Gillian Flynn Talks 'Utopia' and 6-Year Journey to Screen: "We Were Playing a Little Bit of a Game of Chicken"

The former journalist, bestselling author and screenwriter dons a new hat for Amazon's drama, running a series with a pandemic plotline during a real-life one: It was "extraordinarily surreal."

In early March, Gillian Flynn was traveling back and forth every other week between an editing suite in Los Angeles and her home in Chicago. As the creator and showrunner of Amazon’s hotly anticipated drama Utopia, she had been overseeing every aspect of the series about a group of young adults who become the target of a shadowy deep state organization — from casting to the minutia (“looking at 24 different ashtrays to decide which one is used to smash a cellphone in a scene,” she says). But the detail-oriented writer, who penned all eight episodes, overlooked one big thing.

“We were aware of this virus, but we were all such dumb Americans that we’re like, ‘Obviously, that’s not going to affect us.’ It seemed very far away. I’m like, ‘I’ll see you in a week.’ ”

Suddenly, everything began to shut down, and she never returned to that L.A. editing suite. Instead, she continued the process remotely, which proved to be a meta experience as the line between fact and fiction blurred. “Editing a show that has a plotline about a pandemic while a pandemic is breaking is extraordinarily surreal,” she says. “Looking at footage on my computer and then looking up at the TV at the news was very strange.”

Still, the Midwest native, 49, is adept at pivoting. She segued from journalist at Entertainment Weekly to best-selling author of Gone Girl, Dark Places and Sharp Objects (in total, 23 million copies sold worldwide in 47 languages) to red-hot screenwriter favored by directors David Fincher and Steve McQueen. Now she’s taken her career to the next level with the twisty Utopia, what sources say is a $65 million gamble for Amazon. Utopia, starring Sasha Lane, Rainn Wilson and John Cusack, drops Sept. 25 and marks Flynn’s biggest pivot of all given that HBO left it for dead after battling with Fincher in 2015 over the budget.

“I put all that creative energy in — 10 hours [of content]. That’s five movies I could have written or a couple of books,” she says of the initial disappointment. “And it became just my pure Missouri mule stubbornness that I was like, ‘This goddamned thing is not going to be a waste of time.’"

On this September afternoon, Flynn looks like every mom, with glasses, a crewneck sweater and a sensible shoulder-length haircut as she sits in front of a Zoom outer space backdrop (“My husband thought it was funny to use this background, and then I didn’t have time to figure out how to change it”). She has been busy preparing for the start of school the next day for her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. And as was the case with Utopia’s postproduction, school will be remote. But when talking about the frustrations of keeping her kids occupied, she sounds like one of her diabolical heroines. “I literally destroyed one of those fucking plastic bracelet makers I had gotten for my daughter,” she says, laughing about being unable to work the device. “It was like, ‘Destroy.’ ”

Upon first meeting Flynn, Lane was struck by that dichotomy. “She has like the sweetest kind of face, and you wouldn’t assume that she’s like writing about murder and all these wild things,” she says. “She’s just so charismatic and energetic and passionate. And definitely a bit twisted.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Flynn’s rearing primed her for writing. Her mom taught reading at a junior college and was always putting books in her daughter’s hands. Her dad was a film professor who treated Flynn to a weekly “wildly inappropriate movie.”

“I saw Alien when I was about 6, and he introduced it by saying, ‘It has a heroine in it. That’s a female hero. You’ll love it.’ And I was like, ‘Aaaah, make it stop!’ ” she recalls. “But I learned from an early age to start really thinking about films and books in a more cerebral way and not just as a consumer.”

From her earliest memory, she knew she wanted to be a writer.

Being a “pragmatic person,” she settled on journalism after going to the University of Kansas and Northwestern for grad school on the subject and wound up at Entertainment Weekly in 1998, writing celebrity profiles. On the side, she wrote her first two novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places (both adapted for the screen and starring Amy Adams and Charlize Theron, respectively).

As Dark Places was about to be published, Flynn was laid off in 2008 during the big bloodletting across print media and began writing Gone Girl. “There’s a reason that the main character is a laid-off pop culture writer who goes back to Missouri,” she says. “I was pouring my angst into that.”

When Gone Girl hit shelves, it became a smash No. 1 best-seller. Reese Witherspoon optioned the book to produce, and Fincher signed on to direct based on Flynn’s adaptation, a moment she dubs her career high. “You could not ask for a luckier match,” she says of Fincher. “My idol.”

During the 2013 shoot, Fincher invited Flynn to the set, which proved to be a pivotal career moment. “I get this text from him out of the blue saying, ‘Hey, I think I know what to do with your life for the next couple years.” What he proposed was collaborating on a remake of the British sci-fi series Utopia for HBO. Flynn said yes and spent two years writing 10 episodes. But former production head Michael Lombardo and Fincher battled over the budget, and HBO pulled the plug.

“At the end, we were $9 million apart, not a crazy amount,” she says. “And we just kept thinking they’d meet it. I suppose we were playing a little bit of a game of chicken. But we had committed to a budget, and David is extremely precise, so he knew what it was going to [cost]. Ultimately, they liked it $80 million worth but not $90 million worth.”

Flynn continued to write for the screen with McQueen’s 2018 feature Widows and adapting her Sharp Objects for TV. The latter put her back in business with HBO, though now led by a new regime. “It wasn’t awkward,” she says. “It was almost like two former lovers who were just like, “Well, we tried. It wasn’t quite the right fit, but we still have Sharp Objects.”

In 2018, Flynn presented Amazon with a nine-episode version of Utopia, and it was ordered to series. For budgetary reasons, it dropped from nine to eight episodes, and Flynn changed the setting from 10 years in the future to present day. Otherwise, it’s unchanged from the HBO version. (Fincher no longer is attached because of work on his upcoming Netflix film Mank.)

Production took place in Chicago, and she barely saw her family for nearly a year, except when they appeared in the film. Son Flynn and daughter Veronica were extras, “then in another episode, my [real-life] mother and husband are killed,” Flynn says. “So it was a real family affair.”

She kept the pace by staying caffeinated, Red Bull being her drink of choice. “Gillian would be furiously chewing Good & Plenties and drinking coffee and seemed absolutely tireless but so delightful, nice, sweet, calm and generous as well,” says Cusack, who plays an Elon Musk-esque philanthropist. “I was very happy to work with somebody who has such a rigorous mind. Every script has been really thought through.”

After she oversaw the finishing of Utopia’s editing and score in April, Flynn found the rhythms of normalcy returning, albeit under lockdown in Chicago, one of the nation’s hotspots. She is midway through her fourth novel. “The original goal was I’d spend the rest of the year finishing the book,” she says. “Instead, I’ll be spending the rest of the year homeschooling, learning how to be a teacher.”

Still, some things remain the same. Namely, the protagonist Flynn is crafting. When asked if the untitled book has another complicated heroine, she pauses. “Heroines,” she corrects. “It’s fierce, feral and very dark.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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