Jonathan Ames can only write one way, and that way is distinct unto himself. Both of his major television programs have featured a style that’s hard to pin down, as well as a narrative pace that’s as addictive as it is unique. “Bored to Death” featured such an easily identifiable premise — a struggling writer searches for success as a P.I. who accepts cases from Craigslist — it actually makes it harder to explain what makes it so special to anyone who hasn’t seen it. The same can be said for Ames’ latest.
“Blunt Talk” is officially about a disgraced British anchorman who’s still struggling to overcome his vices and deliver the nightly news with his respectability intact. Yet with a loyal manservant for a best friend, an eclectic cast of characters in his news room and that unidentifiable X-factor, the show feels like so much more than its logline when watching. Below, Ames tries to explain where his motivations come from, how he went about writing a show that was greenlit for two seasons right out of the gate and the future of his long-discussed “Bored to Death” movie.
My honest reaction to watching the first episode was that Harry was Walter’s imaginary friend, until obviously that theory is disproven in Episodes 2 and 3. But what was it that inspired their unique relationship?
Well, it seems to me you should think he’s imaginary because I wrote a novel called “Wake Up, Sir!” in which the narrator has a valet — a manservant — and it’s never quite clear in the book whether he’s imaginary or not. So I think people who know that novel of mine wondered, reading it at least in script form, whether Harry was imaginary or not. So it’s just interesting that you should pick up on that possibility. I guess the inspiration was that it’s the kind of relationship that I’d written about before, and maybe still had great interest in exploring. I think I had been trying to write the movie version of my novel “Wake Up, Sir!” and was struggling with it, and then had the opportunity to write “Blunt Talk,” and I just always loved these master-servant relationships. It’s a classic relationship going back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and I saw Walter Blunt very much as a Don Quixote and Harry in many ways is his Sancho Panza. And then also, my novel “Wake Up, Sir!” is very much an homage to the Jeeves and Wooster novels of P.G. Wodehouse, which featured a manservant. So, this is just something that’s long been a fascination of mine, and so I put it in “Blunt Talk.”
Part of the reason I think it works so well is that there’s not a lot of heavy exposition about what their backstory is, or how they became so close. How did you decide to parse out that information about the duo throughout the season, rather than just explaining everything upfront?
There’s this David Mamet quote, “Get in late, leave early” when writing a scene, and so I guess I got in late like, “Hey! This guy’s got a manservant. He’s passed out on the backseat.” And then we get little hints, and they do the cocaine, “Oh, look how young and fit we were.” And then we realized what Walter said on the car, “It’s the Falklands all over again, Harry.” So within that first episode, you know that they served together and so then, I don’t know if you saw the fourth episode?
Harry implies that Walter had saved his life, and then we get more into all that in Episodes 9 and 10 and get the rest of their backstory, though not necessarily how it is exactly that Harry fell into his current station. So, as a writer, I kind of know what it is, and I don’t know that we’ll ever [explain it]. You know, maybe he’ll explain it to someone.
He also explains to Jim, I believe, in Episode 9, why it is he’s so devoted to Walter. But, Harry came to be the valet is maybe too much exposition. It was a fun bit of storytelling to present this unusual character and then slowly parse it out. Like, we begin with the feeling, “Wow, they’re very close. They love each other.” And then, over time, reveal how it is that they came to love each other.
Their relationship seems to really help define the series as a whole in that it’s very unique. It’s obviously a comedy, but outside of that it doesn’t seem to adhere to any specific genre standards, and I was curious how you went about setting the tone and establishing such a distinct flavor.
Yeah, I mean I guess people have sort of asked me this kind of question of tone or voice and it’s an interesting question, but I guess it’s like the analogy I would make is back when we had recording machines and we used to record our outgoing message. “Hi this is Jonathan, leave me the message” and I’m like “Oh my God, that’s what I sound like?” And so it’s a little bit like writing prose and writing TV. You just have a voice, and you’re not sure where it comes from. Or it’s like having a kind of stink. It’s just your own stink. So I don’t know why this comes across strange and different exactly. I mean, I’m just trying to amuse and entertain and drawing upon where amusers and entertainers meet and then collaborating with many talented people — the directors, the actors, the writing staff — to take what it is that I find amusing and entertaining, and they help me bring it to life.
For me it’s very much more about the originality of it all than feeling strange. There is kind of a strangeness to it, but it’s so much easier with a lot of other shows out there to point to and say, “Oh it’s kind of like this or it’s kind of like that,” and I just don’t get that feeling from “Blunt Talk.” I don’t know if you drew from any specific inspiration or, as you said, it’s just your voice and your story and that’s where it all comes from.
Yeah, I guess there wasn’t really a specific TV show inspiration. There’s lots of little inspirations along the way from moments that maybe create a collective feeling. If anything, it might have some similarity — at least in feel — to my old show, “Bored to Death.” I think there might be a similar spirit, though it’s a completely different world and different cast of characters.
Did the fact that Starz gave you the go-ahead for two seasons changed your approach to structuring the season or structuring each episode in any way?
