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.
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