Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn is bringing her take on British conspiracy thriller Utopia to Amazon Prime Video. The showrunner and executive producer Sharon Levy tell DQ about why the series is more important – and prescient – than ever.
If it has been more than seven years since British conspiracy thriller Utopia first aired on Channel 4, Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn has been working on a US adaptation for almost as long.
“It’s funny because when I first started writing the show, I immediately got pregnant with my daughter,” Flynn tells DQ. “I can look at her and literally look at the chronology of the show. [When she was a baby, I was thinking] ‘The show’ll probably get made next year.’ And then she’s a toddler and now she’s starting first grade. There’s a walking human to mark how long a road it’s been.”
Flynn had initially set up the series at HBO with director David Fincher (House of Cards). But in 2015, before a pilot was filmed, the premium cablenet pulled out of the project.
Five years later, Flynn’s eight-part Utopia is set to debut on Amazon Prime Video. Inspired by Dennis Kelly’s original series, it centres on a group of comic fans who meet online and bond over their obsession with a seemingly fictional comic called Utopia. Together, Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) and Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton) unearth hidden meanings cloaked within its pages that predict threats to humanity. And they soon realise these are not just the makings of a conspiracy – they are very real dangers coming alive in their world.
The group then embarks on a high-stakes adventure, bringing them face-to-face with the comic’s famed central character, Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), who joins them on their mission to save the world while harbouring secrets of her own.
The series also stars John Cusack in his first series-regular role for television as Dr Kevin Christie. The Office star Rainn Wilson plays Dr Michael Stearns, while Farrah Mackenzie is Alice, Christopher Denham is Arby and Cory Michael Smith is Thomas Christie.
“I just got so attached to it and it got so close to being made [at HBO] but then fell apart, as these things sometimes to do,” Flynn says. “At some point, it’s turned into pure stubbornness and I felt I just had to get this goddamn thing made. I spent a couple of years of my creative life working on it. I had these characters that I loved and I felt like I had just abandoned them. They’ve become so real to me. It was like, ‘I can’t leave Wilson Wilson.’”
Flynn says she became hooked on two elements of the original series. One was the idea of what the very existence of humans is doing to the world – a concept represented on screen by Cusack’s Dr Christie.
“He has a litany where he says [to his family before dinner], ‘What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?’ And to me, when I figured out that line, a lot of what interested me so much in Dennis’s work really came to the forefront,” she says. “It’s that idea of what is your purpose? What are you doing? Are you justifying the space that you’re taking? Because the world is very crowded and we all need to be contributing something at this point. I like the idea of taking that to the extreme.”
The second attraction for Flynn was the fact Utopia is “a really juicy conspiracy thriller,” which she believes chimes with aspects of contemporary society where the idea of truth is growing increasingly murky.
“Everyone’s definition of what is true can be changed. Even science is becoming politicised,” she notes. “The longer this cursed thing took to get made, the more truthful that became. Trump becomes president and we hear lines like ‘alternative truths.’ It just felt like right now we’re very ripe for a conspiracy thriller.
“I love Dennis’s version and he was such a gent for letting me stomp around in his world. He was much more gracious than I would be if someone had taken my stuff and just played around with it. He always kept saying, ‘Well, why bother doing a remake unless you’re really remaking it?’ He was always so encouraging and lovely, and that gave me that room to really feel like I could take his beautiful DNA and make this for a new generation.”
But while Kelly took his cues from the world of graphic novels, Flynn looked to 1970s conspiracy thrillers set post-Watergate for her own inspiration.
“I was looking at The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. When I was pitching it after it fell apart at HBO, I was calling it ‘The Goonies meets Marathon Man,’” she says. “I wanted it to feel very grounded, so that’s where that idea started from. Trump became president and truth became even more debatable. And now we’re in this world of QAnon and all these different conspiracies, and it just felt like the right time for a good, juicy conspiracy thriller.”
Then, of course, there’s the discovery of a new virus predicted in the pages of Utopia that will make Flynn’s version even more timely when it launches this Friday on Amazon in the US, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan. Dubbed foreign-language versions will launch later this autumn, when the series will also roll out in other territories.
“Dennis is Nostradamus,” Flynn jokes. “It was funny because, when I was pitching it, one of the big questions was, ‘Will people really buy that a big bug is coming? Will people really go along with us?’ I was like, ‘That’s the one element that’s a little sci fi, but we’ll get there.’ We had finished filming [by the time Covid-19 emerged at the start of this year] and I was editing, doing a lot of it on my laptop. I would look at my scene and it was the hot zone, viruses and vaccines, and then I would look up at the TV news and it was the hot zone, viruses and vaccines. It was very strange.”
The showrunner says she hopes there is a “nice balance” between the original Utopia and her series, which builds on “brilliant” elements of the funny, heartwarming and sometimes violent British drama but adds new characters, twists and plotlines. For fans of Kelly’s series, there are also a couple of Easter Eggs to discover, such as a handwritten note that says ‘Call Dennis K’ while Wilson has a photo on his wall of the original Wilson, played by Adeel Akhtar.
