It will surprise no one who’s read her novels that the great American book that left a mark on the psyche of a young Gillian Flynn was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — the story of a gruesome 1959 multiple murder in rural Kansas. Flynn grew up in the neighboring state of Missouri, and Capote’s dark classic resonated with her at an early age and planted the seeds for the tone and topics of her own writing. Sharp Objects and Gone Girl feature murder and suspense in Missouri, but it’s Dark Places, Flynn’s second novel, that is most directly linked to Capote’s classic.
Libby Day was the lone survivor of a Kansas massacre that left her mother and two sisters dead when she was only 7 years old. Her teenaged brother, Ben, was convicted of the crime, a verdict that was secured when she testified against him. The crime made Libby a minor celebrity, but 25 years later, she’s struggling to keep her head above water and reluctantly agrees to work with an obsessive group of skeptical amateur detectives who pay her to re-investigate the murders.
Dark Places became a best-seller, but was eventually eclipsed in popularity by the runaway success of Gone Girl. A similar thing occurred with the film adaptations: Dark Places, which is currently available on DirecTV, slips somewhat quietly into theaters on Aug. 7 despite a dynamite cast that includes Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christina Hendricks, and Corey Stoll.
Flynn, a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, spoke to the magazine earlier this year to discuss why she chose writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, why Libby might be her favorite character, and why it’s important that Hollywood let women be as bad as the boys.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Six years after finishing Dark Places, what do these characters mean to you?
GILLIAN FLYNN: Libby always will have one of the closest places in my heart, personally. She’s one of my characters where I actually think about her as if she’s a real person. I’ll be doing something and think, “I wonder what Libby is up to?” As if I could go visit her. She and Ben are two of my all-time favorite characters. I just feel for them. I did not have the life that they had, but for some reason, I have a real, real tight affinity for them. And Libby, for me, was so hard to figure out, that once I finally figured out who she was, and started unraveling her, it’s all very important to me.
The first page of the book is such a wonderful slap in the face: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood.” I can only hope that there’s a narration in this film that captures that tone. Does that voice come through?
Yeah, that is in there. I was really lucky to work with a director who felt really protective of Dark Places and really liked it for what it was. Which is interesting because it’s a very American story and he’s French. Gilles and I, we just really hit it off. I sold it specifically to him because I knew it would be in good hands and with someone who really loved Libby like I did and loved the darkness in her.
I saw Pretty Things with Marion Cotillard, which I guess he did maybe 15 years, but I haven’t seen a ton that he’s done. Visually, how did he pitch the movie to you?
I watched that and then I watched Sarah’s Key, which has a perfect sense of place. It slides really beautifully back and forth between past and present, so I thought that maybe there was some agreeance there. Second, we were both kids of the ’80s, and he really liked that teenage-’80s piece of it. Just the sense that he really understood Libby and wasn’t going to turn it into a horror movie, which was kind of my big concern — that it would be turned into a straight schlock horror movie with satanic rituals. In the wrong director’s hands, it could end up being something that I didn’t want, and having Libby not play the major role that she has in order to make it a little more bloody.
You were such a big collaborative part of Gone Girl, writing the script. Did you ever contemplate writing the screenplay for this one, as well?
I actually had [thought about writing the screenplay], but at the time, when we sold it, I was facing a deadline for Gone Girl and I was also six months pregnant. [Laughs] My autumn was pretty busy. If it had been other people, I think I would’ve been more protective about it, but like I said, Gilles wanted to adapt it and through our conversations, I felt like it was in really good hands.
You hinted at how long he’s been working on this, in sharp contrast to Gone Girl, which sped from the page to the screen. This production seems to have moved at a slower pace. Filming, I think, was 2013…
Yeah, fall of 2013. It was going at the same time Gone Girl was.
What does that slower pace reflect?
I think it’s more a reflection of indie versus studio, and the amount of money available. Gone Girl was a blockbuster and it lifted Dark Places after it, but Gone Girl was the one with the momentum, so I think it was purely just a matter of that. It had a big studio behind it from the get-go.
Charlize has played dark characters before. What would you say that she brings to Libby that perhaps wasn’t on the page?
She brings a real intelligence to Libby, which I thought was really important. Libby might not be over-educated but she’s certainly very canny, and I think Charlize really brings that out, that sense that she’s someone who’s always looking for the angle and always three steps ahead, even if she’s talking with someone who went to Harvard. She’s still working a little bit ahead of you. You can look at Charlize on screen and see her thinking, which I think is very cool.
I feel like you must’ve been asked every variation of the questions about feminism and misogyny during the Gone Girl circus, but Libby Day and Diondra, and even Krissi on the big screen might force you to answer those again. Was there any temptation to make Libby a kinder, gentler, more sympathetic character on the screen?
Never. Absolutely not. Again, that goes back to Gilles, which is why I wanted to work with him. He loved the nastiness of Libby and the meanness of Libby and really thoroughly respected that so there was never even a conversation about making her more consumable. That’s what makes this special, that’s what makes this interesting: that you’re asked to go on this adventure with someone that you might not actually really want to spend any time with in real life, because she would completely scam you. You might not like her, but she’s certainly going to keep your interest.
I remember you wrote something way back, maybe during the release of Sharp Objects, an essay, “I Was Not a Nice Little Girl…” which I feel like is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in your novels and the characters you love. Do you feel like the Gone Girl-Amazing Amy-Cool-Girl debate has moved forward?
