Director Tate Taylor talks about the challenges of bringing Paula Hawkins’ best-selling thriller to the screen.
With its time-jumping structure and multiple narrators, adapting Paula Hawkins’ best-seller The Girl on the Train to the big screen was never going to be easy. And Tate Taylor, best known for dramas such as The Help and Get On Up, admits the book itself even had him flummoxed in the beginning.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” he recalls. “I was really busy and I knew nothing about it. I started reading the manuscript and my partner John was reading it at the same time to decide if I should do this. I took a break after the first 40 pages and said, ‘wow… so this is about a woman with multiple personality disorder. She’s Rachel then she’s Anna, and here’s…’ [And John said] ‘Dumb-ass, those are three people!’ But the point is, you really have to look at those dates in the book and you have to pay attention.”
The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel Watson (played in the film by Emily Blunt), a depressed, alcoholic divorcee who likes to imagine what life must be like for a seemingly perfect couple – Scott and Megan (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett) – whom she spies from her train window every day. When Megan disappears, Rachel decides to look into the case, but her amateur investigation reawakens dark memories from her old life with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), who also happens to live in the same street with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).
Once he had got his head around the complex structure of the novel, the challenge for Taylor was then to find a way into the story.
“My way into it was what I like to do best, which is character and distilling the writing,” he explains. “It was having these three leads who were so broken, and I really enhanced that and really showed what that was like and made it disturbing and raw. I wanted to do things to make everybody a possible suspect. I wanted to just try to always do something to make someone potentially bad.”
Unlike the book, the screen version is set in the US rather than the UK, a decision Taylor says predated his coming onboard the project. However, he doesn’t believe the change in setting detracts from the story.
“I didn’t think we should shift it back. And once I [had] shot all this cool stuff in the city, I realised it doesn’t matter where you are. The movie is in these women’s heads. I think it serves it more when I decided to keep Emily’s accent because she’s even more isolated and it made me wonder whether she’s not going home because she can’t tell her family. Is she keeping a big secret that she’s a total disaster? I didn’t decide to do it, but I think it works well.”
But while Blunt retained the accent, Taylor realised fairly quickly that other attributes of the character in the book (Rachel is overweight in the novel) wouldn’t be possible. “I could tell there was no way she could gain weight,” he says. “I’ve seen her eat, and she’s like a 14-year-old boy at football practice!”