Finding Your Voice with Jonathan Ames
Jonathan Ames isn’t “just” a television writer. His prolific career spans from personal essays to graphic novels, storytelling, screenplays, a one-man show, as well as his HBO series Bored to Death, which fans are still clamoring for after it was cancelled. The man is a writer in just about every possible way.
Lately, he’s the creator and writer of the new comedy show Blunt Talk on the Starz Network, which is not only co-produced by Seth McFarlane, but it stars Patrick Stewart. The Patrick Stewart! Ames talked to me about his writing process, how the show came about, and even gave me some good writing tips.
I watched the first two episodes last night and wow, Blunt Talk is kind of a bizarre show. It’s really stylistically unlike anything I’ve seen. Obviously it’s a dark comedy, but how would you describe it?
Hmm, well I’m glad to hear that. I don’t know if you were able to see episodes three and four, but I feel like the show gets better and better, and really better and better episodes five, six, seven, eight… But, I guess I don’t necessarily see it as a dark comedy myself. I like my comedies to be uplifting, where you kind of feel good at the end, because it’s about heroes, you know loony heroes with well intentioned hearts who are doing their best. It’s kind of like all of us if we look at the world in a compassionate way. I mean there could be dark moments, and certainly as the season goes on, darker moments, but really I think because the characters are always persevering and questing. I want the audience to feel good at the end, so stylistically that’s why we also try to shoot it as cinematically as possible, so that there’s a feeling of beauty and exuberance. Whether it be the colors of the automobile, which I specifically chose, so that each car kind of matched the character, or to have a Busby Berkley dance sequence. I want people to feel good at the end of watching an episode of Blunt Talk.
I don’t mean it was dark in that you walk away feeling down, it’s just… he’s just got a lot of… maybe raunchy is the word? But that doesn’t feel right either. You know, there’s obviously a lot of sex and drugs and stuff.
So, those various dream sequences and interesting transitions, is that your voice? Is that how you envisioned it?
Yeah, I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I’m mostly working from the images from my mind or images from films. As I’ve matured as a TV writer, though I’m still immature as a TV writer and as a person, I really like to make fun images. I try to build every episode around a beautiful image since this is a visual medium and we’re watching these on these HDTV. This isn’t the era of All in The Family anymore, you know? I try to make each episode like a small film. For example, in the first episode I had various images in mind. Like the story sort of came to me of, a man alone at a bar, him standing on the Jaguar surrounded by police, the splitting the screen so he’s interviewing himself. I thought, “Wow, one Patrick Stewart is fascinating, two will be even better.”
I loved that scene by the way.
Oh, thank you. And it was sort of me getting a chance to talk to myself about sex and everything, and the attacking self, and then the cringing self. You know, we all beat ourselves up so terribly.
In episode two I wanted the Busby Berkeley thing. I wanted the automobiles, I wanted him dancing, doing a little singing in the rain. I try to work with images. In episode three I highlight the Venice canals. I have an homage to Pink Panther at the opening, when Cato would attack Inspector Clouseau. I also make lots of little film references throughout. In episode four I was very intrigued. I had one scene, remember that documentary The Aristocrats about the world’s dirtiest joke? They had shown the comedian Joe Franklin’s office and it was the most amazing hoarding nest I’d ever seen. I’ve never seen the TV show Hoarding. I have some issues with hoarding, so I really wanted to recreate the look of Joe Franklin’s office, if people want to Google that.
Anyway, I guess this is all still talking about style. I look for images and we try to shoot it in charismatic, and dynamic, and beautiful ways, so that the audience gets pleasure.
Are you the type of writer who sees a flash of it all at once and then pieces it together. You picture it first? What’s your writing process like?
