Gillian Flynn Wants You to Question Everything
Gillian Flynn has a penchant for writing angry women, women who become so paralyzed by their circumstances and suffocated by expectations, they’re driven to madness or something like it. In Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, the journalist Camille directs her pain inward, slicing words into her skin and reducing herself to scars. In Gone Girl, the best seller that catapulted Flynn to literary fame, the psychopathic Amy’s displeasure with her husband curdles into cruel mind games. And in Dark Places, Libby, the lone survivor of a massacre, admits her rotten core on the first page: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ,” she narrates. “Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark.”
So Flynn fans might be surprised to find that Utopia, her new Amazon series, follows an ensemble of conspiracy theorists who seek a comic book they believe predicts the future. The drama, with its global scale and sprawling narrative, doesn’t exactly scream “Gillian Flynn.” What made the novelist and screenwriter want to add Utopia—a remake of a British cult hit—to her oeuvre?
“My oeuvre, yes,” she interjected, laughing, as we talked over Zoom in early September. “Let’s use those words a lot. My oeuvre and my career.”
Flynn was being self-deprecating, but her pivot to adapting a British conspiracy thriller is a mystery worthy of interrogation. Her reputation as the writer of Gone Girl precedes her; the novel, with its acute observations about gender roles, struck a nerve when it was released in the summer of 2012. Nick and Amy Dunne, the toxic couple at the story’s center, paved the way for a new literary genre, the “domestic thriller.” Amy’s monologue about being a “Cool Girl,” a scathing passage about how she conforms to being the degrading, compliant version of women men often desire, captured something in the feminist zeitgeist, launching countless thinkpieces and critical essays. Traces of the tale’s DNA can be found in subsequent page-turners like The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window, films like A Simple Favor, and TV series like Killing Eve.
Still, Flynn hasn’t thought about Cool Girl and all she wrought in a long time. When she wrote Gone Girl, she explained to me, she wasn’t trying to be the voice of a generation of women. As a newlywed and mom-to-be in her 30s, she’d been thinking about marriage, which inspired her to untangle the dynamics of a committed relationship. She merely followed an impulse that came from, as she put it, “a feeling in my belly.”
That gut feeling these days? A mixture of unease and distrust, not about relationships, but about the future. She’s 49 now, and told me the thoughts that keep her up at night are about how facts have become as unreliable as her narrators, warped by the spread of disinformation in the age of “alternative facts.” “You go online and you’re not sure what the truth is, and there are entire humans and industries that go toward swaying you toward the wrong set of facts and information,” she said. “We’re all a little suspicious of each other.”
Look at social media, for instance, she pointed out. Online, “some people are still making an art form out of taking offense”—as in, chasing virality by forming reactionary takes, a practice Flynn considers more destructive than instructive. “It’s not the 150 words of a well-crafted, nuanced thought process that’s going to go viral,” Flynn explained. I later asked her if she had any specific examples in mind of such offended, viral posts. She demurred. “Social media is designed to reward big feelings, sweeping statements and the like,” she wrote over email. “You see it everywhere.”
That said, there’s one scene in Utopia that’s telling of Flynn’s perspective. In it, a cocksure antagonist gathers an army of social-media users into a room with phrases like goals, woke, and good vibes only decorating the walls. He commands them to make a fabricated story trend, and to make their comments as provocative as possible to rile the public into believing—and participating—in the narrative he wants to construct. It’s a troubling scene, but Flynn’s message is clear: The internet isn’t innately bad, but in the wrong hands, it becomes the perfect venue for deceit and disaster.
Thus, she explained, she rarely engages online. “Most writers write because they want to either articulate things that are just under the surface, where we can all kind of connect … or work to understand other humans better, and so to deliberately get into this sort of meta-reality war online, it just is not for me,” she said before taking a deep breath, looking dismayed. “After you’ve sent out your 18th Twitter response … it’s like, Am I really doing something that’s going to help things? … Is me yelling into the abyss helping at all?”
That’s why she enjoyed the conspiratorial protagonists of Utopia, who believe there’s a tangible solution to the horrors of their reality, which include—timely enough—a pandemic. “I liked that idea of: There’s this underground comic book that may help us change the future, and really do something about something bad that’s happened,” she said.
Flynn’s not championing all conspiracy theorists; she recognizes that real-life conspiracy theorists can have dangerous and harmful intentions, and she’s not interested in promoting their baseless claims. “There’s so much to play with right now, where we’re questioning what truth is, truth versus spin versus ‘alternative facts,’ versus your ‘scientific opinion’ versus my ‘scientific opinion,’” she said, drawing air quotes as she talked. “All these things that used to be either true or false are now becoming malleable.”
