Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Marina Fang

Promotional poster for LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE

Host Marina Fang talks to Jessica Knoll about the extensive process of adapting her own book, how her personal experiences shaped the film, why Gillian Flynn is her guiding light, and so much more.

Jessica Knoll is a screenwriter and novelist known for her thrillers Luckiest Girl Alive, and The Favorite Sister. In 2021, she was named a screenwriter to watch by Variety, and in 2019 her original script, ‘TIL DEATH sold to Amazon and made The Black List.

Her feature screenplay debut, LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE, is an adaptation of her first novel (of the same name). The mystery-thriller stars Mila Kunis as Ani Fanelli, an up-and-coming writer at a glossy magazine who is set to get married at a lavish Nantucket wedding. But when a director of a documentary urges Ani to go on camera to tell her side of a school shooting that took place when she was a teenager, Ani is forced to confront the dark truths of her past that threaten to unravel her meticulously crafted life.

The film premieres on October 7, 2022 and will be available to stream on Netflix.

Marina Fang (she/her) is a senior culture reporter at HuffPost, based in New York. She primarily covers film and television, examining their intersection with politics, race and gender. She can be found on Twitter at @marinafang.


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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Intro: Hello, you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.

Marina Fang: Hi, I’m Marina Fang, a senior cultural reporter at Huff Post, a Writer Skills of America East member and host of this episode of On Writing. I’m excited to be speaking with Jessica Knoll, writer and executive producer of the new Netflix movie, Luckiest Girl Alive, which is based on her novel of the same name.

Luckiest Girl Alive stars Mila Kunis as Ani Fanelli, an up and coming writer at a glossy magazine who is set to get married at a lavish Nantucket wedding. But when a director of a documentary urges Ani to go on camera to tell her side of a school shooting that took place when she was a teenager, Ani is forced to confront the dark truths of her past that threaten to unravel her meticulously crafted life.

I’m going to talk to Jessica about the extensive process of adapting her own book, how her personal experiences shaped the film, why Gillian Flynn is her guiding light, and so much more. Jessica, thanks for being here.

Jessica Knoll: Thank you for having me.

Marina Fang: I have a lot of questions for you, I especially am interested in the sort of novel to film process. I think for those of us on the outside, it’s always interesting to know what that whole process entails. So I guess, to start from the beginning, how soon after you wrote the novel did it get optioned and I guess, more broadly, what does that process even entail?

Jessica Knoll: So, it probably was about… The book published in spring of 2015. So I had a completed, I mean in the book world, completed, edited, fully polished manuscripts. You can have those for many months. I had a publication, it’s just a long lead time. So probably around fall 2014, my motion picture agent Michelle Weiner at CII, took the book out to producers and right away she wanted to share it with Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea, who at the time had started their production company Pacific Standard and they had just produced Gone Girl, Wild, which Reese had also starred in and was nominated for an Oscar. And so they were really out there seeking dynamic, female driven stories and my agent was like, I think this is exactly the sort of thing they’re looking for.

So she sent it to them. And they responded right away to the material and came on as producers. And I remember the first time I spoke to them, I was so confused about how it all worked. They were like, there’s no one path. We can get an independent financier, or we can take this out to studios. We can take this out to streamers. We can write the script first and then take it out. We can attach talent first. I was just like, my head was spinning. I was like, I just don’t… And they were like, every project is different.

Now, seven years later. I completely understand all of that, but I was very overwhelmed and I was also very nervous to tell them that I really wanted to be the one to adapt it myself. So I would try and slip it in conversation here and there. My agent was well aware. Around, it was probably spring 2015, probably only a month to five weeks before the book came out, we decided the time was good to take it out to studios and Lions Gate came on board as the studio.

And there was the question of who was going to write it. And I really give credit to my agent, Michelle, for how she handled this, because she was like, look, it’s going to be a tough sell. You’ve never written a screenplay before. You’re an author. People have all these notions about authors adapting their work. Just historically it’s never really gone well and maybe there’s a world where we pair you with a seasoned screenwriter and you do it together. And I was like, Yeah, sure, whatever it takes. Although I was like, I’m not going to want to do that. I want to just do it on my own.

