Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), the dramatic thriller Dark Places follows Libby Day (Charlize Theron), mother and two sisters were brutally murdered when she was only seven years old. Now 25 years later and broke, Libby agrees to appear at a gathering of true crime aficionados to help them re-examine the crime by revisiting the most tragic moment of her life.
At a conference for the film’s press day, Academy Award winner Charlize Theron and author Gillian Flynn talked about why dark female characters are so interesting, being truthful to the embodiment of a full woman, the importance of turning up at the box office for female-driven films, the fascination with true crime, and what makes a good book-to-film adaptation.
Question: Charlize, why are you seemingly attracted to stories with dark, angry women?
CHARLIZE THERON: It’s really interesting when you get to play a woman that is layered and conflicted, and has certain human attributes that might not be that attractive, which is part of the human condition. But somehow, because we haven’t seen enough of it in cinema, it sticks out like a sore thumb and people comment on it. At the end of the day, they’re really not compartmentalized characteristics. They’re really just a part of a full human being, and especially a woman. It’s only, I feel like, in the last decade that we’ve seen women who are even more conflicted than men resurface and people are talking about it because there has been such a lack of it. So, I can’t say that I’m attracted to angry, dark people. I think what I’m attracted to are characters that, to me, feel very truthful to the embodiment of a full woman. I think it’s just refreshing to see women like Gillian Flynn write women like that. And to have been given the opportunity to play those women in the last 10 years, it feels authentic and real. That’s all I can say.
Were you able to relate to this woman’s tragic life experience, having had your own tragic life experience?
THERON: There really are no similarities. The circumstances of this tragedy has absolutely nothing in common with the tragedy that happened in my life. What I believe people can relate to is that we all come from this family structure that we don’t get to choose, necessarily. I’ve yet to meet somebody that doesn’t have some form of skeletons in their closet from the family life that they lived. I think there is something very relatable in the idea that you hit a certain age, later in your life, where you realize you have to pick up the rug and see what’s underneath it and deal with stuff. I think it’s a very easy assumption to make that, because I had a tragic event happen in my life, that was why I wanted to make this story. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Gillian, as a writer, what inspires you to create these very complex but strong female characters?
GILLIAN FLYNN: I certainly never sit down and think, “Gosh, I’m going to create this very multi-layered woman.” Although I will say, when I first started writing and I wrote Sharp Objects, my first book, I was writing it with a little bit of a sense of a vacuum of interesting female characters, and particularly female anti-heroes. Men can play all of these dark and screwed up roles and they’re called anti-heroes. And women do it and they’re a bitch, period. There’s not anything after that. But, we can be all those things and more. When we first started shopping it around, we got turned down by quite a few places that said, “Women will not want to read about a woman that they don’t like, and men definitely will not want to read about a woman who’s bad.” I was like, “What era is that?” For me, Libby’s darkness came from a very specific place. To write her any other way made no sense. I tried to do that. In the first draft, I was like, “I’m not going to write another dark female narrator.” The Libby that I created was just ridiculous. She was just like, “We’re going to solve this murder! Let’s go!” She was really optimistic and like a Jazzercise instructor. It was ludicrous. So, I just erased her and started over with the opening of the book, and then I really had her. People focus on the darker female characters in my books, but for every one of those, I can also show you an equally screwed up man that no one ever comments about, or a nicer woman that no one comments about. I don’t feel like that’s my specialty.
What can we do, as audience members, to ensure that there continue to be female-driven films?
THERON: It’s very simple, go see them. People always say to me, “What’s wrong with Hollywood? They don’t want to make female-driven movies.” And that’s not where the problem lies. It lies with us, in society. When we make these movies, nobody goes to see them. It’s a social issue, really, more than it is a Hollywood issue. It is a business, at the end of the day. They make movies that they find there’s an audience for. I do think there’s been an incredible shift, especially in this last couple of years. I can definitely tell you that there was a definitive moment in my career where the more I started exploring these darker, fucked up characters, the more people were emotionally tapping into them because there was just something really authentic within them. I remember doing a film (Young Adult) with Jason Reitman, which is probably the most despicable character I’ve ever played. And I remember that, after every screening, people would come up to me and whisper, “I know that character,” or “I am that character.” I think there is an element, when you make a film, that is a bit like holding up a mirror to society. And I think good filmmaking is when you really hold the mirror up truthfully, and you don’t angle it and you don’t hide things with smoke and mirrors. I think women are starting to be represented that way, and I think people are responding to it. It’s fun to watch women do that stuff. When I started out, I wanted to be Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and I wanted to be Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. I was like, “Where are those roles for women?”
