Lynne Ramsay's disturbing-yet-spellbinding new film You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as the physically and mentally scarred Joe, a former Marine and FBI agent who now works as an off-the-books rescuer of children from sex trafficking. Haunted by inner demons only briefly manifest on screen, the film follows the stoic Joe as he wanders a jagged line separating self-destruction from heroism—harming himself and putting himself in harm's way as he attempts to extract the daughter of a prominent politician from sex slavery in Manhattan.
Phoenix is characteristically mesmerizing, his bulky, brutal exterior coiled around a vulnerable and beleaguered core of kindness, and Ramsay's direction—greatly complemented by Jonny Greenwood's anxious, skittering score—unspools the story with a daring style that keeps you perpetually curious, shocked, and riveted. By the time it's over, in just under 90 minutes, you may feel as spent and haunted as Phoenix looks. Time for a vegan dinner and a refreshing stroll.
Ramsay's film, in theaters now, is adapted from an engrossing novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, an author most widely known for the prematurely canceled HBO comedy noir Bored to Death. We recently sat down with Ames to talk about the origins of You Were Never Really Here, which Ames has revised and extended in a new paperback edition published by Vintage Books.
I really love the book! I couldn't put it down. Oh, thank you.
It felt to me like it was over too soon, like you could have written a book twice as long. The story could have continued. Why did you choose to end it where you did and did you consider making it a longer novel at any point? Yeah, it's always been my intention to continue this book, this story. So I am writing the sequel now. The version that's out now, in 2018, is expanded actually. I originally wrote this book in 2012 for an online concern called Byliner...I think it was like 15,000 words was the limit.
So my dear friend Amy Grace Loyd, to whom I dedicated the book, was my editor, and she solicited me to write for them and so I thought, "Okay, this is my chance to write something genre, a thriller," and then I thought, "I'll continue it on my own at some point."
I wrote probably 15,000 words and ended where I did with the intention that I would continue this someday. Then I got all involved with writing for television again. I had my TV show Blunt Talk, moved to L.A. and dropped it for a while, but then the book, because it came out as an ebook, got published as a small crime novella in France, which led to it becoming a movie. Then once it started coming together as a film it was a chance for it to come out as a proper book in the states, so this summer I expanded the story by about 20 pages.
Sort of fleshing out—in movie terms—the third act a little bit. Right now, like I said, I'm writing the sequel, so I always intended for it to continue and perhaps, with this character, to create a recurring character like Chandler's Marlowe or Richard Stark's Parker. I hope in a good way you want it to continue, you know what I mean? So that when the next book comes out you as a reader will be like, "Oh, great! This story continues," or, "I get to be with this character some more."
Maybe you don't want to say, but does the sequel continue where this left off, continuing with settling the score with this particular plot line? Yeah, the sequel picks up three hours later and he's in the car driving to Philadelphia.
Great. At one point I thought I would put it all together as one book and I'm almost... Because now with the sequel I do have a big summary of the first part so I'm almost wondering if it should be one book. Right now I'm just writing it as a sequel in its own discreet entity.
Did you do any research for this? The details seem very real to me. I did minimal research. The only thing I recall Googling was to find out how many millionaires were in the United States, and then in how many cities. Then it was my own reasoning that even if a small percentage of those millionaires were deviant this way that they could afford such a thing, if it was high priced, which again I don't know if it is. And I may have done some research into sex trafficking. All I know is that an incredibly large number of children are taken into the sex trafficking trade both domestically and from abroad. I mean it's staggering and grotesque.
So the notion of the thing called "the playground" in a brothel where children are kept on drugs and they have, I think you called a big sister—is that stuff you made up? That's all stuff I made up. Lingo I made up. Me trying to imagine how such a thing could work. I was sending my brain down into dark territories.
Did you find that challenging? Or were you worried about it getting too dark? I'd been wanting to, before writing the book and to this day I'd been steeping myself in genre writing. I've been obsessed with the novels of Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, and these 24 Parker novels. I had also read a ton of Lee Child and the Jack Reacher books. David Goodis had a number of dark novels and dark short stories, and then of course I had a early love for Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I didn't have any trouble writing in that genre necessarily; it was fun to try it.
I did have concerns about putting out something violent in an already overly violent world and I thought, "Am I contributing in a way?" I've had concerns about that, but at the same time I wanted to create also, in a Graham Greene notion, an entertainment. I really wanted to write a page turner. The kind of book you can't put down because those very much are the books that I've come to love.
I have been concerned about the violence, but I also feel like I have a character who's a bit of a dark angel of redemption to sort of fight against this. Then as I go forward in the sequel he questions the violence and the kind of worlds that he has to walk in, which he also questions in this book. It's not just gratuitous, I hope. One thing I found out speaking to Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who portrays Joe. He did his own research and he found a guy who is like Joe, who is a kind of off the books operative freeing kids from the sex trade. I didn't know that such a guy existed, but Joaquin found one and spoke to him.
Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov (Alison Cohen Rosa / Amazon Studios)
Wow. Did he tell you anything interesting about this guy's life or how it relates to the story? We touched on it briefly, I need to talk more about him with Joaquin.
So you got to spend some time with Joaquin at some point? Yeah, about 10 days before the movie shot. I hung out with him and the director for a few hours. I wasn't involved in the casting except that Lynne emailed me saying, "I'm going to Joaquin Phoenix." I said, "Great, I hope you get him." I was totally enthusiastic about the idea from the start. Then I was on the set for two nights. At the time I was shooting a TV pilot that didn't come to fruition so I couldn't be there for most of the shoot, which was here in New York, but I made it for two nights.
