If you saw reviews of “Dark Places,” the new drama based on Gillian Flynn’s 2009 bestselling novel, you may have noticed it was always compared to “Gone Girl.” Makes sense: The massive hit “Gone Girl” movie was also adapted from a popular Flynn novel, which is why the “Dark Places” trailer and poster boasted the fact that this film was based on another one of the author’s books.
But reading reviews of “Dark Places” also means you knew the movie existed — and by multiple accounts, many people did not. The independent film opened in limited release in 151 theaters this past weekend, after being made available on DirecTV on-demand weeks ago. It earned an estimated $86,000 at the box office, according to Movie City News, though the distributor did not reply to multiple requests to confirm that figure. For comparison’s sake, “Gone Girl” made $38 million its opening weekend in 3,014 theaters.
It’s a mystery: How could another Gillian Flynn adaptation, hitting theaters just a year after the smash “Gone Girl,” barely make a blip on the radar? Particularly when “Dark Places” offers an impressive cast, starring Oscar-winner Charlize Theron; “Mad Men” favorite Christina Hendricks; and up-and-comer Nicholas Hoult, who recently appeared with Theron in the summer hit “Mad Max: Fury Road”?
Reviewers noticed: “The lack of buzz or anticipation for ‘Dark Places’ has been somewhat startling,” wrote one critic at movie site JoBlo.com, citing the film’s star-studded credentials. “To see this movie dumped on on VOD (after a short stint on DirecTV and scattered international release) is not only confusing, it triggers major red flags.”
Reviews were not kind, as the movie earned a 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. “Dark Places” centers on a 30-something troubled loner named Libby Day (Theron), whose mother (Hendricks) and sisters were murdered when she was a child, presumably by her brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). One day, a mysterious man (Hoult) from a local true crime club tells Libby that her brother, sentenced to life in prison, is innocent. The film goes back and forth between flashbacks and present day. Reviewers criticized the muddled and slow plot, unlikable characters and a mystery that wasn’t worth the trouble to solve.
The easy answer for why “Dark Places” made zero impact is that everyone knew the movie wasn’t very good — however, looking into how the film came to be, it appears more complicated. From timing issues to post-production struggles (“a corps of these horrible producers,” according to the director) and an editing process that reportedly took 15 months, “Dark Places” had a long, complex journey since the rights were first optioned nearly five years ago. Here’s a look back at the possible reasons why “Dark Places” had such a markedly different roll-out than its Flynn predecessor.
(For what it’s worth, some of the players involved did not appear eager to revisit the process: A24, the U.S. distributor, declined to comment for this story, and would not make Flynn or the director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, available for interviews. Other producers also declined to comment or were unavailable, directing us back to A24 or publicists.)
“Dark Places” was always supposed to be a small indie movie.
Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the French director who gained attention for Holocaust movie “Sarah’s Key,” was looking for his next project in 2010 when he stumbled across “Dark Places,” which had recently hit the New York Times Bestseller list. When he found out the rights were available, he said in interviews, he optioned the book that fall. He wrote the screenplay and had Flynn review the drafts. Two years later, just as the project started to take shape with Amy Adams rumored as the likely star to play Libby, “Gone Girl” hit shelves and became a literary sensation. Major studio 20th Century Fox snapped up the rights in summer 2012; Flynn wrote the screenplay; and out of the blue, all eyes were additionally on what Paquet-Brenner intended to be an independent film.
“It was just this little dark thriller that nobody had any interest in,” Paquet-Brenner told Toronto-based NOW Magazine. “And then all of a sudden it became a hot property.”
The timing of “Gone Girl” created inevitable comparisons, and set unrealistic, unfair expectations.
As the director told the magazine, “Gone Girl,” starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, was both “a blessing and a curse.” The blessing: “Dark Places” attracted Hollywood stars and money to make the movie.
“A lot of very talented, world-famous actors all of a sudden had a great interest in doing this project,” Paquet-Brenner said. Adams dropped out, but in early 2013, the movie attracted Theron, who also wanted to produce. In a story about Flynn, the Daily Mail wrote that “‘Gone Girl’ ‘going gangbusters’ helped secure the movie funding for ‘Dark Places,’ which had for years been struggling to be made.”
The curse: The two movies were filmed at the same time in fall 2013, but “Gone Girl” got fast-tracked and came out first, released in fall 2014. “Gone Girl” is a very different film — much lighter in tone and a pricey studio movie. So Paquet-Brenner actually wasn’t pleased that his indie distributor used the hit status of “Gone Girl” to help market “Dark Places” a year later. Especially because he feared audiences would feel misled.
“I totally understand why they do that, if I were in the distributor’s position I would probably do the same. But I actually think it’s a disservice to the movie for different reasons,” he said. “Because I mean, first, the movies are so different…also because “Gone Girl” is a big studio movie. We are an independent movie that we shot in 25 days. And so comparing them unfortunately creates expectations that are kind of impossible to meet when it comes to the audience.”
There were production issues, including “horrible producers.”
According to ScreenDaily, Paquet-Brenner didn’t finish editing the movie for 15 months, and it was completed this past January. (He and Theron both said in interviews that the flashbacks and voiceover made editing more complicated.) Speaking with Canadian entertainment site DorkShelf, Paquet-Brenner didn’t sound thrilled with post-production.
“It was a long process and first, it’s an American movie, so obviously, you have to struggle with a lot of different people, and I was no exception,” he said, adding, “The biggest challenges were definitely in post-production, but not necessarily because of what we shot.”
“I mean, just look at the list of producers on IMDB and that will give you an idea,” Paquet-Brenner continued, likely alluding to the many names. “As a director, you become this politician who tries to keep this movie alive after the corps of these horrible producers, but you get my point.”
He clarified the challenges of keeping his own “vision” through the process: “Look, as you can imagine, I cannot go too deep into that, I’m not even allowed as per my contract,” he said. “But the only thing I can say is that yeah, that was a process and sometimes definitely a challenge and a struggle.”
The movie landed an independent, direct-to-satellite-TV distribution deal and had little mainstream publicity.
“Dark Places” was co-financed by Exclusive Media, but when the company shed its international sales arm, Exclusive international president Alex Walton took the film (one of many) to his new company, Bloom Media. Bloom launched at Cannes in May 2014, which is when “Dark Places,” already pre-sold in many foreign markets, was in the market for a U.S. distributor.
In November 2014, independent producer A24 and DirecTV landed the American rights to “Dark Places” for a $3 million distribution deal, as part of an initiative where the film is available exclusively on-demand on DirecTV before it goes to theaters. The “Dark Places” trailer appeared this past spring — the movie debuted in Paquet-Brenner’s native France in April — while the film premiered on DirecTV in June and landed a limited theater release on Aug. 7.
In the meantime, there’s been little publicity, aside from a recent press junket in Los Angeles, where Theron lightly alluded to not seeing eye-to-eye with the director during filming. (“At the end of the day, you can never forget that you’re at the mercy of the filmmaker,” she told USA Today.) And no matter what happens, or how the film fares in its after-life, the “Gone Girl” comparisons will always remain.