After Jessica Knoll’s 2015 bestseller Luckiest Girl Alive was optioned early on, she was determined to be the one to bring the story to life for the screen. The only caveat: She didn’t have any experience in screenwriting.
“I was completely 100 percent obsessed [and] fixated on being the one to adapt it myself, even though I didn’t have any screenwriting experience. I would have these conversations with my agent constantly: ‘How do we do this? How do we get them to give me a shot? I know if they’ll just give me a shot that I can do this,’” Knoll told The Hollywood Reporter.
While Knoll quips that she was considered “cheap labor,” she ultimately signed on to not only adapt the novel for the screen but to serve as an executive producer. The dual titles see her following squarely in footsteps of fellow authors Emma Donoghue (Room) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).
In addition to Knoll, the film’s team also includes director Mike Barker, producer Bruna Papandrea and actors Mila Kunis, Connie Britton, Finn Wittrock, Chiara Aurelia and Jennifer Beals among its cast.
Luckiest Girl Alive centers on Ani FaNelli, whose life seems picturesque — the dream fiancé, seemingly glamorous lifestyle and a successful career as a writer, i.e. “the luckiest girl alive.” But not everything is as it appears, with trauma from Ani’s past lingering as she continues to grapple with two tragic events from her school years: being a survivor of sexual assault and a school shooting. Things begin to further unravel when a true-crime documentary centered on her school’s tragedy leaves her to confront what happened and those involved years later.
Adapting the story herself was important for Knoll given her personal tie to the film. A year after the book’s publication, the author came forward as a sexual assault survivor, penning an essay on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter titled “What I Know,” in which she reveals that, like her novel’s character, she was raped as a teenager with her story serving as inspiration for the protagonist. “The first person to tell me I was gang-raped was a therapist, seven years after the fact. The second was my literary agent, five years later, only she wasn’t talking about me. She was talking about Ani, the protagonist of my novel, which is a work of fiction. What I’ve kept to myself, up until today, is that its inspiration is not,” Knoll wrote in the 2016 essay.
“The idea that someone else may potentially adapt this story that I felt there was so much of me and my own story and my voice in it, it just made me feel crazy,” Knoll told THR. “I was like, ‘No one else could touch this but me.’ I felt super protective over [the character] Ani.”
The film’s journey to the screen has been seven years in the making, but poignant events including the #MeToo movement have perhaps given the novel and Knoll’s story a newfound spotlight. Despite debuting before the first major waves of #MeToo and increased focus on school shooting tragedies, abiding by the original narrative’s climate was intentional, explains Knoll.
“You understand the stakes more of her coming forward with her story in a pre-#MeToo world. There’s less precedent that the world is ready to hear this woman’s story and to believe her version of the story than there is after 2017.” To bring the “harrowing elements” to life onscreen, Knoll cites consultants RAINN and Sandy Hook Promise as references for how they told the story responsibly and sensitively without shying away from the realities.
As Knoll preps for the release of the Netflix adaptation, she ponders whether the film can almost act as a curtain closer on the Luckiest chapter: “I think I’ll probably go into a little bit of a period of mourning when it feels like there’s really nothing to return to here.” Yet, as one chapter ends, a new one begins, with the author set to add more screenwriting credits to her name.
That includes reteaming with Papandrea and her production company Made Up Stories for a TV adaptation of her 2018 novel The Favorite Sister and working on an adaptation of the viral Reddit story “I Think My Mother-In-Law Is Trying to Kill Me” for Sony. Knoll also sold her original script ‘Til Death, which made The Black List, to Amazon in 2019.
Ahead of the film’s release, Knoll spoke with THR about bringing her book to life, writing her first screenplay, finding inspiration from The First Wives Club and telling this story in a climate of school tragedies and following the height of the #MeToo era.
Luckiest Girl Alive came out in 2015 and was optioned early on. At what point did you decide that you would be the one to adapt the screenplay and what was it like making that transition in writing your first screenplay?
