When Gillian Flynn, author of the two-million-copy bestseller Gone Girl, finished writing her screenplay for a film, she gave it to her husband to read — along with a yellow magic marker.
“I told him to underline anything he objected to,” says Flynn, author of two other novels and a former writer for Entertainment Weekly. “I told him I would delete or rework anything he objected to, because these characters are pretty mean to each other, and I didn’t want anyone to think I had based any of it on him.”
Her husband read the script and returned it unmarked.
One of the bleakest and most honest depictions of a troubled marriage to hit the bestseller list — as well as a corker of a mystery and a commentary on the country’s economic instability and the carnivorous nature of the media — Gone Girl seemed perfect for a movie, except for one thing. The novel was filled with flashbacks and diary entries that would require voiceovers, the bane of most filmmakers’ existence. The story also had the chronology of a puzzle; not everything made sense until the last page.
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Still, when Flynn’s script started making the rounds, it caught the attention of David Fincher (The Social Network, Seven, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Fincher asked Flynn if she would have dinner with him in St. Louis, where he was shooting a project.
“My wife had read the book and told me there was something really interesting there,” Fincher says. “I was blown away by it. But I also knew Gillian was contractually bound to deliver a first draft of a script soon, so I waited for that. I didn’t know if you could solve the diary, the flashbacks, if you could integrate all that without it feeling intrusive. I wasn’t convinced it was possible. And then I read her script and thought, ‘You can do this! She had cracked it.’”
Except for a slightly different ending that still preserves the tone of the book and the omission of a few minor characters, Gone Girl, which opens Friday, is one of the most faithful film adaptations ever made. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne, whose happy existence in New York is derailed when they lose their jobs writing for magazines and move back to Missouri. He opens a neighborhood bar with his sister and settles into a blue-collar life, while Amy becomes increasingly unhappy about their new home. Then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick is at the bar when he gets a call from a neighbor, saying his front door is ajar.
Nick rushes back home and finds signs of a struggle — broken furniture, shattered glass, traces of blood — and no Amy. The police become involved and, as usual, the husband becomes the primary subject. But without Amy’s body, which has vanished, no charges can be brought against anyone. And the longer the body is missing, the more guilty Nick appears.
Like the book, Gone Girl is a terrific thriller. But it also has a lot to say about the nature of marriage and questions how well we can ever really know another person. When Nick and Amy are lying in bed and he caresses her hair, his hand looks like a claw trying to extract information and find out what she’s really thinking. And this is before things turn really bad.
“A truly mature relationship means being completely comfortable and honest with the other person,” Fincher says. “People are too complex and too needy. They change. They start off in a great place. The idea of finding our soulmate, no matter how bogus … that is incredibly prevalent. That’s the conversation I want people to have after they see the movie. But I don’t want to have it for them. This is first and foremost a thriller.”
For the role of Nick, Fincher cast Affleck, who survived the Bennifer media storm — similar to what surrounds Nick — and came out of it unscathed. He’s now happily married to Jennifer Garner, a Best Picture Oscar winner for Argo and cast in the role of the Dark Knight in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman.
“Ben is extremely bright, but people don’t give him that credit,” Fincher says. “I told him I need a character who went through all the s--- he went through in his real life. He got put through the wood chipper. But in the movie, he walks into the firestorm leading with his chin. He has great wit.”
Affleck agrees his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, which fed gossip columnists daily, came in handy, because Nick is being constantly watched and hounded by news crews. “On the set, I was the leading authority on that,” Affleck says, laughing. “Nowadays, it’s much more common. It was a little different 12 years ago before the Internet. Today, these things last two days, and then it’s on to the next scandal. But when it happened to me, it was frustrating seeing the false funhouse image of what the media represented.”
Fincher is known primarily for his visual style and penchant for violent movies (Gone Girl has only one bloody scene, but it’s a doozy). But the director works just as closely with his art director, cinematographer and set designer as he does with his actors, many of whom have given great performances in his films (Brad Pitt and Ed Norton in Fight Club, Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and Michael Douglas in The Game).
“The movies I love and go back to again and again are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Chinatown or Alien or Citizen Kane or All About Eve. They are movies where you find career work from everybody. I want everybody firing on 12 cylinders. So it’s about creating an environment where the actors can be as good as they’ve ever been. I wanted all of Ben’s wardrobe picked out for him. I want pencils and paper and notes and a little tube of Krazy Glue when he’s going through the drawers in the kitchen. I want all that stuff worked out so actors can give themselves over to this moment. It’s all about the cohesion of everyone doing their job. That to me is the difference between a music video director who is a good shooter and a real filmmaker. I don’t want to limit other people’s contributions just because I’m the director.”
Affleck agrees that Fincher was much more detail-oriented than most filmmakers, which takes some pressure off the actors but also means lots of takes of the same scene.
“This performance had two iterations,” Affleck says. “One is just the honesty of it — what I went through — and the other is working with David, who spent so much time calibrating the audience’s suspicion of Nick and wanting them to judge him. That had to be monitored meticulously in order for the mystery to work. Sometimes I would stop and say ‘Maybe he’s going a little too far to the left or the right on this.’ But we were always clear this is not your classic leading man. He’s always showing a naked, raw vulnerability, so it didn’t feel like a character or a monster.”
For the critical role of Amy, Fincher cast Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher, Wrath of the Titans), who had appeared in some big films but was far from a household name — at least until now.
“I wanted to see her honesty,” Fincher says. “I had seen her in four or five different things, but I didn’t know who she was. I met her in St. Louis, we had drinks, she went back to Scotland. She is inscrutable. You are never going to get to the bottom of her. When I asked her if she was an only child, she said yes, and that’s what I knew Amy had to have. She had a lot of resentment toward Nick for uprooting her life. She grew up with the notion of someone with a perfect image of herself that her parents helped to invent. At first, in Nick, she sees everything she ever wanted. You can see that she adulates him. But then later things ... change.”
Fincher believes that despite the popularity of the book, a lot of people will be exposed to Gone Girl for the first time in the theater, which will be a fun communal experience because of the dizzying number of twists. Every time you think you know where the movie’s headed, you’re wrong.
“I understand the culpability of [certain characters], but I also understand why they do what they do,” Fincher says. “Look at what they’re faced with. Ha! I have a feeling by the time the movie reaches the last half-hour, women in the audience are going to be crossing their arms and leaning back in their seats in disapproval. We’ll see.”