‘Gone Girl’ screenwriter Gillian Flynn: A tourist in ‘this 3-D version of my brain’

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If Time magazine was correct in its recent profile of her, Chicago-based uber-author Gillian Flynn has sold 8.5 million copies of her blockbuster novel Gone Girl, which she then turned into a screenplay, which ultimately became a movie directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck, who plays suspected wife killer Nick Dunne. It opens nationwide Oct. 3.

During a short break from her whirlwind media visit to New York, where Flynn attended a “Gone Girl” screening and other events at the New York Film Festival this past weekend, she talked about writing for film, dark comedy and working with Hollywood big shots.

Question: How was the response at the New York Film Festival?

Gillian Flynn: It was really good. They had two different screenings. I went to the second one and spent most of the time thinking I was watching the movie but mostly watching the response to the movie. Are they laughing in the right places? Are they gasping in the right places? Kind of clocking everything.

Q: That has to be a nerve-racking process. Did they laugh in the right places and cry or whatever they were supposed to do?

GF: I swore they did. It’s sort of weird. The whole point of the bursts of dark comedy is some people are going to laugh and some people aren’t going to laugh at all. It all goes through the screening of each person’s viewpoint. But there seemed to be the correct amount of uneasy laughs and seat-squirming, so I felt pretty good about it.

Q: Some people are afraid to laugh at the dark stuff.

GF: David [Fincher] and I talked a lot about the dark humor of it and how much should be in there and at what points. And we had both talked about [Stanley] Kubrick’s films and that idea, that sense that you’re kind of laughing and then immediately looking around and thinking, “Was I supposed to laugh at that? What does that say about me that I found that funny?”

Q: Are you the kind of person who will laugh boldly if you think something’s funny?

GF: A little bit. I still am always concerned about my own sickness [laughs], so I do always like to kind of monitor. “Was I literally the only person who laughed at that, or was I one of three kindred spirits who found that darkly, sickly funny?”

Q: Did David ever have to pull you back script-wise and say, “That’s a little too much”?

GF: [laughs] I don’t remember that. I think he was, “Give me more. Let’s get sicker.” [laughs] I never thought anyone would ever encourage me to be a little bit more violent in thought and deed.

Q: Sounds like you two are on the same plane.

GF: The nice thing was we really did want the same things to translate from the book into the film. And that wasn’t necessarily every plot point, but kind of the spirit of the book. We both found the marriage [between main characters Nick and Amy Dunne] sort of fascinating — the idea of these personas that we create for each other. And then we both really wanted the broadcast 24-hour news media to be a big character in this story about storytelling — for that to be almost the third character. So that part actually got beefed up, if anything.

Q: Novels aren’t usually turned into screenplays by the novelist. How tough was it for you to switch styles to write the script?

GF: I don’t think you read “Gone Girl” and think, “Wow, this is going to be easy to slap up on the screen.” It’s very internal and plays with time and structure. And for me, the first thing I did was tried to figure out the basic plot: How much can be gotten rid of, how much can be streamlined? It’s a very clockwork, intertwined plot, and I knew I was going to get myself into trouble if I didn’t figure out exactly what had to kind of be there. And then after that it was mainly figuring out what I could really save. It wasn’t about saving specific scenes, necessarily, but saving the tone and kind of the theme. So sometimes it was creating one scene to take the place of five in the book. Or trying to figure out how a character, particularly Nick, can take his internal thoughts and show them in different actions. I had a bright pink sticky note above my laptop that said, “It is a movie.” Underlined. Just to remind myself how completely different the forms are. Not only is the writing incredibly different between screenwriting and novel-writing, but the two have almost nothing to do with each other. What we take from a movie and what we take from a book, and what we want out of them, are incredibly different, too. So it was kind of respecting that, like, “I’m not trying to make ‘Gone Girl The Book’ on a screen. I’m trying to make ‘Gone Girl The Movie’.” So I just kept looking at that sticky note any time I had a moment of crisis about what could be transferred and what I was leaving behind and kind of trying to respect that.

Q: What’s been the toughest part of the Hollywood transition, and what are some of the coolest perks that come along with it?

GF: The coolest perk was I spent all of last August out in L.A. at David Fincher’s office with David and the cast, especially Ben [Affleck], who’s an Oscar-winning screenwriter and a smart director, and just getting to pore over the script over and over again. We were doing read-throughs constantly and I was getting to tweak and tailor the script as I was hearing everyone say it. Just to talk with Ben and David, who are two people I really respect who’ve been doing this for 20 years and getting their takes on things was good for me as a screenwriter and even better for me as a fangirl of movies — just to kind of geek out with them and eat candy and talk about movies we liked and listen to them tell stories about being in film. That was really thrilling.

Q: You’ve been to plenty of sets and met plenty of actors and directors [Flynn was a TV and film critic at Entertainment Weekly for many years]. But it had to be a great feeling knowing you were the center of the storm on this set.

GF: Yeah. There were really fun moments when my work was over, because David mostly locks down the script when filming starts; he doesn’t like too much chaos of rewriting, so I was tweaking things here and there. But for the most part I would go down to the set, go down to Cape Girardeau [Missouri] and get to hang out purely as kind of a tourist in this 3-D version of my brain. These things that I had seen in my mind for so long — sometimes it was fun seeing it take on a different life, and in the case of the vigil scene where Nick is finally going before the townsfolk and explaining that he’s not as bad as everyone thinks he is was almost exactly how I’d pictured it for four years at that point. So it was kind of a brain snap of a moment.

Q: What’s your relationship like with Ben Affleck?

GF: He’s a super smart guy, incredibly articulate in a way that I am not. He’s really sharp all the time and also has a really great sense of humor. He’s a good guy to have on set. It felt like he was probably someone who knew exactly when to make a joke and also when to step back a little bit. He goes out of his way to make people feel at ease, which I certainly appreciated being a first-time screenwriter. I feel like I could have been in the room with David Fincher and Ben Affleck and very easily felt way out-manned, and they were both gracious to me and made me feel like I was being heard and present. It’s very nice to meet someone whose work you really respect and actually like them as a person, too. Doesn’t always happen.

Q: Are you staying in Chicago or is there talk of moving west to ensconce yourself in Hollywood?

GF: No, we just moved to a new house in Chicago. [Flynn is married to attorney Brett Nolan and has two children.] I was pregnant with a second kid [a daughter, born in August] and we had run out of space at our beloved old Victorian. There was literally not a room at the inn. So we did have a conversation: “Do we try L.A. for a little bit?” And we both decided we wanted to stay in Chicago. We love Chicago.

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