Off the rails with Erin Cressida Wilson: ‘THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN’ screenwriter on themes, tone and homage

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Girl_Train_FFTVCourtney Howard // Film Critic

A lot of scriptwriting is like balancing chemicals over and over again.”

GONE GIRL may have shocked the nation, but it’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN that pays homage to classic cinema whilst spinning its modern chilling tale.

Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY, MEN WOMEN & CHILDREN) builds out themes and character complexities raised in Paula Hawkins’ wildly successful bestseller.

The story follows Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a divorced, depressed alcoholic who thinks she has key information in the recent disappearance of blonde, beautiful Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), a complete stranger she fantasizes about daily through her train car window.

We chatted with the talented and affable screenwriter about how she harnessed adapting the majorly entertaining novel. Basically, we held the ultimate book club with Wilson.

How many times did you pour over the novel before you knew how you were going to adapt it?

“That’s a good question. I read it once and saw how I wanted to approach it. It’s the type of book that after one sentence, I saw the movie. It was immediately a film in my head.”

Much like GONE GIRL, how the narrative is structured plays a big part. Did you know exactly how you were going to juggle the three perspectives?

“I knew how it was going to cinematic. The interior monologue spoke in images to me. What took a while was how I was going to balance the three different points of view with memory flashback and false memory without having a fractured narrative. It was very important that we follow three points of view, but how was I going to do that without endless voice over from three different women? I didn’t want to do that. I set up with voice-over with Rachel so that we enter the film inside her point of view of longing, sadness and voyeurism. We move into being introduced to the other two women: Megan and Anna. We think we’re watching a voice-over of Megan’s and then we realize, as we get further into it, we’re watching her speak to her shrink.

I always think of the beginning of SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE when I wrote that; how brilliantly we moved into Andie MacDowell’s shrink sessions. Pretty much used that trick of pre-lapse over images. It’s not tricky at all, but it does the trick. The same with Anna, a bit. And then after we’ve established their POV’s, we come back into them without using voice-over. I focused the film more on Rachel, but definitely we were able to move out of her POV and into the other two women.”

The emotional through lines between these three women felt more evident here than in the book. It’s obvious they are connected through circumstance, but it felt more powerful you bringing that to the forefront. Were there other things from the book you wanted to highlight or play a little bigger on screen?

“When something’s on film, I think it naturally plays bigger. It will hit you harder. In the book, you can be very subtle and you can have the same impact as something very big on screen. Everything from the alcoholism, to the voyeurism, to the blackouts, needed to be dramatized. The balance was to retain the tone and not get overly dramatic. For something that’s potentially melodramatic, I did not want that to be overwhelming. I wanted to maintain a tight, poetic view of these women’s world and to unravel and become this race up towards the heights that it does at the end in a way that’s timed so you’re ready for it. A lot of scriptwriting is like balancing chemicals over and over again. Tone is everything. If the tone is off, you’re done. If the tone is on, you can do a lot and get away with a lot.”

You mentioned SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE. I found there’s a few nods to Hitchcock here – from REAR WINDOW, to STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, to a dash of VERTIGO – and, of course, a hint of Cukor’s GASLIGHT too. Were there other sources of inspiration you pulled from? 

“To extend what you were saying, one of the things I loved about the book was that [Hawkins] created a moving, in transit REAR WINDOW, in a time in our live where we’re all flipping through Facebook postings and Twitter – constantly watching each other’s lives and how perfect they are. Their happy engagement, children, this, that and that and we can’t stop. It’s the same for Rachel through the windows of that train – she keeps seeing one happy thing after another happy thing. She’s projecting that they must be happy because she’s not stepping off the train into the sloppiness of life – just like what we can’t do with the internet. One of the reasons I really wanted to do this project was I thought this was an interesting way to address what we live in every day without saying it.

I was always attracted to the Hudson line because I took it so much to New York station and I had a boyfriend at Vassar when I was in college. I loved the way they worked with it in UNFAITHFUL, when they’re falling in love. I remember the scene when she’s on the phone in Grand Central. It’s always been a dream of mine to shoot in Grand Central. A lot of times what we write is what we wanted. I wanted to move to New York and wanted to shoot a film in New York – so I wrote it in New York. That’s why we wound up in Grand Central. I found it very attractive.