Well, for scripts, or the stories of the scripts I sort of use this E.M. Foster approach. I once saw a quote from him that every novel he wrote, there was this place that he had to get to. With “A Passage to India” he knew he had to get to the Malabar Caves, that something happened there, you know. So every episode, usually I build around an image that strikes me as amusing or funny, or strange and important to the character. Then I try to build back from that. What I do in preparation for the season is kind of, along with storylines and arcs and all that kind of stuff, is I try to come up with images that I think will be striking. Then I try to build stories around the image.
Does that go for just television writing or all the types of writing you do?
You know, I’ve been doing so much TV writing I haven’t been doing much prose. I think with prose what I’m usually trying to do is mimic the sound of the prose style I really enjoyed and have become addicted to, so then want to try to express myself in that same kind of prose style. I think it tends to be more about the character and the prose as opposed to getting to an image or a place. For example I wrote this thriller recently called, You Were Never Really Here. I’ve been reading all these thrillers and I wanted to write something that was fast paced in the third person that had a certain character that reminded me of some very noir crime genre characters I’ve been obsessing about and reading. With books it’s more like the sound of something.
I read that you wrote the role of Walter Blunt specifically for Patrick Stewart. Why specifically him? Where you already friends or did you have a connection and just hope he’d say yes?
Here’s how it happened. I got a one-line email from my agent saying, “Would you like to get on the phone with Seth McFarlane.” I wrote back, “Sure, I’d like to get on the phone with Seth McFarlane. What’s it about?” He wrote back, essentially, “He’s looking for an idea for a comedy for Patrick Stewart.” I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” So that night, I happened to be channel surfing and I came across, and I’ve said this in a number of interviews, Pierce Morgan on CNN. I really liked the way his set looked. Other people might’ve thought it garish, but I just thought it was popping in the HD. It was very blue and he looked big, and his head looked big. I suddenly had this idea of replacing him with Patrick Stewart. After that, the character Walter Blunt has nothing to do with Pierce Morgan, but what he did do though was make it plausible that a Brit could be a cable news host. This was the idea I came up with and the next day on the phone with Seth McFarlane I pitched him that idea. I said, “We can live mostly behind the scenes. This isn’t Newsroom. This would be more like The Larry Sanders Show and more about his staff and the characters, not so much really about the news. Seth really liked the idea and he passed along some of the idea to Patrick. Patrick read one of my books, Wake Up, Sir!, and then him and I met and I further explained my idea and he jumped on board. Then I wrote the first script with him in mind. Obviously with him in mind. It was written for him.
I know that you would talk a lot and get to know each other. Is there anything from Patrick’s life or input from him that changed the character or your original idea for Walter Blunt?
Not really. I brought to him this idea that Walter was a Falklands War veteran. This is what has mobilized him, that he had been disillusioned by the war, that he wanted to join the fourth of state and Patrick really liked that idea. He kind of ran with that and knowing England better than I did came up with, “This is the school he went to. This is where he grew up.” You know what I mean? These kinds of details that actors sometimes fill in. I began filling in those things, but Patrick knowing England better and what he’d need for his sense memory, or whatever actors call it. That was one thing he did.
Then another thing he did, and this was mentioned in a New York Times article, Patrick somehow didn’t know… Patrick believed all his life, until his most recent marriage, that he was circumcised, and his wife told him, “No, you are uncircumcised.” But he disagreed with her.
Yes. So then, he went to his doctor and the doctor said, “You are uncircumcised.” So somehow, I don’t know… anyway, he just got it backwards. I don’t know what he thought he was seeing and when he saw a circumcised penis, if he was ever in a locker room, but maybe he wasn’t, I don’t know. I was like, “That is amazing.” So we did a whole episode where Walter Blunt discovers he had it wrong all his life, that he’s actually uncircumcised. We tied it in with genital mutilation, because it’s a news program and that many people consider male circumcision a form of genital mutilation. We also tied it in with a father-son story and Patrick Stewart’s own son plays his son in episode six of our show. I thought his son, when I saw his picture, looked like a boxer, so I made him a journeyman boxer. So that was probably the most direct thing from Patrick Stewart’s life that I put into the show, was that he had confused circumcised with uncircumcised. But these things happen! When I was a kid and said the pledge of allegiance and we would say, “For which it stands…” you know what the line is… “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, for which it stands…” I don’t know, whatever it is. I thought it was “For Richard’s stands” because at the time Richard Nixon was the President.