And honestly, it all came together so serendipitously, because Reese and Bruna had proposed an excellent screenwriter, but her quote was enormous and I think the studio was like, we’re not going to shell out that amount of money. And literally the 11th hour my agent slipped in and was as a reminder, Jessica would really like to take a crack at this. And I was cheap labor, because I didn’t have a quote. So I think they were like, sure, okay, let her try. Obviously Reese and Bruna were really supportive of it and they were like, if it doesn’t work out or not out that much money and if it does, great, we got her for bargain steal. So that’s how that all came together and it was ahead of the novel’s publication.

Marina Fang: Got it. And you mentioned wanting to do it yourself. Why did you want to do it yourself? And then once you started, were there anything that you looked to, to build your screenwriting experience and get into the process of the nuts and bolts of screenwriting?

Jessica Knoll: I think at the time I just felt so wildly protective of this story and of this character and it was probably because a lot of people at that point didn’t know that there was so much of me in the character and there was so much of my own experiences that I’d embedded into this overall story of fiction. I think that was driving this. It felt feral. I was like, I have to be the one to do this. If somebody else writes this, I will lose my mind. I could not bear the thought of someone else doing it.

And I also just had that feeling, and I have had this feeling my whole life in all the various ways that I’ve written, from being a magazine writer, to a novelist, to screen writer, that if someone would just give me the chance, I know I can do it. It’s always getting people to give you a chance where it’s really, really… That’s the hard part. But I always felt I could prove myself if people would give me the chance.

When I jumped into doing it was a very pleasurable experience, especially the first act was pretty easy and pretty fun. It definitely got muddy in the middle and I had no idea how to bring it all together in a more concise way. I think the first draft that I turned in was 156 pages. I just couldn’t get it down. And Reece and Bruna and Jean Snow, who’s one of the producers on the film as well, she’s still with Bruna, Bruna’s new company, Made Up Stories, I mean, they were amazing. I compared the experience to having an editor on anything I ever worked on. Having an editor when I worked in magazines, having an editor with my book, it’s like they help you shape it. They bring so much wisdom about, not just character arcs, but the rhythm and what makes for something that works in a novel, versus a more cinematic telling of a scene. So it is true what they say about film being so collaborative to a level that feels way more collaborative than writing a book.

Marina Fang: Yeah, for sure. On that note, how did you handle notes from producers, or the studio, given that obviously this work is yours and it’s based on elements of your experience? How did you essentially pick your battles? What were notes that were like, Okay, that’s good feedback, I’m going to take that into consideration. And what was like, No, no, no, this is my story. I want to tell it the way that I feel it should be told.

Jessica Knoll: Thankfully, I really had very few moments where I felt like I got a note and I was like absolutely not, very few. Overwhelmingly it was notes that I was like, there’s something there, I’m going to take that into consideration and see how I can go back and embed that in the story.

And there was a lot of creative arguments about how it would end and what the third act would look like. And that was very interesting experience, because it showed me that so much of filmmaking can come down to choices. That it’s not necessarily you’re right and you’re wrong. I think Mila said that at one point, she’s like, it’s all choices and which choice do we want to make? And I did feel most of the time that the notes I got were thought provoking and I also feel like I was surrounded by people.

I feel like this project, the character, the book, the story, all these things, the tone, it attracted a certain kind of team around it that got it. So it never felt like I was getting these really suit opinions, like that’s taking at a bridge too far. She’s too unlikable. We were all on board to really be on this ride. So yeah, it wasn’t like every single note they gave me, I did it to a T. But far and wide, the notes that came from the producers and from the studio I think ultimately made the script better.

Marina Fang: That’s good to hear. Because I know sometimes writers have had some difficult experiences with notes and with people who maybe don’t necessarily get what they’re trying to do.

Jessica Knoll: Absolutely. I’ve definitely heard that side of it.