I was completely 100 percent obsessed [and] fixated on being the one to adapt it myself, even though I didn’t have any screenwriting experience. I would have these conversations with my agent constantly: “How do we do this? How do we get them to give me a shot? I know if they’ll just give me a shot that I can do this.” The idea that someone else may potentially adapt this story that I felt there was so much of me and my own story and my voice in it, it just made me feel crazy. I was like, “No one else could touch this but me.” I felt super protective over [the character] Ani. And so I think honestly how it happened to work is that I was cheap labor because I didn’t have a quote. I think the studio was like, “Yeah, sure, let her take a shot at it. If she screws it up, whatever, we’re not out that much money. And if she doesn’t great, we got the script for cheap.” (Laughs.) I think I had that going for me. I just knew if they give me the opportunity, I can show them that I can do this and that I’m also a very good collaborator. Obviously, [working on a] film is much more collaborative than sitting by yourself writing a book. Even though you have an editor with that, you have much more autonomy with a book than you do with a script. So, I was excited to work with executives, producers, directors [and] actors who had been doing this for a long time, who could give me feedback and we would all kind of shape it together.
Being that you were able to reimagine the story for this film, was there anything that you were hoping to explore in the film that you didn’t get to explore in the book or was there anything from the book that you wanted to explore in a different way?
That’s a really great question because I think the thing that excited me the most once I was starting to dig into the adaptation is that this was an opportunity to go even deeper with these characters and with these stories because writing a novel and world-creating for me is extremely tiresome. It zaps my energy and it takes all of my effort to create a world and characters who feel real. So the cool thing about working on the adaptation is that you get to actually do something with this new, deeper knowledge of these people. I found that just such an enthralling part of the process. One of the things that I did want to explore in this version that maybe I hadn’t thought enough about in the book or also just because of the time period that I was writing the book (which would’ve been like 2013-2014), there were some terms around sexual assault that weren’t yet ubiquitous and one of those was “survivor.” When the book came out in 2015, and when I wrote my essay in 2016 coming forward as a survivor myself, I was still using the word “victim.” I didn’t get that we were now onto saying “survivor” and it was a little jarring because I was never treated like a victim at the time I was a victim. And now I’m finally coming out about this and I just wish for a little more room to not have to just immediately jump to being all-powerful. What was creatively interesting to me was how in a scene [in the film] I could explore this terminology [and] how this character would feel about it. And that’s how we have the scene where the documentary director is asking her, “Do you prefer ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’?”
How did Mila Kunis and Chiara Aurelia, who play Ani at different ages, contribute to shaping her in the script? What were the conversations like about how to bring this character to life?
Mila’s had a major contribution in the fact that the ending that we had in the version of the script that we sent her… we all knew it wasn’t quite working — the producers, Mike [Barber], our executives at Netflix — but we were like, it’s in good enough shape that we’ll give it to her. Mila came back saying that she loved it, but the ending wasn’t there. Her point was there isn’t enough of an arc for this character because she [Ani] starts out kind of laser-focused on kind of being better than everyone and the ending that we had in the version that we gave her, [Kunis] kind of had a version where she gets that in a sense, but it feels so empty because there’s more to life than just proving to everyone that you’re better than they said you were. So we started thinking about what would show actual growth for this character and we started having conversations like that. From there I had to start thinking about what were the meaningful things that happened to me in the wake of publishing the book and writing the essay. I think one of the big ones was hearing from so many women that it had reached, realizing that this was a much more shared experience than I’d ever considered before and how that helped me feel less alone and more connected. I think it’s never a bad thing when we feel more connected to other human beings ’cause I think sadly there’s just a lack of that in general in our world these days. So those were really powerful things that we wanted to infuse into the ending.
In this film, graphic scenes — whether it be watching Ani’s assaults or the school shooting — don’t shy from the realities of those scenarios. Can you talk about bringing those specific scenes to life when adapting the story?
