Bestselling novelist Gillian Flynn takes her readers to the darkest, yet most (guiltily) invigorating places with tales of female antiheroes, and her work’s appeal couldn’t be more evident than Hollywood’s eagerness to adapt her novels thus far. From the David Fincher-directed Gone Girl to HBO’s Emmy-nominated Sharp Edges and the Charlize Theron-starring Dark Places, all three projects proved that Flynn’s got an enduring place in pop culture. She comes by it honestly, given her decade-long run as an Entertainment Weekly writer and her film-professor father, so the transition from novelist to scribe for Steve McQueen’s female heist movie, Widows, felt organic. Now, she’s showrunning (and writing) a U.S. remake of the U.K.-born Utopia series for Amazon.
Utopia is a strange beast. On its face, the story follows a conspiracy about two graphic novels that supposedly predict outbreaks of deadly diseases, including a pandemic that may or may not have something to do with John Cusack’s scientist character. Below the surface, a gaggle of comic-book junkies attempt to unravel the conspiracy and save the world while homicidal parties will do anything to nab the graphic novels. And in the middle of it all is a young woman who calls herself “Jessica Hyde” (Sasha Lane), which happens to be the name of a character inside the graphic novels.
Yes, it’s confusing, but the set up is meant to draw readers into what’s essentially a conspiracy thriller that just happens to include details of a pandemic. Flynn didn’t plan for the show to arrive in the middle of an actual pandemic, but here we are, and she was gracious enough to dig into the depths of her own fandom while discussing Utopia.
You used to be a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, and now you’re writing and showrunning TV. Does your previous experience inform your screenwriting process?
It definitely does. I think it makes me very disciplined as a writer because, being on the other side, it doesn’t let me say, “Oh, this is good enough.” I tend to rewrite and rewrite, and I know that the ultimate result may not please everyone, but at least if I, as the writer, can get to a point where I’m satisfied with it, then I feel like I can make peace with it. It also helped me to spend all those years looking at TV and having it become organic, in a way, in my system, and spending time figuring it out.
Distilling a season of The Wire into the EW-length reviews ain’t easy, I imagine.
Yeah, not easy! And t’s easy to figure out why a show is really great, and it’s easy to figure out why a show is really bad, but for me, the most useful thing was figuring out if a show doesn’t quite click. When it’s so close, but it doesn’t quite work, and trying to figure out that puzzle. So, it helped me to look at whether each [Utopia] episode worked and then, as a whole, to really be able to view it that way.
With Utopia, you obviously gestated and filmed the whole season before our current situation. It wasn’t intended to be timely, but how do you think that will affect how people watch it?
That’s a great question as far as how it affects people on how they will watch it. I think it’s a show that was never intended to be a pandemic show in that it’s not a medical procedural or trying to be Outbreak. To me, at its core, it’s a conspiracy thriller and a paranoia thriller, and this is one of the plotlines, so it’s certainly intended to be viewed in that way.
John Cusack’s character, Dr. Christie, does not appear in the U.K. version of the show. You added him, and well, he feels very Elon Musk-y…
What kind of vibe did you want him to carry?
Kind-of exactly that. He was a character that I created, and I thought if we’re talking about pandemics and vaccines, I wanted this biotech/pharmaceutical giant as one element of it. John and I had a lot of conversations about that idea of the scientist or tech genius as rock stars. We know what Bill Gates looks like, or Elon Musk, and that idea of genius combined with media savvy, which definitely to me is his character at its core.
Christie has that wild line, too: “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?”
That was something that, yeah, I wrote that line, and that was when I figured I had Christie. If everything kind-of emanates from that, and it can go from, depending on who’s saying it and from what circumstances, it can go from very heartwarming, this kind-of litany at the dinner table when we first see him. Everything from when his kids are like, “I shared my lunch! I biked to school!” to much darker implications, depending on who’s hearing it and who’s saying it.
You are known for your antiheroines, and you’ve described how you wrote the infamous Cool Girl passage of Gone Girl in a “fugue state.” You climb inside your creations’ heads. When a character like Jessica Hyde already exists, like in the U.K. Utopia, how do you go about making her your own?
You know, Dennis Kelly had created this great character, and I liked the idea that she was this sort-of wild warrior child, in a way. And to me, having been steeped in all sorts of hero stories growing up and loving those, that type of quest, I was playing with that idea but using an antihero to carry it forward. To me, she’s the person who asks those existential questions that we all ask, like, “Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What is my purpose?” You hear characters say that a lot in the show. But being led by an antihero and someone that you can’t necessarily trust and wouldn’t trust with your safety.
And she’s out there, just claiming to be Jessica Hyde. I’d be skeptical, too!
Certainly, our core group of nerdlings need her but also know that she could, on a bad day, sharpen a toothbrush and stab them through the heart. I liked being able to play that, and I love antiheroines because I just don’t think that there enough of them. I’ve always loved books and movies when you have those divided loyalties, like at the end of Silence of the Lambs when you see Hannibal Lecter escaping and moving off into the crowds. You’re sort-of delighted about it and thinking, “Wait, I’m rooting for Hannibal, who I’ve seen do horrible things.” As an audience member, I’ve always loved that feeling of being unsettled in where your loyalties are.
You mentioned the term “nerdlings,” so what does Utopia say about that kind of pop-culture fandom?
I’m the ultimate fan. Obviously, I spent ten years at EW, and what I loved most about it is that most of my friends are still fellow writers that I came up with. I’ve always had a great love for people who just love their shit. Whatever it is, whether it’s someone who loves the same thing I love, or someone who is really into putting together model train sets. I appreciate people who get glee from things and get really into things. My dad was a film professor who also made his living as a comic book collector, so that’s what we did on the weekends. We’d go hustle the flea markets for certain issues, and it was a treasure hunt, and also going to conventions. I’m one of those people that loves to dress up and to really get into that. I go to Comic-Con and am a huge renaissance festival person with my full outfit. It’s that playing-make-believe element that I really enjoy. I like people who want to talk about what they love.
I am always curious about people who collect comics, and whether they prefer the single issues or graphic novels. If you went and hunted single issues, then there’s a chance you may have even been bagging them up all nicely in plastic?
Oddly enough, having spent my childhood watching comics being bagged up and not being able to touch them, I’m actually kind-of a dash of the opposite. Part of me knows now to open the package of the toy and to preserve everything, but the other part of me? I really like to play with the thing and have it. So I’m the opposite. I will admit to buying one version of a thing to keep it nice and another version because I want to use it.
It’s about time to say goodbye, and we haven’t even talked about conspiracies. Are there any that you secretly, or even jokingly, embrace?
Things that I want to believe in, certainly. My daughter and I have a very elaborate mythology about fairies that we spend hours creating, and my son’s into D&D, and we role play that around the house. That fantasy element is something that I always really want to believe in. But as far as the conspiracies go, to me, it was just a really good time to do a conspiracy thriller. I took my cues from all those amazing, post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers. Like Parallax View, and when I was pitching this, I called it a cross between Marathon Man meets Goonies, which I felt was pretty correct. And I think now we’re in a time period when conspiracies are so rife, and you can stay — through social media and your news feeds — you can go in and stay in a rabbit hole. I thought it was an important time and a resonant time to look at what that does to us as a society.
Amazon Prime’s ‘Utopia’ streams on September 25.