Killing Her Darlings

Former critic Gillian Flynn takes a scalpel to her blockbuster novel to hone the taut, twisty, dread-soaked, often corrosively funny screenplay for Gone Girl.

©2014 Twentieth Century Fox
Ben Affleck in Gone Girl.
October 3, 2014 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Gillian Flynn

[Adapting]’s not about saving everything from the book, but saving the tone of the book. I had a big, hot pink sticky note above my computer, glaring at me at all times that said, ‘It is a movie.’

In Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, a serial killer in a Missouri smalltown brutally slaughters two teenaged girls, and then pulls teeth from their dead mouths. It might be worth noting that Flynn herself, despite all affable, relatively sane appearances to the contrary, can be just as savage—but only when adapting her own novel for the silver screen. At 43, long married to attorney Brett Nolan, mother to a toddler and a month-old baby, having labored for a decade reviewing television fare like Living Lohan and The Biggest Loser for Entertainment Weekly (which, come to think of it, could conceivably drive anyone to commit murder), Flynn has no first-person experience with the deployment of posthumous medieval dental skills, but she has demonstrated a dexterous, apparently innate agility with scalpel and chainsaw, translating her 432-page, blockbuster novel, Gone Girl, into a taut, twisty, dread-soaked, often corrosively funny screenplay.

The resulting film, directed by David Fincher, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, hits theaters October 3. Since the novel’s 2012 publication, Gone Girl has sold more than six million copies and inspired Flynn’s former employer to, months after the book perched itself atop the New York Times bestseller list, anoint her “Entertainer of the Year.” Today, the nimble and bright Kansas City native is juggling new motherhood with Gone Girl press obligations, scripting Utopia, a Fincher-helmed conspiracy-thriller series for HBO), as well as laying rails for her next adult novel and a Young Adult adaptation of Hamlet. When it is suggested that Flynn might take a moment to celebrate this banner year with a bit of bubbly, the woman who devoured in her youth VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, Alfred Hitchcock’s film oeuvre, and Joyce Carol Oates’ often Gothic, trenchant body of work, laughs and says, “I’d love some champagne! I’ll gladly accept bottles of champagne!”

Gone Girl has generated a lot of headlines, first as a novel and now as a feature film. One headline we haven’t seen, though, is: “New Mom Pens Year’s Most Disturbing Film!”

That would be good, actually. I like that! Can you make that happen?

We’ll do our best. Meanwhile, you wrote for a pop culture weekly for 10 years, reviewing hundreds of films and TV shows, interviewing hundreds of celebrities. What’s it like for you now, working the other side of the tape recorder?

It’s strange how familiar it is sometimes. A lot of times it’s an exercise in discipline for me, trying not to hijack the conversation. “I’m asking the questions here!

Is journalism and pop culture criticism a good training ground for novelists and screenwriters?

Oh, yeah. I very strongly believe that I would not have become a novelist or a screenwriter had I not had that journalism experience. For being a novelist, the magazine work taught me the discipline of sitting down and writing—even when you don’t feel like writing. There is still this conception that the muse will come down and, if you’re meant to write a novel, she will sit on your shoulder and guide you through. The truth is: a lot of writing is just tedious and boring, this slogging kind of work. All those years of writing for a weekly magazine taught me: the muse is not going to come for you, my friend. You just have to grab the Diet Coke and sit down in front of the laptop and don’t get up until the damn story’s done. That’s helpful as a novelist.

Is it also helpful in writing screenplays?

Writing the Gone Girl screenplay was largely an exercise in killing my darlings. It was taking a 500-page book and knowing that two-thirds of it was set for execution, but the end result still had to be rich and compelling, with this clockwork plot and jagged elements and cul de sacs of the central relationship. Those are the things people really responded to in the novel. The magazine training came in handy there because we all know how you’re 1,000-word “think piece” can suddenly become a deep caption. You can’t be overly precious about anything. Writing for magazines taught me to look at my work with a very hard eye. If you can accept going in that most of your book is going to be cut, then you’re probably in safer waters than if you try to jam everything into the script.

Of course, if your novels have taught us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as safe water.

That is kind of the moral of Gone Girl, isn’t it? There is no safe water.

James Ellroy once commented that when Hollywood comes courting to adapt one of his novels, he takes the check, cashes it, throws the novel in a car, and then shoves it off the cliff.

I jumped in the car with the book, didn’t I?

You made a number of significant changes in translating the novel for film. Is that a result of collaborating with David Fincher or the result of an author returning to her work and going, “Oh, wow, it would’ve been so much better this way!”

It was never a chance to go back and fix anything, so it definitely wasn’t the second thing. Really, it was a chance to work in film, which is a medium I really love. I did two things growing up: I went to the movies and I read books. I have a very healthy respect for the incredibly huge differences between what those two mediums are and how we consume them. Some of the changes were really obvious, streamlining things, and when Fincher came on board, the screenwriting became an exercise in what he and I really wanted to see from the book and these characters. Every once in a while, I’d suggest getting rid of a certain scene or sequence, and he’d be, like, “No! We’re not getting rid of the abandoned mall!” That’s how I knew we were kindred spirits.

