It’s a pretty simple chain of events that led to “Sharp Objects” becoming TV fans’ new obsession, especially those who appreciate a touch of Southern Gothic melancholy. As IndieWire learned from the show’s key figures, it began like many shows do: Someone wrote a book.
Specifically, the first novel written by Gillian Flynn and published in 2006. While the author’s later novels, “Dark Places” and “Gone Girl,” made a relatively quick transition to the big screen, Flynn noted that “Sharp Objects” didn’t have the same luck. “[The adaptation rights] had been picked up and dropped and picked up and dropped as a movie, from way back when it was released in 2006,” she said. “It languished, languished, languished.”
Separately, in a moment that she described as “happenstance,” eventual showrunner Marti Noxon stumbled across a copy of Flynn’s “Gone Girl” at a book fair. “I was never really a mystery fan, but something about the description made me think, ‘Well, I could devour this’ … and did,” Noxon said. “And then, I went and read both of Gillian’s other books, because I was like, ‘Who is this twisted lady?'”
Noxon in particular was drawn to “Objects,” specifically the character of Camille, a troubled newspaper reporter returning to her small hometown in Missouri to write about the death of one girl and the disappearance of another — but the family drama that comes out as Camille investigates is just as significant.
“She was this functioning, hurt person,” Noxon said. “I think that there’s something about that that I really related to, that sometimes we hide our hurt, and we seem like something on the outside that we aren’t on the inside. That seemed mirrored everywhere in the story.”
Noxon eventually approached Flynn about the idea of adapting it as a TV series and shopping it around to networks, which Flynn said really appealed to her. “Just the idea of being able to spread out [the story] a little bit — even though it’s a slim little book, it’s probably the easiest to go awry and become a southern gothic horror story rather than what it is, which is a character study hidden inside of a mystery,” she said. “So I liked the idea of letting it have that room and let the viewers do the legwork and figure out who this character is.”
Flynn stayed involved during the whole creative process, writing or co-writing three of the eight episodes, because to her, “that book was my firstborn, it was my baby. I moved my family out to L.A. for the duration, so that I could be in the writers room. And I was in the writers room every day, and while we were breaking the book and seeing what each episode should cover, [asking,] did we need to invent new stuff? Seeing which characters would become bigger or do different things, and all that, it was a really interesting process.”
It was a collaboration that flowed naturally for the pair. “Our conversation just clicked so easily,” Flynn said. “We never had to say, ‘Well, as a woman, I would have to say’… Working with men for so long, it was like, oh my god, I don’t have to say ‘as a woman’ now. I can just say, ‘and we’re just talking.’ I knew we had the same insights, and I just knew that she would take care of Camille and not exploit Camille and not want to use Camille’s problems and damages just for ratings. Just for the shock value.”
It then became a question of finding the right Camille. Fortunately, Flynn and Adams had been aiming to work together previously, on the 2015 adaptation of “Dark Places” (which, after Adams got pregnant, went on to star Charlize Theron). “Then this came along,” Flynn said, “and to me, in a way that feels very writerly and goofy, it was almost like, ‘that’s why this didn’t happen for so long.’ It’s almost like the book was laying in wait for Amy.”
Adams admitted that she was a bit hesitant about taking on a television project, due to experiences early in her career on shows like “Dr. Vegas” and “The Office” (“I was fired from everything,” the five-time Oscar nominee said with a laugh). But adapting “Objects” as a series made sense to her. “I think there’s really wonderful stories happening on television now, and I think television really opened up this sort of female-centric genre again, and it’s really lovely.”
Also, the pace appealed to her: “It’s really rapid and very different, and exciting, because I like to do my work before I get to set, and then I like to get the work done. So for me, it was thrilling, because there were no conversations. You just show up, you do your work.”
It was Adams who extended the invitation to Vallée, as they had also been looking for a project to work together on, when a planned biopic about Janis Joplin didn’t work out.
“I was surprised that she wanted to play that character, to portray that,” Vallée told IndieWire. “Dark, singular… I’d never seen anyone like this. Never read. Never seen. Never met. Gillian just created something else. That was the exciting part of it. I think. And, the scary part, also, at the same time. We tackled it one day at a time.”
The toughest part of that, at least at the inception, came from the way that Noxon and the writers decided to approach the adaptation — by not using voice-over, a direct contrast to both previous Vallée films like “Wild” and previous Flynn adaptations like “Gone Girl.”
When Adams read the first script for “Sharp Objects,” she felt that “they had done a really good job at sort of presenting Camille inside of this world, and it’s hard, because there’s such a strong inner monologue in the book, and it’s hard to translate that.”
Adams didn’t mind the lack of voice-over, she said, because “the inner monologue was so strong in the book, it gave me so much to pull from, so hopefully some of that is incorporated in that.”
The only downside, she felt, was that it didn’t showcase one of Flynn’s strengths as a writer: “Flynn’s so quick witted and so dry, and Camille’s inner monologue is really funny at times, so I did miss some of that, but I really felt that it was very rich, and it felt very personal still. I think that’s the thing that was important to me, that the character still felt identifiable to the character in the book.”
But Vallée was caught off-guard. “Here’s a book, where the way she talks about herself, her wounds, her scars, the way she cuts herself, her sex life, her… the way she talks about the world. Her take on the world, on her mom, on her friends, on the past… And then, Gillian and Marti adapted the novel into these scripts, and there’s no voice-over. What? What I love the most about the book, I’m not gonna hear that? I was like, wow! Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow!”
Vallée’s passion then became finding a way to build upon what was already layered into the scripts — Camille’s point-of-view — in as visual a way as possible. In his words, “the internal voice becomes a visual internal voice-over, where we’re gonna cut to quick flashes about what she thinks. We’ll see how she thinks. What she thinks of; what she dreams of; what she’s afraid of; flashbacks from the past; imagination; fantasy. It was put a little bit, here and there, in the scripts. We did more on the shoot. And, I did even more in the editing.”
Many of these flashes came up on set, though many others were planned out, as Vallée explained. “For instance, in Episode 1, she gets up, out of her apartment, gets in her car and leaves for Wind Gap. Closes the trunk of her car …what was that? Someone wrote dirty on the trunk of her car, from her perspective? But then, when she arrives at the car, you see her walking to the car and it’s not her perspective. It’s an objective perspective. There’s nothing written on the trunk. Then, cut to her POV, fuck, ‘dirty.'”
The words that Camille sees in her mind, echoing that missing voice-over, come out as well in the final moments of the season premiere, as the words scrawled across Camille’s skin come into view. Whether or not they’re really there, “it’s burning on her body. It’s pulsing,” Vallée said.
When IndieWire spoke with Vallée, he was still deep into editing the show, so he confessed that “I don’t have enough distance, yet. But, what I’ve been trying to express is that this is quite a singular project. Singular world. Gillian wrote a Tennessee Williams [play] on steroids.”
While Vallée might have struggled for words, as we saw in the season premiere, words are so essential to the show’s nature. Which feels more than apt, because in so many ways, words are what made “Sharp Objects” happen.