Gillian Flynn’s new show Utopia has been in the works since roughly the time her 6-year-old daughter was conceived. The girl is affectionately known as “Kick” — after what she used to do in the womb while the author was working away on the TV series.
“She could go feral very quickly, and I say that with all affection,” the bestselling thriller writer-turned-showrunner tells Rolling Stone. “There’s an instinct to tame [children], I think, and I try to resist that. Girls especially need that particular skill set of fierceness — the willingness to push back.”
Flynn famously instills that ferocity into each of her female leads — from the scheming, brilliant Amy Elliott Dunne of her breakout 2012 novel Gone Girl to the ice-veined heist squad of the 2018 Steve McQueen film Widows to Jessica Hyde, the nearly feral protagonist of Utopia, a new Amazon Prime series debuting September 25th and based on Dennis Kelly’s original British show. The show is Flynn’s latest foray into TV since co-writing HBO’s Gothic mystery series Sharp Objects, which was based on her 2006 debut novel. She also penned the screenplay for a 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher. The pair were set to collaborate again on Utopia, but Fincher did not go on to the final project. The Amazon series was instead directed by Toby Haynes, Susanna Fogel, and J.D. Dillard.
Utopia centers on a cadre of “nerds,” as Flynn calls them, who believe that a cryptic comic book can foretell mass pandemics. When a sequel manuscript (from which the series takes its title) emerges, the nerds scheme to acquire it at a comic book convention. But all goes to hell when an assassin starts picking off potential buyers one by one, and the comic’s main character, Hyde (Sasha Lane), turns out to be real — and really dangerous. Juxtapose all that with a pandemic killing off the country’s schoolchildren and a shady company making synthetic meat (the possible source of the virus?) and you get a twisted mystery bursting with conspiracies, folklore, and plenty of gore. The show stars Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd, Ashleigh LaThrop, and Jessica Rothe as the nerds; John Cusack as Dr. Kevin Christie, the mogul behind the meat company; and Rainn Wilson as a bumbling scientist who just wants to save the world.
Rolling Stone spoke with Flynn leading up to the premiere about writing for television, the future of thrillers, and why she wasn’t cut out to be a police reporter.
What initially drew you to Utopia?
I was introduced to it by David Fincher. We were still working on Gone Girl at the time and they were down in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, filming it. He kept saying, “Come down and see the set.” And I was like, “It’s really hard to get there from Chicago.” I was just being lazy.
And then he sends me this intriguing text message one day that was like: “Hey, you know, I got something for us to do next after Gone Girl. And I’ll direct every episode, and you’ll write every episode.” I’m like, “What is it?” And he’s like, “Come down and we’ll talk about it.”
So, I rented an obscenely awesome muscle car — like an orange and black striped Dodge Charger convertible — and ate my way down to Cape Girardeau with all sorts of horrible gas station food. And that’s when he talked to me about Utopia. In addition to walking around the Gone Girl set and this place that had been in my head forever, we were kind of setting up what the next thing might be.
How did you want to differentiate your version from the original?
Dennis Kelly’s version is really sleek. It’s really poppy. It’s just its own particular world. I really wanted to do my own version of it. I kind of hooked onto the idea that the end of the world is coming, and that the answer is in something as silly and as easy to disregard as a comic book. I liked that basic concept. And I liked the concept of being able to write about where we are and feel it — feel that sense that I think we all do, that we’re kind of on the edge of choices that are really going to make a difference in the future. We’re kind of tottering there. I wanted it to feel very, very realistic.
I took all my cues from those great Seventies conspiracy thrillers that came out after Watergate — you know, stuff like All the President’s Men and Parallax View. When I was pitching it, I was actually calling it Goonies meets Marathon Man — maybe the weirdest combo ever, but it felt correct.
I was wondering what drew you, specifically, to Jessica Hyde. She reminds me of Libby from your book Dark Places, who survives her family’s murder and becomes an obsession for people at crime cons. Jessica seems like one of your fierce women.
I do love a good convention. After I watched Dennis Kelly’s Utopia I took a couple of notes about what pieces I liked and how I could incorporate them, and then I never looked at it again. The Comic-Con I invented completely; I liked the idea of the search for this important manuscript being hidden among that kind of chaos.
And I loved Jessica Hyde. She actually very much reminds me of Libby. I liked that she was an incredibly dangerous warrior-child — that she had never been given the grace to grow up entirely or to have relationships in a normal way. She was raised to assume that everyone was out to kill her. She had kind of an arrested development from around age 12, but she could also completely eviscerate you with a sharp edge of a toothbrush. She was this dangerous child with one mission. To me, she boiled down to a question we all ultimately have in an existential way, which is: “Why am I here?”
That’s what struck me about this show: Every character has a purpose, so the villains aren’t as clear. Everyone thinks they’re right.
When you hit the final episode, I think half the audience is going to go, “I am mad at this! No, no, no, no, no.” But I think the other half of the audience is going to sort of lean in a little bit and be surprised who they’re aligned with. Ultimately, it’s designed specifically for people to argue about who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. And, certainly, I liked the idea of having villains who believe that they are doing the right thing. They have a QAnon quality. The show has ended up being extremely timely for now, even though I started writing it six years ago.
