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Gillian Flynn Writing Interview Essay

Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), the dramatic thriller Dark Places follows Libby Day (Charlize Theron), mother and two sisters were brutally murdered when she was only seven years old. Now 25 years later and broke, Libby agrees to appear at a gathering of true crime aficionados to help them re-examine the crime by revisiting the most tragic moment of her life.

At a conference for the film’s press day, Academy Award winner Charlize Theron and author Gillian Flynn talked about why dark female characters are so interesting, being truthful to the embodiment of a full woman, the importance of turning up at the box office for female-driven films, the fascination with true crime, and what makes a good book-to-film adaptation.

Image via A24

Question: Charlize, why are you seemingly attracted to stories with dark, angry women?

CHARLIZE THERON: It’s really interesting when you get to play a woman that is layered and conflicted, and has certain human attributes that might not be that attractive, which is part of the human condition. But somehow, because we haven’t seen enough of it in cinema, it sticks out like a sore thumb and people comment on it. At the end of the day, they’re really not compartmentalized characteristics. They’re really just a part of a full human being, and especially a woman. It’s only, I feel like, in the last decade that we’ve seen women who are even more conflicted than men resurface and people are talking about it because there has been such a lack of it. So, I can’t say that I’m attracted to angry, dark people. I think what I’m attracted to are characters that, to me, feel very truthful to the embodiment of a full woman. I think it’s just refreshing to see women like Gillian Flynn write women like that. And to have been given the opportunity to play those women in the last 10 years, it feels authentic and real. That’s all I can say.

Were you able to relate to this woman’s tragic life experience, having had your own tragic life experience?

THERON: There really are no similarities. The circumstances of this tragedy has absolutely nothing in common with the tragedy that happened in my life. What I believe people can relate to is that we all come from this family structure that we don’t get to choose, necessarily. I’ve yet to meet somebody that doesn’t have some form of skeletons in their closet from the family life that they lived. I think there is something very relatable in the idea that you hit a certain age, later in your life, where you realize you have to pick up the rug and see what’s underneath it and deal with stuff. I think it’s a very easy assumption to make that, because I had a tragic event happen in my life, that was why I wanted to make this story. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Image via A24

Gillian, as a writer, what inspires you to create these very complex but strong female characters?

GILLIAN FLYNN: I certainly never sit down and think, “Gosh, I’m going to create this very multi-layered woman.” Although I will say, when I first started writing and I wrote Sharp Objects, my first book, I was writing it with a little bit of a sense of a vacuum of interesting female characters, and particularly female anti-heroes. Men can play all of these dark and screwed up roles and they’re called anti-heroes. And women do it and they’re a bitch, period. There’s not anything after that. But, we can be all those things and more. When we first started shopping it around, we got turned down by quite a few places that said, “Women will not want to read about a woman that they don’t like, and men definitely will not want to read about a woman who’s bad.” I was like, “What era is that?” For me, Libby’s darkness came from a very specific place. To write her any other way made no sense. I tried to do that. In the first draft, I was like, “I’m not going to write another dark female narrator.” The Libby that I created was just ridiculous. She was just like, “We’re going to solve this murder! Let’s go!” She was really optimistic and like a Jazzercise instructor. It was ludicrous. So, I just erased her and started over with the opening of the book, and then I really had her. People focus on the darker female characters in my books, but for every one of those, I can also show you an equally screwed up man that no one ever comments about, or a nicer woman that no one comments about. I don’t feel like that’s my specialty.

What can we do, as audience members, to ensure that there continue to be female-driven films?

Image via A24

THERON: It’s very simple, go see them. People always say to me, “What’s wrong with Hollywood? They don’t want to make female-driven movies.” And that’s not where the problem lies. It lies with us, in society. When we make these movies, nobody goes to see them. It’s a social issue, really, more than it is a Hollywood issue. It is a business, at the end of the day. They make movies that they find there’s an audience for. I do think there’s been an incredible shift, especially in this last couple of years. I can definitely tell you that there was a definitive moment in my career where the more I started exploring these darker, fucked up characters, the more people were emotionally tapping into them because there was just something really authentic within them. I remember doing a film (Young Adult) with Jason Reitman, which is probably the most despicable character I’ve ever played. And I remember that, after every screening, people would come up to me and whisper, “I know that character,” or “I am that character.” I think there is an element, when you make a film, that is a bit like holding up a mirror to society. And I think good filmmaking is when you really hold the mirror up truthfully, and you don’t angle it and you don’t hide things with smoke and mirrors. I think women are starting to be represented that way, and I think people are responding to it. It’s fun to watch women do that stuff. When I started out, I wanted to be Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and I wanted to be Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. I was like, “Where are those roles for women?”