Not really. It’s enough of a challenge to just create one season. I mean, maybe if I was working off a text, like “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones” or even “House of Cards” or “Homeland” — all of which are adaptations of something else — you could really have a plan for two seasons. But here there’s enough to be like, “Okay, here are all the characters. What are the stories?” It was daunting enough just to want lay the foundation so I wasn’t really thinking. I had to learn everything as I wrote it. I had to learn who these people were, how did they relate, what are the stories. So I didn’t really think beyond the first season. But it was great to have two seasons, to have the security and the opportunities to explore things.
What about the approach for the episode-by-episode writing? I was kind of wowed by how different each episode felt structurally and thematically. There’s a clear, serialized storyline, but I also felt like each episode could also be self-contained. I was curious if that was the kind of decision you made and you wanted to go for, if that was just how it came about or what the episode plans were.
Yeah, well the first two I remember I saw as a pairing; almost as a part one and a part two, and kind of end the first one as a cliffhanger. And then Episode 3 I saw as a chance to, “Hey let’s get to know everyone else now.” Things have calmed down a little, Walter’s crisis is receding, let’s get to know everyone. And so then it became a little bit like that Robert Altman movie, “Short Cuts” or something where we’re jumping around from everyone’s story. And then, after that, I think each episode was, a) I was trying to come up with a story for each episode and that also might highlight one or more of the characters; like this is a Rosalie episode, or this is a Jim episode. So, while we get to know Walter, we’re also getting to know the other people. And, so I think that’s kind of drove it and I think it’s my own means of wanting a different story each week or something else interesting every week and just trying to make each one its own little movie while also being serialized. It’s an interesting balance to try to strike.
Yeah, especially in today’s day and age when you don’t really know how people are going to watch it, whether they’re going to be binge-watching it or they’ll be watching week to week on Starz. Some writers say they consider that, some people say that they can’t consider that. It’s just one of those things that you may not be able to control the result of how people view it.
I think there’s a desire — and I sort of had this with “Bored to Death” — that each episode should feel like a discrete story, [but] nonetheless has routes and trails for stories that will continue. I was aware that people will binge watch, and I think part of the fun of binge-watching is like, “Well that was fun, what’s going to happen next week?” And then there is the element of — it’s more with shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” — where you’ve got to watch it because it’s so serialized. But with comedies, I think there’s still this feeling of, “Let me tell one story in these 27 minutes.”
With everything going on with news anchors today, from Brian Williams to Trevor Noah, do you feel that the perception of Walter might be altered for viewers from how you saw him as you created him?
No, I think — and Walter acknowledges this in Episode 8 — the internet is changing everything, first of all. He knows that he might be part of a medium that doesn’t have much time to have impact and yet people still turn to, especially during elections or crises. I think the anchor as an intriguing and polarizing and something scandal-ridden figure, even before Brian Williams, there would always be — whether it’d be Dan Rather getting in trouble with the way he was trying report on Bush in the early part of the century — they’re like divas. There’s not that many of them. It used to be Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather. Before that, Walter Cronkite and whoever his two peers were, and now it’s expanded out a little. There’s really not too many people that seem to be able to carry this kind of job. You have Anderson Cooper, you have O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Joe Scarborough a little bit. But the ones that actually become household names — Brian Williams — they’re rare birds. So I don’t think what’s happened lately will change that. I think it’s just kind of concerning that these personalities are in the spotlight still.
Expanding on that idea a little bit, just what was it when you first got the idea for Walter Blunt that made him such a gripping character that you’d want to base the show around him? What brings you back to him and what do you want to keep exploring with him over the course of two, three, four seasons or more?
I think the fact that he’s, in my mind, something of a hero, that he wants to report on things that are important and that help impact the dialogue in the world, pushing it in a certain direction. I think we all perhaps in our own way want to have some impact, or positive impact on the planet, and this is someone who really does have a platform in which to say things. And can he take advantage of that platform? Can he get out of his own way to really express something important? And also he’s kind of a father to this nutty family and so I also really love this nutty family and want to see what they get up to, being all the characters around him.
Well, I have to let you go, sadly, but I have one more requisite question for you. Fans have not given up on the “Bored to Death” movie, and I was just curious if you could give us any kind of an update on where things are at with that script and process.
Well, I wrote two completely different drafts of a “Bored to Death” movie, but I’m not sure that either one of them is right. And, I now have an idea for yet a third attempt. I thought it would be easier to just go write from the episode into a movie, but movies are different and — actually having eight episodes — I could do a lot more than what I could do in 90 minutes. And then also to serve the people that knew the show, there were things we had to do, and for people that didn’t know the show, there were things we had to do. So, it’s more of a challenge.
Initially, if I had the time to go ahead and write it right after it had been cancelled, it might have worked better because then I would have just taken all my Season 4 ideas and somehow made it into one 90-minute movie. But anyway, if and when I find the time, I’m going to do yet another draft of the film and maybe it could happen. But I do appreciate that people are proving interested and curious. But I hope also, too, for fans of “Bored to Death,” that they’ll get a kick out of “Blunt Talk” and find some amusement in this new show.