These were constant conversations we were having and we were doing it with our great consultants, RAINN and Sandy Hook Promise, because we wanted to tell this story and not shy away from kind of the more harrowing elements, but do it responsibly as well. So those consultants were a big part of navigating those trickier territories. With the assault scene, I think conversations that Mike and I had a lot were we want people to fully understand the depth of this character and this woman’s rage. She is not necessarily “likable” in some present-day situations and who she is and what her goals are and how she thinks about things. I think we needed the audience to understand truly where that sprang from. I don’t think that you get that if you’re not going to really be true to how degrading and how difficult a time she went through. So that was behind making sure that we really did capture that so that you understood this woman in her present life.
When writing those scenes, how much did you take into consideration this new era post the rise of the #MeToo movement and school tragedies and how was it navigating writing those sensitive topics in our current climate?
It’s interesting ’cause it’s been seven years since the book came out, which is not on the face of things. You’re like, “Oh seven years, isn’t that long,” but seven years between 2015 and 2022, it feels like several lifetimes have passed. When I was writing the script and it was 2016-2017, into #MeToo, we were still writing it as completely contemporary. Once we got to after the summer of 2020 with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, we just realized if we are still gonna keep this as a contemporary story, we have to acknowledge these things because you can’t have a conversation about what she’s been through without acknowledging all of these other things. So either we find a way to include those in the script or we set it in 2015. So that’s why the movie is set in 2015 because it does change things for a character like her. You understand the stakes more of her coming forward with her story in a pre-#MeToo world. There’s less precedent that the world is ready to hear this woman’s story and to believe her version of the story than there is after 2017. So that decision was probably made around 2020-2021 that we wanted to set this when the book published, pre all these other movements really [started] kind of gaining ground in the public consciousness.
You’ve been outspoken with your personal connection with the story. How did sharing your story publicly change your approach to adapting your book to film? And how would you describe the conversations you had with the cast, the director and perhaps intimacy coordinators on how to best navigate the heavier material?
Because so much of it [the film] is voiceover, we were constantly having these conversations all through post, particularly about some of the things that she’s thinking and saying toward the end of the movie. Something Mike was saying is that we need to move from this being about her and her story and why she needs to do this to it being about something bigger than her. And we still couldn’t land on what it was we wanted to say. I went back to my hotel room and First Wives Club was on TV and it was like the last 30 minutes. Obviously, I’ve seen the movie a million times, it’s one of the greats [and] such a classic, but this was the first time I watched it with the critical eye having come off the back of those conversations. All these women want to stand up for themselves after they’ve been cast aside for the younger women and so they exact their revenge in all these different ways. Then they kind of get together and they’re like, “This isn’t enough for our friend. We started doing this for our friend, Cynthia, this isn’t honoring her; we need to do something bigger, we need to do something more.” Then they opened the center for women. I have seen this movie so many times, this is a beloved movie to me and I never even connected the fact that like they allowed this movie to become about something so much more. They let it be about something bigger beyond them. In that moment it just clicked and that became a huge driver to kind of where her [Ani’s] head was at writing the essay, how she felt about it, how she felt about the women who came to her and shared their stories. All of that kind of went into the third act.
You shared on social media at the time that you chose not to be on set during the filming of the sexual assault scene. Why did you make that decision?
It was actually a pretty last-minute decision. I was on set earlier that week and there’s a million things going on, everyone’s busy and being that close to it, you’re just confronted with the reality of being there in a much different way. I started thinking about how uncomfortable it would be for the actors to have me there, especially with them knowing that so much of this is inspired by my own story. Especially seeing how truly young these actors are — Chiara, our guys who play Liam (Isaac Kragten), Peyton (Gage Munroe) and Dean (Carson MacCormac) — I was just like, this is gonna be hard for everybody and I don’t need to add to that by being there. My presence will complicate this for people. I want people to be able to just do their work and not have to worry about me. If I feel like people are worrying about me or looking at me to see how I’m feeling, I’m gonna feel uncomfortable, too. I remember telling Mila, “I don’t think I’m gonna go to set those days.” She was like, “Yeah, you definitely should not go to set those days.” (Laughs.) And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” It felt like such a revelation when I realized it. She’s like, “No, that’s the right choice.” (Laughs.)