Marina Fang: Another thing you mentioned was that, and I think this is true of so many book to screen adaptations is that challenge of figuring out, okay, how do I tell something that was on the page, or how do I turn that into something visual and cinematic? Were there parts of the book that you really struggled with and did you have to tinker with them or figure out how to find that visual approach?

Jessica Knoll: And a lot of that really came in once Mike Barker, our director, came on board, which was 2018, and I did a director’s pass. I mean the script just changed wildly over the years. It was so different from the first draft that Lionsgate signed off on, to ultimately what we ended up filming. And Mike was very integral in that part of it in pointing out things to me, like we have four interior shots in a row. And I’m like, what does that mean? He’s, you just don’t want to be in a room for four scenes. And we just have a lot of people just talking. We need to break this up with some action. So things like that. It wasn’t ever prescriptive. It wasn’t like, so here’s what you should do. It was just like, here’s the problem, so can you just think about that?

And I think the thing I struggled with the most was I didn’t want things to be too convenient. Oh, this character just happens to show up at this time, or overhears this, or whatever. Things that I would bulk at in novel writing, but because you have more room to play and make it a little more subtle, you just don’t have the same real estate in the script. So some of the things, even Mike suggested, I was like, Oh, I don’t know, I feel like that just feels too convenient. But then when we filmed it and when I watched it, I’m like, oh my god, it completely works for film. So there are just certain allowances in telling the story for film that I discovered that I wouldn’t do in a novel, but that can work in this medium.

Marina Fang: Yeah. Are there any examples that you can think of, specific moments where you were like, Huh, I wrote this, I don’t know if it’s going to work, but then once you saw it you were like, Oh actually that’s the key to unlocking the problem I had here?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I think the big one is toward the end where her best friend Nell comes into her apartment and is reading the essay that she published and reading the responses to it online and wakes her up and is like, Let’s pop champagne. You’re going viral, whatever. I was just like, I mean, I don’t know, it’s supposed to be six in the morning. Would your best friend really show up with champagne? I was getting really in my head about it. I feel it would be a phone call, and Mike was, it cannot be a phone call. It’s not exciting to get a phone call. We need her to actually show up to the apartment.

And then you watch it and you’re just like, there’s literally no problem here. There’s no part of me that is watching this as a viewer like, this doesn’t seem real to me. You know it’s the morning you don’t know it’s six in the mor- You know what I mean? There’s certain things I think I got hung up on the technicalities of things that you just see you can just roll with in a film.

Marina Fang: Yeah. Did it help that, I know the narration is such a huge part of the book, did it help that that could provide a structure for the script?

Jessica Knoll: So the voiceover was something that has been a part of the script since that first terrible 156 page original draft, because always we had pitched it that way with a kind of American psycho as an example of how it would work. I will say that when Mike came on board, he was the one that really, I mean I think initially her voiceover was, I was literally just copying and pasting sections from the book and putting it into the voiceover, and even that the producers were this is such great writing and it’s so fun but it’s just way too long. This is a long time for her to be walking down the street and thinking of all of this. So that had been something I’d had to curb anyway and I thought that I had, until Mike came on and Mike was like, you really have to understand that we don’t want that.

I want the voiceover to almost be like, you could remove it from the film entirely and you wouldn’t miss it. I don’t want to build in these necessarily super long pauses. It should be in flow with the conversations. So I’m talking about getting it down to one line, and just being very discerning about where and how to use it. And part of that was we wanted to be sure to use it to show that who Ani is on the inside is completely at odds with how she presents to the world. And that that’s part of the journey and part of the mystery initially too, because you’re like, why is this woman so duplicitous? Why can’t she just say what’s on her mind and why is she so angry at everyone?

And so as that starts to fuse throughout the movie, we start to lose more of the voiceover and there are very few instances in the film where we’re using it for a narrative tool. I actually think we only really have it in that first flashback where she’s like, I started at the Brentley school, they made me change the name from the book because we didn’t get clearance for it. So I always get confused which name we went. I’m like, is it Brentley or about, I started at the school in 1999 and I was kind of an outsider. I think that’s really the only time we use it for that function.