FLYNN: No one watches Taxi Driver and says, “Oh, it’s a male-oriented film.” No one looks at nine-tenths of the films out there that are headlined by men and say, “It’s a male-oriented film.” I think it’s up to us, societally, to say, “It’s not a women’s story. It’s a story that has a woman in it.” There’s nothing that can drive me from zero to crazy faster than a man who comes up to me and says, “You know, I don’t normally read books by women, but I really liked Gone Girl.” Could you ever approach a man and be like, “I don’t normally talk to men”?

Do you understand the fascination with true crime and how it almost reaches a celebrity level?

Image via A24

FLYNN: My interest in Dark Places was that strange community that comes together around a murder. I watch those shows and read those books, all the time, and wonder, “Why am I attracted to these kinds of stories?” It’s not a new thing. The newspaper industry was built on the penny dreadfuls. We’ve been fascinated with murders for a long time. Part of it is that it gives us a vocabulary to talk about families, husbands and wives, money issues, and society issues. Those ones that we get attracted to do tend to have those angles to it that we can grab onto. That was my interest in it, particularly with someone like Libby, who becomes famous because of a tragedy, and then weirdly becomes identified with that forever.

Gillian, has seeing adaptations of your books affected how you write?

FLYNN: Hopefully not. I’ve not started the next book yet. Don’t tell my publisher. That’s off the record. I think writing a book with film in mind is a way to write a really bad books. You can usually tell those books that are packaged to become films. I think that will be one of those voice on my shoulder that I’ll be battling a little. Now I’ve confessed too much! With my next book, I’ll fight that urge to make it seem commercial or filmable. You don’t necessarily read Dark Places and say, “What an easy thing to film.”

Do you ever learn anything new or unexpected about your characters that you didn’t see when you were writing them, but that you see in the film adaptation?

Image via A24

FLYNN: Oh, always. That’s the fun of it for me. I don’t care how dramatically faithful a movie is to the book, or whether the character looks just like it’s described in the book, as long as the spirit of the book is there. To me, one of the funnest things is seeing Charlize take on Libby, and watching her take and the different ways she interprets things. A movie should be considered a companion piece to a book, as opposed to a straight adaptation of the book. I go into it as they should be two very different things. We’ve all seen movies that are slavishly accurate to the book that don’t become good movies because of it. A movie has to become its own thing. For me, writing is a lonely thing. You’re just by yourself, all the time. To get to see (director) Gilles [Paquet-Brenner]’s take on all of these different scenes is the fun of it. A movie is such a huge, big collaboration. It’s so different from a novel. I love seeing all of the different tones that everyone brings to the film. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had two adaptations that I’ve been super happy and thrilled about. Talk to me when a bad one happens, I guess.

Charlize, this is your second movie this summer with Nicholas Hoult, having also done Mad Max: Fury Road together. What is your working relationship like?

THERON: He’s just a really great guy, and he’s incredibly talented. We joked on Fury Road that we were stuck in the same environment, that entire film, but we didn’t really have that much to do [together]. We just really liked each other. He makes making movies fun. There’s something about him that I thoroughly enjoy. I enjoy working with people who make the experience a great one. And he’s stupidly talented. I feel that way about him today. I would do every movie with him. He was the first person that I talked to Gilles about. This was one of the first scripts that I read when I came back from Namibia, and I was like, “It would be amazing, if we could make this with Nick.” I think he was such a great asset to have. He’s so great in the film. He’s just great. He’s really talented. He’s the emotional drive in Fury Road.

Dark Places is out in theaters on August 7th.

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I Was Not a Nice Little Girl…

by Gillian Flynn (from Powell’s)

I was not a nice little girl. My favorite summertime hobby was stunning ants and feeding them to spiders. My preferred indoor diversion was a game called Mean Aunt Rosie, in which I pretended to be a witchy caregiver and my cousins tried to escape me. Our most basic prop was one of those pink, plastic toy phones most little girls owned in the ’80s. (Pretty girls love to talk on the phone!) Alas, it was always snatched from their fingers before they could call for help. (Mwahaha) In down time, I also enjoyed watching soft-core porn on scrambled cable channels. (Boob, bottom, static, static, boob!) And if one of my dolls started getting an attitude, I’d cut off her hair.

