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Interview: Jonathan Ames (BLUNT TALK)
In the beloved sitcom BORED TO DEATH, and the film THE EXTRA MAN, writer Jonathan Ames crafted Sisyphean storylines that made audiences laugh and wince, often at the same time.
With his new series, BLUNT TALK (Starz), Ames has created another world that is both delightfully welcoming and unapologetically depraved. In it, Patrick Stewart shows off his mighty comedy chops as Walter Blunt, a news anchor who writes his own tabloid headlines and commands a crew only slightly less out-there than that of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
The WGAE talked to Ames about BLUNT TALK, his writing process and BORED TO DEATH.
You are the Showrunner and Executive Producer of the Starz series BLUNT TALK, which recently wrapped its first season and has been renewed for a second season. Can you tell readers a little about the show?
My Hollywood logline is that it’s a cross between NETWORK and P.G. Wodehouse. It’s about a newsman named Walter Blunt. He wants to help the American people, but he could also use help himself. He’s surrounded by a rather dysfunctional staff, which is more like a family than a staff. He has got his hands full trying to control himself, help his staff, and help the American people by trying to bring them the news in a straight forward and blunt manor.
I enjoy how BLUNT TALK airs on the fictional UBS network, which is the same network in NETWORK. You wrote the pilot and first couple of episodes of BLUNT TALK by yourself, and then co-wrote the rest of the season with writers Sam Sklaver, Kirsten Kearse, Jim Margolis, Duncan Birmingham, Eli Jorne and Reed Agnew. Do you want to tell me a bit about the writing process on BLUNT TALK?
How I run this show, which is the same way I ran BORED TO DEATH, is that before I meet with the writers, I spend a month or two putting together a big document of ideas and images and snippets of dialogue, storylines for the characters, arcs, where I see the season going. It’s kind of a big thing of clay. Then what I do with the writers is we spend about two months taking that big thing of clay and chopping it up into episodes. By talking about it, the clay transforms and new ideas emerge and as a team we plot everything out and come up with very strong outlines for everything. Then we go to script. Season one I wrote the first three and then I assigned the next few. I tend to do a somewhat vigorous pass on things so that the voice is consistent – so we usually end up sharing credit on everything – and that’s kind of how it works.
I could hear lots of your voice in Walter Blunt, a voice that may be familiar to people who have read your books like WAKE UP, SIR! and WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?
I steal from myself all the time, I can’t steal from BORED TO DEATH though I steal things I didn’t end up using in BORED TO DEATH. I steal scenes and ideas and certain things from my books. In the pilot of BLUNT TALK, I was creating a whole new world, and I was maybe more dependent on some of my previously written materials and drawing upon them. But I also take from other artists. We had a piano being delivered up a staircase, obviously an allusion to THE MUSIC BOX with Laurel and Hardy. I put a woman on the back of a truck playing a piano like Jack Nicholson in FIVE EASY PIECES. I’m making lots of cinematic allusions throughout the show, which is a form of stealing which all artists engage in. But as I mentioned I also steal from myself, because writing ten episodes of a TV series is quite a lot – it’s less, of course, than the enormous twenty-two episodes one would write for network television, but it’s still basically three feature films of material that you have to come up with. So I mine myself where possible when I need to.
That said, Walter Blunt lives and works in a very different environment than anything you’ve written before.
That was a real challenge – writing for an office. I came up with the idea of Patrick Stewart being a cable news host, but then I was like, oh boy, now I’m in an enclosed space. With BORED TO DEATH, I had all of New York. I had this private detective who could run around. Now, of course, even with BORED TO DEATH, because of the nature of shooting you need to be inside a certain amount of time for production and budget and all that, but this office environment was a particular challenge and completely new territory for me.
