Screenwriter, professor and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson has become the writer Hollywood studios turn to for adaptations of the hottest literary properties about bad girls and the questionable things they do. Her most recent screenplay, The Girl on the Train, adapted from the debut novel by Paula Hawkins and heralded as the next Gone Girl, hits theaters this week. The film stars Emily Blunt as an alcoholic divorcée who delves into the case of a missing woman, played by Haley Bennett, whom she used to spy on from the window of her commuter train.
Wilson assailed Hollywood in 2002 with her script for the unconventional S&M love story Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. She partnered again with Secretary director Steven Shainberg for Fur, the “imaginary portrait” of photographer Diane Arbus, starring Nicole Kidman. She also scripted Atom Egoyan’s erotic thriller Chloe, starring Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried. Upcoming projects for Wilson include adaptations of the novels Maestra, a thriller set in London’s art world, and abduction mystery The New Winter.
In an industry bedeviled by issues of diversity and representation, Wilson’s frank depictions of sexuality and unabashed portrayals of complicated female characters make her not only a rarity but a writer on the vanguard. Her women are flawed and dark but ultimately redeemable—and, most important, relatable.
We caught up with Wilson to chat about the challenges of adapting The Girl on the Train, cinematic sensuality, what audiences want to see in crazy women on screen and whether or not Law & Order can be sexy.
The Wall Street Journal recently called you the “go-to scribe for thrillers.” Congrats on your new title!
Thank you! I love it.
Not all of the films you’ve written could be pigeonholed as “thrillers.” What would you call the genre of the films that you write?
The Batshit Crazy Woman genre [laughs]. I write about desire and women—complicated women and their desires. I write about dangerous women. I didn’t always write thrillers, obviously, but I think that when a woman is murderous, the general public can swallow her complexity more easily. That’s one reason I think the thriller is really hitting right now.
That’s a fascinating observation.
It gives the general public an excuse to watch her, to like her and to be okay with her. Because she’s a bad girl, you know? There’s no question she’s a bad girl. If she’s not murderous, then you’re like, “She seems kind of bad, so I don’t know what I’m supposed to think!” In some ways, the thriller serves it to us in a way that is palatable.
Tell me about the adaptation process for this script.
Of course the biggest reference was Paula Hawkins’ book, and I worked very, very closely with it. When I read it, I felt that she had found a very clever way to work with voyeurism, and to work with the loneliness and the longing of a woman, by making it about subjects that weren’t necessarily “pervy” like we’re used to with voyeurism. Much of my work has circled around voyeurism—being separated from one life and watching it go by.
A lot of voyeurism is about living in a world of fantasy rather than a world of reality, and I often think, “Is it really better to be in reality? How much better is it?” Hawkins found a way to create a moving Rear Window. When the windows pass with all these backyards with happy people, it’s just like when you flip through on Facebook or Instagram, it makes you more lonely and more isolated. We do this all the time on our phones and our computers, Paula Hawkins turns it into a train.
In an interview, you said that sex is the language of your work and not necessarily the theme. Can you elaborate on what the kinds of themes sex as a language allows you to express?
I think you can take pretty much anything and make it sensual. Can you make L.A. Law sensual? That reference is really old.
Law & Order, maybe?
I think if I had written Law & Order, it’d be really sexy. It has to do with sensuality. I always hold several books near me that bring me into my voice. One of them, I don’t read it so much as I keep it near me—[Diane Ackerman’s] A Natural History of the Senses. Each chapter is about a sense: smelling, seeing, touching, hearing, and I feel like that’s what a screenplay is: a way to sensually grab you and bring you into a story. You may not literally be smelling something, but hopefully you will feel something. You will feel as if all five senses, even a sixth sense are brought into play as you get drawn into this film.
I personally am only interested in watching sexy, sensual films. That doesn’t even mean there’s sex in it. A great example is Jane Campion’s film The Piano. Of course there is sex in it, but it’s the sensuality of the way she writes the screenplay. It’s like a poem, and often a poem comes from a very sensual place.
When a woman is murderous, the general public can swallow her complexity more easily.
There are so many films that are sexy or sensual without the characters even touching each other.
Yes. What I found to be a virtually pornographic show was The Killing. Wow. Was that a sexy show, and there was no sex. But it was just an unbelievable energy and sensuality of place, and of character, and dripping water, and a murder, and between those two leads you just were on the edge of your seat—sort of on the edge of her lips, the edge of his lips. It didn’t matter if they ever touched, and that’s my ideal feeling when watching something. I always call it the moment before the first kiss. The moment before because, of course, one of the sexiest things that exists is the unspoken potential between two people.
That potential is something you really captured in Secretary. In fact, that movie piqued a mainstream curiosity with BDSM. What do you think of the “50 Shades of Grey” cultural phenomenon?
I just think it’s hilarious. It’s kind of a strange tip of the hat. I love that it’s in pop culture now.
A lot of your writing has to do with internal subjectivity of the characters. Do you imagine actors while you’re writing, or are you surprised when you see how an actor interprets your words?
I do not envision actors ever. I think that’s partially because I write from such an interior place. I just see it in the reality I’ve written, and that reality does not include Hollywood stars or sets. I think that in the best circumstances, for instance this one, when you see Emily and Haley and all the other actors embody these parts and take it to the next step beyond what I imagined, that is true magic for me. I try to write in a detailed but open enough way so it can be interpreted in whatever way the actor decides is the way that she can make it sing.
I call Girl on the Train a WASPy script. It’s very tight and it’s very muted. [Emily] took the exact lines and behaviors, and she brought her passionate self to it. She infused warm blood into it. I had written a very Grace Kelly part, very cold, and she filled it with passion. Another actor would have done something different. I’m just in love with what she did. Same with Haley. I felt closest to her character in a funny way. She has a childish quality to her and she really went there with that.
You teach screenwriting and film to college students. What’s the one important thing you try to impart to them?
Films are often about a secret. We want the story to keep that secret afloat so that we can keep moving from scene to scene and all the way to the end with this sense of expectation. It’s all about trickery. I trick them into telling their truth, and to embarrass themselves, and to show their underbelly in their work in a way that they didn’t expect to, to get them out of their own way.
Also, I very much feel that work comes out of work and we can’t sit around and wait for grand inspiration. You just start writing, and if you start writing and working and researching and organizing and outlining, all the questions and answers start to appear. One time I taught a graduate program and had a playwriting student come in. A lot of playwriting students look down on screenwriting and TV writing. He was a really good playwright, but came in with this horrible idea for a film, clearly he didn’t care at all about it. He said, “Well, it’s just a screenplay. It’s not important because the director’s gonna do whatever they’re gonna do.” I said, “It is important. You have to write everything, you have to write the costumes, you have to know everything, and all that will inform the screenplay, and then the director can pretend he made it all up. Let him.”
Have you ever wanted to try your hand at something completely different, like a rom-com?
I so much want to write children’s animation. It’s all fantasy; it’s just a different form of fantasy. Since I had a kid, writing has been easier for me because of the unending stories that I make up at night to get this kid to go to sleep. When you’re making up the story, you can’t figure it out tomorrow. The kid’s waiting, and you have to blurt it out right away. That has really helped my writing, it’s really stopped me from putting things off. Because of the unending children’s books that I’ve been reading out loud, and making up stories, I’d love to make a children’s film or animated film. Kids are in the true fantasy world.