Marina Fang: What were some things that you had to change, major things that come to mind that you had to omit? Whether it was something like that, a clearance issue, or just for ease of storytelling, like okay, maybe this isn’t really necessary for the film. And a related question, how hard was it to have to part with certain parts of the book?

Jessica Knoll: So one small thing that wasn’t that hard for me was in the book her parents are married, her dad is just super checked out from her life. In the film we just realized let’s just make Dina, Connie Briton’s character, a single mom. She’s divorced, because we had the dad in certain at the tasting and whatever and he wasn’t really adding much to the story. So we’re like, we don’t really need him.

Something that was really painful, really painful to lose, and that what Steven King always says is kill your darlings, was in the book, there is this kind of B-plot with her old teacher, Mr. Larson, where they just have this bond over what happened to them, what they endured, however many years ago and as adults they cross the line and share a kiss. And we did actually have it in the film and it just wasn’t working, because the film became about, Annie’s story came about her deciding to not do the documentary, because it wasn’t allowing her to tell the story in her own words. And whereas in the book, the relationship with Mr. Larson was meant for her to wake up and realize this is the sort of guy who is okay with me talking about everything that happened to me and with me processing it and the guy I’m about to marry is not.

And I think we just decided that her arc, it was more about her deciding that on her own. I remember our director feeling really strongly that he was like, I just don’t like the idea that it’s another man, that it’s her old teacher who makes her have this realization, I want her to come to it on her own. And so the first cut he showed me, he had lifted some of those scenes and he was like, just this is my reasoning and it also tightens it up. And when we lose this one scene, we go right to this other scene that I think the flow works better. And I was so upset. And then when I saw it, I was like, 100% it was the right choice.

Marina Fang: Yeah. You mentioned trying to figure out how tie… How to figure out that third act, how to tie up the story. When you made that realization, did it help bring the story together?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I mean even that was… When we went out with the script, once we got to Netflix, that was in 2019, I think, there was probably a whole year of more notes and revisions. It’s just studios are slow. They give you your notes, you do the rewrite, you turn it in, you don’t hear from them for a couple of months, and then they have more notes and then rinse and repeat. So by the time we had what we felt was a script that we were ready to take out to cast, that Netflix was willing to sign off on, we were all kind of in agreement that the ending was working for now, but it wasn’t all singing. But we were like, it’s good enough and we can continue working on it, but let’s try and find our Ani.

And when Mila read the script, she responded right away. She was like, I’m really interested in this. It’s a really weird, tense, compelling story, but the ending isn’t there. And we talked about why. She just felt like there wasn’t a satisfying character arc. And so we had one of those marathon notes calls with all the producers and with her where you’re just throwing around ideas, maybe it could be this, it could be that. And I started talking about how my essay that I wrote the year after the book came out, had such a big response, that I heard from so many women who shared their stories with me, and Mila was like, I feel like we should use that. Why don’t we use that? And from there we started playing with this idea that, instead of it just ending with her leaving the relationship and standing on her own two feet and getting Dean to admit what he did to her, that we would move beyond that to what she does with that. And that’s how we ended up with the ending that we have, which I absolutely love.

Marina Fang: Yeah, I was about to say, it mirrors your own story of finding the best way to take ownership of your own story. And I’m wondering what, actually Jason was the one, our communications director, to point this out to me, in one of those, I can’t remember if it’s the final scene, but when she’s doing the Today Show interview, she almost looks into the camera and tells people to not be afraid to tell their story. And I was wondering if that was of an intentional call to action and also inspired by your own journey of figuring out how to tell your own story?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, well what she says in the camera on the Today Show is exactly what I said on the Today Show. So, that was the other thing. So yeah, if you go back and watch my interview, it’s word for word those lines what I said. Yeah, it’s really cool. I forgot that we did that. But yeah, and same with the messages she’s getting from the women while she’s riding the subway. Those are pulled from a bunch of the messages that I got, that really stuck with me. And that was Mila too, being I just feel like this feels very poignant and there should way to work this into the ending.

