New York's Cult Literary Hero, Jonathan Ames, Hits It Big
New York novelist Jonathan Ames, 44, is getting green-lit all over these days. He wrote an HBO pilot, Bored to Death, based on a short story he wrote for McSweeney’s in the fall of 2007. After weathering the writer’s strike last year, the pilot was shot last fall and, in January, got the order to go to series; it begins shooting March 30 and is scheduled to premiere later this year. It stars Jason Schwarzman as a struggling Brooklyn writer—named Jonathan Ames—with a drinking problem who pretends to be a private detective in the vein of his heroes from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett novels. (Ted Danson and Olivia Thirbly costar.)
Around the same time this happened, Ames’ novel, The Extra Man, went into production for an independent film starring Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes. Last week, this, too, began shooting in Manhattan and Brooklyn, causing a buzz.
When you write fiction everyone says it’s all true, and when you write non-fiction they say you made it up.
Yet throughout this Hollywood approbation party, Ames has managed to maintain his lit cred – his new collection of fiction and non-fiction, The Double Life is Twice As Good, will be published by Scribner this summer. Ames spoke to The Daily Beast about his suddenly booming career in film and television, buying his first TV set, home dentistry, and how performing in cabaret shows prepared him for life in the small screen.
How does it feel to have everything going your way at exactly the same time?
I don’t know if anything exactly happens at the same time. It’s by chance that it’s happening at what seems like the same time. Extra Man starts filming on February 23rd and we start shooting the HBO series on March 30th.
How did you learn how to write a pilot? Did any writer friends help you out? A Robert McKee workshop?
I did it by myself. I wrote a pilot for Showtime in 2004, so I had Final Draft [the scriptwriting software]. I just jumped in and tried. I keep it simple. I looked at screenplays and saw that you can’t let people talk for too long—basic principles like that. It’s story telling. And I thought a lot about a David Mamet quote about script writing: “Get in late, leave early.”
That could also be applied to party strategy.
Leaving late can also be fun.
How involved were you with the staffing of the HBO show?
I was very involved. It wasn’t like I was a fascist or something. Everything had to be okayed, but I’m involved every step of the way.
What’s it like seeing Jason Schwartzman as you?
I met Jason on another project and told him about this and he was really interested. I felt like he was perfect, and he is perfect. He’s an incredible actor, a wonderful musician, and all-around sweet human being. Some people are like honey -- you’re happy just to be around them, and he’s one of those. That doesn’t make him qualified to play me, but he’s not playing me.
But his character has your name.
I like playing with the frisson. When you write fiction everyone says it’s all true, and when you write non-fiction they say you made it up.
Did you ever want to use your reporting and observation skills to be a private eye? That seems like a secret wish of a lot of journalists.
For a long time, I had a fantasy about being a detective. The show is wish fulfillment. I don’t think of using my observing skills as much as following someone, getting into a fist fight, saving the girl, living in the late-‘40s in Los Angeles with the sun glinting off the road.
Although your show takes place in New York.
It’s a Marlowe fantasy—you can take it and bring it anywhere. San Francisco has Dashiell Hammett; L.A. has Philip Marlowe. New York hasn’t necessarily had a private eye to claim as its own.
How does it feel to watch the characters in your head become real people?
It’s a lot of fun watching these people speak my words. I like the whole experience: the catering, the electricians, the truck drivers, the cameramen…All these people have jobs because I wrote something. It makes me feel good.
What was hardest thing to learn about working in TV?
I don’t want to sound grandiose, but I caught on very quickly. I don’t know the technical terms for some things on the set and I’m a bit weak when it comes to wardrobe.
Who else is writing on the show?
How did you pick them?
It wasn’t an easy process, and I don’t really want to get into it because I don’t want other writers to feel like they were rejected.
Did you know any of them previously?
Does this process make you want to write another book, or are you sweet on TV now?
I want to write more novels. I’ve always jumped around, from novels and a column and back to novels. I perform a lot in cabaret shows, which was very good experience for working on TV. It’s nice that everything feels like Summer Stock theater, people coming together to make something that will amuse other human beings.
Was getting a TV show all part of your plan?
There’s been no plan. It’s been stumbling in a fog. I’m glad how things are going. I always just wanted to pay the rent as a writer.
Have you bought yourself a present lately?
I went to the dentist for the first time in 20 years. I never had insurance but now I do. I had been practicing self-dentistry for years—I bought this thing at the drugstore to scrape teeth. When I told the dentist I had not been since I was a teenager, she said, ‘Oh God, it may take two sessions to clean you up,’ but she was really pleased with my self-dentistry.
What TV shows do you like?
I don’t watch any shows. I only got a TV a few months ago, and got cable. Having been a struggling writer for years in New York, there were certain things I just didn’t have, like cable and a dentist. In the past, when I would go to my parents’ house, I would enjoy shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood.
Am I allowed to ask if you’re dating Fiona Apple?
We’re still together.
Are you going to have a cameo in your show?
I haven’t wanted to wreck it with my ugly mug. But I am in The Great Buck Howard, a movie coming out in March. I have a scene with John Malkovich. I play a writer.
Named Jonathan Ames?
No, but when I showed up, they were like, ‘Wow, you look like a writer.’ I wore my own stuff.
Deborah Schoeneman has been a columnist for The New York Observer, New York magazine, and Condé Nast Portfolio and served as editor-in-chief of Hampton Style magazine. Deborah's the author of the novel 4% Famous and moved to Los Angeles last year to break into Hollywood writing and learn how to surf.