Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson didn’t have many expectations when she signed on to adapt Paula Hawkins’ best-selling debut novel “The Girl on the Train” back in 2014. After all, Wilson received the manuscript for the book before it was even published – by coincidence, she turned in her first pass at the screenplay the same week Hawkins’ novel hit shelves – which allowed her to imagine the world of the story, free of expectations. And that’s exactly what Cressida is interested in these days: Freedom.
Directed by Tate Taylor, “The Girl on the Train” follows the twisted track of Hawkins’ novel, mostly centered around Rachel Watson (played in the film by Emily Blunt), a drunk divorcee who projects a lot of her hopes and fears on the people she passes by on her daily commute (by train, of course). When the primary object of her obsession, beautiful suburbanite Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) turns up missing, Rachel turns her already fragile existence upside down to figure out what actually happened to her (and if, by chance, she had anything to do with it).
A seasoned screenwriter, Wilson is no stranger to the book world, as nearly all of her screen credits are adapted scripts (including “Secretary,” “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” and “Chloe”), a mode – and medium – that she prefers working in.
“I love it,” Wilson said. “It’s as if I’m teaching the book to be a film. It’s like I’m giving feedback. It’s a really remarkably fun thing to do.”
Over the years, Wilson’s approach to adaptation has changed, and she now makes the time to put all of her source material into screenplay format in order to better break it down as she sees fit.
“I really like this idea of beginning with the text rather than pulling from the text and losing things that I might forget later,” she explained. “Sometimes I think writing is just about organizing and reorganizing over and over again. I think that writing is a way of manipulating the world. It’s like a little dollhouse.”
Initially, Wilson also played around with the possibility that the film would only be told from Rachel’s perspective. That didn’t work.
“I tried it with just Rachel, and it felt like it was betraying the book,” she admitted. “In this case, I really endeavored to adapt ‘the book,’ which is a really fun challenge after a lifetime of rebellion.”
Wilson’s so-called “lifetime of rebellion” has led her to a number of unexpected roles — including Indie Spirit-winning screenwriter, internationally produced playwright, sometimes actor and even television producer (she wrote and produced a number of episodes for the ill-fated HBO series “Vinyl”) — but she’s always worked incredibly hard for her career. And early on, she found a surprising outlet for it: teaching.
Learning By Doing (And Teaching)
“I feel like I need to teach. It’s not for money. I need to go out of my self-absorbed, artist self, my guarded persona that stays home all day, day after day writing,” Wilson said.
Wilson started teaching screenwriting at Duke University before she’d even written her first script, going on to professorships at Brown, Stanford and NYU. She attributes that strange, seemingly backwards trajectory to making her the screenwriter she is today.
“I feel by teaching, I learned to speak and articulate,” she explained. “By doing that, it made me a better writer. It’s vital. I feel like the conversation between teaching and my own work is what I do, more than either or. It’s a reliance between the two.”
These days, she’s an advisor for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where she helps shepherd a new generation of talents — including plenty of women — into the industry.
“I’ve been proud to be a part of a very hard time for women to be screenwriters and playwrights,” Wilson continued. “I can now look at these young women and see them striving — struggling still, certainly in development at Sundance — but striving, and many of them going on to make extraordinary films.”
Wilson knows a thing or two about striving. And about being a woman in a male-dominated field. When she started writing professionally in her early twenties, she was convinced that her career would take off, if only because that’s what she saw happening to so many other screenwriters she knew — mostly white men.
“Thirty Years of Sweat, Muscle and Experience”
“I was thinking about the some of the screenwriters that I know,” Wilson said. “They’re male and white, and I knew them when I was in my early twenties. Many of them started work immediately. They were making films and going out to Hollywood and I thought that I was going to do the same thing.”
That’s not how things panned out.
“What ended up happening is that I went for decades working a lot of jobs,” she remembered. “A lot of day jobs, a lot of teaching, a lot of low-pay work. Those are the different trajectories I witnessed. Mine, as a woman, and those of the white male screenwriters that I know, who just walked right in.”
Still, she’s not bitter about her experience in the industry. If anything, she’s grateful that her hard work and talent are finally paying off.
“I feel like I scratched, clawed, and worked my way to arrive at a place, in my fifties, that I really assumed I would reach in my twenties, thirties, or forties,” she said. “But finally I’m getting to what I really want to be doing. I have thirty years of sweat, muscle and experience behind me that feel good. I’m almost glad I have it in me.”
Wilson’s not kidding about finally reaching a stable — and exciting — place in her well-earned career.
She’s got multiple film projects in the works, including an adaptation of S.L. Knight’s novel “Maestra” that former Sony boss Amy Pascal is producing, a big screen version of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel “Eileen” set to be produced by Scott Rudin and a screenplay entitled “The New Winter” for Working Title and Universal (that, too, has been adapted from a book: Anna Snoekstrz’s thriller “Only Daughter”). It’s not just the format that excites her these days, it’s the characters she’s getting to craft.
“These all have batshit women in them,” she laughed. “I think now you can be less careful about how women are portrayed. Thank God.”
“The Girl On The Train” chugs into theaters on Friday, October 7.