During her decade as an entertainment journalist, Gillian Flynn heard all the stories about unsuspecting novelists who got mugged by Hollywood.
As a writer/editor for Entertainment Weekly, Flynn was familiar with the hard lessons shared by writers who had sold their stories to the movies with unhappy consequences: Cash the check. Run away as fast as you can. Don’t look back.
Happily, the Kansas City-reared Flynn ignored that conventional wisdom in adapting her best-selling novel “Gone Girl” for the screen.
She wrote the screenplay, and with director David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Social Network”) has fashioned a clever, mind-bending thriller — one of the best in years..
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Flynn, 44, lives in Chicago with her lawyer husband and two children, but on Friday, when “Gone Girl,” opens, she plans to be in KC to catch the film with a couple dozen or so members of her extended family.
“It was thrilling to see it all come together,” said the graduate of Bishop Miege High School and the University of Kansas.
“As someone who covered movies for many years, I know that most of the time it doesn’t turn out so well for the original author,” she said. “What was different this time around was that I had a great director who really liked the book and didn’t want to turn it into something other than what it already was.
“David Fincher liked the same things in the book that I liked. He wanted a faithful screen adaptation, not a whole new thing.”
Nevertheless, the adaptation process was tough. In bringing to the screen the tense and often bleakly funny story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), who falls under suspicion when his beautiful wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), vanishes on their fifth wedding anniversary, Flynn faced some challenges.
First there was the novel’s telling of the yarn through two conflicting first-person narratives, one from Nick and the other from Amy in the form of a diary. Flynn desperately wanted to retain those two voices, but in a manner that was cinematic rather than literary.
The narrative had to be tightened, digressions limited and some characters reduced to walk-on status or eliminated.
“It was equal parts invigorating and terrifying,” Flynn said. “I never like to stop writing a piece — there’s always something more I want to do to make it better. So to be able to revisit one of my stories and rewrite it from a different angle — that was really attractive.
“Of course once I got into it I realized I was dealing with some complicated ideas. It’s an internal story, centering on the characters’ thoughts. There’s lots of jumping back and forth in time. The diary stuff. And the plotting is very dense. So I knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew I would have to concentrate on pacing and rearranging the order of some scenes. And with this story, tone is hugely important. It’s a thriller but with some dark humor — deep and dark.”
In December of 2012 Flynn turned over her first draft to 20th Century Fox. At the time no director had signed on to the project.
“I was back home in KC for Christmas, and on Dec. 26 I got a call asking me to hop on plane and meet David Fincher in Los Angeles,” she said. “It was David Fincher, so of course I did.
“It was a great meeting. We really clicked and had a great conversation about the kind of film we’d like to make.”
Fincher has a reputation for being hard on actors, demanding retake after retake. Apparently, though, he has a soft spot for writers.
“He gave me amazing notes — he really knew where and how the story worked,” Flynn said. “And the great joy of working with him was that when I had crisis of confidence, when I wasn’t sure I was on the right track, he gave me reasons to not second guess myself.”
The mutual admiration continued through the filming last summer in Cape Girardeau , about 120 miles south of St. Louis. Typically screenwriters are welcomed to the set with about as much enthusiasm as an STD at a swingers’ retreat. But not this time.
“I was free to be on the set as much as I wanted,” she said. “Of course, the script was locked in by then. I was there purely as a tourist to the 3-D version of my own brain.
“It was really fun to visit this thing that had been kicking around my head for a year. To have a drink with David Fincher at The Bar (operated by the fictional Nick and his twin sister), that was pretty mind-blowing.”
Flynn doesn’t try to hide her enthusiasm for the performances of the two lead actors. For Pike, a British actress with a mixed resume of art house and mainstream efforts (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Jack Reacher”), “Gone Girl” promises to make her a household name.
And Affleck, Flynn said, gives his best screen performance under Fincher’s direction.
“I’ve said all along that Amy is the showy role, but that the actor playing Nick has to be simply great,” she said. “If he doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. And the great thing about Ben’s performance is that he makes you care even when you’re thinking he might be a murderer. You want to hang out with him and tell him it’s going to be OK … but you also want to punch him in the mouth.
“And Rosamund really blooms in her role. She gets to show so many emotions and sides to a human being. She was constantly asking me about Amy’s background, her friends, what kind of party she would enjoy. She had a copy of the book filled with notes.”
While the film hews closely to the novel, certain elements are emphasized for a visual medium. Taking a prominent role is the media circus that surrounds Amy’s disappearance, with cameras scrutinizing Nick’s every public appearance, looking for telltale signs of guilt.
This aspect of “Gone Girl” will look all too familiar to news junkies who recognize how the media gnaw at lurid news stories.
“In today’s media landscape every human emotion is packaged for someone else to consume, whether it’s social media or a true-crime TV show,” Flynn said. “People in the public eye are all taking turns packaging themselves for consumption by others or being packaged by others. We can’t control how we’re being viewed or how people perceive us.
“Fact is, in this era of the 24-hour news cycle, we’re consuming other people’s tragedies as entertainment.”
If “Gone Girl” flays the media, it’s nothing compared with the movie’s savage examination of marriage. As the film progresses Nick and Amy’s life together is vivisected. The results aren’t pretty.
From all appearances, Flynn is an upbeat, creative individual who grew up in a happy family. Where does all that cynicism come from?
“Well, I battle it. Let’s put it that way,” she said. “I mean, we all should have some cynicism. But wallowing in it is a dangerous thing. I try to acknowledge that a certain amount is healthy, but if it’s the guiding principal of your life you’ll be a very sad human being.
“I was fairly recently married when I began writing ‘Gone Girl’. I put a lot of thought into what marriage is, what it should be and what it shouldn’t be. It was a pretty neurotic exercise. Thank goodness I have a very confident husband.”
With three best-selling novels of murder and suspense under her belt (in addition to “Gone Girl” there’s “Sharp Objects” — which is being developed as a movie — and “Dark Places”), Flynn was eager to leave the film business behind and get to work on her new book.
“I was all set to write my next novel and nobody in the world could have dissuaded me from getting back to that form,” she said. “Except that I got a call from David Fincher asking what I was doing for next year of my life.
“He offered the chance to work with him for a TV series where we can sprawl out a bit. It’s called ‘Utopia’ and it’ll be on HBO (not the Fox reality show by same name). It’s a conspiracy thriller, very dark, very evil, very mischievous.”
She compares it to the recent HBO hit “True Detective.” But of course it will have that Gillian Flynn touch.
You can read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.