What It’s Really Like to Be The Girl on the Train Screenwriter

In our 9-5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, famed screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

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girl on train screenwriter

Behind the screens: Erin Cressida Wilson (left) adapted best-selling novel The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (right) for the big screen (Photo: Barry Wetcher/DreamWorks Pictures)

Age: 52

Education: Diploma in theatre from Smith College

Length of time at current gig: 17 years

What attracted you to screenwriting? I love the possibility in film for intimacy and dealing with quiet human behaviour. I used to write stage plays, but found what would start out in rehearsal as being very intimate, beautiful, poetic and relatable would get increasingly large in scale as the performance went on. By the time the show closed, the actors seemed to be yelling their lines. It seemed like they were going for audience reactions—which isn’t something you get on screen.

What’s the first screenplay you ever wrote? Girl School—and it remains in my drawer. Secretary (2002) was my first to make it to the big screen.

What it like to see your words come to life in film? Depending on the film, it can be very thrilling. However, because of the inconsistency of the outcome of projects, be it in film or theatre, I really focus more on the experience of writing and collaborating as being the moments of thrill.

Speaking of thrills, what draws you to the genre of thrillers with strong female leads? The themes of desire, longing and sexuality are readily available in the thriller, partially because audiences are more willing to delve into those subjects when they think the woman is a “bad woman.” I find thrillers incredibly exciting because you can do almost anything you want inside the boundaries of the genre and in terms of women’s naughty side.

The Girl on the Train is exactly that. How did you get involved with the project? I was given the manuscript for the book before it was published to consider adapting as a film. I was amazed that Paula Hawkins had taken voyeurism and longing—which is often portrayed in literature as quite sexualized—and made it for the popular audience. She took the perv out of it and got down to the essence of loneliness, being afraid of one’s self and of watching the world go by without participating in it. I was very drawn to what she wrote and found that it was very universal in terms of a person feeling disconnected from life.

What did you find relatable about it? For me the train and its windows are a lot like the Internet in the sense that we see these windows pass and we see people’s backyards go by, and we project what we think are perfect lives onto these people. We do the same on social media. We see pictures and pages and everyone appears to be living incredible lives—and we believe it. But it’s just a surface look.

Once you realized you liked the book, what was the next step in your writing process? My agent gave me the book, and then I spent quite a while putting together my thoughts and researching how I would turn it into a film, which culminated in a document that was a bit more than 20 pages. That document was the pitch for the studio. People can present their pitch in any number of ways; some perform or use visuals, but basically I read it like a bedtime story. By the time I left the room and got in my car, I got a call from my agent saying I got the project.

How do you stay true to the book when adapting it for the screen? What’s nice about working with an original piece of literature is you start with something quite massive and chip away or add to it, like a sculpture, until it turns into a movie. It’s incredibly complicated, but the main thing I do is pinpoint the core of the book. What is it saying? For me, The Girl on the Train was about being afraid of yourself to the point that you can’t face yourself and know your own truth. I really think that’s what is going on with Rachel in this story.

What changes did you make? I moved the story from England to America mainly because it didn’t make any difference to the story. I don’t really think of it being in America or in England, I think of it as being on a train. When you’re on a train, you’re nowhere. You’re betwixt and between. You’re inside your imagination. You’re anything you want to be. That was the core of what location meant in this film.

What is your workday like when you’re working on a big film like this? I usually naturally wake up at 6 a.m. and immediately start work. When my son gets up around 7:15 a.m., I try to be with him, talk to him and be present with him, while staying totally inside the screenplay at the same time. After he eats breakfast and goes to school, I usually get back to it around 9 a.m. I do business in the afternoons, and after dinner I get back into writing and can often go to about 1 a.m. There’s a nap in there somewhere. It’s a very long and intense process because I’m a binge writer. I don’t do the normal 9-to-5 thing.

How long does the entire process take? If you include all the research and prep, it took six months from beginning to end to adapt the book. But the actual writing was more like six weeks. When I start writing, the first page takes about three days because that’s about setting up tone, which is the most important part. From then I write about 10 to 15 pages a day. Every morning, I start at page one and rewrite all the way up to the page that I’m at, and then write the next 10 pages. Every day I have a sort of runway to try and get to where I am in the script. The more I go over it, the tighter it gets.

Did you know this film was going to be so highly anticipated? When I was writing the screenplay, the book hadn’t come out so it wasn’t like I knew I was adapting this incredibly successful novel. I just knew that I loved the story. I handed in the script the week The Girl on the Train came out and shot up to number one.

Was the book’s author Paula Hawkins involved at all? No. She handed over this incredible book, and I think it spoke for itself. I didn’t meet her until I was on set.

For such an intense movie, what was the vibe like on set? It was very fun actually. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was very light, almost like they were shooting a comedy.

What can fans of the book expect from the film? They can pretty much expect the book as a film. I made the artistic decision when I read the book that I wanted to make the film express the book, I didn’t want to reinvent it. I had to figure out how to make such an internal book into a visual medium, and for me that had a lot to do with creating a visual language to reflect her inebriation, her despair and the horror of her life. It’s really like painting a picture that’s a story.

What attributes does someone need to be a screenwriter? You better like to be alone. When you’re a screenwriter, you’re very isolated. You’re home alone. You’re working alone. You’re not working with other writers like they do on TV, going to work and having a writers’ room. I was an only child and I grew up entertaining myself, and I find it fun—but I don’t think everyone does.

Who is a screenwriter that you admire? Jane Campion, because her screenplays are poems.

What’s the best part of your day? The beginning. I always feel so excited to wake up and go into a fantasy world and start to move it around.

How has screenwriting changed you personally? It makes a lot of my life magical because everything has potential to be brought into the work.

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