“It’s not a slavish remake at all,” Flynn says. “I’ve never loved movie adaptations of books that are so precious that they haven’t really made it a movie, they’ve just put the book onto film. I watched Dennis’s show and made notes and then never looked at it again, because that’s a dangerous way to try to do a remake. I took two lines of dialogue and all the rest is just me just writing.
“I loved the dynamics of who I called the ‘nerds’ – Becky, Ian, Samantha and Wilson Wilson. And I created the John Cusack character because it felt like anything to do with pandemics and pharmaceuticals should have an Elon Musk-type of philanthropist. Those are our new superstars right now; they’re almost like athletes. They have such followings.”
Kelly is an executive producer alongside Flynn’s Sharp Objects collaborator Jessica Rhoades, Sharon Levy, Sharon Hall, Toby Haynes and Karen Wilson. The series is a coproduction between Endemol Shine North America (ESNA), Kudos and Amazon Studios.
Levy came to the project when she joined ESNA as president of scripted and unscripted television in August 2017, by which point Flynn had written all eight scripts.
“This is definitely her vision. This is her baby,” Levy says of showrunner Flynn. “If you’re a fan of her books and [HBO’s 2018 adaptation of Flynn’s novel] Sharp Objects, you feel her humour. She has a great sense of dark humour that really flows through the whole series. This is a much more grounded version. This is a whole new thing.
“Gillian, myself, Sharon Hall and Karen Wilson – the ladies headed out and pitched it and Amazon just really understood Gillian’s vision for it and jumped at it. And here we are. We added another lady, Jessica Rhoades, and then we all set out to champion Gillian and make a great show.”
Filming took place in and around Chicago, with Flynn overseeing every element of the production. “Gillian’s stamp is on every detail,” Levy says. “For me, it’s all about making things that feel really unique, that have a specific storyteller at the helm and that have a style. We [at ESNA] don’t take out tons of stuff. It goes back to wanting to make things that we feel are unique, different, culturally impactful and have something to say about the world we live in. It’s about quality, not quantity, and the right storytellers.”
What also stands out for Levy is the number of women working on the show behind the scenes. “It’s interesting that at the core of the show is a comic book,” she notes. “I have a 13-year-old and we’ve been going to Comic-Con for years as a mum-son outing, so it’s kind of fun for me to get to make something that gives credit to that world.
“I love the idea of this group of nerds, as we refer to them lovingly. It’s almost like, ‘What makes a family?’ It’s not necessarily who you’re born into. It’s what you connect over, and the idea that a group of unlikely heroes get to be part of something so big and so scary and fail and succeed is what makes it unique and exciting. It’s just not a typical story. Nothing Gillian does is ever typical. That’s really what makes it so special.”
As well as writing books including Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, former journalist Flynn wrote on the HBO adaptation of Sharp Objects and penned the screenplays for the 2014 film version of Gone Girl and 2018 heist thriller movie Widows, which she co-wrote with director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). Flynn believes writing Widows provided a “great training ground” for Utopia, as it too was based on a British TV series, created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).
“I was working on that while I was doing Utopia and I did that same sort of thing: you get to watch it once, you get to take your notes and get that gut reaction of the different plot twists and character turns and moments that you absolutely have to have and that you love,” she says. “But we have a bad habit in the US of loving UK TV and not quite figuring out how to adapt it. You’re either changing it too much or you’re just like, ‘But it’s America,’ and then it’s like, ‘You didn’t make that worth us rewatching it.’”
Flynn was also intrigued by Utopia’s mysterious antagonist, Mr Rabbit, and his origins and ambitions. “I didn’t want a bad guy or a bad girl who was obviously bad. I love messing with people’s feelings,” Flynn admits. “I did write Gone Girl, and it’s the same thing with Silence of the Lambs, where you find yourself completely charmed by Hannibal Lecter, who is a cannibal.
“I wanted to get a little bit more into the philosophy of why Mr Rabbit is doing what he’s doing. It was fun to make up this whole background that we get into a little bit. Very few villains think they’re villains in real life. At that moment of the reveal, when you find out who Mr Rabbit is and what Mr Rabbit wants, I want half the audience to be arms crossed and be like, ‘It’s horrible, it’s disgraceful,’ and the other half to be like, ‘I kind of see the point here,’ and to have that divided loyalty.”
Although Flynn published short story The Grownup in 2015, it has been almost 10 years since the release of Gone Girl, her last full novel. The writer says she is now finishing her eagerly anticipated fourth novel, which she “kept kicking down the road when I got so entranced by writing for film.” But her love of film and television – her father was a film professor – means she also intends to continue writing for the screen .
“I really love the world of Utopia and I love the experience of being a showrunner,” she says. “For me, it was like being a novelist, realising that you can use everything on screen to tell a story, from what kind of belt a character wears to whether they have family photos or no family photos.
“It was so much fun to play in that world, so I’m excited to get back in there. I definitely know where I want everyone to go. I’m already thinking about them. That’s a good sign.”