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Q&AOct 21, 202220 min

Q&A with Luckiest Girl Alive Author Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive author Jessica Knoll shares her behind-the-scenes journey of turning her bestselling book into a hit Netflix movie starring Mila Kunis.

By Meredith Lavergne

Mila Kunis plays Ani Fanelli in Netflix's Luckiest Girl Alive
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Luckiest Girl Alive, starring Mila Kunis, premiered Friday, October 7th on Netflix and has remained one of the top 10 trending movies on the platform since. Kunis plays Ani, a writer whose perfectly crafted New York City life begins to unravel when a true crime documentary forces her to confront traumatic events from her past.

The film is based on the bestselling book of the same name by author Jessica Knoll, who also wrote the screenplay for Netflix. Jessica Knoll joined fellow author Catherine McKenzie on the Likewise app to talk about her journey from book to screen:

Event Transcript

McKenzie: So what's it been like to see your book come to life on the screen?

Knoll: It's a little surreal because it's amazing to know how many hours have been watched in less than a week. But also that like, life just goes on as usual.

McKenzie: Right? And the dog still needs to walk.

Knoll: Yeah, so it's a little strange, especially because it's a story and a character that I've been living with for close to 10 years. Um, so just to think that that's out there in the world, but I don't necessarily always have a sense of how big that's out there in the world. It, it's like a difficult thing to kind of reconcile. But, I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled to see how many hours people spent watching it. I'm also getting a lot of messages from people who have seen the film, who have connected to it because of their own stories of trauma. And, you know, that obviously happened to some degree when the book came out in 2015, and again, when I wrote my essay in 2016. But, you know, Netflix is such a massive platform that it feels like it's on an even greater scale, which has been really kind of heart bending to see.

McKenzie: Yeah, no, I, I mean, I understand when you write something that connects with readers and then it reflects their own trauma, you know, people wanna share their stories, and that can be overwhelming to be on the receiving end of so many stories, I'm sure.

Knoll: Yeah, it was pretty overwhelming in 2016 because I had no idea. I just had no idea that would happen. So, I think I'm somewhat mentally prepared, because I've been through it once before and I'm also very therapized at this point in my life, right, which I wasn't really, in 2016, I was like a baby in therapy. I also just have more knowledge about myself and what I need to do to protect myself and to pay attention to when it starts to feel like too much and to step away and be okay with stepping away for a little bit. These are all tools that I did not have in 2016. So it feels like I'm just more protected this time around.

McKenzie: That's good. And having access to those hours/ watch numbers is that like your Amazon ranking on steroids?

Knoll: Yes. It's amazing. As writers or any kind of content producer, you love data that shows like, Oh my God, people are actually watching this or reading this thing that I worked away at for years by myself in my little bat cave, you know? I'm always thrilled to get, proof that people are watching it.

McKenzie: You mentioned being in your bat cave, so this book came out seven, eight years ago, and I was curious about your screenwriting journey, and particularly why you thought it was important for you to be the screenwriter. It's not always common and often I think we're told as writers that it can hurt the project and hurt its chances of actually coming to the screen, but you stuck to your guns. Tell us about that.

Knoll: I've been doing a lot of thinking about where we were at in the world when the conversations were starting with the studio about turning my book into a film. I think I would be remiss not to give some context as to why I was so passionate about being the one to adapt it for the screen myself, It was 2015, Gone Girl had come out as a novel and then as a movie within like the last three. And Gillian Flynn was someone that I idolized because I also worked in magazines. She had been a magazine writer, She'd been a reporter at Entertainment Weekly, and then she left and started writing books. I had been a fan of her books before, you know, her first two books before Gone Girl came out, and then Gone Girl was such a phenomenon.

Knoll: Then it was very widely reported that she was adapting it with David Fincher. And so I started thinking about writing the novel and feeling like this is something I should do because I saw another magazine writer do it. And then when I became a novelist myself, like she had become, there were conversations happening about adapting it for film, and I'm like, well, she adapted it and I really wanna be the one to do that. So I think I had that all in the background as an experience that I could look to and point to and say, I wanna do that. And then on the other side of it, I just felt really protective of this story and this character and this voice in particular. And I just wanted to do it. I was really passionate about it. I'd always wanted to write a script, you know? Not everyone really, really wants to do it, you know? And I did.

