Gillian Flynn began writing the novel for “Sharp Objects” more than a decade ago, when she was still working at Entertainment Weekly, she said at the ATX Television Festival’s world premiere of the HBO adaptation.
“I was discovering there were a lot of stories about men and violence and men and rage and how they handle that and not much about how women handle that…particularly generationally,” Flynn said Thursday.
At the time, Flynn observed, there was “a lot of chick lit”; the stories were about “women who shopped and their big crisis was, ‘Can I find the right shoe? And get the right shoe and then get the right man and get the right cosmopolitan.'”
“And I wanted to do something else,” she said.
What was born was the story of a troubled young journalist who goes back to her hometown to look into the disappearance of a teenage girl. Her return is fraught with emotion over the family she left behind, as well as the traumas she suffered while she lived there.
Flynn admitted that it was “crickets” when she first tried to sell the novel. “It was, ‘No one wants to hear about women that we can’t root for [and] no one wants to root for Camille. No one likes her,'” she said of the early reception.
But someone who understood Camille right away was Marti Noxon. As someone who has been open about her own struggles with self-harm, specifically anorexia and alcoholism, Noxon connected to the material and calls “Sharp Objects” the capper on her “self-harm trilogy” that also includes “The Bone” and “Dietland.”
“There was something about the way Camille hid her pain and then was so intrepid and she didn’t let that stop her that I found so moving,” Noxon said. “There’s this female quality where certain generations were really taught to keep that inside and I was trying to write myself out of a bad place and Camille was that guiding light.”
Noxon had read Flynn’s other novel, “Gone Girl,” and called her agent to ask who had the rights to “Sharp Objects,” which she knew was another work of Flynn’s. “I thought, ‘Who is this twisted woman? I need to know her!'” Noxon said of Flynn.
Jason Blum’s Alliance had optioned “Sharp Objects” and was toying with the idea of it being a movie, Blum said. But he met with Noxon, who laid out her case for its adaptation as a limited series instead.
“My argument is, until yesterday, movies with complicated female leads don’t get the support and they don’t get the attention they deserve and they don’t get great marketing campaigns often. And if they don’t do well, then [that’s it],” Noxon said.
Now executive producers on the series, Blum (through his newer company Blumhouse Prods.), Noxon (who is showrunner) and Amy Adams (who also stars as Camille) all pointed out that the amount of complications that Camille comes with were too tricky to try to force into the shorter run time of a film.
“Camille needed to be explored over eight episodes. To try to do that in 90 minutes to 120 tops would have been really tricky,” Adams said. “The internal monologue of Camille is almost impossible to capture in a 90-minute story, so it’s so well suited to this.”
While the executive producers called Camille the “anchor” of the show, her home city of Wind Gap, Mo. becomes a character in its own right. While it’s a fictional setting, Flynn revealed it’s based on her own experiences growing up in a small town and that she intentionally named it after a small town in Pennsylvania.
“An ex-fiance of mine lives not too far from Wind Gap, Penn. We were driving through there one time, and I thought, ‘What a f—ing great name,'” she said.
For Flynn, getting the town right was not only about capturing the visuals but also the “female matriarchy.”
Director Jean-Marc Vallée shared that he booked “Sharp Objects” before “Big Little Lies” and did a lot of “homework” to be able to capture the tone of the setting.
“When you’re a foreigner, you want to be as American, if not more American, than Americans. You want to do the right things and get it right,” he said.
Finding the right Victorian house — in which Camille grew up and in which her mother (played by Patricia Clarkson) still lives — was key. While they looked for the right place in Los Angeles, Calif., as well as Georgia, they ultimately found the exterior in Northern California and had to create the interiors on soundstages down in L.A., while the rest of the exteriors — including a pig farm — was shot in the South.
“He’s so detail-oriented and I think that’s why you get such clear details communicated to the audience,” Adams said.
Sometimes the details come across with big set pieces, and sometimes it’s more specific. In a scene in the middle of the show’s run, Camille is supposed to be drinking beer, but Adams figured she’d use a red mug so she could drink water and the camera wouldn’t see through the glass. Instead, Vallée yelled that he couldn’t see the beer when the camera was over the mug, which resulted in her drinking a lot of O’Douls (non-alcoholic beer).
Adams felt Vallée’s influence over the project was integral. “If there’s someone who understands a totally f—ed up woman it’s Jean-Marc — or at least is interested in them,” she said.
The project taught those involved a lot of things. Flynn saw the hard work and dedication of writing a novel just for herself pay off in spades, even if years later, with so many people interested in the story. Adams admitted “it’s changed the way that I approach a character.” And when it came to the overall experience of the show, Noxon shared that “as someone who goes to a lot of dark places, it was healing.”