My point is not that I was an odd kid (although looking at this on paper now, I worry). Or that I was a bad kid (here’s where I tell you — for the sake of my loving parents — that I had enjoyed happy wonder years back in good old Kansas City). But these childhood rites of passage — the rough-housing, the precocious sexuality, the first bloom of power plays — really don’t make it into the oral history of most women. Men speak fondly of those strange bursts of childhood aggression, their disastrous immature sexuality. They have a vocabulary for sex and violence that women just don’t. Even as adults. I don’t recall any women talking with real pleasure about masturbating or orgasms until Sex and the City offered its clever, cutie-pie spin, presenting the phrases to us in a pre-approved package with a polka-dot bow. And we still don’t discuss our own violence. We devour the news about Susan Smith or Andrea Yates — women who drowned their children — but we demand these stories be rendered palatable. We want somber asides on postpartum depression or a story about the Man Who Made Her Do It. But there’s an ignored resonance. I think women like to read about murderous mothers and lost little girls because it’s our only mainstream outlet to even begin discussing female violence on a personal level. Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive. A girlfight is all teeth and hair, spit and nails — a much more fearsome thing to watch than two dudes clobbering each other. And the mental violence is positively gory. Women entwine. Some of the most disturbing, sick relationships I’ve witnessed are between long-time friends, and especially mothers and daughters. Innuendo, backspin, false encouragement, punishing withdrawal, sexual jealousy, garden-variety jealousy — watching women go to work on each other is a horrific bit of pageantry that can stretch on for years.

Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women.

So I did. I wrote a dark, dark book. A book with a narrator who drinks too much, screws too much, and has a long history of slicing words into herself. With a mother who’s the definition of toxic, and a thirteen-year-old half-sister with a finely honed bartering system for drugs, sex, control. In a small, disturbed town, in which two little girls are murdered. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids. So Sharp Objects is my creepy little bouquet.

There are no good women in Sharp Objects. Camille, my narrator of whom I’m obsessively fond — she’s witty, self-aware, and buoyant — is the closest to good. And she uses booze, sex, and scissors to get through the day. As I wrote about Camille, I was pondering how a girl who’s been raised to please — in an unpleasable, poisonous home — would grow up. How she’d react to a mother who was at once both physically insidious — a constantly poking, prodding woman — and utterly unnurturing. What kind of violence that might foster in this girl. A looping one, I realized. Camille has a craving to carve herself up. The cutter is both victimizer and victim — the bully and the sufferer. But the act includes healing: One has to cleanse and bandage the wounds afterward. Hurt, suffer, heal, hurt, suffer, heal. It’s a trinity of violence, all bound up in one person. It’s the loneliest act in the world. Camille is an inherently lonely human being.

Camille’s mother was inspired by my love of Brothers Grimm as a child: Screw the blonde, gentle heroines, it was those wicked queens and evil stepmothers I adored. (”The Juniper Tree” was well-thumbed.) So that’s what Camille’s mother is: She’s a lovely, regal woman filled with needles. She’s a consumer of others’ pain. If Camille’s violence is self-contained, her mother’s is the definition of self-centered. As for the murdered little girls, I didn’t want these doomed girls to be just flashes of dimples and hair ribbons. That would be too easy. (Poe said, “The death of a beautiful woman is a poetic thing,” and the death of a pretty girl is apparently more so — considering the current media madness surrounding JonBenet and other lost girls.) The murdered girls of Sharp Objects aren’t doll-like victims; they have vicious streaks themselves; they were fighters. Camille’s half-sister, Amma, also has a temper. Unlike Camille, her haunted home didn’t turn her aggression inward, but shot it out in the grabbiest, flashiest way.

When I think of the women of Sharp Objects, I think of a 1948 photo by Frederick Sommer, called Livia (the name of the murderous Roman empress). It’s a black-and-white shot of a young girl with all the accoutrements of innocence: Blonde braids, lace-edged dress. But her eyes are startlingly intelligent, her lips stubborn, her whole face mischievous — perhaps malevolent. It’s one of my favorite photos in the world, a reminder that girls — and women — can be bad.

Q&A (from Everyday Ebook)

Q. Your latest novel, Gone Girl, will create converts to the thriller genre. Getting back to the basics – and with no spoilers – where on earth did you come up with such a wild idea for this story? Further, as wild a ride as it was, you kept it all just this side of believable. How did you keep yourself from going too far?