McKenzie: Yeah, or do the work that it takes to learn the difference between the two.

Knoll: Yeah. I talked to other authors who are just like, you know, I'd rather devote my energy to my books, I trust if my book's gonna be adapted, I trust the experts to do that.

McKenzie: And seven years later it ended up on the screen. I'm happy to give you many compliments, but one thing that really struck me is as I went and reread the book and then watched the movie, is that you were able to translate Ani's voice really well to the screen. She was there from the first page, the same person as the book. So, kudos.

Knoll: Thank you for saying that. I've heard people say, she's a little bit more likable on screen. I would have to almost curb my instincts with her because, there were some lines that I like that were really mean and I had to be talked out of writing and including them. I felt so passionate about it at the time, but, looking back, I think that was the right choice, you know? So I also felt like I was getting some good advice from the filmmakers and producers who are a part of this process.

McKenzie: How did the story evolve for you from the book to the movie? It was originally optioned by Reese Witherspoon's company, and then that didn't work out. I think there's a few more tales along the way.

Knoll: Initially it was, Reese was one of the producers on it, and it was optioned at Lionsgate. Before Reese started Hello Sunshine she had a different production company, called Pacific Standard, which she had started with Bruna Papandrea, and they came on as producers. They were the ones that initiated the deal with Lionsgate. So Lionsgate was our studio and our financier. We tried to get it made there for like three years and we just couldn't do it. And then Reese and Bruna kind of went their separate ways. Reese started Hello Sunshine, and then had to step off the project because, you know, it's just hard. Like it's really hard to get things made, and she had other things going on. Bruna stayed on as a producer, then Lionsgate also moved on. So we got out of our contract and pitched it to Netflix and Netflix came on board, and that's really where things started to take off.

At that point, our director had come on, Mike Barker, It was 2018, I'd done a director's pass with him. And, I did a few more revises with notes from our new team at Netflix. And then we were ready to take it out to casting. Mila Kunis responded almost right away and was like, “I'm really interested in this, but the ending, like the third act is not landing for me.” It's interesting because we all felt the same, but we were kind of like, the script is good enough to take out and try and attach some talent to and we can troubleshoot that as we move through the process. So, she was right. Mila wasn't just the star, but also a producer on the film and added a lot of creative value with all of our conversations around what are we trying to hit, what are we trying to say, and we would just kind of spitball in these really long marathon notes meetings.

I started talking about like, you know how when I wrote my essay, I heard from so many women who shared their stories with me and also like, not just strangers who reached out to me on social media, but women in my life, like friends, colleagues, family members, people that I knew very well were like telling me, I have a story to share too. I didn't know that about them at all. So we were thinking, how can we incorporate that into the end of the movie. And that's how we got the scene with Lolo, her boss, where she gives her the essay and her boss is like, you know, I had an experience too in high school and gives her that advice about how to write about it.

That was supposed to be a stand in for all the women in my life who read my essay, read my book, and were like, I need to tell you something,and you're just like, “Oh my God”, I thought we knew each other very well, and neither of us knew this thing about each other. Like, that's so crazy that there's such a pervasive culture of silence around talking about this. Then obviously, you know, the writing of the essay and the reception of it and being asked to go on the Today Show, that's all what happened in my real life. And Mila was like, I think we should put that in there. Then, in the movie when Ani is on the subway and she's reading those messages from women, if you listen carefully, you can hear my voice is one of the voices in that scene. I like to say it's the ending that goes beyond the ending in the book.

McKenzie: Well, that's really satisfying too, right? When you can look at something in a new medium and take it to a new place.