FLYNN: No one watches Taxi Driver and says, “Oh, it’s a male-oriented film.” No one looks at nine-tenths of the films out there that are headlined by men and say, “It’s a male-oriented film.” I think it’s up to us, societally, to say, “It’s not a women’s story. It’s a story that has a woman in it.” There’s nothing that can drive me from zero to crazy faster than a man who comes up to me and says, “You know, I don’t normally read books by women, but I really liked Gone Girl.” Could you ever approach a man and be like, “I don’t normally talk to men”?
Do you understand the fascination with true crime and how it almost reaches a celebrity level?
FLYNN: My interest in Dark Places was that strange community that comes together around a murder. I watch those shows and read those books, all the time, and wonder, “Why am I attracted to these kinds of stories?” It’s not a new thing. The newspaper industry was built on the penny dreadfuls. We’ve been fascinated with murders for a long time. Part of it is that it gives us a vocabulary to talk about families, husbands and wives, money issues, and society issues. Those ones that we get attracted to do tend to have those angles to it that we can grab onto. That was my interest in it, particularly with someone like Libby, who becomes famous because of a tragedy, and then weirdly becomes identified with that forever.
Gillian, has seeing adaptations of your books affected how you write?
FLYNN: Hopefully not. I’ve not started the next book yet. Don’t tell my publisher. That’s off the record. I think writing a book with film in mind is a way to write a really bad books. You can usually tell those books that are packaged to become films. I think that will be one of those voice on my shoulder that I’ll be battling a little. Now I’ve confessed too much! With my next book, I’ll fight that urge to make it seem commercial or filmable. You don’t necessarily read Dark Places and say, “What an easy thing to film.”
Do you ever learn anything new or unexpected about your characters that you didn’t see when you were writing them, but that you see in the film adaptation?
FLYNN: Oh, always. That’s the fun of it for me. I don’t care how dramatically faithful a movie is to the book, or whether the character looks just like it’s described in the book, as long as the spirit of the book is there. To me, one of the funnest things is seeing Charlize take on Libby, and watching her take and the different ways she interprets things. A movie should be considered a companion piece to a book, as opposed to a straight adaptation of the book. I go into it as they should be two very different things. We’ve all seen movies that are slavishly accurate to the book that don’t become good movies because of it. A movie has to become its own thing. For me, writing is a lonely thing. You’re just by yourself, all the time. To get to see (director) Gilles [Paquet-Brenner]’s take on all of these different scenes is the fun of it. A movie is such a huge, big collaboration. It’s so different from a novel. I love seeing all of the different tones that everyone brings to the film. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had two adaptations that I’ve been super happy and thrilled about. Talk to me when a bad one happens, I guess.
Charlize, this is your second movie this summer with Nicholas Hoult, having also done Mad Max: Fury Road together. What is your working relationship like?
THERON: He’s just a really great guy, and he’s incredibly talented. We joked on Fury Road that we were stuck in the same environment, that entire film, but we didn’t really have that much to do [together]. We just really liked each other. He makes making movies fun. There’s something about him that I thoroughly enjoy. I enjoy working with people who make the experience a great one. And he’s stupidly talented. I feel that way about him today. I would do every movie with him. He was the first person that I talked to Gilles about. This was one of the first scripts that I read when I came back from Namibia, and I was like, “It would be amazing, if we could make this with Nick.” I think he was such a great asset to have. He’s so great in the film. He’s just great. He’s really talented. He’s the emotional drive in Fury Road.
Dark Places is out in theaters on August 7th.