Instead, Flynn wants to help pop culture catch up to reality, to capture the phenomenon of, say, QAnon not as a seedy outlier but as an actual, pervasive threat, and to tell a story that stresses both the allure and the influence of conspiratorial thinking. Part of why the British Utopia caught her eye, she told me, came from the fact that it was trying to grapple with paranoia seriously, the way films and TV shows did when she was growing up. “Just after Watergate, we were at a time when we were questioning what institutions meant, what government meant, what playing by the rules meant, and that’s what spawned all those amazing ’70s paranoia films like [The] Parallax View and Marathon Man and All the Presidents’ Men,” Flynn explained. “I feel like we’re ready for that again.”
So despite her oeuvre, Flynn’s wish to adapt Utopia makes sense: As a former journalist, she’s always been drawn to characters obsessed with exposing the truth. Her first protagonist, Camille of Sharp Objects, is a reporter looking into a possible serial killer. A group of people consumed with solving gruesome crimes—the “Kill Club”—catalyzes the plot of Dark Places. Yet as a novelist, she also appreciates the artistry behind a theory, as well as the drama of challenging conventional wisdom. Utopia, a story that’s darkly comedic, violent, unsettling, and hopeful all at the same time, gives her a bigger stage on which to ask the questions she’s often asked in her writing: What if what really happened isn’t what obviously did? What if the most apparent suspect didn’t commit the murder? What if the innocent are really guilty? Interrogating the status quo has always been her MO, and she does it by blending elements of fact into her fiction.
In that sense, conspiracy theories have provided rich dramatic material for Flynn to mine. Through Utopia, she can explore the paranoia inherent in questioning the facts, and the thrill that vindication brings. “I always say if you think you’re not a conspiracy person, you just haven’t met the conspiracy that’s right for you,” Flynn told me. “Everyone has that one thing where it’s like”—here she tilted her head to the right and raised her voice an octave—“‘I don’t know! Mayyyybe?’” She then sipped from a glass of soda, which I assumed to be Cherry Coke Zero; I’d read that that was her favorite beverage. But given what we’d been discussing, I decided to take her lead, asking her to confirm the drink.
She raised her eyebrows. “I am controversially drinking a Diet Dr Pepper,” she revealed, grinning—the store ran out of her beloved Cherry Coke Zero. I gasped. My first conspiracy!
Years before Flynn went Hollywood, she covered Hollywood. As a correspondent and then a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, she visited sets around the world, interviewed stars, and reviewed shows, awarding each a letter grade. It’s a job that can be enthralling and all-consuming, given the weekly print deadlines and incessant churn of new releases. (I would know; before I took a job at The Atlantic, I’d been an EW staffer for five years.)
Flynn’s run at EW was made stranger when she tried to write novels at the same time. She would stop by the filming of a project—say, that of Jackass: The Movie in Florida—before trying to imagine more of Camille’s story in Sharp Objects. “I still remember very vividly … spending a crazy day of day drinking and weird stunts and all this sort of stuff, and then going back and [being] like, Well I gotta get my pages done today,” she recalled.
This wasn’t how she had envisioned her writing career as a child. Growing up a fan of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the young Gillian Flynn—that’s Gillian with a hard G—wanted to pursue mystery fiction, but thought practically, opting instead for journalism. It was the midwestern, specifically Missourian, thing to do, she joked: “I’m from Kansas City, where it’s like, ‘Dream big, but don’t dream too big, because who the hell do you think you are, dreaming so big?’” She laughed. “I figured I’d always have a job” with journalism” she said. “‘Newspapers aren’t going anywhere! I’m doing the safe and useful thing here.’”
At that, she laughed harder. After all, she got laid off at EW amid the recession of the late 2000s, a change that led her to immerse herself fully in fiction, and into a more insular life: Her characters became her colleagues, her imagination her source. Her unfinished basement—“famously the scariest place in the world to be,” she told me—became her office. There, she cobbled together IKEA furniture, brought in a space heater that left her “woozy” at the end of the day, and dove into writing her third book, Gone Girl.
Flynn isn’t usually shy about her work, but she can often be self-effacing, her pragmatic midwestern sensibility quieting any displays of pride. As she wrote Gone Girl, she kept her progress to herself. “I didn’t even tell that many people [I was writing another novel], because I knew I didn’t want that many people asking me, two years later, ‘How’s your book going?’” Flynn said. “It’s like, ‘Well, it’s going the same as it ever was!’”
Instead, she funneled her angst inward and into the work; it’s no coincidence the novel is about characters laid off from their magazine jobs. The story went through countless iterations as Flynn doubted her instincts, tossing and then revisiting certain plot points and details. One version recast Nick’s sister as not his sibling but his lover. Another turned Amy’s parents into matchmaking entrepreneurs, which “felt a little too on the nose,” she said. Flynn’s first draft didn’t even include Amy’s diary, a clever narrative strategy that used Amy’s voice to guide readers through the relationship’s early years. “You could do your whole Choose Your Own Adventure of all these different books [I] have written,” she said.
