‘YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE’ author Jonathan Ames finds creative symbiosis with Lynne Ramsay & Joaquin Phoenix

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Multi-hyphanate Jonathan Ames has been a storyteller all his life, whether that be as an actor, having acted in television (CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, DRUNK HISTORY) and films (THE GIRL UNDER THE WAVES, THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD), or creating critically-acclaimed shows like BLUNT TALK and BORED TO DEATH. Somewhere in between, he’s found other stories of his own to write, filling the pages of nine books, to be exact. But it’s one novel in particular that’s currently capturing audiences’ attentions – and haunting them long after they’ve turned the final page.

Ames’ latest book release, the psychological thriller with noir leanings You Were Never Really Here, tells the story of “Joe,” former US soldier turned sex trafficking task force agent turned hitman-for-hire. However, when his job to rescue a governor’s daughter (played by Ekaterina Samsonov) goes pear-shaped and hemorrhages into his home life, Joe’s in for a personal reckoning. The novel and author have found a dream creative pairing in filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, RATCATCHER) and star Joaquin Phoenix, both of whom bring this page-turner to life with their cinematic adaptation.

I spoke with the affable author over the phone about everything from where this unconventional idea began, to how its blossom flourished under Ramsay’s care, to when we can expect another of Joe’s adventures.

Please bear with me if all my questions begin with, “Hot Dayum that was a great effing story, Jonathan…”. I saw it a few weeks ago and it still hasn’t left me. I don’t think it’s going to.

Thank you.

Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired this story? And where did the kernel begin specifically with the character of Joe?

When I first wrote this, I very much wanted to write a page-turner – a thriller. That’s all I had been reading for several years. I was kind of obsessed with the writing science that goes into making a reader turn the page compulsively, like they can’t help it. It’s a very pleasurable feeling to read a page-turner, so I was really trying to create a reaction. By osmosis, I had them in my system.

For Joe, I wanted to create an iconic character I could return to. There were many such role models. The books I had been reading were the novels of Richard Stark – which was a pseudonym for writer Donald Westlake, who was known for writing THE GRIFTERS. The books he wrote as Stark – his crime novels- featured an amazing criminal named “Parker,” a real moral anti-hero. I say moral because he has such codes. Those became the movies POINT BLANK with Lee Marvin and PAYBACK with Mel Gibson. I wanted to create an amazing lead character like Parker. It was also sort of inspired by Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher series. I wanted to do my own twist on these sorts of characters.

Did you ever set out to write the screenplay?

I don’t know that I had that in my mind. As soon as I wrote it, I knew that it could be, or should be, a movie. The lens is perfect for adaptations. I sent it to my Hollywood film agent and he never got back to me. A year later, the book came out as a crime novel in France and got great reviews. A French film producer Rosa Attab read the book and reviews and she sent it to Lynne Ramsay. Lynne immediately wanted to do it after reading the book. As it turns out Lynne’s agent was my agent. He’s since stopped being my agent. I would have collaborated on the script with Lynne, but she very much wanted to write it on her own. I totally trusted her and wanted her to make the film.

Over about a two and half year period, she sent me numerous drafts of the script. I would give her notes and my thoughts. I also sent her my ideas for a sequel to the book – I’m writing a sequel. And that somewhat informed some of the choices she made in the film and somewhat informed her ending. The ending of the film is different than the ending of my book. My book ends on much more of a cliffhanger which is why the sequel will pick up right where after a few hours after the action ends in the book.

Joaquin Phoenix in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Lynne Ramsay packs a lot of insight and nuance into every frame. Were you pleasantly surprised how another filmmaker saw your “baby” and nursed it into its next stage?

I don’t know if surprised is the word. One thing I conveyed to Lynne in the beginning that was a goal of mine with the books was that I wanted it to be entertaining and I wanted the film to also have a propulsive quality. I knew that Lynne had such cinematic bona fides, but I really encouraged her to make something that you can’t stop watching in a way that one would enjoy a film like TAKEN.

I was not so much surprised, but was mesmerized with what Lynne did. As you said, the composion of every frame. The first two minutes of the film, you only seen Joaquin from the torso down. She chooses what parts of the human body that she chooses to cover with the camera. Other directors usually shoot scenes in a very similar fashion and we get used to it. She’s just chooses so many different starting points in a scene – where the camera is and where it rests and what it emphasizes.

One of the things I loved what she did was, and I mentioned it to her in an email, is that throughout the movie, women are kind of strewn about in these poignant poses that make the film maybe not quite real life, but is still just so beautiful, because it’s cinema. Like in the airport in the beginning, the way a girl is draped over a chair, or when you go on the subway tracks where a woman emerges into frame when you only see half her face, or when Joe is driving, there’s a woman swaying drunkenly down the sidewalk and you sense she could be in danger, but we just keep driving passed it. Throughout the film, the way women are dropped here and there, you have a sense of peril.