I think the conversation has moved forward. When we were shopping [Sharp Objects] there was definitely some push-back: Would people really want and accept this kind of character, and I think now we see it quite a bit, especially after Gone Girl. So I think there is more flexibility in the female characters we are able to accept and like in literature and on film. I think there’s still a ways to go, but I think we’re certainly getting there — that idea that women have a full range of good to evil and that we should be allowed that same range that men and male characters have.
I suspect actresses kind of get that too.
I think actresses love it. I think there’s a dearth of interesting characters for actresses to play, and I think most actresses are really sick of being the wife or the girlfriend or the mom or the understanding pal or the woman who comes in and explain things because she’s smart and wears glasses and then leaves immediately. I think they want to play meatier roles. They want to have the same options that male actors do, with the same range, and play anti-heroes and play bad guys.
As soon as I finished reading Gone Girl last summer, I immediately went on IMDb to see which actors would be playing the film version's supporting roles. I did a double-take when I saw who would be playing Andie, the writing student with whom Nick (Ben Affleck) is having an affair: The role had gone to Emily Ratajkowski, the supermodel who had gotten everyone hot and bothered the summer before with her appearance in the music video for Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
On what planet is Emily Ratajkowski a sweet, girl-next-door who lives in a small Missouri town and takes classes at the local college? Had the film cast even a slightly plainer actress -- or even one with smaller tits -- I would have had a much easier time believing in the hum-drum Midwest world that otherwise translated so well from page to screen.
A new adaptation of another Gillian Flynn novel, Dark Places, released on Friday, has a similar problem. The film has an excellent cast: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, and Chloë Grace Moretz star in this story of a woman whose 15-year-old brother was sent to jail for killing her entire family when she was seven years old. Now, in her early 30s, friendless, jobless and broke, Libby Day (Theron) agrees to help the members of the "Kill Club" -- true-crime fetishists who believe that Libby's brother, Ben, was wrongfully convicted -- find out what really happened that night on the family's Kansas farmhouse in 1985.
Like Gone Girl, much of Dark Places (the novel, at least) focuses on the media frenzy surrounding victimized women. In the book's opening pages, Libby, the narrator, sardonically describes the treatment she got as the only surviving child of the "Kinnakee Kansas Farm Massacre": "I was big news. The Enquirer put my tearful photo on the front page with the deadline ANGEL FACE." Lyle Wirth (Hoult), the president of the Kill Club, tells Libby she and her family are "huge. Bigger'n JonBenét."
In the novel, there are repeated references to Lisette Stephens, "a pretty twenty-five-year-old brunette" from Kansas City who's gone missing. On her way to visit her brother in prison for the first time, Libby notices several posters for other missing girls. "Both girls were unkempt," she notices, "surly, which explained why they weren't getting the Lisette Stephens treatment. I made a mental note to take a smiling, pretty photo of myself in case I ever disappeared."
The public's obsession with not just missing girls but pretty, palatable missing girls is a through-line in Flynn's work. A female victim is immeasurably more sympathetic if she's adorable. In Sharp Objects, Flynn's debut, the adult narrator recalls the summer her 13-year-old sister died, the summer she "became quite suddenly, unmistakably beautiful ... And people loved me. I was no longer the pity case (with, how weird, the dead sister). I was the pretty girl (with, how sad, the dead sister). And so I was popular."
The casting of Dark Places only underscores Flynn's point about this kind of selective pity. Libby's mother Patty, shown in scenes that flash back to the day of the murders, is described in the book as nice-looking, but plain: "She was thirty-two but looked a decade older. Her forehead was creased like a child's paper fan, and crow's feet rayed out from her eyes. Her red hair was shot with white, wiry threads, and she was unattractively thin, all bumps and points, like she'd swallowed a shelf's worth of hardware ... She did not look like the kind of person you'd want to hug."
In the film, Patty is played by Hendricks. She's made to look worn-out, for sure -- her stringy hair looks like it hasn't been washed in a couple days, and her clothing is simple. But she's still Christina Hendricks, with her bodacious curves, plump lips, and mascaraed eyes. She looks beautiful.
Likewise, the film casts the lovely Chloë Grace Moretz as Diondra, teenage Ben's bratty, rich girlfriend. In the book, Diondra has "brown spiraly curls all crunchy with gel." She wears "heavy makeup" and baggy sweaters to cover up her pregnant belly. In the film, Diondra has wavy, messy-sexy hair and wears a skin-tight, short black dress that shows of Moretz's long legs. Even the casting of Hoult as Lyle feels off -- Flynn writes that Lyle "looked like a serial killer" and has him sporting "wavy, mousy hair he'd tried to tame with too much gel in all the wrong places," glasses, and "jeans that were skinny, but not in a cool way, just in a tight way." In the film, Hoult just looks like his usual hunky self.
And, of course, there's Charlize Theron. Adult Libby is not unattractive in the novel, but she's got a bad dye job, her red roots poking through "like my scalp was bleeding," and a "baby face." You can crop her hair short and stick a trucker hat on her head, as in the film, but that's no match for the ferocity of Theron's beauty.
Theron, Moretz, Hoult and Hendricks are just too attractive. They're supposed to be small-town Kansas folk, but they all look like unmistakable products of Los Angeles. If this is what it takes to get audiences interested in stories about regular Midwesterners, then "Dark Places" the movie unwittingly proves Flynn's cynicism correct.
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