Knoll: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. And infuse it with something that goes even deeper. You know, I think the thing I love about like adaptation so much is that creating characters from scratch and their world from scratch is really hard. And it takes a really long time to like get to know them and make them feel real even to yourself. So by the time you published it, you feel like you know this world and these characters really, really well, but then you start talking to people about it and readers are like, hh, I loved this about that. And they start pulling out things. So an adaptation is an opportunity to like use that, it's a second chance with the story in these characters. So I always think that's the coolest part of it.

McKenzie: For sure. Between when the book came out and when you wrote the movie, #MeToo happened, right?

Knoll: Yeah.

McKenzie: So did that inform the way you approached the script as well, do you think?

Knoll: Yeah. Well I think the problem was is that it wasn't informing the script because I wrote this story before #MeToo– I don't wanna say before #MeToo, because obviously Tarana Burke started it many, many years ago, but it just kind of hit the mainstream in 2017. This is why we actually decided to set the movie in 2015, because it's a different story if she's struggling to come forward with what happened to her in an environment that's post- #MeToo than if it's pre- #MeToo. I don't know that I would've written this book the way I wrote it if it was after 2017. The idea of coming forward and talking publicly about what had happened to you was still, I mean, not that it's not scary now, but we did not have a lot of examples of people coming forward many years after the fact. That was also a key factor, not coming forward at the time, but coming forward many, many years after the fact and being like, this thing happened to me and I feel safe enough to talk about it now. And people saying like, I believe that this happened to you back then. Like there were not many examples of that when I was writing this story. So that's a key part of Ani and her fear and her trepidation about coming forward, you know?

Knoll: We had a conversation at a certain point before we got to set and we were still, deep into revising the script and it was like, we either have to acknowledge that #MeToo happened in this script in a contemporary 2022 world, or we set it in 2015 and it's pre #MeToo. And we decided ultimately to keep it true to what the book was.

McKenzie: And then it becomes an interesting time capsule in a way also because of the political environment. So much has happened in really such a short time on so many levels. The other part of it of course, is the school shooting, which unfortunately is still part of the US landscape. There’s a lot of themes that are being explored there at once.

Knoll: It's something that I've always puzzled over myself personally because when I wrote this story, I didn't plot it, I didn't think about it. It felt like once Ani’s voice came to me and things were clicking, it felt like the story was already written, I sat down and I was basically transcribing it. The school shooting component just was a part of the story. And I didn't really stop to think about the why more deeply, than when I was a freshman in high school Columbine happened, and that was very, very shocking to me at the time. I remember just remember thinking, I can't believe that someone in my peer group, someone close to my age, would be capable of that level of violence. And what is so sad for me to think about is that I didn't consider what happened to me violence.

Do you know what I mean? I'm not trying to compare the two, but in my head I always thought, no, that's actual violence. You know, what happened to me is a little messy and murky, because that's really what people were telling me at the time and it was just very, very confusing. It was not a black and white thing where people were like, ‘what happened to you is wrong, you know, or shocking or awful” the way we talked about Columbine as being wrong and shocking and awful. No one was very interested in peeling the onion of why I was assaulted. I think somehow these two things got tangled in my sight in a way that they came out in the book. And the other thing I wanna point out is something that is so commonplace for women if they're thinking about coming forward or if they're even thinking about reporting at the time, is people saying to you, “really think about this, because you could ruin this person's life.”

The idea that Ani would not only struggle to come forward with her sexual assault the way all women do, but that added burden of thinking about what's going to happen to Dean if you come forward, but Dean is, Dean is like a bigger head to people. Dean is respected and Dean is a victim. So it's meant to be a commentary about how complicated and how stressful it is to make the decision to come forward because this is what people are saying to you and these are the things that you have to consider.

McKenzie: Right. I think that's something that struck me when #MeToo happened, and I never had anything thankfully as as traumatic as what you went through, but you know, all women have stories, right? And so you start doing an inventory of all the things that have happened to you big and small over the course of your life. Then you're hearing about the same thing happening to your friends and your colleagues. It was kind of overwhelming, you know? I still think it's too much in the culture, but I think that, women are taught from a young age to just not talk about these things, whether they're big or small, don't make waves, just roll with it.