The way she uses sound design too is incredible.

It is! After that whole beautiful scene at the lake in nature, it was suddenly such a relief to be in those woods. Oddly, those are woods I hiked in all my life. Of all the locations in the New York Metropolitan area, they chose a lake in my hometown.

Get out!

Yeah. A lake that I swam in and a lake where I took my mom on her last hike in New Jersey – she’s still alive, but I helped move them out to California. But we hiked that very same lake. I was really contemplating mortality seeing that. For example, when Joe is walking down that path, the sound sounds like an army. Or early in the film, when he’s going to see McCleary and we’re out in the city, it’s so brutally loud. The sound design and the music and how she weaved everything together – you’re in something very hypnotic.

I’m sure there’s details in your novel, but to take those words and extrapolate them and contextualize them in a whole different manner must be another blessing.

She did read the book several times. She’d absorb the book and it was a part of her and then she forgot it in a way. There are traces throughout. My ending is different and plotting is different, but it follows the exact beats of the book to an exact “T.” But then she does subtle things. When he’s on the stakeout, that’s where I did the backstory on Joe, that he was FBI, so that’s where she’s culminating his flashbacks from his FBI trauma. Where I’m telling the reader the backstory, in that same scene, she does it in flashbacks.

Another brilliant moment where she absorbed the book and re-translated it, the scene where there are two assassins in the house, I have him sneak in through an upstairs window and they’re below. He knows exactly where they are in the house because as a child that house was like a second skin – he knew it like his own body – because he lived in terror of his father. He knew where his father was at all times. When he’s on that landing, he knows exactly where they are. They came into his battleground. He’s been preparing all his life, in a sense. She conveys it with a flashback, where we’ve just seen Joe tip-toe, we now see the little boy’s legs tip-toeing. The audience may not perceive what I’m saying, but she’s shown it visually – that this has been a house of trauma, but this is a house he knows.

When you write, do you think how these situations will play for the actors involved since you’re an actor too? 

When I write scripts, I love to give actors juicy fun things to do, whether it be physical comedy or a line with pathos. I don’t necessarily think of myself since I’m a terrible actor. I can really only play variations on my own neurotic persona. When I’d write TV shows, I always wanted to give actors something enjoyable to play or say. I would write to please them and work towards their strengths.

When is the sequel coming out?

I’m about halfway through writing the novel. I’ve been a little distracted having the book and the movie out, but I’m hoping that by mid-Summer or Summer I could have a draft done and continue Joe’s adventure and quest for peace.

Joaquin Phoenix in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

He’s such a great character that should continue.

While we’re at it, Joaquin’s performance is…

….Amazing.

He’s so at ease in front of the camera. It’s almost like filming, not to say he’s a wild animal, but filming a lion in its natural environment. He’s so embedded and un-self-aware. It’s so what draws us in and make him compelling to watch. There’s something so natural and feral in his performance, but uninhibited. As a kid, I was taught you have to stay within the lines – even draw an extra line around the line for coloring. There’s something about that there were no boundaries around him. You don’t feel him acting in a scene.

And his body is so unusual in the movie. He almost looks like a mythical creature. He also has amazing eyes. There’s that scene where he’s with the father and half of Joe’s face is in light and shadow and half of the man is in light and shadow. Joaquin’s eyes are like a green-yellow. The light is so saturating his eyes. He blinks once when the man says, ‘I want you to hurt them.’ His eyes look so beautiful in that scene.

At the Russian baths – that sauna place – when Lynne and I were corresponding for two years, I would go to that place all the time. And that intrigued her so she put that in the script for Joe. She and Joaquin just did a fantastic job.

What is it about the noir genre that seems to resonate with audiences and readers? 

I think that all theater and the arts are large manifestations of things that are going on subconsciously or consciously. Even if our lives are all somewhat safe, we have a low level or high level feeling of anxiety and peril. All our lives, we don’t know what’s going to happen the next moment. The noir brings to the surface fearful situations – predicaments. We all feel our own lives are predicaments that we have to negotiate and find our way through. I think it’s like children playing “Hide and Seek.” Maybe it helps us deal with our fears when we go into them. Noir, in the case of mystery, all classic tales in a sense were mysteries. Oedipus is basically a detective story trying to uncover a truth. I think that’s part of the appeal. It’s the appeal of amusement park rides where you can feel fear but we have some remove from it perhaps.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is now playing in select theaters. It opens everywhere on April 20. The novel is available on sale here.

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