Being a magazine writer meant reporting to editors and hitting frequent deadlines. Being a novelist meant working in solitude. But as the showrunner on Utopia, Flynn, for the first time, had to guide hundreds of people into bringing her vision to life. She’d written scripts before—she adapted Gone Girl for the 2014 film directed by David Fincher, worked with Steve McQueen to co-write Widows, and joined the writers’ room of Sharp Objects—but this was different. Crew members from various departments depended on her to answer their questions, to advise them on each piece of the show’s plot-heavy puzzle. “People would follow me into the bathroom,” she marveled. “I’m sure I occasionally drove my crew crazy … I found out that I’m an introverted person, in that purest sense of, I like humans but it’s not where I get my energy from.”
But she wasn’t supposed to lead Utopia on her own. She and Fincher had planned on developing the series for HBO, until the ballooning budget sank the project. Fincher then departed for other TV work. But Flynn had finished writing every episode and felt it was necessary to finish the job, even if that meant reworking those scripts somewhere else. “David aside, I knew what I could do with that story,” she said.
That’s what she told the original series creator, Dennis Kelly, who serves as an executive producer on the Amazon remake and whose version drew acclaim for its colorful, comic-book-like cinematography. Flynn’s, on the other hand, invests more in the conspiracy and adopts a grittier tone, deliberately distancing itself from the U.K. show. “I was really lucky in that Dennis Kelly is much more relaxed and was a serious, great guy to adapt from,” she said. “If someone started adapting one of my books and was like, ‘It’s gonna be kind of like your book but I’m going to take these characters, and these here don’t appeal to me”—she mimed moving pieces around on a board—“I’d be like, ‘Oh really, is that what you think you’re doing? I don’t think so!’ I’d be much less chill.”
Every episode of Utopia released to critics came with a lengthy list of “Do Not Reveals,” plot twists that shouldn’t be spoiled. So, broadly speaking, each of the eight hours features a handful of gasp-inducing moments, a revelation or two about the show’s ongoing pandemic, and at least one gruesome death; in fact, Flynn amasses the highest body count she’s ever written. It’s a series so packed with curveballs, viewers learn to grow wary of new characters and story developments—so much so that, in my case, some intended jaw-droppers later in the season did little more than part my lips. But in a way, that’s Flynn’s point: She wants Utopia to keep viewers—likely binge-watchers—on their toes, to participate in the unraveling mystery. She wants them to notice the irony built into the work of the most inventive conspiracy theorists: their most bizarre, most obsession-inducing theories are often fools’ errands, so complicated that they’re basically impossible to prove. Conspiracy theories, however plausible or implausible, run the gamut from soothing to unnerving. Through Utopia, Flynn tries to deliver a pop-culture portrayal—a series that’s part satire, part black comedy, part sci-fi, and part paranoia thriller—that contends with those extremes.
That’s a lot for one TV show to do, and so far, the reception to the series has been mixed, with most reviews dinging the crowded plot and its horrific violence, as well as noting its tonal differences from the British version. Flynn anticipated the comparisons. “I totally get it,” she told me. “As a fanwoman, I’m very protective of the originals I love.” Besides, as a former TV critic, she understands the process: “I don’t take it as personally as I might otherwise. If I didn’t know the exact process by which it happened … it might feel much more overwhelming, much more mysterious, like, All of this organization hates this thing that I worked so hard on, as opposed to, This used to be me having a tuna sandwich at lunch and writing the first draft of this review. I know what that’s like.”
Flynn’s personal experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been quiet compared with how her characters are faring in the crisis she imagined for them. She and her husband drove their family to Kansas City in July, quarantining inside a house by an idyllic lake, before visiting her parents. (“We vowed that my mom wouldn’t go a month without seeing the grandkids,” she explained.) Back at home in Chicago now, when she’s not hunting for Cherry Coke Zero, she’s working inside her office—a much nicer space than the one she worked in in her Gone Girl days.
Of course, she told me, “I do tend to have a little bit of the free-floating anxiety that I think everyone else does, just because we don’t know where this is going.” She doesn’t know when her kids will go back to school in person, for one thing. And she’s also been meaning to finish her next novel, a Trump era–inspired story that she’s been working on for years while juggling screenwriting commitments. It’s a book she once cheekily teased as having “the greatest first page that’s ever been written.” I asked her if the next page was just as good. She laughed, shaking her head. “I would say it’s probably 92 percent as good as the first,” she said.
At first I assumed she was being self-deprecating again, but she was just being frank. “I’m not someone who has a large number of talents in the world,” she admitted, chuckling. “I am not one of those people who’s like, ‘I have a great facility with languages!’ Or, ‘I’ll fall back on my math skills!’ I really knew how to do one thing, which was write and report.” If she’s learned one thing from writing characters who question everything, it’s that she shouldn’t question her own instincts.