I’m always influenced by Jane Campion’s script of THE PIANO – always. Because of her simple, clear language, saying an entire universe in a few words. I always go back to that script. That’s the way to write a script.”

Emily Blunt is THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Emily Blunt is THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Not only did the location change, but there are little tweaks here and there that really added interesting layers; the seasons are changed from Summer, to Fall/ Winter transition; Rachel’s drink of choice from gin & tonic in a can, to vodka in hidden water bottle (which suggests so much more); that Rachel doesn’t sleep with Scott, but it’s assumed she did by the cops. Were these conscious decisions on your part?

“Yes. I always thought of the location of the film as being on the train and in her imagination – in [Rachel’s] blackouts. That was really more important than what country was it in. In the book the Summer sweltering sweat is very important, but I felt that a sort of chill, I wanted to feel something like the loneliness and dripping misery I feel when I watch THE ICE STORM or GONE BABY GONE – both of those in terms of texture. In terms of the drinking, it was very important that she be someone who hides her drinking – that she isn’t an out and out social drinker. She, of course, goes to bars, but when she’s on the commuter train, rather than a can of gin and tonic, which is a little out of place on a commuter train outside of New York, seemed more realistic that she hide it – and hide it in a sippy bottle like a baby. I wanted to play up her shame. Certainly in America there’s a lot of shame around drinking – particularly for women.

It was really important to me that she not have sex with anybody. She’s the one that doesn’t get to have sex. She’s the one that doesn’t get the love. She’s the one that doesn’t get to have men attracted to her. Because she’s so lost in her self-hatred and her gaslight that she only watches other people. For the film, it was very important that she only really wanted to have sex with Tom, her ex-husband. I wanted to accentuate that love story for her. Unconsciously she’s attracted to Scott, but I don’t think she would think she could.”

Did you feel much creative freedom to diverge from the source material? Were there things you wanted to do but were nixed?

“It was important to me, taking what was in the book and pulling out what needed to be brought to the surface – especially when the book became a sensation. My task was to create a cinematic language for the book. That doesn’t mean just put it in screenplay format. That means making so many decisions – keep this, drop this, add to this. It was really very involved process of almost like painting or sculpting, every day, until the story reveals itself once again – almost the same story, but it’s just not, because it’s visual.”

Was there a specific sequence in the book that was your favorite to dive into?

“The whole opening and the night of the crime were really exciting to me visually. That’s when I could make the camera [Rachel]. That’s when I could set up the film that way where the camera was her eye. We now know that we’re being told the story from her head. That’s why I think of THE PIANO because so much is in her head. I absolutely wanted that too.

My specifics of that opening are not entirely all in that film, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if they use every single thing I’ve written. It all adds up to the influence, the tones of what they end up shooting. I really loved writing the moment when she wakes up from her blackout after the night of the crime. It’s from her point of view and the ceiling is racing at her and she doesn’t know what’s going on. She looks across the room and sees a woman covered in blood. And it’s her! That’s not exactly the film either, but it suggests the way to do it.”

This isn’t the first adaptation you’ve written. You also have Maestra and Eileen too, which I now have on Amazon because I only read books that are being turned into movies.

“[laughs] That’s great!”

Is there something you find more or just as satisfying about adaptation versus originating content?

“Adaptation is so fun because I feel like I’m teaching the book how to be a film; all these years of my teaching, taking other people’s scripts and nurturing them and wet nursing them into their next step; same with trying to help other young writers find their voice. It’s amazing because I get to work off a manuscript that’s already there. What I’ve come to do is start with the manuscript in Final Draft and from there I start to re-arrange the puzzle, pull from the puzzle, add to the puzzle. Shifting and shifting and shifting until it morphs into a screenplay. It takes a while and I usually research quite a bit and do a lot of image and topic research. It depends on the book also. Some books have to be re-invented. Maybe you keep the tone and characters and a little bit of the plot then you have to create a whole new world. The thing about original material is it’s all me. It’s kind of scary. The great thing about adaptation – your own writing and your own voice – they always play a big part in it, but they don’t play the central part. It’s a joy – it’s like a game.”

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN opens on Friday.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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