Knoll: Yeah. Don't make waves. I think where it becomes really insidious is when people agree, it's terrible what happened to you, but like that's for you to deal with and you're told it's a private thing. It's actually not true. There are far reaching community consequences for violence, sexual violence, and physical violence against women.There's this great book that I highly recommend, it's so interesting and it sounds bleak, but it's not, it actually has really practical solutions that actual police departments have implemented and seen improvements in rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. So it's called No Visible Bruises by Rachel Snyder. It's an amazing book about how intimate partner violence has these very far-reaching consequences. And over 50% of the deadliest mass shootings in our country have started as domestic incidents at home.

If you look at the Pulse nightclub, he was abusing his wife, in Uvalde he attacked his grandmother first. Even Sandy Hook, it started in the home, he killed his mother. That's intimate, that's intimate violence. So when we say it's behind closed doors, it's not my business, it is. It breeds and it becomes about something bigger than what's going on in the home. And then there are these massive community consequences. So these two issues are actually connected. And Rachel Snyder in this book, the journalist was the first one who had a set of data to connect these two for me, they'd always been in my mind somehow, but I was like, Oh my God. It was like that weird thing where I read it after I wrote the book, and now here's the data to prove it.

McKenzie: I'd also take it one step further, which is why isn't the one person story enough? It's somebody in your community that should be enough.

Knoll: Yeah. But it never is.

McKenzie: It never is. And that ties into this, you know, “as the father of a daughter” or “if it happens in my family, then okay, we're gonna do something about it.” But everybody is the child of a mother.

Knoll: And also women are just human beings, so we should just care about other human beings. Just care about other people. But that's why I love that you said that because that's where the line comes from in the film where An’s confronting Dean and he starts saying “I don't know how I'm gonna, how what I would do if, you know, the fact that I raped you, came out, I have a wife.” And then in Ani’s head you hear her start to count down, she goes, three, two, and he goes, “Daughters”. And she goes right at the buzzer. I started hearing that over the years and I'd heard other people complain about that. Like, oh, now because I have a daughter, I care about these things.

McKenzie: Oof, yeah, that was well done. That particular thing drives me insane.

So on a slightly lighter note, you mentioned meeting Mila, and one of the questions from the audience was about casting and wondering how much of a visual writer are you? Do you have an image in your mind? I'm not a visual writer. I don't ever think about what these people would look like in real life. And so, it's always interesting to me when people propose casting ideas. But, I thought that, that Mila was great casting as Ani. Whether I had an image of her or not, she fit vibe.

Knoll: When I was writing the book and I was crafting the character, I didn't, all I cared about was writing the book so I could sell it and get a book deal. That was the thing I cared most about. And I couldn't really see beyond that. An adaptation and casting was so beyond my goals and my wildest dreams that I didn't even consider that for a second. Now, the problem is whenever I write something,I wish I could get out of my head and not think, not know what I know now, which is like, oh, I know that actress is like actually looking to do something in this vein, so maybe I'll make this character around her age and like have some, similarities. And I don't think that's necessary, I mean, it can be smart if like it works out in your favor, but I think your best bet is always writing what feels honest and authentic, that's where you get your best story. What I think is so interesting about Mila and what I loved about her is that Mila is an immigrant. She’s from the Ukraine and she understands having to assimilate.

McKenzie: The outsider.

Knoll: Yes, being the outsider, and that's exactly what Ani is. Her assimilation with this very moneyed world that she's always been in the margins of, but has never really been one of them, and now she's engaged to be married to one of them. She's really trying to pass off as a blue blood. Mila had that in common with the character, which I absolutely loved.

McKenzie: That is a nice connection. And coming back to your other point, I always tell writers to remember the feeling when you wrote your first novel, because you'll be trying to find that feeling again for the rest of your life.

Knoll: It's so true. With Luckiest Girl Alive, I really just wrote it for myself. I didn't have a book deal, you know, I didn't know what it would become. I didn’t have to write this in a certain way in order to sell it. The only other time I've had that feeling is with my original script Till Death that I wrote in 2019 and sold to Amazon. Iit's still in development, we have a great director attached.