Marina Fang: Yeah. You mentioned this was at Lionsgate first. How did it eventually make its way to Netflix?

Jessica Knoll: So it was at Lionsgate and one of our executives there, a woman named Naroki, was our champion. And at the time the president, Erik Feig also loved the book and was really excited about the project. And then as it happens, there was a lot of movement at the studio and Erik Feig left, and a new president came on and I think he just didn’t get it. And then Naroki moved on to Netflix.

Marina Fang: Got it, okay.

Jessica Knoll: And Erik actually stayed on, so he’s one of our amazing producers, because he always loved and believed in this project. So it became very clear that this was not going to get made at Lionsgate. They just stopped. We had a new team, we could barely get anyone to respond to us. And I remember I took just a general meeting at Paramount and the exec I was meeting with was like, What’s going on with Luckiest Girl Alive? And I was like, I don’t know, it’s just kind of sitting there. We’re completely stagnant. I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere. And she was like, you need to pick up the phone and start making calls. And I was like, What? I can’t do that. And she was like, when my phone stops ringing, that’s like the death now for a project.

And that day I went home and I emailed Bruna and I was like, what can we do? This is not happening at Lionsgate. And she was like, all right, let me… And that was probably, I guess that was summer 2018. And that started the negotiations to get us out of our contract at Lionsgate so we could be free to take out the project. Because by then we had Mike, our director, so we had a writer and a director and we felt that we would have success taking it out to the marketplace.

And then once we got out of that, Naroki was the one that got us to Netflix, but we still had to pitch it. It was still very, very scary. You felt like you were going into The Firm and Mike and I had to do this whole pitch and I was like sweating my ass off. And we didn’t hear from them for weeks and then they were like, Okay, we’re going to do it. So it was a nail biter for a minute there, but ultimately I just think we ended up at the absolute best place.

Marina Fang: And how involved were you at each stage of the process? And I imagine part of it was also being an executive producer, and I guess a related question is, did you fight to make sure that you’d be an executive producer and have a say in a lot of these decisions?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I think the fight really was in the writing it. Once I was on as a writer, and most authors if their work is being adapted they are, I’m pretty sure that they are credited as either consulting producers or executive producers, just depending on how involved they are. But being the writer, you’re so involved that I think then the executive producer, as opposed to consulting was a given, because I was in the trenches every day with everyone, and I was the owner, the IP.

And I did not really have to fight. That’s the amazing thing about Mike Barker, our director and also all of our producers. It’s amazing to me that it took seven years to get to this point and most of the people who are on this project, have been on it since 2014. Naroki, Erik, Bruna and Jean, they’ve all been on it since 2014.

Mike came on as our director in 2018, so we have very strong bonds between us. And I remember the one time I kind of almost took something for granted was before we were going into production in Toronto last summer. And I just assumed I would be there and I was just on a call with Mike about something and he was like, never assumed anything. He was like, you need to make sure. And he was like, I’m putting in, He put in a service contract for me so that not only was I there, but I was paid to be there. And that’s why our director is so amazing, because he was like, you are to be my right hand woman. I want you with me every step of the way. This is your story and you have to be a part of it. So he really gave me a seat at the table. And I know that’s not common, because I’ve talked to other writers where that has not happened. He’s a special special.

Marina Fang: Yeah, I know being the writer can mean a lot of different things, in terms of your involvement. In talking to other writers, were there certain author turn screenwriters that were guiding lights for you? And related to that, were there certain book adaptations where you were like, Oh, that worked out really well, maybe I should look to that. And I mean, the flip side, we all know of book adaptations that maybe didn’t work out so well. And I guess what kind of guidance did you get from other people who’ve done this before?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I mean I’ve still never met her, but I talk about her obsessively, which is Gillian Flynn. Gillian Flynn was, I mean it’s so funny, I’m literally sitting here with Gone Girl folded on my desk, because I’m editing my third book and when I feel like I’m a shitty writer, I just will open up a page to something she’s written and there’s some word or something in there where I’m like, it’ll just do something in me.

