Great Britain

Panic on pandemic planet: Gillian Flynn on her reboot of cult TV thriller Utopia

On the outskirts of Chicago, on the ground floor of an old hotel made up to look like it’s hosting a comic-book convention, there are 50 people milling about, variously disguised as wizards, rabbits, space pirates and superheroes. You won’t find any Captain Americas or Wonder Women here, though. Instead, you’ll have to make do with the likes of my favourite new do-gooder, Antler Man, a guy whose superpower seems to be turning into a huge moose.

It’s September 2019, the sun is shining and, as the cameras roll, no one in the cast or crew of Utopia has the slightest inkling that they’re making what will turn out to be 2020’s most timely show. The scene they’re filming today is a crucial one. It’s the first time our heroes, a motley crew of nerds and misfits, meet each other in their quest to track down Utopia, a legendary comic book said to have foretold many of the most devastating viruses ever to sweep Earth. The book is believed to contain further prophecies.

On the set, I bump into Gillian Flynn, author of the bestselling novel Gone Girl and the woman at the helm of this US remake of the weird British conspiracy thriller series that first aired on Channel 4 in 2013. “I want it to feel very resonant,” says Flynn, adding that she is keen to instil in her version the unshakable feeling that we’re heading for the end of the world. Oh, the irony.

‘I watched videos of feral cats and went off them’ … Sasha Lane as Jessica Hyde in the reboot.
‘I watched videos of feral cats and went off them’ … Sasha Lane as Jessica Hyde in the reboot. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/Amazon Studios

A year later, speaking to me by Zoom, the prescience she displayed that hot day in Chicago is the source of some grim humour. “I have spent the last few months in the edit suite,” she says, “hearing characters talk about ‘emergency use authorisations’ and looking at footage of ‘hot zones’. My husband and I would be having conversations and he’d be like, ‘Wait, are we talking about the pandemic-pandemic or the show-pandemic?’”

Written by Dennis Kelly, whose pen brought us the wildly brilliant comedy series Pulling, the original looked and felt like nothing else on British TV. It was, says Flynn, “a razor blade dipped in chocolate” – a blackly funny and brutally violent show about a looming crisis caused by climate change and overpopulation. In its heightened hyper-world of blazing Technicolor, like some wild comic book burst into life, Earth is in the grip of a pandemic. Rumours abound about its cause and a shadowy organisation is pushing a vaccine. Real-life events, such as the 1974 TWA aeroplane crash and the 1979 assassination of MP Airey Neave, are rolled through its conspiracy theory mangle.

But alas, not enough people watched it, and it was cancelled in 2014 after its second series. “I always felt like Utopia could reach more people,” says Kelly. “I felt like it could be broader and bigger in a good way. But I’m not the person to make that happen. I would just end up writing the British version again.” Step forward Flynn, who has been trying to remake Utopia for half a decade. “I found it so rich,” she says. “As a writer, I liked that it was different enough to give me a challenge. I’ve never written an ensemble piece. The stuff I write is usually very psychological and focused on one or two people.”

‘What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?’ … John Cusack as a shadowy biotech CEO.
‘What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?’ … John Cusack as a shadowy biotech CEO. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/Amazon Studios

Flynn was introduced to the original by David Fincher, the film-maker who brought Gone Girl to the big screen. He was set to direct the remake for HBO but quit over a budget disagreement. “That was hard,” says Flynn, who explains that Fincher had been “very clear” about the size of budget he wanted to realise his vision. “To me, it’s like, ‘Pay him whatever he wants!’ But that’s easy for me to say. It’s a really expensive show, full of sets. It’s not Cheers.” Fincher insisted she pursue it without him, which is how it has now ended up at Amazon. “It took a lot of rewriting,” she says. “I had to drop two episodes to make it makeable.”

It was important to Flynn – and to Kelly – that she made this new Utopia her own. The most noticeable difference is Flynn’s decision to abandon the original’s colourful comic-book styling and embrace a more gritty, grounded aesthetic, influenced by 1970s conspiracy thrillers. She reels them off: “Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Marathon Man – I feel like people back then had a similar sense of a changing world.”

