitarium, to recover from the accidental incest. What’s the plan for the movie?
Maybe it would be one of those Mel Brooks things, a dark shot of the sanitarium. Hopefully she’ll be alright and get over it. Not get over it, but survive, you know? But yeah, that whole thing, the idea was to search for the father. The Oedipal quest. I had once heard in a literature class at Princeton that the first detective in literature was Oedipus — which is something that was said in season one — so I thought, Okay, let’s set him off on this Oedipal quest. And when Oedipus went on this quest, he inadvertently slept with his mother. Because when you go to solve mysteries, you find out dark things. Finding out the mystery of his father, Jonathan discovers he slept with his sister. So in the movie, Jonathan is very affected by it in the movie — I won’t say how or why, but it’s a few years later. It’s not entirely the plan for the fourth season, because it’s like cupcakes to cake with the movie. I have to think of the people who’ve never seen any of this before, so I don’t want to do a lot of tying off of things for the more dedicated fan. There will be some of that. But if someone is seeing it for the first time, can they get it enough?
What’s your schedule for making the movie happen?
Just write it and see. I feel like with the TV show, or anything that comes together, I think of it as a Swiss clock of luck. It has the precision of a Swiss clock, but it’s all luck: for the TV show to have happened at all, to have met Jason [Schwartzman], for him to decide to do TV, for HBO to have suggested Ted Danson, for me to have written this story at a certain time in my life for someone at HBO to take meetings. So many lucky things had to happen, it’s really remarkable. I don’t know what kind of budget we’ll have, it might still be small, but there are a number of big images I want to go to, that I was going to do anyway to be cinematic, to be silly and/or beautiful. Like in one season, I wanted to recreate the ending of Casablanca and Some Like It Hot, so I had them going on the boat and them walking across the foggy airstrip. I know it’s cheesy to combine two movies like that, but I do think it made for a beautiful last scene in that episode. Every episode had a big, fun moment like that I wanted to get to, and then I would work backwards, story wise, to validate that. So in the movie, I’ll have several of those. Obviously I want a good story, but so much of the charm of the show was anecdotal, them just talking. So that’s the challenge, and I hope I can pull it off for 90 minutes.
Basically what I’m doing right now is gathering all of my notes. I carry around these little notebooks, and I would write down images I wanted, snippets of dialogue, funny notions, character arcs, all very scattered. [Takes out a notebook] This happens to be the one I have now, but I haven’t started in this one yet. I type all that up, and then I figure, How do I string all this together? I had to pitch it, so I know the structure of the movie, but I want to be open to change it in case something better comes along. So right now, I’m just writing, gathering all my notes. Everything has to be approved, too.
Have you shared your ideas with the cast yet? Ted Danson seemed to think Jonathan would become a policeman, and that Ray and George would be roommates.
Not really. I’m just sort of starting out. Jason and I might confer more, because we’re more frequently in touch.
Well, whenever I run into anyone who was on the show, from Zach Galifianakis to John Hodgman to Kevin Bacon to Dick Cavett, they all say they are down to do whatever you come up with, if you’ll have them.
That’s so nice of you to follow up on that!
I think I broke the news to Zach, when I told him about the movie at the premiere of The Campaign. He was so excited.
Ted and Zach have the funniest rapport. The three of them are all just really sweet pals, and I was kind of the fourth wheel. They didn’t know each other before, and they became really dear friends. So yeah, they’re great guys. With the TV show, we were working together so closely, and I would tell them their arc for the season, but this is going to be a long term project, so I’m not going to bother them with something that may or may not happen.
Are you still planning Wake Up, Sir! as a film as well? You were thinking about that shortly after Bored to Death’s cancellation.
Yeah! I wrote a script for this spring, after traveling a bit and stuff. I went to Paris for one of my books, which was fun, and from Paris, I took a train to Budapest, and I saw Budapest just by going bath to bath — because I don’t have many hobbies, but the baths are a hobby. And when I eventually came back and started working again, I wrote Wake Up, Sir! last spring. I’m trying to put it together as an independent film, and I have one very good actor attached — I can’t really say who, because it’s premature — but it’s slow-going. I maybe need to do another draft, but that would be for me to direct, if I can get it to happen. So we’ll see.
There is a line in You Were Never Really Here that echoes something that was said on Bored to Death, about how we’re all characters in our own movies, and do we ever really know each other?
Ted said that. It was so weird, because I remember the day we shot that. I was reading a Somerset Maugham short story — and this is not a unique observation of life — but I showed it to Ted, because some of the lines that I put like that in Bored to Death didn’t happen that often, the esoteric discussion, and it was cool to have this confirmation from Somerset Maugham, of someone expressing the same sentiment: our knowledge of each other is all projection. What we think is going on with the other human being. And maybe love is projection. We’re projecting something on the person that may or may not be there. Or maybe we do genuinely see the other human being. Because the person’s experience within the film, the struggle, hoping each day to settle into the thing that is your life. We keep waiting for our lives to begin, but they’re happening right now. So I am always trying to get that thing, present, not present. Not self conscious, present. Not shameful, alive. It’s an ongoing thought. And these characters never fully went away, so it’s kind of fun to just be playing with my notes again. The movie feels so far off, and there’s no guarantee it’s going to happen, so I’m just having fun playing with it again.