Erin Cressida Wilson debut screenplay adaptation, for the 2002 film SECRETARY, won her the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. She would go on to write critically-acclaimed screenplays FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS, CHLOE and MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN.
In 2014, Erin began working on a screenplay for Paula Hawkins’s yet-unreleased novel THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. The book would become one of the best-selling books of 2015 and one of the most anticipated films of 2016.
OnWriting spoke with Erin about her writing process, adapting the biggest book of the year and writing for HBO’s VINYL.
How did you get your start as screenwriter?
I saw THE GODFATHER in second grade and immediately knew I wanted to make films when I grew up. I also wanted to be just like my father. So, I’d follow him down the stairs every morning at 5:30 A.M. to his desk where he’d write before going to work. I’d either just watch him or write plays or do homework until he would eventually give in and take me out for breakfast in the dark – before everybody else was awake. These were the morning hours of creativity and secrets.
What is your process for adapting a book for the screen?
Yes, I sometimes transcribe the entire book into Final Draft as a starting off point. Then – as I begin to edit – it becomes an absolute mess – a walk into a confusing and unorganized place. It’s about curating and translating the original words – moving the pieces around and around until one day – the book is a film.
Is the screenwriting process any different when you find yourself working on a major international bestseller like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN?
Fortunately for me, I wrote the script for THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN before the book hit the shelves.
For THE GIRL ON A TRAIN, did you use other source materials outside the book? Did you speak with the book’s author, Paula Hawkins?
No, I didn’t speak to the author; but her book definitely spoke to me. Though I usually do a lot of library, field and image research – in this case – I didn’t because I felt like I’d been researching for this book my entire life – riding trains, watching the way people behave and move – the choreography of the way they live their lives. Observing the lives of others from behind glass is a protected way to feel an almost pleasurable longing and voyeurism – a time when your mind can play with the stories that might lurk behind the patina of how people choose to present themselves to the world.
How would you describe THE GIRL ON A TRAIN?
A moving REAR WINDOW. A tale of longing, repressed desire, frustration and the female gaze.
How was your writing process changed since your first film SECRETARY, which you adapted from a Mary Gaitskill short story?
Every time I start a script, I feel like I’m a beginner – and everything has to be re-remembered in the context of the new project – improvising off processes and tools that I’ve gathered and created over the years.
Is there a scene from THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN that you felt translated well from your script to the screen?
I really loved Emily Blunt’s performance in the AA and the shrink scenes. In both, I felt like she took my words and brought them to a very deep and sad place – much more harrowing than I had expected – and much more beautiful.
You were a writer and producer on VINYL. Can you tell me a bit about your experience writing for television and that show in particular, which seems like such a different vehicle for you as opposed to your other works which focus on these intriguing female protagonists like Diane Arbus and Emily Blunt’s Rachel Watson.
Like a lot of screenwriters, I’m asked to create scripted series. It’s felt a little wrong writing pilots without having had any hands-on experience in TV. So, when the opportunity to work with the VINYL team came along, I jumped on it. The writers’ room was such a relief after so many years of being home alone writing. It was a lot of joking and digging and improvising and eating lunch and telling secrets. I absolutely loved it and walked away feeling like I’d found so many new collaborators.
How has being an educator furthered your own abilities as a screenwriter? What are some key lessons you try to teach your students?
It’s amazing to be in dialogue with bright and brave minds – I feel like students teach me more than I teach them.
A couple thoughts for students: 1. Make sure to embarrass yourself. 2. Don’t underestimate the power of hard work – words create words. 3. Redefine the definition of “writer’s block” as a time of “gestation.” It’s ok to procrastinate as long as you trust that the ideas are forming subconsciously. No guilt. 4. Don’t be alone. Create your own collaborators: Books of images, research cards, outlines, graphs – anything to feed your mind so that you’re not isolated in front of a blank page. 5. First drafts and first scenes are easy. Rewriting is where the muscle and discipline comes in. 6. Mistakes are as important as successes. Often, I spend more time taking the wrong turn when I write than the right turn. But the wrong turn always brings discoveries that make it worth it. 7. The structure is vital to stick to – absolutely – by the page. If you can stay within its boundaries, you can really do anything – no matter how unexpected.
What filmmakers/films inspire you and your work?
Jane Campion’s THE PIANO. AN AFFAIR OF LOVE. BESIEGED. ENCHANTED. Ang Lee. Robert Redford – ORDINARY PEOPLE. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. HEARTBURN THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. CINEMA PARADISO.
What is a specific line of dialogue that you feel captures the essence of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN?
“I’m afraid of myself.”