Was it hard for you, as someone who has not only written novels, but also scripts. to be on the outside of this process? Lynne very much wanted to be the writer of the script and I trusted her. She did correspond with me for two years, sending me drafts and I would give her notes. I trusted her and I obviously trusted Joaquin, and I remember when we met, I said, "Go make your thing." I do feel that the movie is quite true to the spirit of the book. It was kind of like she took it and filtered it through herself and her vision, and the same thing with Joaquin. Of course, it differs. Maybe my character was more of an automaton of sorts and Joaquin humanizes him further, but then when I reread the book I feel like a lot of his humanity is there.
I like the movie. I felt that certain plot elements were articulated in the book in a way that felt more clear to me, and there were some changes made for the film, like the Governor's involvement is something that isn't in the book. But you're at peace with that? You're able to say, "This is a separate thing?" Yeah. She changed the ending. I had given her the beginning of the sequel, which influenced a little bit her exact ending, though obviously in my sequel ... I don't want to give things away for people who haven't seen the movie, but... she used an element. I had sent her the first few pages of the sequel at some point, which somewhat influenced her ending. I thought that might be okay for her. There were issues in my original version of the book that I think I made more clear in this new version. For various reasons she needed to manipulate and change the ending, and I'm okay with that. I think the audience still really responds to the film. There might be greater clarity with the novel. It's right on the page. Everything's kind of explained to you. Like I said, the film is its own thing. Hopefully people will find the book and enjoy both.
Were you happy with Joaquin's performance? Yeah, I think he's a masterful actor. Joaquin is just so unselfconscious when the camera's on him. It seems that way. Film acting and television acting is of course different than stage acting, but he's a magnificent film actor. I don't know, he allows you to be so intimate with him and he's so interesting to watch.
I once took a class with playwright Romulus Linney, at Columbia. Probably 25 years or more ago, and he said that Lillian Gish said, "Movies are about faces and music," and Joaquin has a great face and eyes and he really lets you in. Now I don't know if Lillian Gish actually said that. But I couldn't be more pleased with Joaquin's portrayal.
I've read that he doesn't see his movies. He still hasn't seen this, according to one interview that I read. I have a feeling he hasn't seen it. I think he told me he saw the trailer. I don't know if he had to do any ADR. So when you do ADR you know, fixing some sound, he may have had to see a scene. But I think that makes sense as an actor. Maybe you don't want to see what you do. I don't like to see pictures of myself for the most part or hear my own voice. So maybe if he watched it he would become self-conscious or also, we're all so hard on ourselves. Other people would say, "Oh my God, you're amazing," but maybe he would ... We all have a tendency to be terribly self-critical, so maybe he wouldn't want to see it for those reasons.
I had a brief role in Curb Your Enthusiasm and I've seen the scene and I've been in a few movies, but when I see myself I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm so ugly!" You know what I mean? So all the self-loathing comes out. And actors are like poets, they're tormented people. Well, we're all tormented so I think it's hard for everyone to see themselves.
Can we talk about what you're working on now and what's down the road? Like I said, I'm working on the sequel. I have about 85 pages written, which again would be a short novel, not as short as this, which is probably a novella length. I hope to finish it in a few months. I'd like to sort of become like a pulp writer who could write one or two books a year. I'm sort of trying to help a few TV projects, but right now I'd like to just keep writing prose. I can't think too far ahead beyond this book. I tend to only really be able to work on one thing at a time.
Do you have a goal for when you're writing, like a certain number of words a day? I don't have a word goal. I have this general goal of two pages a day, that if I can get two pages done that's great. Sometimes I fall short on that because I'm scared and so maybe I go back, maybe 10 to 15 pages from where I was, revise that, play with that, sometimes add two pages to that. Really the goal though is to advance two pages forward because let's say you work six days a week. That's 12 pages a week and that's almost 50 pages a month. So if you've got three months that's 150 pages even if it's a first draft, but since you're also revising part of that time when you're sitting down. I also have a goal to sit down for as many hours as possible without any appointments that I have to go to because I feel like most writers experience this. There's a lot of procrastination. Takes a while to sit down even though you want to be a writer, enjoy writing, there's a lot of fear.
Fear of the unknown, fear of failure. There's a lot of resistance against oneself and so you chew up a lot of time just trying to sit down, and then when you sit down I find that it's very helpful to feel like I have hours to get those two little pages done. So that's why I never try to have lunch with people. People are like, "Oh, let's meet for lunch." That to me is like... I'm not going to meet for lunch. That's in the middle of the day! That creates a deadline if I somehow started in the morning, which I never do. I waste every morning. Then if you're out to lunch and you come back you're tired. You've used up life energy. Lunch to me is absurd.
There was some rumor, or talk, or mention of a possible Bored to Death movie. Is that based in reality? That rumor was at one time based in reality and I did write two scripts. Two full length movie scripts for it. They didn't happen. Then I began doing so many other things it now feels ... I have a meeting at HBO in a few weeks and maybe I'll have greater clarity. Recently it was looking like, "Oh, shit. Maybe it is going to die," and I suddenly felt sad because I've had hesitations about trying one more time or even pulling it off because a lot of times these movies of things kind of fall short or people are used to the series where you could really marinate with the characters, and movies are so fast and can feel facile. Like the bad wine version; you know like there's bad red wine or bad white wine. Actually, bad white wine would be apropos for Bored to Death since that's what the character drank. So there's been a fear. I don't think it could ever be bad because you have Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis... But also it's reentering those characters.
It made me sad, though, to think maybe it could be dead because it was such a special time in my life. People are still so fond of the show. It seems to live on with people in a nice way. At the same time it lives on in that I am friends with all three guys and with many people that I met through that experience. I would say, it has maybe a few heartbeats left, but it's getting less and less likely as time goes on. I don't want fans to give up on the idea entirely for some reason.