The obvious question, of course, lies in the fact that this show about a pandemic is coming out during a pandemic: Do you feel like Nostradamus?
I have to give all credit to Dennis Kelly for baking in that plotline. But when we were trying to get it sold again, there was this question of: “Will people really buy the idea of the ‘big bug?’ Does that feel realistic enough?” And, unfortunately, it all unfolded in front of our eyes. I’d be editing on my laptop — a scene of the hot zone [where the children are quarantined], for instance — and then I’d switch and look up at the news. It felt like I was looking at almost the same scene. It was definitely really disturbing when I was doing it.
I wanted the pandemic and vaccine to feel sci-fi, though. I didn’t want to contribute to the idea of the big bad out there. This is a conspiracy thriller at its core, and I think people are going to pick up — like Wilson Wilson [Borges’ character] — what they want to pick up from it.
I’ve read that your journalism background helped you when it came to writing novels. How did journalism and novel-writing help when it came to writing for TV?
I think journalism has always been so key to me because it was a really wonderful way of demystifying writing. I think a lot of people feel like when you’re writing a novel or writing screenplays, the muse must come down; the timing has to be right. I worked at Entertainment Weekly and we had a pretty slim staff, so you’re writing all the time; you’re on deadline all the time. And it was great. You don’t become really precious. When something doesn’t work, you kill your babies.
I wrote about movies and then I was a TV critic, and I think that that really helped me when it came to analyzing why something doesn’t work. I think it’s very easy to figure out why things are really good or why things are really bad. It was fascinating to me; it’s like this piece of a puzzle, like: “Why isn’t this quite clicking? It has all the ingredients of greatness, but it’s not great.”
Being able to be in charge for the first time and be a full-time showrunner, there’s costumes and art design and sets and props. In my next life, I’m going to be a prop master. I am just ridiculously into props. There was a scene were Jessica smashes [the nerds’] phones with an ashtray. I think brought 20 different ashtrays for her. I just got so into it.
After being a novelist, you realize you can layer all these things and then tell a story. You’ll see all these little Easter eggs that connect different characters that you didn’t know are really connected. And the conspiracy you can see in the background everywhere. It’s a show that’s made to hit the pause button and kind of take in.
I heard that you initially wanted to be a crime reporter when you were at grad school at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism — but then realized you didn’t think you were cut out for it. Why?
Oh, I was awful. I was. [At] Northwestern, they’re very into hands-on reporting and putting you on the scene; you become a stringer for local papers. I was just too shy. I think to be a good crime reporter, you have to have this very unique quality of humanity and steel. And I was missing the steel part. I just had trouble going up to people who are in the middle of a crisis. I remember covering a UPS strike and I stood there for literally an hour. I couldn’t talk to anyone, and these people wanted to be interviewed.
First, the school moved me to covering libraries. They made up the beat for me, I think: “You like books and you’re very quiet.” Then I moved onto arts and culture. My dad taught film. My mom taught reading. I grew up in a house that was very much about storytelling, which is a great way to grow up. And that’s where I found my niche. It was like, you know, you can still read true crime. You just can’t do true crime. And that’s OK. It’s a good lesson to learn early on in life. Just because you like something doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at it.
Do you have any new books coming out soon?
“Soon” is the tricky word there. [After Utopia came out] I was going to switch over full-time to the book, and that didn’t happen, because suddenly I was a full-time teacher to my two kids. The original plan was to finish the draft by the end of the year. Then everything goes very quickly because I love rewriting. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and I’m very happy; that, for me, is where the book really becomes something interesting.
But, you know, everything’s going a little bit slower. We’ll see if there’s a Season Two of Utopia. But I know what the book is. And I love it. I think about it all the time, which is a good sign. Late next year or the following year is the goal.
As someone who kind of kicked off the next wave of thriller writers, what do you want to see in that realm moving forward?
First of all, I would love for people to stop using the phrase “domestic thriller” in regard to my work and other women’s work. I think it’s incredibly sexist and really minimizes what we’re doing. I think there’s still that idea that if you are writing about relationships and you’re a woman, that your story is immediately less important and less interesting than a man writing about, you know, politics, crime — even though the important things in the world are generally the people that are close to us.
I love mysteries and thrillers, and I think we have so many amazing writers in this genre right now. I would love it to get more respect, because, to me, what the best ones do is tackle really interesting and important topics. You attach a mystery to it and you have this engine that’s really pulling you forward.
There’s still a distaste in the world for things that are readable, things that are page-turners — like that’s somehow bad or somehow cheating. I don’t particularly want to write or create a show that is that dutiful thing that sits on your bookshelf or sits on your TV just waiting for you, like, “I know I gotta watch this, because it’s good for me.”
I’d always much rather write something and have people have that visceral reaction of “I loved it, and this is why” or “I hated this.” I was signing books once and I had one woman come up and slam Gone Girl down and say, “I hated this book. Book club made me read it. I read it with them and I hated it so much.” And I was like, “Great. What didn’t you like? Talk about it.” I don’t take it personally, because I would so much rather have a book get under your skin than just be fine.