So, you know. This was kind of the same. I can empathize with not knowing what’s exactly going on with your genitals.
Did you feel pressure writing for him? I mean, he’s obviously a legend. He’s a freakin’ knight for god sake! And you’re writing a comedy for him.
I felt a lot of pressure, because also before I wrote the show, I went and saw him do Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett in Repertoire on Broadway. I’m hearing him deliver lines from Waiting for Godot and I think it was The Caretaker maybe? I don’t know, it was a famous Pinter play, maybe No Man’s Land. Here I am, two playwrights who I studied in college and who I consider probably two of the greatest of the twentieth century, and these are the kind of words he’s used to speaking, along with the fact that he’s in the Royal Shakespeare Company for thirty-odd years. So, it was intimidating. It was a lot of pressure, but it made me want to try to give him good lines. I mean, I want to try to give everyone good lines anyway… and you know, he can take anything, say anything and make it sound interesting and fascinating. The answer is yes, I felt pressure and did the best I could.
On you specifically, obviously you’re a pretty blunt person yourself and I wasn’t very familiar with your work, but it’s been really fascinating doing research and learning about you and things like you how you worked as an extra on a porno and you’ve talked about hiring prostitutes and smoking crack. Is there anything you won’t share or are more private about? Are you always such an open book?
Well, the fact of the matter is, I really haven’t been an open book for a long time. I used to do a lot of non-fiction in the 90s and early 2000s, kind of pre-internet. I wrote columns for the New York Press and it felt sort of ephemeral, because the people would be out for a week and then disappear. Later I did collect them in books. I don’t really work in an autobiographical vein anymore, but that work is out there. I really haven’t done that kind of stuff in a decade or more, but people associate me with it. I mean, I continue to operate in the first person in a lot of ways, like with my TV show Bored To Death, the character had my name. Even back then though, the most intimate things or important things between me and another person or relationships, I wouldn’t share. I never wanted to hurt anybody else with what I wrote. There were whole swaths of my life, in fact most of my life that I wouldn’t share. I wanted to entertain and with those early columns — I was trying to be like a Charles Bukowski. Again you asked about prose, so I was going for the sound of Bukowski’s prose.
I know you say you don’t really watch a lot of TV, so… and not that this is the only thing you can do for fun, but what do you like to do for fun? What’s the non-writer side of you like?
Well… good question. At the moment I’m at the ocean. I love to be in the ocean. I love to swim in the ocean. I like to be with my friends and drink a glass of wine, and laugh. I like to read books and you know, I guess that’s about it.
Those are all good things.
There’s also love and affection, but you know, that’s not always available.
And finally, because I happen to be one, what kind of advice do you have for aspiring television writers?
I guess it’s the same advice that I would give any writer, which is… well a couple pieces of advice. One is, and I used to teach fiction, if there’s a style of someone that you like, if something appeals to you, you should try to write in that style. If you really like Louis CK’s show, which I’ve never seen, or if you like Girls, which I’ve never seen, I only watch one show, The Walking Dead, so if I was an aspiring TV writer, I would try to write a show like The Walking Dead. You should write what excites you, but put it through your own spirit. With scripts it’s good to never have a scene that’s longer than two pages. Don’t have people talk for great big chunks. Keep it moving, because the people who read these scripts want to be entertained, so to get something made it’s good to have the dialogue be a little bit of a rapid back and forth. These long monologues often don’t work. They get dull when you film them. Perseverance of course. If this is really what you want, you have to do everything you can to make it happen. And you know, be disciplined. Set aside time to write every day if possible, or three days a week depending on how you’re earning money in the meantime. And love whatever you do, because that will come through. Be inspired by it.