Before Fincher came aboard Gone Girl and you were flying solo at the typewriter, what was your initial approach to adapting the book?

It was a process of distilling the plot, really. You have to start with exactly what’s going to get you from A to Z. If you haven’t thought that all the way through, especially in a clockwork, twisty story like this, you can end up in a pretty bad place. You also need to remember: it’s not about saving everything from the book, but saving the tone of the book. I had a big, hot pink sticky note above my computer, glaring at me at all times that said, “It is a movie.” I wanted to remember at all times that this was a very different thing than writing the novel. A screenplay is about tone, nuance, and spirit. That’s what you’re trying to translate.

Fincher is pretty well known, and probably at least a little mythologized, as an artist who sometimes demands 60 takes or more from his actors. Did he put you through similar paces on your first screenwriting job?

It’s funny; I truly don’t know how many drafts we did. Before he committed to directing the film, he read my first draft, and then we met and then somewhere between April and August of last year, when the film was in rehearsals, I was just constantly sending him drafts. I probably should have notched the number of drafts. I kind of wish I had. But I was just constantly rolling pages toward him. The nice thing about working with Fincher is: he’s such a perfectionist that when he says, “this act is good,” you don’t have to worry about it again.

So he’s kind of like an ideal magazine editor.

What he’s doing is asking you to defend everything you’re doing. He’d send my drafts back marked up with yellow highlighter, things he wanted to discuss, and it could be anything from the film’s overall theme to “would that character really ride a bicycle?” He wants everything in his films to be defensible in the real world. He wanted me to road test everything. I loved it! I’ll rewrite until its right. I’m okay with that.

Had you written screenplays before Gone Girl, or did you unwittingly sign up for the David Fincher Master Class?

I certainly tried my hand at writing them. I was always someone who loved films, and it’s probably true that if someone is a writer and loves movies, they’ll try their hand at some point at writing one. What you realize very quickly is that screenplays are not easy to write. You look at them and the pages are mostly blank, there aren’t as many words on the page, so it must be easy, right? The truth is: there aren’t as many words as there are in a novel, so every single one of them has to do so much more. Fincher was really good at bringing that home to me. I’d send him these great exchanges of dialogue, and he’d say, “Yeah, the dialogue’s great, but what else is it doing? Is it forwarding the plot? Is it establishing the mood? Is it establishing the character?” It made me sit up straight for four or five months.

If Fincher made you sit up straight, it’s probably worth mentioning: Ben Affleck, your leading man, is an Oscar-winning screenwriter himself!

Being in rehearsals, sitting across from Ben and Fincher, I’d sit there sometimes and think, Stop improvising, Affleck! [laughs] You think you’re so smart!

In your youth, your father—a college film professor—and you had weekly dates at the cinema. Is there a particular film from that time that stands out in your memory and is, possibly, formative to your work as a writer today?

I do have this great memory of my father sitting me down with our giant, top loading, 1970s VCR, and saying, “Today, we’re going to watch Psycho.” He felt it was a perfectly reasonable thing to show to a nine-year old. Of course I should see Psycho in my continuing exposure to the Alfred Hitchcock film festival. It was high time to see Psycho. We saw so many great films together—Bonnie & Clyde, West Side Story, on the big screen as often as possible. Telling stories in my home growing up was never fanciful or frivolous; it was considered important to the human condition, maybe kind of magical. I was raised with the idea that telling stories is an important thing to do.

It’s been said: once a critic, always a critic. Will we ever get your review of the Gone Girl film?

I had seen it four or five times before with a few of the cast or crew members, but the first time I saw it with an audience was in New York the other night, and I had hoped that experience would be my first as a “true viewer,” an actual audience member. I thought I’d just take it all in and receive the whole film as if I’d had nothing to do with it. Instead, what I did was: I spent the whole time clocking the audience. Did they laugh in the right place? Did the gasps come in the right places? Are people checking their phones or shifting in their seats? So I said to Fincher afterwards, “I’m looking forward to the day I can just sit down and look at this as a film.” He looked at me and just laughed, and he said, “Oh, you’re never, ever going to be able to watch Gone Girl as a film! Give up that dream! You’ve seen how the sausage is made!”

What advice would you offer aspiring screenwriters?

For me, what was key to adapting Gone Girl was just remembering my absolute love of movies, sort of keeping that “fan girl” alive and paying attention not just to craft, but to the memory and belief that movies are supposed to thrill you and transport you and enlighten you and give you things to talk about. A lot of that script was written from the point of view of, “Well, what would I want to see up on that screen right now? What am I hungry for in this scene?” It’s important to satisfy yourself.

© 2014 Writers Guild of America West

READ ALSO: Gillian Flynn on her transition from Entertainment Weekly TV critic to novelist to Gone Girl screenwriter.