I mean, I just think the timing of when Luckiest Girl Alive came out and this overwhelming desire to be the one to adapt it myself has a lot to do with what I was seeing in that space, which was Gillian Flynn was in my eyes, paving the way. She worked at a magazine. When I worked at Cosmo, Gone Girl had just come out, it was Gone Girl mania. And everyone in my office talked about it in a way that a lot of magazine editors, as I’m sure you know have published books, or have ambitions to publish books, and so around the office, Gillian Flynn was of the person who we were all marveled at because not only had she done it, but she’d done it and become a phenomenon. And then she was adapting it with David Fincher and I felt like if she could do it, I could do it.

And in terms of someone giving me advice, or just finding anyone who just was a kindred spirit through all of this, Jenny Han and I have the same agent. And so we did an event together in 2018, I think it was, where I interviewed her. It was right after To All The Boys came out, the first one, and that we met and we became good friends after that and we had so much to talk about. I’ve never met anyone who was dealing with exactly what I was dealing with in being an author, but also wanting to maintain a lot of control as the creator in the adaptations of her work, whether that was for TV or film. She was also at Netflix, so she had experience with Netflix and the machine of all of that. So she’s someone, I mean even this summer, even two weeks ago, I’m going to her asking her for advice, because obviously Summer I Turned Pretty was such a massive hit and understandably so, because I’ve watched it twice and it’s absolutely amazing and just made me feel young again. All the good things.

So I feel like she’s always been someone that you can turn to and she’s very opinionated, which is hysterical. She’s just like, this is what you’re going to do, this is how you have to say it. It’s pretty awesome. So yeah, those are the two women that have been guiding lights for me through this.

Marina Fang: Both great. I think both people who’ve done great work in terms of getting their great novels to great screen adaptations.

Jessica Knoll: Exactly, yeah.

Marina Fang: And how did you, I guess, navigate being on set, what your role would be? Obviously you’re not director, but you had a great advocate and supporter in your director. How did you know, all right, this is my time to give my feedback and be involved and here’s my time to let Mike do the directing?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I mean it was really learning on the fly. The first day of filming in Video Village that day, I think it was me, Bruna Jean, Julia Hammer, who is also one of the producers, she works at Erik Feig’s company and we were filming a scene and there had been a couple of takes and Bruna, I mean first of all, anytime Mike would come out of the set and tell someone something, Bruna would be like, Shhh, the director is speaking. So I was like, Oh, okay. I was learning a lot of etiquette that when the director speaks, you show respect and everyone is quiet, so the tech guys, whoever it is he needs to speak to, can be heard.

Then she was like, I think that I liked the take this take that the actor did, because he was playing it in more of a subdued sad way as opposed to angry and menacing. And she was like, I think that’s really working. So there’s always between takes, but she waited for an opportune moment and then was like, Okay, let’s go talk to him now. And I was like, Oh, okay, so you can do this. And so I really watched her and learned from her, about when you can step forward and give a note and when you need to just step back and not say anything. And I think I did a pretty good job. I don’t ever remember anyone feeling I was stepping out of turn, or it all felt pretty copacetic on set.

Also, sometimes there were line readings that were just wrong and the word was wrong or pronunciation wasn’t right. And so I would definitely get up and make sure that the line was done right. And I actually hate that part. I hated it. I wanted to just sit in the chair and enjoy watching it and I didn’t love getting up and interrupting things. I would have to really rally myself to do it, but I did it.

Marina Fang: Yeah, I imagine that it must be hard to come into a world where there are a lot of unspoken rules and every industry, obviously journalism has that too and publishing, but it must be hard to figure out how to navigate all of that.

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I had great teachers, thankfully. But you’re right, it’s a new world, it’s a new industry. There are all sorts of rules and traditions and all of these things that I learned about for the first time last summer.

