Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel The Girl on the Train was told through three different points of view by three very different women: alcoholic divorcee Rachel, new mother Anna (now married to Rachel’s ex) and young wife (and Anna’s nanny) Megan. Tragedy and crime eventually bind these three women and the men in their lives together, with the book switching between all three while traveling back and forth in time as memories shift, fade and resurface.
That was the challenge facing screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, Chloe) as she adapted the book for director Tate Taylor (The Help) and stars Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett. The central image of Rachel watching others’ lives and homes on her twice-daily train ride from Westchester and Manhattan and back (changed from the book’s London), plus Rachel’s unreliable memories and the different views offered by the other women were the puzzle pieces that Wilson had to work with as she crafted Hawkins’ novel into a cinematic mystery.
We spoke with Wilson by phone on what she initially liked about the book, making it into a movie and how her writing process – which she is currently applying to another thriller with erotic overtones, Maestra – worked on The Girl on the Train.
Den of Geek: How did this project get on your radar? Were you familiar with the book beforehand?
Erin Cressida Wilson: The book had not been published yet. It was a manuscript that I was given by the producers, and we all loved the book. We didn’t have any idea that the rest of the world would love it as much as we did. I just started to adapt it and handed it in, in the second week of January 2015 and I didn’t know it but the book was published the same week. I didn’t know the timing would be like that. Of course none of us knew that it would race up to number one on the best seller list and stay there for so long. It became a sensation and the script had already been written when it became a sensation.
What appealed to you about the story?
I was very much pulled towards the loneliness and the voyeurism of the lead character, and the quiet sort of, and I would say intoxicating and ultimately confusing realm of her fantasy world. I was very compelled by the fact that Paula Hawkins had taken themes that I had worked with my whole life and that I had loved in so many foreign films and put them in a context that was not sexual but was more about desire, and longing, and frustrations, and fantasy. I was pulled to reading the book because of that.
There’s something very powerful about the idea that we see other people’s lives and fantasize about how great they are compared to ours. Do you think that that’s enhanced now by the fact that people share so much of their lives more than they ever did on social media?
No question, I think of the windows passing Rachel. She gets on the train and the backyards race by her one after another after another and she sees into houses and into people having dinner with their families, and children playing, and couples kissing. She sees these backyards just like we race through the pages and the postings on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram and we see all these people’s supposedly perfect lives. It is until Rachel steps off the train and she sees that these people are very, very messy, they’re not perfect at all. Of course we can’t step into people’s lives off the internet and see that they’re just presenting and advertising to themselves. For me The Girl on the Train is reflective not just of our lives on a train, but our lives as we’re isolated from one another watching the fantasy world that’s all over on the internet.
I read that you used to ride that train at one point in your life, and maybe still do. Did you tap into that memory a bit when you were getting involved in this project?
Absolutely. I used to be afraid of flying so I’ve taken the train across the entire United States maybe 20 times. I’ve spent a lot of times also commuting on trains and I always just love it. I race to the train because this is a place where I can be alone in my head and look out the window and make up stories and it’s sort of a time to be alone but in public. You’re neither here nor there, nobody can find you, you’re hiding. I think it’s a very evocative location.
What is it about the idea of voyeurism that is so compelling to us as people?
I think in a weird way it’s comforting to see. I find that being alone I love it, very, very much. I love being alone. I don’t like being alone like in a middle of a field with nobody around. I love being alone knowing that there are people around me doing things. I find that very, very comforting and so I think that that’s part of the lure of voyeurism is that you’re in a state of being alone, but there’s other people around you and it’s okay to be alone.
I read many, many, many years ago that somebody made a soundtrack, a CD of the sounds of different things happening in a house. For people that lived alone, you might hear someone opening and closing a refrigerator in the next room, or walking across the floor. There’s something a little bit odd about it, there’s no question, but for those people that like to be alone and I would say that a lot of writers are like that, you can understand that it’s nice to just hear people but really to actually deal with them it’s much harder. It’s kind of a fantasy relationship you have with people, with your neighbors, you hear them, you see them. I find it comforting, I love hearing my neighbors. I love hearing people on the street.
Just as long as you don’t have to talk to them.
What led to changing the setting from London to Westchester? Were there also things that you had to lose or transform?
