Last year, You Were Never Really Here won Best Actor and Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. Now the film is making its way through arthouse theaters in limited release.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a veteran who now freelances rescuing children from sex trafficking rings. Lynne Ramsey adapted the book by Jonathan Ames, and directed the movie.
Ames spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone about the differences between the book and the film adaptation. He’s also in the middle of a sequel about Joe. You Were Never Really Here is now playing.
Monsters and Critics: Was your book as dreamlike as Lynne’s movie?
Jonathan Ames: No. One thing I expressed to Lynne from the beginning which she totally got is my goal with the book was for the book to be a page turner. So maybe it was more of a fever dream.
In that sense the book and the film are similar. People tell me when they read the book, they can’t put it down, which was the goal I had. I wanted to almost create a physical sensation of feeling compelled to read.
What I said to Lynne is the movie should have that same propulsive thriller kind of feeling while aiming for beauty and high art and cinema. She very much did achieve that.
I think her movie is hypnotic and mesmerizing. It’s many different dreams because sometimes it’s quiet and slow like when he’s with his mother. Then it kicks up in intensity.
I would say both book and film are kind of fever dreams.
M&C: The plot is not that complicated, he does this job saving young girls, so is it more about the approach to it?
JA: Yes, and some of the plot elements were changed for various reasons. The structure of the film follows the book. The book ends differently than the movie. My book ends more cliffhanger.
I’m writing the sequel to the book now. I did send Lynne, when she was writing the script, the first couple of pages of the sequel. The endings of the two are quite different.
M&C: Did you ever envision a movie adaptation as more of a straightforward action movie?
JA: Well, Lynne was the first filmmaker that approached me. So as soon as she came into the picture and then I saw her movies, I knew it wouldn’t be straightforward.
The book itself is strange. The character is very tormented and has a lot of suicidal ideation. I did feel from the moment I wrote it that it was very filmic.
I imagined it as quite noir and twisting. I’m not sure if I thought there would be a more straightforward approach. Lynne was the first person that showed interest. From the beginning I knew it would be an unusual and beautiful film.
M&C: He doesn’t explain his methodology. It just shows it. Was the book like that also?
JA: The book explains this as he went to the hardware store and picked up a hammer. It does explain why he uses the hammer.
I don’t have the exact line in front of me but he had come to recognize that it was something that created terror in everyone which was effective for him in quickly taking control of the situation.
Of course it also had roots in his childhood abuse. A hammer had once terrified him tremendously.
When he’s on the stakeout, he sees the towel boy and says something like that was something he could work so. So he quickly moved after him.
What’s interesting about that towel boy is in 1993 I had a little writers room on a street in Midtown Manhattan. There was a mysterious building there which was rumored to be a brothel, a brownstone.
One day I was walking around that neighborhood and I ran into this guy who I knew from downtown New York. I said, “What are you doing in this part of town?”
He had a bag of groceries and he confessed that he was the towel boy at a brothel and he ran errands for the girls and got things. That had stayed in my mind. Then I put it in the book however many years later and now it’s in the movie.
M&C: Were the scars specific in the book?
JA: What was specified in the book was that there were notches in his shins from where his father had beat him. Lynne turned that into scars which was good.
In the book, I don’t describe the scars on his back but we know from the book that he was in the first Gulf War. He spent time with the FBI so he’s had a rugged and brutal life.
One thing that Lynne did very well, in the scene right before he shoots the two guys in the house, he talks about having grown up in that house, he knew every sound.
So he knew exactly where the men were. Especially because as a child he would listen to his father, with every step his father would take. Lynne shows the boy tiptoeing right after she shows Joaquin tiptoeing.
She did all sorts of beautifully subtle things like that to convey visually what was described in the book.
M&C: Do they specify Gulf War I in the movie?
JA: It’s a little ambiguous but you see the flashback of the child who gets the candy bar and their foot in the sand. I think that was Lynne’s way of conveying that he’d been in the war.
M&C: Did you describe the brutality in detail in the book?
JA: The book is very straightforward. I tried to write it in a very streamlined super clear hard boiled way. So it wouldn’t be excessive. It would be like, “He raised the hammer, hit him in his breast bone. As he went down, he hit him in his back.”
That kind of thing, but I would try to do it in a kind of staccato fashion but I wasn’t trying to be exploitative with the violence or pornographic.
M&C: Where does the sequel pick up?
JA: The sequel picks up just a few hours after the end of the book. Like I said, the book ends differently. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book or the movie.
I always intended for the book to be continued. I just got involved with my TV show Blunt Talk for a number of years. Then I had started it which is why I was able to send Lynne some pages and now I’m pretty deep into it, about halfway through.
It just picks up literally maybe three hours after the action in the book ends.
M&C: Did you consider this as a franchise of Joe stories that can continue to more books?
JA: Yeah, that was my hope, to create an iconic character that I could return to. Like the long tradition of course of Phillip Marlowe with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett with the Continental, Lee Child with Jack Reacher.
My main inspiration for this kind of writing were the books of a writer named Richard Stark who wrote 24 novels about a criminal named Parker. They’ve become films with Point Blank with Lee Marvin, Payback with Mel Gibson.
Richard Stark was a pseudonym for Donald Westlake who was a prolific author who also wrote the screenplay for The Grifters which I think he was nominated for an Academy Award.
M&C: Are your processes writing books and screenplays similar?
JA: Well, the process of procrastination, dreading, drinking coffee and then sitting down, all that’s very similar. Trying to write a good sentence is very similar.
With scripts, you tend to have, at least I have had, outlines because I have to get it approved by a television network. So you work off an outline.
With novels, I tend to improvise as I go along. I sort of know where I want to go. I don’t have a formal outline. It’s more improvisatory.
M&C: Do TV shows help with procrastination because you have weekly deadlines?
JA: Yes, you can procrastinate but at some point you better sit down. The deadlines are very helpful that way. With novels, it’s entirely self-disciplined, having to be your own task master. So that can be an issue.
M&C: Is writing the new book your focus now?
JA: Yes, as well as I’m doing some readings from You Were Never Really Here, generally feeling a little bit dizzy from the movie coming out, what does it all mean? The pleasure in life comes from the work.
Things coming out into the world can be sort of destabilizing. We all I think do best when we’re just doing our work and what makes us feel most useful.
M&C: Do you have a title?
JA: I do. It’s a working title but I don’t want to share it just yet. It’s like a baby. It’s not ready to be born.
M&C: After that would you go back to television or more novels?
JA: I’m really not sure. I think I’d like to try to write a comedic novel again. TV, you’ve got to come up with such a great idea, gather all the right people. A novel you can kind of build from scratch and develop it yourself.
With a TV show, you’ve got to get it so perfect and then bring it to people so they believe in it. I imagine, if I’m lucky, I will write for TV again but right now I am focused on writing fiction.
M&C: Is it a different feeling seeing actors like Joaquin Phoenix play your characters than when you cast your screenplays which were always intended to be performed?
JA: I don’t know that there is a huge difference. All I can say is I am so honored by the actors that I’ve gotten to work with or who played characters that I’ve created. It’s really kind of remarkable.
Patrick Stewart, Jason Schwartzman, Joaquin Phoenix. I also had Kevin Kline and Paul Dano in the film of my novel The Extra Man.
On Bored to Death I also had Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Wiig, Kevin Bacon.
Blunt Talk we had Jacki Weaver, Fred Armisen, Adrian Scarborough, Stacy Keach. We just had so many, I’ve had so many good actors interpreting what I write.
It’s really incredible. I kind of can’t believe it. I should pinch myself, especially since I don’t like myself so I’m going to pinch myself very hard.