Even before Hollywood came calling, Gillian Flynn's book Gone Girl was a page-turner for millions of readers. Now, thanks to David Fincher's film of her novel — she adapted the screenplay from her own work — the 43-year-old author is about to bring her dark domestic satire to a whole new audience. Opening to rapturous reviews, the movie tells the story of Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike), a couple whose secrets seemingly become public when Amy disappears on their fifth anniversary. What starts as a whodunnit turns into a disquieting meditation on relationships and the American dream, wrapped in a nightmare of blood tests, DNA swabs and media crucifixion.
Flynn spoke with Rolling Stone about taking apart her own book, the director's "mischievous" sense of humor and how she's sincerely hoping for plenty of awkward, alcohol-fueled discussions between shell-shocked moviegoers after their date nights.
There's all of these great things in the book that don't make it into the movie — the mom of Neil Patrick Harris' character Desi, the frozen vomit....
When you went to write the script, was it agonizing to have to cut that stuff or was it a relief, in its way, to get down to the barest version of the plot?
It's funny you mention Desi's Mom — she's in the book for all about four pages, but everyone is fascinated by Desi's mom, including myself. She never made it into the first draft, but that was one of the hard ones [to cut]. I just realized there are all sorts of quirky supporting characters that are just kind of strange little cul-de-sacs in the book that just weren't going to make it into the film. The key to a good adaptation is respecting the incredibly huge differences between a book and a film — and just kind of setting out not to save everything I liked from the book, but saving everything I needed to. It boils down to the plot, which moves everything (and is very hard to disassemble too much) and making these characters believable so you can go to the crazy places that the story goes.
I kind of approached it...I was a writer for 10 years for a weekly magazine [Entertainment Weekly], and had spent so much of my time having my 1,000-word piece suddenly be a 200-word box, and having to disassemble it and create it as a new thing. I think that helped me be pragmatic about it; I sort of had a ruthless, "I killed my darlings" approach to it.
It sounds like you're comfortable with the execution process.
[Laughs] Yes, I executed them without blinking an eye, for the most part; I really just knew that there was only going to be so much room. It's a very big book, almost 500 pages, and two-thirds of it was going to have to go. My first draft was as streamlined as possible, and my second draft was all about working with David [Fincher] and him wanting me to put stuff back in. So we could kind of blow it up a little bit, so we have as much room to play as possible.
Was part of the pleasure of creating someone like Amy that fact that she's not a typical female character...that she's a woman who will "lean in," but only because that makes the knife go deeper?
[Laughs] For me, there's a lot of questions about who Amy is, and what Amy means — and a lot of that answer is found in who is watching her. I think we all bring our sort of personal baggage and past experiences and aim it at Amy, which is why she's so fascinating; she's someone it's hard to get a grip on. And certainly the idea that creating someone like Amy, who has so many different facets to her, the fact that people are surprised by a female character like that, still, in 2014, I think is kind of ... pathetic [laughs]. It's shocking that the amount of women that we have onscreen are anything aside from loving girlfriends, needy girlfriends, good moms or a feisty lieutenant who barks some orders and is dismissed. What I like about Amy is so many people's own opinions about her.
How much of the cable-news phenomenon of "Missing White Woman!" did you want to crack open with this story?
Well, I think when we turn on the TV or watching a movie — whether it's true-crime reporting or maybe a [fictional] crime show, the only women that we want to watch die are the beautiful ones. Even in death, there seems to be this demand that women need packaging in a certain way, and certainly those are the ones that get the most attention from these true-crime shows. The characters in Gone Girl, I think, are certainly aware of that trope, too, from the start: Here's this attractive couple that has the added pathos that she's gone missing on her anniversary. From there, it almost seems inevitable that they're going to be in the media cross-hairs.
I think, more and more, the media has become very facile; we get the coverage we deserve. I tune into these shows too, and I think that idea of packaging ourselves as a personality is something that Gone Girl plays with throughout. Nick and Amy play these sort of persona roles for each other in the early days, and the media then comes in and immediately wants to cast one person as America's Sweetheart and her husband as the villain. We put that lens on them because that's what we do, and that's what's expected. You can only cover so much truth in that 15 second sound-bite. You can only project so much information when all you have is footage of a guy walking from his car to his house.
"That's one guilty walk he has. We talked to our body language expert ..."
