Hollywood's Most Powerful Authors: Gillian Flynn on Adapting 'Gone Girl,' Being Too 'Wimpy' for Crime Reporting and Her Best Advice to Writers (Q&A)
Gillian Flynn's first two books -- 2006's Sharp Objects and 2009's Dark Places -- earned her awards and acclaim, each selling more than 310,000 copies to date. But it was with this summer's Gone Girl that the former Entertainment Weekly writer found her biggest success: The unsettling mystery, about a woman who goes missing and the husband she leaves behind, has sold more than 1.8 million copies and spent eight weeks atop the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. The adaptation rights went to 20th Century Fox in a summer auction for a reported $1.5 million, with Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea and Leslie Dixon producing.
Witherspoon says she was impressed with the way Flynn was able to effectively tell the story from both male and female perspectives while also employing a nonlinear structure. "It's just an incredible feat that Gillian was able to accomplish," she says. "You really can't anticipate where it's going, but it's one of those books you can't stop reading. Two years ago, I really decided I wanted to get back into finding projects to produce that had great female characters in them, and this is one of the first that came up."
Flynn also has managed a feat that most writers only dream of: Not only is she adapting Gone Girl herself, but her first two novels also have been optioned. Amy Adams is starring in Dark Places for writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key), while Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity) is producing the adaptation of Sharp Objects.
Flynn -- who lives in Chicago with her husband, attorney Brett Nolan, and their 2-year-old son, Flynn Nolan -- recently signed a new deal with Crown Publishers to pen another adult novel after her next book, due for release in 2015, as well as a young adult novel for sibling Delacorte Press. The author -- who landed on The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural list of the 25 most powerful authors in Hollywood -- talked to THR about starting out as a crime reporter, adapting her own novel, navigating the movie development process and getting started on her next book.
The Hollywood Reporter: Where did you get the idea for Gone Girl?
Gillian Flynn: I liked the idea of a whodunit revolving around a marriage. My previous books featured very isolated narrators and people who were lonely and alienated, so I thought I had already explored that really well. I wanted to go the opposite way, to write about two people who knew each other so well and were in each other's times all the time, for good and often bad, and knew how to push each other's buttons but didn't know that the other was dangerous to a degree.
THR: [The main characters] Amy and Nick are both New York-based writers who had been laid off, which echoes your own experience.
Flynn: I certainly put some of that in the story line. I was a Missouri kid in New York working at my dream magazine and got laid off and had to figure out what to do with my life next. I did have more time to write; [Gone Girl] was the first of the three books that I wrote while I didn't have a day job. I think it let me overwrite -- I probably wrote two books and had to chop it back to one.
THR: Is it true that you originally set out to be a crime reporter but realized you weren't cut out for that kind of work?
Flynn: I had done journalism school at KU and gotten my master's at Northwestern, and I thought I wanted to be a crime reporter. Very quickly, I discovered I did not have what it takes to be a good crime reporter: I was too unassertive and a little bit wimpy. It was very clear that was not what I was going to do, but I loved journalism, and I'm the daughter of a film professor, and my mom taught reading. I grew up in a house full of books. So I applied straight to EW right out of Northwestern.
THR: All of your novels have a crime element. I take it that's not a coincidence given your earlier ambitions.
Flynn: My interest is in turning over a rock and seeing what's underneath. It's a personality trait more than anything; it's what made me want to become a crime reporter, even though I was not suited for it personality-wise. [I wanted to explore] those bursts of violence, where they come from and how they unite people together. I wanted to figure out what drives people to these sorts of extremes.
THR: It's an impressive feat that all three of your novels have been optioned. Why do you think Hollywood has gravitated toward your works?
Flynn: They are murder-mysteries, but with character -- strong character-led story lines. And I'm certainly happy to see that's become more of an interest now, that there is an interest in characters and exploring psyches and backgrounds, and not just telling an action-driven story. These are very strong female characters, and more and more actresses are having that clout to be able to lead interesting, dark movies and aren't afraid to take on these characters -- the darker, damaged women.
THR: Was it important to you that the deal for Gone Girl allowed you to write the script?
Flynn: Yes, I really wanted to have a hand in it. The novel has a strong voice, and I felt like that voice needed to be continued to keep the tone right. It was important that I be involved in it.
THR: What's the most challenging aspect of adapting a book to film?
Flynn: Just recognizing that a movie is a very different thing than a book. There are certain things you might love in the book -- like a dialogue exchange -- that just can't translate to a movie. I constantly have to remind myself that these are two very different mediums. It certainly was helpful having grown up with my dad as a film professor, and I studied movies and worked at EW for 10 years. You see books that translate really well to film, and some that don't, and you try to figure out what works. But the sheer volume of it -- there are a billion different pieces to it, stuff that needs to be in and stuff that needs to be dropped. It's a struggle.
THR: Has it been helpful that you spent 10 years covering the industry?
Flynn: It definitely is. I can't tell you the number of interviews I've done with filmmakers about their movies that are six, eight years in the making. They get started and stopped and are waiting for the right people. So I know that faith patience are a big part of it. It's important to hold out for the right group of people, and it will follow from there.
THR: What's the status of the Sharp Objects and Dark Places adaptations?
Flynn: Dark Places is the closest; we want to start filming this winter. Sharp Objects has a producer, Jason Blum, and right now we are just trying to find the right director.
THR: Did you have a hand in casting Amy Adams in Dark Places?
Flynn: Not at all. I had many conversations with [Paquet-Brenner], and I really clicked with him. I had seen several of his other movies and thought he would be very well suited. From the beginning, he loved Amy, whom he pursued.
THR: Did you think she was the right fit for the role?
Flynn: Absolutely. I don't tend to think of actors while writing, but as soon as he mentioned her name -- I had seen The Fighter, and [the character] Libby Day in Dark Places has a kind of rough edge and rawness to her that I thought Amy could totally pull off.
THR: Has anything surprised you about the development process?
Flynn: Not so far because it's all so early. But once I see the actual film sets and casting, it's going to be mind-blowing and bizarre to see these places re-created that I've thought about for so long. I can't wait. So it's just been me and my laptop.
THR: What's the best advice you have for other authors trying to successfully deal with Hollywood?
Flynn: I would just say do a constant gut check before agreeing to anything. Love the people you're working with; make sure they like the books for the same reasons you do. Just because they like the book doesn't necessary mean it's the right fit. One of the reasons I signed so quickly with Gilles for Dark Places was because he had the exact same vision of the movie that I did, he liked the same scenes I did. I felt like it was in good hands with him. A lot of things happen on the way to a movie being made, but the movie will be really good if you set yourself up as well as you can so there will be no regrets down the road.
THR: Have you already started working on another book?
Flynn: I'm paying 100 percent attention to my screenplay right now because it's on the fast track, and I'm getting that in good shape. Next year, I'll turn back to writing a new book. This has been the most thrilling summer. Gone Girl has a special place in my heart because it was very tricky to pull off -- more challenging than anything I'd done before. To see it take off and actually have a chance at heading to a movie is really thrilling. When I was a kid growing up, all my dad and I did on our father-daughter dates was go to the movies. I'd love to return the favor and take him to the premiere of one of the movies, so fingers crossed.
THR: Do you already have an idea for your next book?
Flynn: I don't. I'm so deeply in the Gone Girl world. Normally, I probably would have had something by now. But between traveling this summer and writing the screenplay, I haven't had any brain space. It will be another dark, psychological thriller, though. I'm definitely not going to start writing about shopping and cosmos.