Marina Fang: Looking back at all of this, if you went back to you seven years ago, what would you tell yourself, or what do you hope other people, other novelists going into the process of adapting their work to the screen, should know, or things that you wish you knew?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting, because I talked to some authors who are just like, I have no interest in doing that. And I’m like, Oh, weird. I really needed to be the one to do it. But I think if anyone, so that’s the other thing is maybe people don’t. I always assumed everyone wanted to do it, but then I talked to lots of other authors that are like, I love novel writing, or I prefer to spend my energy and time on my books. So I think one, make sure that if you don’t want to be the one to adapt it, that is totally fine. And there are plenty of other great uses for your energy and resources and all of these things. I mean, my publisher probably wishes that I didn’t want to do this.

But I think what I wish I knew seven years ago, and it’s interesting because it’s not necessarily about Luckiest Girl Alive, but because I then raised my hand and was like, I enjoy the process of adapting books and I really enjoy screenwriting. I love it so much. I wrote and sold an original screenplay in 2019 to Amazon and writing that script was probably the happiest couple of months I had. It was just an idea I had on my whim. I didn’t feel like starting on my next book and I was like, this is really fun. I just want to try it. And I just loved it. I just find that world creation in a novel setting is so labor intensive to me in a way that it’s just not in a script.

When I’m writing a script, I feel much more like they say you have to write and just write, get it down on page, have your shitty first draft for whatever reason, it is very, very hard for me to have a shitty first draft of a novel. I can’t keep moving with the action. It kills me that the writing is so sloppy. In a script and maybe it’s just because it’s like, it’s just less dense overall. I just feel so liberated to play and I’m like, if that doesn’t work, I can come back and change it, because it doesn’t feel like such a heavy lift the way it does in novel writing.

So what I would tell myself is, just because you love screenwriting and just because you want to be doing this at the same time as writing books, doesn’t mean that you should necessarily take on other projects that come your way just because there are glamorous people attached. Because I did sign on to adapt two other author’s books throughout the years and it was a lot of work and I really regretted it while I was working on it. It wasn’t enjoyable for me and I felt it wasn’t enjoyable, because I felt like this is time I should be spending on writing my next book, or creating something that’s mine. I just didn’t love and care about the characters enough. And so I guess I just wish I knew that and I could have saved myself a little bit of stress and I was just kind of overloaded.

And when I look back on those years where I was trying to write my next book and trying to take on all these notes for adaptations that I just didn’t love the way I loved my own stuff, I just think I could have spared myself a little bit of suffering. But I also think I had to do it to know that.

Marina Fang: Yeah, that makes sense. What excites you about film and TV as you keep doing it? So I guess your main takeaway is you want to keep doing it, but also you know that you want to make sure it’s work that is yours and you care about.

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think there are certain projects, certain books that I have just absolutely loved over the years, where I’m like, if there was a situation where someone came to me and wanted me to adapt that, I would, because I care about those books and those characters immensely. But for the most part I think, just what I love when I’m working on a script. My second book I just turned in or revise of the pilot episode because that’s another one where we’re a little stagnated, have been optioned by Hulu, but then they didn’t pick it up. But now Meale has come on as a producer, so we’re going to rejuvenate it and send it back out there and try again.

I think what excites me is potentially the idea of maybe show running or directing one day, because I love coming up with really fun and inventive ways to, I guess, to just, what’s the word I’m looking for, execute a scene. You know what I mean? It’s not just two people sitting in a room talking. Do you know what I mean?

And also something else I think is really fun to play with is, and this was something Mike was always banging on about, because we have flashbacks that we deal with in Luckiest Girl Alive, things doesn’t have to be in chronological order all of the time. You can get a flash of something and you can be really smart about where you drop that in, in a way that the audience is like, huh, I’m intrigued. What is that about? And then connect to it later. I don’t necessarily think that you can play like that in a book. I just think it’s, for me at least in a book, I’m much more comfortable with more of a chronological order of things, whereas timeline wise, I think you have more room to play and to also have clarity for the reader, because it’s a visual medium.

Marina Fang: Right, exactly. Yeah. I mean a book, you can do it, but you have to be pretty explicit, like chapter one, this takes place in the past or something like that.

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, exactly.