I had just finished my second book. I wasn't ready to start on my third one. And I had this idea just kind of kicking around. I'd never written an original script before. And it around this time of year, it was a little overcast, and I was like feeling kind of spooky vibes. And I was watching Scream, which is one of my favorite movies. I just felt so nostalgic about that film and I thought, I wanna write something in that vein, a slasher film that's funny, but also has some smart messaging in it.

Knoll: I had this idea of a serial killer at a wedding. Because the whole thing that they tell you at your wedding, and it is true, is you're so inundated with guests and family and friends and colleagues and you know, your new husband, all their people, that you lose track of people. So I thought it was such an interesting, and I set it in the place where I got married, which was very, very, very remote. So, the idea that by the end of the event that you would be like, “wait, where is so and so? I haven't seen them.”You just, you chalk it up to the frenzy of a wedding, but actually, there's someone going around like praying on these people, and then you find out the reasoning why. So it's really, really fun. And I really hope, I really hope that one comes to fruition. Because again, I had the same feeling I had writing Luckiest Girl Alive, writing that script, I'm doing this for me, so I'm feeling so fulfilled. This one is just really fun and I think that that resulted in something really special.

McKenzie: So I know you've been doing a lot of screenwriting, but are you working on a third novel?

Knoll: Yeah, my third novel is actually in. It's been so hard, I've been working on it for like three years. It's two women's stories that intertwine and the one woman's story was always working but the other women's story changed a hundred thousand times. I could not get them to intersect in the way that the book and the story kind of required if I was gonna do two women's stories. So it took a lot of hammering away at it, a lot of false starts. Finally landed it, so that's supposed to come out in September 2023, It’s called White Women. That'll probably be the soonest that you see something from me.

McKenzie: Okay. Well that's pretty good. Can you give, can you give us the elevator pitch?

Knoll: Oh yeah. It's a really good one. It is a fictional re-imagining of a true story, from the point of view of the survivors of the victims of the serial killer Ted Bundy.

There was a newer documentary about him a couple of years ago, and I just happened upon a conversation on Twitter. This is when I still had Twitter. I no longer have it, but I happened upon a conversation that sparked something in me, and it was people saying like, “Why do we need to know? Like, we know everything there is to know about this guy. You know, that he's like handsome. He was a law student and he was brilliant and charismatic and like, that's how he was able to like, operate, and fly under the radar. And that's how he was able to like lure women to go off with him.” Like, we know all of this, like, but we don't know anything about his victims.

And out of curiosity, I was like who are his victims? And I started doing some research and not only did I find that some of the women who survived have incredibly interesting, fascinating stories, but he is not at all who he's been remembered as. He's kind of dumb. He's actually kind of dumb. And he was a law school dropout, Right? Like he failed out of law school. So every report that was written about him that called him a law student, I'm like, that's not even actually factually accurate. He was a law school dropout.

McKenzie: And it was a small minor law school too. It wasn't like a fancy one.

Knoll: Because his LSAT scores were so bad that he couldn't get in anywhere. So that's definitely been like dropped from the narrative. And also that he was so handsome and charismatic that he was able to lure women off with him. That's not true at all either. There's something about every single woman who encountered him, who survived him has gone on record to say “he's weird, he's creepy, my gut was screaming at me, don't go off with this guy. But I considered it because I felt bad for him.” He would fake being on the crutches, stuff like that. And also the way women are raised to be like, if someone asks you for help, you give them help. You know what I mean? So there's a lot of setting the records straight in this story. The book is told from the sorority president of the sorority at Florida State University, which was his final spree was in Florida, where he went into a sorority house and attacked four girls in 15 minutes and two of them survived. Two of them died. Then he was within his legal rights to depose these women and to interrogate them on stand because he was his own lawyer. These sorority women went on to change the constitution of the state of Florida so that that can never happen to another victim again. So I'm like, these women are like badass and way more interesting to me than him. So that's not an elevator pitch, that's like a, I don't know what the opposite of an elevator pitch is, like an escalator pitch. Like it takes a really long time but that's what it's about.

McKenzie: That sounds awesome.

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