A. Well, thank you! I started with a desire to explore marriage this round. My previous two books were told from the point of view of women who were decidedly single—who didn’t really even know how to sustain any kind of relationships, romantic or not. So I wanted to deal with a married couple, and do it as a “he said, she said” kind of narrative, because marriages are, in a way, one long version of a “he said she said” story. No matter how close we are to someone, there will always be a disconnect. I think that’s why, when you go out to dinner with a married couple, there is invariably some story that they start telling, that each of them swear is being told wrong. And they are always so incensed about it, right? “You’re telling it wrong!” But I think it’s because, underneath, we find it alarming, that you are sharing a life with someone and yet can experience the same thing in very different ways. It’s shocking sometimes. So this takes that idea of never entirely knowing your spouse, and blows it up times 1,000. As far as keeping it just this side of believable: thank you. I like to tiptoe right to the edge of gothic. My novels all have that just slightly off-kilter reality. It comes from my love of fairy tales, Lifetime movies and Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.

Q. The twist in part two of your novel is mind-blowing. Did you know from the beginning of your writing process that this was the direction you intended to take?

A. I knew the twist, but I had no idea if the twist was the middle or the end. I never know the end of my novels, and often don’t know the middle. I’m not bragging about it, it’s awful. I sometimes think I know, but I never do. In Sharp Objects, the murderer wasn’t even IN the first draft. In Dark Places, I had theories as I wrote, but I was never sure. GONE GIRL…I sweated a lot. Literally. I would sit in my basement office and pour sweat trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do.

Q. How does your previous work as a film and television journalist affect your work as a novelist? Do you find you’re more critical of your own writing because, perhaps, you’re also looking it from the entertained’s point of view?

A. It definitely propels me—I worked for Entertainment Weekly for 10 years, and consumed a crazy amount of pop culture in that time. There are few things that give me a bigger rush than watching or reading something really great. Conversely, the stuff that frustrated me the most (and that, in retrospect, I was occasionally unduly hard on as a critic) were the TV and movies that I felt squandered a really cool idea. Not the stuff that aimed to be average—and there is a lot of that—and not the stuff that aimed high and didn’t quite work. But the stuff that settled on being average when it didn’t have to be. TV shows and movies are different than books—there are so many more people involved, and so there are so many more things that can go wrong. It’s sort of magical when you think about it, when something is really great. So that makes me all the more aware of the position I’m in. As an author, it’s pretty much up to me. I have a brilliant editor, but she can only work with what I give her. It’s a pretty rare position to be in, so I don’t want to take that for granted and settle. I’m not saying my stuff ends up perfect—but at least it’s not lazy. I don’t want to have to look at my book sitting up on the shelf, and think “Ugh, why didn’t I rewrite page 42?”

Q. In addition to issues of trust and love, your novel provides an underlying comment on the ideals we as humans strive for – and the lengths to which we’ll go to reach those ideals. Was this one of your main intentions?

A. It’s definitely a novel about striving. Economically, personally, emotionally. It’s a novel about wanting, and what happens when we want the wrong things, or when we get the wrong things we want. It’s about the dangers of perfectionism and also of settling, and about that maddening Mobius strip, which is especially heightened in marriage: We should be the best person we can for our spouse, yet the point of marriage is unconditional love, which allows us to often dissolve into our worst selves.

Q. Though we’re not supposed to play favorites, of your three novels – Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl – do you have a favorite?

A. I’m going to be boring here: They are each my favorite in different ways. (I know, I know, but its true!) Sharp Objects was my first, and I wrote it on evenings and weekends and vacations from my day job at EW, without an agent or any assurances that it would ever be published, so I have a real soft spot for it, and the narrator, Camille, seems to strike a chord with a lot of people, so that’s very meaningful to me. Dark Places has my favorite opening line of all three: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” That line came to me deep into a very uneven first draft, and once I had that, I had my narrator, Libby Day, figured out and could really start writing: It was the most satisfying a-ha moment I’ve had as an author. And Gone Girl I’m just very proud of, if I do say so myself. It was the most physically, mentally and emotionally demanding of all three—plus I gave birth to our son in the middle of writing it, so it will always be a real personal touchstone for me. I was either pregnant or in the throes of first-time motherhood for all of Gone Girl. I’d write an incredibly dark scene and then I had the perfect antidote at the end of the day: To return to a land of soft blankies and smiling bunnies!

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