Marina Fang: Yeah. You mentioned, so the Favorite Sister is the pilot based on your book.

Jessica Knoll: My second book, yeah.

Marina Fang: And then the script you wrote is Till Death?

Jessica Knoll: Yes. That’s the original script.

Marina Fang: Yeah. So you mentioned the Favorite Sister, you’re rewriting the pilot, what’s the status of Till Death?

Jessica Knoll: So Till Death is currently with Amazon, awaiting approval on a cast list. We do have a great director attached Nisha Ganatra.

Marina Fang: Oh, she’s great.

Jessica Knoll: She’s so great. She’s been such a blast to work with and her take on this story is so smart. So yeah, Amazon, if you’re listening to this, look at that cast list and get back to us.

Marina Fang: You’ve mentioned going from being a novelist to being a screenwriter and I mean, before that, going from being a journalist to a novelist. Has your relationship to writing changed as you’ve moved through these different mediums and genres and industries?

Jessica Knoll: Yeah, I think that it has. I do really feel like it’s all been foundational. Have you ever heard Susan Sarandan talk about how she started out. A lot of Oscar and major actresses started out on soap operas and they credit it for one, you have to be super prepared, learn your lines really quickly, because you’re oftentimes getting the script that morning and it’s boot camp for hitting your marks for the camera and all these things. It teaches you these things that you take with you for the rest of your career and that you’re still using 50 years later. That’s kind of how I feel about magazines and the writing that I was doing early in my career.

I miss magazines, I really do. I loved being there. It was such a great time in my life. It was so much fun to be around other creatives. And I loved pitch meetings. I loved working through ideas. I loved getting your final back with a big check mark in the color of pen that the editor in chief uses. And they’re like, with a little note, this is great. It feels like you get an A and you want to go home and put it on your refrigerator. And I just feel like I learned so much in the magazine world that I still use as a novelist, and even more so in screenwriting.

And a lot of it has to do with being okay with feedback and criticism, because there’s a lot of it, as I’m sure you know, and there’s a lot of different voices in the mix. It goes up the ranks through all the various editors and this one has a note, and that one has a note, and now that one has a note, and that is much the same in screenwriting. It starts with the producers, then the director, then the executive and the executives. And you have to find a way to address all of them, but still claim ownership of your own voice. And that’s something that I just think I’ll never not use that in my career.

Marina Fang: Yeah, totally. What’s your writing routine like, if you have one? And has your novelist routine been different from your screenwriting routine?

Jessica Knoll: It really hasn’t, because Luckiest Girl Alive, I wrote while I was still working at Cosmopolitan.

Marina Fang: Oh right, yeah.

Jessica Knoll: I would wake up early. I mean, I would probably be at my desk by 6:30 AM. I mean, we didn’t have to be in the office until 09:30 or 10:00. So the mornings were perfect. And I had such success with that schedule that once I left magazines, I tried to keep that. I mean, I don’t wake up at six anymore, because I have the whole day. But in some ways, I try and do mornings first thing. I feel the most fresh then, the coffee’s hitting, the vibes are flowing, it’s working. I definitely hit that afternoon slump, that’s where I try and tackle any kind of administrative tasks.

I’ve tried to be that writer who writes at night with alcohol and it just doesn’t work. I don’t know. I’m sure if I really try tried that lifestyle, sometimes I think about it, I’m maybe my characters would be cooler and moodier if I was writing with a glass of whiskey on the rocks at 1:00 AM. But I’m so afraid to get into that sort of schedule, because it just harkens me back to my gross college days where I would sleep all day and stay up all night. And I’m like, I know that I have the propensity to get into that. And I think it’s just better if I am awake and working at a reasonable civilian hour.

Marina Fang: Yeah. Well, I think that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much, Jessica. This was really informative. I learned a lot about the adaptation process and I hope people who are listening to this, who might be trying to figure out how to do that, will learn from that too.

Jessica Knoll: Thank you, Marina. This was great. I love talking to you.

Speaker 1: On writing is a production of the Writer’s Guild of America East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative.

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