It's all about the body language. Or the "doctor" who says "I did not treat Nick, but he definitely is a sociopath." Gone Girl started with the idea that we are so trained in this that there's no right way for someone — for a husband whose wife is missing — to act. If he doesn't cry, it means he doesn't care. If he cries too much, then he's putting on a show, and either way he's guilty.
Is it weird to think that these characters you created will now be associated with very specific actors? Whenever someone reads your book now, they'll picture Ben Affleck as "Nick," and so on.
The whole reason I sold the movie rights was because I wanted it to be a movie, I wanted it to come to life. Any smart writer deal who does this realizes, I think, that they are giving up the fact that any specific traits — physical and personality-wise that have been rolling around their head — are now up for grabs depending on who gets cast and what director and all that sort of thing.
I think I was really lucky in having those two leads be cast, but Ben in particular. He was someone that I did have in mind from the beginning. He doesn't look exactly the way that Nick is described in the book, but I knew he could pull off the golden boy who has seen better days. I knew he had the acting ability to make us wonder what he was really thinking and what he was doing; he also has that inherent likability and charm that lets him usually get away with a lot, and has now been kind of turned against him.
I think, more and more, the Media has become very facile; we get the coverage we deserve.
With Rosamund (Pike), I thought she was perfect — she's so incredibly bright and thoughtful, and she brings that to Amy. She is kind of clocking everything, nothing is missed, and she's adjusting herself according what she wants out of a situation.
But getting back to your question, it's the same thing I tell the people who say they like they don't like the movie as much as the book: They are two entirely different things. A book you have control over; with your mind, you can picture whatever you want. With a movie, you're surrendering to someone else's vision.
Speaking of surrendering to someone else's vision — when David Fincher came on board, was it fist-bump time?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I sold the project to Fox, and Fincher was not attached at that time. But when I heard he was coming on, I felt a tremendous sense of relief in a way; it wasn't even excitement, it was this wonderful palpable sense of relief. I just felt like it was going to be a good pairing, that he would like the same things about the book that I like, which is very different from just liking the book. I think in another director's hands it could have easily turned into this great procedural thriller, but I felt that he would like all the weird, jagged edges of Gone Girl that I did. It was definitely this moment of "Wow, thank God"
When you hear "Fincher-esque" used as a description, you know that statement means a certain look, a certain sense of dread, a certain darkness — but what I don't think he gets enough credit for is the dark humor and mischievousness of his films. Before he even had signed onto the film, we spent a lot of time talking about that sense of loving being in an audience, watching particularly dark material and having that moment of laughter where you have to look around and wonder if you are supposed to laugh. You know, "Is it okay that I just laughed at that?" He talked about loving some of Kubrick's films that do that. It takes a confident director to want to keep those bursts of humor; they are not easy to pull off in a really dark sort of story. I knew he wouldn't shy away from that.
You wrote a very gracious acknowledgment to your husband in the novel. When he read your draft, were you going, "Honey, it's all make-believe ..."? What inspired this examination of relationships in the first place?
Well, you know, I was a newlywed when I started writing it — because of the way my mind works, I am a worst-case scenario-ist. I spent a lot of time thinking about what marriage meant, and how marriage can go wrong. No one sets out to have a toxic marriage, yet you see them all the time, so what exactly happened? I had this basic underlying thought about how much of relationships are sort of a con game, in the early days, and we're all kind of con artists: We're trying to trick someone into loving us in a way, and we're not showing all our cards, we're not showing the real person you are going to get two or three years down the line when the mask starts slipping. I started thinking, what if I blow that up to a much bigger idea?
My husband is a very confident guy, and he didn't really blink. He just said "Don't censor yourself: write the book you need to write, and we'll worry about it later on." And then later he read it and he said, "Tell me once, just once, do we need to have any sort of conversations about this?" I said "No, no, it's just my imagination ..."
Are you ready to launch a thousand uncomfortable conversations this movie is going to launch between couples?
[Laughs] I frankly don't think we have enough uncomfortable conversations going on. I like the idea that people who see Gone Girl are possibly going to come out with incredibly different reactions to it — not just between men and women, but if you are in a good relationship or a bad relationship. Everyone is going to bring their own bundle of prejudices and viewpoints and experiences to it. I do think it's going to be the kind of film that you have to go out for a drink afterwards — alcoholic or not — and really discuss it. I'm looking forward to that.