In my mind I began to draw upon my memories of Cary Grant in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, especially the character of the crazy brother who charges up and down staircases, pretending to be Teddy Roosevelt. And I also had in mind the sort of plays, which makes sense since ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was originally a play, which are all exits and entrances, people opening doors and closing doors, intruding. So I think I had plays more in mind than anything I’d see on TV. Our newsroom set – our bullpen – felt like the setting of play. So, anyway, the goal was to try to keep it lively, switch it up. We’re working on season two now, and it’s sort of okay, what room should we put them in? Or how do we use this space in a new way? Who could interrupt? Things like that.
For season two, do you plan to have all the episodes written before you start shooting?
Right now we’re breaking the whole season and my goal will be to have half the episodes written before we start shooting, but everything is very thoroughly outlined so production will know locations and what sets to build. So I’m hoping to have five episodes written, but it’d be great to have more than that so it’s not stressful while we are shooting, though it will be, stressful, regardless. Deadlines have the word ‘dead’ in them for a reason. I write on the weekends while we’re in production to keep pace, so that during the week I can be on set as much as possible or be in the editing room. Also, things change once the scripts get written and some characters emerge in ways you don’t expect, so it’s good to leave some flexibility for the later episodes. But if we could have six written before we start that would be great.
You say you like to write on the weekends. What kind of place do you like to be in when you write? Do you do your famous call before you write?
I don’t do the call before writing, I do that before table reads. It’s like striking a bell at a Buddhist ceremony. It loosens things up and clears the air. I like to start writing in the morning, I’m not a super early morning person, but if I can get started by ten or eleven that’s good. I have a little office in the little house I rent. I sit at the computer all day long drinking coffee. And probably after a few hours lie down or go for a walk. I just try to sit there, I don’t play music. I’ll distract myself with the internet, look at ESPN or things like that, but just straight forward coffee and sitting is how I write.
What are some of the things that you’re enjoying being distracted by, books, movies, TV shows that you would recommend for others to be distracted by?
I’m sort of a limited person at this stage in my life. For some reason, my only source of entertainment are books. I don’t really watch any TV. I stopped going to movies. I do watch sports. I’ll be watching the World Series especially because the Mets are in it, but the only thing I really absorb are books. At the moment I’m really into George Simenon, a French mystery writer. I’m starting to tear through his ‘Inspector Maigret’ novels. I highly recommend them. I do watch one TV show. I love THE WALKING DEAD. I’ve said this before, but I would like to be part of Rick’s family and help out.
Is there a character throughout the history of film or television that you wish you could’ve written?
Gosh, a character I could’ve written for? I don’t know, I’m not very good with hypotheticals. I mean, I don’t think I could’ve written well for him but for some reason Archie Bunker came to mind. Maybe because that was one of the first TV shows that I really loved. Or SANFORD AND SON. I really loved SANFORD AND SON. I would’ve liked to live with Fred Sanford and his son. I liked their house. I liked all the junk. Or THE ROCKFORD FILES. I love mysteries. Those are the shows of my childhood. Later in life, I loved the British tv show – ARE YOU BEING SERVED?. At one time early on, years ago, I loved THE X FILES. As for movies, I wish I could write a film like DR. ZHIVAGO. I don’t know. This is a difficult question. I guess what springs to my mind is I enjoy very much writing for these new characters in my life — Walter Blunt and Harry and the whole staff. I do miss writing for my old characters on BORED TO DEATH, George Christopher – Ted Danson – and Ray Hueston – Zach Galifanakis(SP?) – and Jonathan Ames – Jason Schwartzman. But more than the characters, I guess I miss writing with those actors in mind. But I’m super lucky to have new incredible actors to imagine writing for.
Would you ever revisit BORED TO DEATH in another way, whether film or…
I’ve tried. I’ve written two script versions of a BORED TO DEATH movie, but both weren’t quite right. I think there’s a third version – something I have in mind – and so I will try again. Fall down. Stand up. Fall down. Stand up. There’s some kind of Buddhist epigram about that, which, of course, applies very well to writing.