I didn’t ever really see the location as England, or America, I saw it as the train. I saw it as in her imagination. That was the number one thing. When I pitched (writing the screenplay), the book had not been published so it was not a sensation and I was pitching to an American company. So I pitched setting it on the Hudson Line because of the beauty of that river and the straightness of that line too. It doesn’t meander, I don’t know if it is straight, but it feels straight because it’s like the river. It’s a straight shot from the suburbs into the city. But honestly the book is not highly English. I realized the people that read it feel very connected to all the cultural references that she makes, but she really doesn’t make as many as you think. I’m adapting another English book now and it would be flat out impossible to make it American, that’s how English it is. Whereas this one is more universal, it’s a really universal tale and I think it could be anywhere in the entire world.
The book is told from the point of view of three different women. Was that the biggest challenge in adapting it, dealing with these three different points of view and finding the right way to make them cinematic?
That was one of them, yes, because it was three different women’s points of view plus flashbacks, memories and short memories. This in itself could lead to a very fractured narrative but I didn’t want to write a fractured narrative. In the book each chapter is from a different point of view of the three women. I just didn’t want to make a film that jumps around like that, or that was that linear, so I tried to establish the three points of view upfront as strongly as possible. Starting with Rachel, being inside her mind and in some sort of feminine gaze out the window, and her loneliness.
Then we moved into Megan’s voiceover, and we quickly find out it’s actually not voiceover. We are not seeing a movie told from two different voiceover point of views but it is her talking to her therapist. Then we go on the same sort of transition with Anna, we hear her talking, we come in and we see that she’s talking to a baby. In this way once we’ve established the three points of view it’s very easy to come back to them but without them having voiceovers.
What is your actual process? Do you read the book a few times, highlight pages, tear it apart? How do you actually pick out the things and know what you’re going to transfer from book to screenplay?
It’s pretty involved. I do read, and highlight, and circle, and star, and dog ear, and Xerox and then I research a lot. I researched a little less for this one. In the case of this one, because I wanted to stick so close to the book I didn’t do as much, and what I’m doing lately is putting the book into screenplay format and working off of that from which I can then rearrange the scenes, and add, and subtract, and decide, and it’s sort of like pieces on a puzzle.
What I used to do was I’d read the book that I was going to adapt and then I’d start writing based on the book. Now, what I do is based on my having read the book, and what I liked about the book. Now, even things that I don’t like about books, I keep them all there until they tell me they’re not working. I could go over, and over, and over it, because sometimes things that are not attractive to me are very important to the story at times. I feel like in the past I’ve been a little bit preemptive with my adaptation. Now I just really wait a while to see.
There was an immense amount of the book not in the screenplay. It’s just as important what’s chosen as what’s not chosen, but it really all has to do with balance. It’s like chemistry…there were so many things in the book that if you put them into a screenplay they would not work. I needed it to be a mystery and she reveals so much in the book because of course these are interior monologues. My whole task was to hide things as much as possible and keep the secrets tumbling along and pulling us through the story.
People have compared this to Gone Girl in some ways. Both of them have these very interesting portrayals of marriages. I’m wondering what do you think these stories necessarily say about what we think of the institution of marriage, and whether the audiences relate to some of their own feelings about their own marriages?
I think that they’re a little different in that in Gone Girl we’re following Ben Affleck so much, and in Girl on the Train we are really following a woman. I think it’s just a result of the fact that there are really aren’t that many films about complicated women that we just naturally jump to, “Oh, it’s like Gone Girl.”
I think a lot of people and families are depicting themselves as perfect and being addicted to this portrait of perfection, and it’s almost, I personally fear doing that. I don’t even like taking portraits of my family because I fear this falseness and setting up false expectations. Sometimes when you scratch the surface it’s really not what you think it is. Sometimes it is I guess. I think that it’s a complexity to marriages that the whole world has become one-dimensional photographs at this point. It can be very misleading and very painful when you realize life is three dimensional which includes various things.
You’ve done a lot of adaptations. Do you have original screenplays that you’ve written as well, or do you primarily enjoy adapting?
I really do love adapting because I feel like it’s sort of the voyeur’s way of writing. In other words, I don’t have to say it’s all mine but I get to insert myself. But yes, I’ve written many originals, stage plays mainly. For now, I’m really in love with adaptation, I find it incredibly satisfying. I taught for many, many years and I like to say that when I adapt a book I’m teaching it to become a film.
The Girl on the Train is in theaters tomorrow (Friday, October 7).