The “nerds” – as they’re referred to on set – all have their own reasons for wanting to find Utopia. Becky, played by Ashleigh LaThrop, thinks the comic could hold the cure to a mysterious degenerative disease she has. How does LaThrop think her Becky compares with the original? “Mine’s definitely more of a potty mouth,” she laughs. The actor has turned up wearing a dark red “Where is Jessica Hyde?” T-shirt, a nod to the question that recurred throughout series one of the original.

‘I would rather write something you hate, but that you talk about’ … Gillian Flynn.
‘I would rather write something you hate, but that you talk about’ … Gillian Flynn. Photograph: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Hyde, who eventually emerges as the streetwise leader of the group, is now played by American Honey star Sasha Lane, who has given the otherworldly character a harsh revamp. “She’s like this animalistic creature who’s been on the run since she was a child,” says Lane. “I literally watched a bunch of videos of feral cats and went off them. She doesn’t like human interaction, is on edge constantly, will do whatever it takes to get her food, then run off. She’s scraggly. She’s not domesticated. She’s not the sweetest little thing.”

More sadistic fans of the show will be pleased to know that one of its most gruesome scenes, in which a paranoid conspiracy theorist has an eye scooped out with a spoon, has survived. His torturer – Christopher Denham’s disturbed, childlike assassin Arby – is today filming a brief walk through the comic book convention. Dressed in a buttoned-up polo shirt, hair parted to the side, shoulders hanging heavy, Denham describes the normcore killer he plays as “the Terminator in dad jeans. If 200 people saw him in a crowd, they would just remember this vague outline of a man. I think that’s what makes him so scary.”

Undoubtably the remake’s biggest star is John Cusack, whose character, the enigmatic biotech CEO Kevin Christie, lurks in the background, pulling strings through his powerful company Christie Corp. This is the first time Cusack has accepted a lead role in TV. “It’s like doing an eight-hour movie,” he says. “I have never been able to develop a character like this, to recur it and see where it goes. It’s been really fun.”

Christie’s catchphrase – “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?” – gives a voice to the show’s anxious undercurrents, but Cusack is wary of revealing too much about his character. “He’s an amalgamation of those PR-savvy benevolent billionaires who tell you that you should trust them, that they help people, that they’ll save us.”

Hyper-real world … a scene from Dennis Kelly’s original.
Hyper-real world … a scene from Dennis Kelly’s original. Photograph: Channel 4

There has never been a shortage of conspiracy theories but, in the seven years since the first Utopia, we have seen a proliferation. Cusack himself has been accused of tweeting (and deleting) one about 5G technology, a claim he refutes. “A lot of online trolls were trying to say I was connecting 5G with coronavirus, which of course I never said. All I said was that it’s an unproven technology, just like any other you should be sceptical of.”

Is Flynn worried about releasing Utopia in a time of QAnon, the anti-vaxxer movement, and even the idea that Covid-19 was manufactured in a Chinese lab? “I think people using the show as a means of talking more about how we treat each other in pandemics, and how we handle conspiracies, is why I was interested. I would rather write something you hate but that you talk about, than have you say, ‘I liked it’ and never think about it again.”

The remake does not feature the original’s most controversial scene, in which Arby walks into a British school and shoots everyone inside. Unlike in the UK, school shootings are a horribly frequent occurrence in the US. “I just didn’t want to contribute to that phenomenon,” says Flynn.

In a way, the remake must feel like a validation for Kelly, who speculates that the reason Utopia was cancelled was that it was too niche a show to survive at a time when success was judged primarily by overnight ratings – ie, how many viewers watched during its broadcast. “If it had gone out two or three years later, we’d be seeing things in a slightly different way,” he says, referring to the boom of streaming and catch-up TV, which has diminished the importance of overnight ratings.

“Channel 4 were amazing and supportive but I was disappointed they didn’t allow me to finish the story with a special. I definitely had another series in me, and I might have had another weirder series beyond that, but I think I could have wrapped the story up with a special.” He laughs. “Then again, it was a really fucking weird series. You had to commit to it. We didn’t make it easy for people – and I’m proud of that.”

• Utopia is available now on Amazon Prime Video.

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