Both the book and film are centered on a “flawed” character and over the years we’ve seen projects center on the anti-heroine. How would you hope this character and film can add to the conversation on why it’s important to have strong, female-driven narratives?
Something that is so interesting to me is that when my book first came out, the first couple of years it was always three and a half stars on Amazon; that was the rating. It wasn’t like I went through and read every one, but here and there I’d be interested to know what the lower ratings were about. So many of them, and on Goodreads especially, people just could not stand [Ani]. Also, there were the people who just broke my heart, who were like, “She went to a party with all boys, what did she think was gonna happen?” There were women who were writing this and you were just, “Oh God, please. I hope you don’t have sons and daughters that you’re projecting this onto. That’s just so frightening.” Around probably post-#MeToo, around 2020, I just happened to be on Amazon and I happened to see the book and I noticed that it had tipped up to four stars. I was like, that is so interesting to me. I just think in 2015, there was still a lower tolerance for an unlikable or flawed anti-heroine. I just felt like we hadn’t seen it enough and I just think the thing that is so great now is like, it’s almost like we don’t even question it. We’re like, “A woman is a human being and human beings are flawed. So we wanna portray an actual, real human being who happens to be a woman.” Sometimes she’s gonna be kind of a bitch and sometimes she’s gonna do something you don’t agree with and you can still wanna keep watching her and be engaged with her story even if you don’t agree with every single thing she says or does, the way we’ve been doing for decades with characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper. So I think a lot of it is just habituation. We were kind of lacking in that for a while and what’s so great about TV and film now is there’s just much more of an abundance of those types of characters. So I’m happy to be a part of it.
Now that the film is done and released, does it feel like a chapter is ending and you’re closing the door on this story? How has your relationship changed over the years from first writing the book to working on the film and now having this adaptation come out?
It’s gonna be really weird. I think about this a lot. I don’t know exactly when kind of the curtain will fall on all of this. Right now it still feels like it’s still going, because we’re doing press, I’m talking about this story again, I’m gonna be writing about it again. All of these things, it’s still with me [and] it’s still a part of me. And, of course, over the seven years, I wasn’t constantly working on this project. I would set it aside and work on something else. But there was always this feeling I might return to it. I think I’ll probably go into a little bit of a period of mourning when it feels like there’s really nothing to return to here. God, it makes me kind of sad to think about but at the same time, as sad as that will be, I also feel like you do hit a certain threshold where you’re like, “I’ve said all I have to say and I’ve done right by this character, I’ve done right by this story. I’m proud of the work we’ve done.” I guess it’s like any beloved long-running TV show. It’s sad to see it go, but you can look back and just be so proud of what you did.
In addition to this film, you’re in the process of adapting your novel The Favorite Sister for TV and also adapting a Reddit story for Sony. In what way did working on the script for Luckiest Girl Alive impact or change the way you approach your own writing whether it be for your next scripts and books?
I think working on this screenplay [and] this film, the thing that I’m most surprised about is that it has helped me as a novel writer, which is not something I ever would’ve thought of. It’s helped me think about scenes where characters are more proactive, where they don’t just sit around and wait for things to happen to them. And also utilizing characters more — characters that you may not expect to use at the beginning of the novel, kind of bringing them back in interesting ways — I think that’s also something that I just kind of got out of this experience. I absolutely love writing screenplays. It’s probably one of my happiest places when I get to work on that and I’m excited to continue in that vein. [I’m] excited that, hopefully, people will embrace this movie and love this movie and it will give some momentum, put the pedal on the gas for some other projects that are in that development stage. You never know quite if you’ll get unstuck from there. So hopefully this gives all of that a jolt too.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Luckiest Girl Alive is available on Netflix on Oct. 7.