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‘Utopia’ creator Gillian Flynn on drawing real-world parallels: 'I don’t know how it couldn’t'

Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn (as seen in 2018), creator, author and screenwriter. (Image credit: John Lamparski/Getty Images)

From Sharp Objects to Gone Girl, novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s work has repeatedly re-framed stories set within the worlds of men from a female perspective, and the results are not merely unique; they’re transformative.

Tackling a remake of the acclaimed BBC series Utopia, she takes the same approach within the world of comic books — both on the page itself and in a community frequently associated with male storytellers and their male fans. Utilizing the mythology of Dennis Kelly’s show, the creates a new world shared by young men and women alike who pore over each new panel and image with equal passion, as that obsession leads them to (and sometimes distracts them from) major personal discoveries and massive real-world implications.

Flynn recently spoke to What To Watch at a recent (virtual) press day for the film, where she reflected not only on the process of adapting this acclaimed series for a new audience, but revealed how world events forced a new perspective on her storytelling.

What was it about the original UK series that inspired you to take on this project?

Gillian Flynn: The original UK series was so rich and the world was so big, and I liked that about it. I liked that it had to do with a lot of things that we're dealing with right now in this world. It had that edginess to it. I think we all feel a sense of unease societally, that we're coming to some sort of crisis, an end of things, on so many different fronts. And that was back in 2013 when I saw it! So there was a lot to work with there. And I liked that it would force me to challenge myself as a writer because the world was so big. Whereas, the stuff I write is often very character driven, much more insular; it's about what happens between people behind closed doors between two people - a husband and wife or mother and daughter or friends. I liked that this was an ensemble and it was taking place as almost kind of a road trip in the big, wide world.

How much was Amazon the perfect partner for bringing this story to life?

Flynn: Amazon is where this place found its home and it was hard, obviously, because I started writing it in 2013 and it was pure Missoura stubbornness that I think I just couldn't quite let it go. And it was so gratifying and reminded me a lot of my experience of getting my first book published, Sharp Objects, where I kept hearing over and over again the same thing, which was “this is a dark book about women. Men don't like to read books about women. Women don't like to read books about women that they don't like and who don't inspire them.” And I kept thinking, I don't think that's true, or I don't think I believe that. And this was a similar thing, which was it's too dark, it's too too too, and thankfully it wound up at Amazon, they were like “it's too everything - come, you’re home!” So I'm grateful.

There's a reference in the first episode about sort of how comic books have been marginalized as an expression of more than serious ideas. I'm curious what your feelings were about comic books at the beginning of this process, after becoming such a huge element of entertainment now, but also the idea of them exploring much more serious themes and ideas.

Flynn: I'll tell you the truth and we'll see if I get in trouble later on about it, but I grew up as a total comic book nerd. My dad literally made his living, in addition to being a teacher, off of comic books. He would drag me to flea markets hunting for comic books, and I grew up specifically on EC Comic books - that was the coin of the realm in my household. At the same time, I do also understand, and I do think that there is a skewing that because it has historically been more male-centric, they have become more quickly accepted as art, some of which it is. Now, obviously I could give you 8 million different female writers who I love and that sort of thing, but when I wrote Sam's [harangue about comic books], that came from an argument I had with a female friend who was not into this [saying], well, you don't take fashion seriously - and I don't! And she was like, well, that’s because you're basically a dude, Gillian. So I understood that.

Do you think Utopia plays differently now that we're in the middle of COVID-19? Because a lot of the series deals with a response to a pandemic, and now we've actually got one.

Flynn: I don't know how it couldn't is the shorter answer. It was shocking because when I started writing the pandemic portion of the storyline, it felt very science fiction to me. I had a lot of questions, like will this play a science fiction? I'm taking my cues from paranoid thrillers of the seventies, that's where this is from. And there was a little bit of a sell even in that, because we were all smug Americans who believed that a pandemic hadn't happened in a hundred years and wouldn’t happen here. So when we had finished filming in 2019 and I was in the middle of edits, all of a sudden I remember I was flying back and forth to LA where all the editing bays were. And I said, see you guys next week. And within two weeks it was all shut down. And I was editing on my laptop from home and going from these scenes of a hot zone to the 24-hour news that was on all the time and seeing these way too resonant scenes. Nothing was rewritten, nothing was tweaked, and I can honestly say that after it happened I didn't want to even have to answer that question in the affirmative. But to me, the pandemic is just part of the larger conspiracy and one of the plot lines, and I certainly wasn't setting out to do a medical procedural or outbreak story or anything.

The two film scripts you've written were so distinctive advancing a very unique female point of view in a context that has maybe been dominated by men. What sense did you have with this material that you wanted to do that, looking at the ensemble as a way of reframing expectations either about comics or female protagonists within that world?

Flynn: I looked at it as a real opportunity, and I've been asked a few times if there's a particular character that I identify with more than others, and what I love so much about the opportunity to do an ensemble is I have empathy for all my characters. So there’s little slices of my opinion in all these different characters: I'm a kind of cynical like an Ian, I'm a little bit of a believer like Wilson, if you catch me early in the morning before coffee, I may shoot you like Jessica Hyde. And I did like that there was this Jessica Hyde character who is kind of feral, but over the course of the series, hopefully you start to understand why she is the way she is and just to sense her humanity a little bit. That's always my favorite thing to do with an audience - like the way that you are kind of rooting for Hannibal Lecter at the end of Silence of the Lambs. He escapes and you're like, yeah! Wait, he's a cannibal! I love that feeling where you are identifying with someone that you know you shouldn't. But to me that's a reminder you can usually find some sort of common ground. And I'm going to sound Pollyanna-ish, but it's a good time for that right now, to realize that there is a piece of humanity to be salvaged in each of us. I think it's a good reminder.

What was the most difficult part about adapting this?

Flynn: I think it was just getting over the starting of it and realizing it had to become its own thing. It had to become its own show. I really respected and loved what Dennis Kelly had done, but why bother doing a remake if it's exactly the same, or too close to what it was? There was nowing that it was such a cult hit in Britain and people don't love it when you mess with their cults that much - I know I certainly don't - and that I was going to have to get past people having their arms folded across their chest, and that they loved that original. But once I was able to put that on a shelf and thankfully Dennis Kelly is such a gent that anytime I sent him a new version, he said, “remake it, remake it! Otherwise, why would you make it?” He was so much more gracious than I ever would be if someone started messing around with my stuff. And so once I got past all that, I was really able to fully enjoy the experience.

There was a lot of a theme about childhood trauma within the series. How important was that as an idea or theme to explore?

Flynn: That was a message I definitely wanted to put out. This show to me is a lot about the choices that we're making as humans right now - how we treat the environment, how we treat each other, how we handle the future. There's no better indication of that than how we treat our children: how are we raising the next generation? What values are we giving them? What values are we modeling for them? And just as when they sit down to the dinner table with Alice and her mom says, “Nelson Mandela said there's no greater show of a society’s soul than how it treats its children.” I really believe that that idea, that we give a lot of lip service about children and our future and we should cherish them and then you see in action the choices that we're making as a society and that's actually not true at all. So it was a very specific choice on my part.

We haven't seen the final episode of the season. Can there be a Season Two? Do you want there to be a Season Two? Do you know if there will be a Season Two?

Flynn: I would love for there to be a Season Two. It does leave room for a Season Two. I had always intended it to be more than one season, and I would totally be up for that. You'll find that episode eight kind of finalizes and gives answers to a lot of the mythology of where Jessica came from, who Artemis is, what home is, why home is. You'll get a lot of answers while leaving a lot of room to play. And I’m ready to play!