Gillian Flynn is no stranger to the screen: She reworked two of her novels (Gone Girl and Sharp Objects) for film and TV and authored the screenplay for Steve McQueen’s 2018 movie Widows. But Utopia, a loose adaptation of a British Channel 4 show premiering September 25 on Amazon Prime Video, is her most involved work — she wrote all eight episodes of the first season and served as showrunner and executive producer. The dark comedy—thriller was shot entirely in Chicago, and many of the actors have local ties, most prominently John Cusack and Rainn Wilson. Utopia is eerily reminiscent of our times, taking place amid a deadly flu outbreak, and it's immersed in conspiracies and comic-book culture. Here, Flynn discusses the making of the series and what she’s been up to since production wrapped on the first season.
Did writing a show premised on a pandemic inform how you absorbed COVID-19 news?
Definitely. I don’t know how it could not. I’d be editing a scene that was in a hot zone, with hazmat suits, and then turn that off, turn on CNN, and it’s like, “Wait, that’s not Rainn Wilson.” I remember when I was pitching this series and there was always a question of, Would anyone really believe this pandemic? Would there have been isolation in MERS or SARS? It was a horrible way to show that it can happen, I suppose.
This started as a British show. What made you want to adapt it?
There were certain DNA markers I was finding really interesting: conspiracy, truth versus fiction. But I think of all the dialogue that’s in eight episodes, two lines are from the original — that’s how different it was as I was rewriting. I ultimately pitched it as Marathon Man meets The Goonies. It’s got something for those of you who like fear and death and for those of you who like a gang of ragtag misfits that you can root for.
Did you always plan on filming it in Chicago?
Yes. I kept saying, “I really want Chicago, and I don’t want the skyline of Chicago and then you go down and scream, ‘That’s Vancouver!’ ” We made it a mission to not film tourist Chicago. No one’s doing clandestine meetings by the Bean. It was more about capturing the texture. I really wanted you to look at something and smell the city.
You were a TV critic at Entertainment Weekly for four of your 10 years there. Is there anything you wrote back then that you regret?
There are definitely certain reviews where maybe I was too fond of my own cleverness and at best became a little nastier than I needed to be. It wasn’t that I would go out of my way to be mean — I think I was usually pretty fair — but every once in a while there’d be a show that would hit me and I’d be like, “This should be so much better!” Everyone knows why really bad shows are really bad, and why great shows are great. But to try to figure out why shows aren’t quite there was really good preparation for this job.
What have you been up to during quarantine?
I have been spending some time catching up on Netflix, and hanging out with my kids after not being able to for a large chunk of last year. My 10-year-old son took my hand one day and said, “I just feel like we’re getting to know each other again.” My daughter and I play fairies a lot, which just means we get to put on our fairy tutus and run around the garden for a while. I’m getting mildly better at crafts with her, but I cannot figure out those goddamn plastic weaving machines that make jewelry. I’m going to burn them all ritualistically.
From Local Stages to Utopia
“I just have such a respect for Chicago actors,” says Gillian Flynn. “They’re so well trained, they know their stuff so well.” These two members of the main ensemble cut their teeth in the local theater scene.
▶ Utopia character Wilson Wilson, whom Borges describes as “a conspiracy theorist who may or may not have a bunker built underneath his backyard”
▶ Screen creds You’re the Worst (FX), Living With Yourself (Netflix)
▶ Where you might have seen him onstage Victory Gardens’ 2009 world premiere of the pro wrestling comedy (and Pulitzer Prize finalist) The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. The Logan Square native moved to New York City when the show did.
▶ Favorite thing about filming in Chicago last summer Taking his then-3-year-old son to two Cubs games. “He was absolutely fascinated with the Goose Island beer vendor because he would say ‘Goose! Goose here!’ and my son thought the guy was passing out geese.”
▶ Utopia character Becky, whom she calls “this sweet, smart, and opinionated woman who’s part of this group of nerds obsessed with a comic book that might predict the future”
▶ Screen creds The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
▶ Where you might have seen her onstage Back-to-back Jeff-nominated roles in Steep Theatre’s 2013 Motortown and Griffin Theatre’s 2015 Balm in Gilead
▶ Favorite thing about filming in Chicago last summer “I hadn’t been to Hyde Park in three years — it’s so different,” says LaThrop, who grew up there and now lives in L.A. “But I’m glad Mellow Yellow is still there.”