a long talk

Marti Noxon on Sharp Objects, Joss Whedon, and Going ‘Toe-to-Toe’ With Jean-Marc Vallée

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

Marti Noxon was writing television about angry, self-destructive, messed-up women long before it was in the Zeitgeist. Back in 2001, she was promoted to showrunner of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’d been writing on Buffy since season two, but the season she helmed — the sixth — would prove to be the series’ darkest and most controversial. It hit on many themes that would reappear in Noxon’s later work: addiction, violent sex, self-harm. But some fans were livid about the show’s dark turn, and they blamed Noxon, a controversy that her Twitter bio still acknowledges: “I ruined Buffy and I will RUIN YOU TOO.”

In recent years, critics have reassessed the season’s legacy, and, along with it, the role of the anti-heroine in art. These days, unapologetically damaged women seem to be everywhere: on Killing Eve, Game of Thrones, and Jessica Jones, to pick just a few, and Noxon is behind a couple of the latest. A few years back, she co-created Lifetime’s UnREAL, which features a multitude of power-hungry, damaged, and manipulative leading ladies, as well as A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, which featured a menopause story line that Bravo executives reportedly didn’t care for. This summer, after decades of working in writers rooms run by auteurs like Joss Whedon (Buffy) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), she’s made the leap into prestige TV with a pair of shows featuring women as richly drawn, complex, and self-destructive as Don Draper or Tony Soprano. Dietland, which premiered on AMC earlier this month, tells the story of a tortured and brilliant 300-pound writer named Plum whose quest to lose the weight takes her into strange and dark subcultures. Noxon’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, directed by Big Little Lies’ Jean-Marc Vallée, and premiering Sunday on HBO, follows Camille (Amy Adams), a reporter who heads back home to investigate the brutal murder of two local girls, only to be drawn back into her own troubled past. The sheriff and detective on the case are convinced it must be a man who committed the violent crimes.

Recently, I chatted with Noxon about the idea that it’s sexist to believe that women can’t commit brutal murders, and why that was a story she felt she needed to tell. We also spoke about her relationship with Joss Whedon, and whether Buffy’s feminist legacy still holds up. Last year, Buffy fandom was rocked by a piece from Whedon’s ex-wife alleging multiple affairs on set, and calling him a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.” Noxon has some thoughts on that, too.

What does it feel like to be arriving at this moment of prestige TV in your career?
The right word is surreal. I said to someone, “I finally made it to the billboard on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights!”

Do you feel differently about your life now than you did five years ago?
The upshot is that I do, but part of it is because, at the very same time that so much took place in my professional life, so much has also gone on in my personal life. I got spit out of the last five to six years a very different person.

Tell me more.
The thing I always felt, when I was struggling to find my own voice as a TV/film writer, was that if I got my most precious wish and I got a show of my own to do, and that people actually liked it, that I’d get my “adult card” and I’d never have to suffer again.

When I did Girlfriends’ [Guide to Divorce] and UnREAL, and I was doing both of the first seasons at the same time and struggling with my own personal demons, I’d been sober for, gosh, 23 years. I relapsed briefly, and then I was fighting my way back to sobriety during all that craziness. All those things happened at the same time. I got the message loud and clear: You don’t get your “you never have to go to therapy again” card, no matter what. Or at least I don’t.

Your work is so much about those demons — addiction, self-harm. What kinds of stories would you tell if that part of you went away?
I’ve been struggling recently because we’re talking about season two of Dietland, and what would that be, and I’m working on a film right now that I’m just writing in the same way that I do everything — writing it first and seeing where it lands. My epiphany was that I’m finally at a point in my life where I can invest my heart and emotions into other people’s stories! [Laughs.] The work doesn’t have to come directly from my own life. It took me, what, 53 years to learn the power of imagination?

I want to talk about the sort of feminism that shows up in your work. Last year, you said there’s something “weirdly feminist” about taking men out of the story, and having a story about violence that has nothing to do with men. I noticed that in Sharp Objects, it’s a repeated motif that the sheriff and detective are too sexist to entertain the idea that the murderer is a woman. Given the #MeToo times we’re living through, what does it mean to you to be thinking about that brand of sexism right now?
For me, it was a really powerful moment when the women who were accusing Cosby started to come forward and talk about not being believed. Those women don’t get enough credit. Everybody talks about the Weinstein moment, but this was percolating for a while. I really started to dismantle some of my own ideas about what it is to be a woman and how much I actually had to twist myself in certain shapes and try to change myself to fit into the film industry, which is just so rampantly sexist. It’s such a funny industry, because they work so hard to amplify voices that are “different,” but when you really look at it, they’re not different. There’s about seven stories for marginalized people that they’re interested in telling, and we just tell them over and over again. Jewish people get the Holocaust, black people get the story of slavery, and women don’t get their own movies unless they’re being funny or getting killed.

Why do you think Hollywood has resisted telling dark stories about women?
Well, what’s interesting is that if you go back to an earlier era in film, around the time of the Second World War, there were those characters. Look at Joan Crawford films. Women were forced into these boxes in terms of how they looked, but females could play really complex characters, and those movies made money. But you can just see how film mirrors the role of women in society so closely. Right around the time of the war, we were being told, “Oh wait, you can rivet things! Go rivet!” And then after the war, they were like, “Oh, actually, about that riveting thing … it makes your arms kind of bulky. Get thee back to the kitchen!” With both Dietland and Sharp Objects, I did so much research about these topics. I’ve arrived at this idea that everything old is new again. The only thing you get to change is how the story moves forward.

I’m curious to hear more about the pushback you got to season six of Buffy, where people were really upset about how dark the show got, and why you think there’s more of an appetite for stories about powerful and messed-up women now.
With season six, there was this announcement that I was running the show and Joss was going to take a back seat, but in reality, anybody who knows Joss knows that his idea of taking a back seat is not every single thing, you know?

But I did have way more input over that season and some real muscular influence on the direction of that season in part because I was really vocal about wanting Buffy to make some bad mistakes. My argument was that, when we become young women, especially if we’re troubled or haunted by something, that can lead us to make some bad choices, especially in the area of romance. And people really took me to task online. I finally just disengaged and didn’t participate in that conversation at all.

There’s so many theories about why we like to watch these stories about women being complex and making mistakes and, I can only say what the answer is for me, which is that there’s a real catharsis in seeing women be the people with agency in their stories, women who are committed to the full range of emotions. I keep joking that the hashtag headline of 2018 should just be “#WomenAreHumanBeings.” [Laughs.] We have all the same feelings as any other human being. We can be completely shitty — just like a man. And we don’t necessarily have to have a really sympathetic backstory.

Although it’s interesting, in Sharp Objects, the backstory of why Camille and her family are so messed up ultimately does originate, in some way, with a man who raped Camille’s “great great great grand victim,” as she puts it. There’s a suggestion that it’s that initial act of violence which has been passed down and perverted and twisted over the generations.
What’s interesting to me about all that is a more nuanced approach that goes beyond gender. Any society that has an oppressed population is going to have an uprising eventually, and that power is corrupting no matter who has it. I’ve come to see greed as almost like a mental illness because I see what it does to people around me. I always joke that it’s like they get on this spaceship to Planet Rich and you should just wave good-bye and see if they ever come back!

What was it like working with Jean-Marc Vallée on Sharp Objects?
It was difficult, I’m not going to lie. I find that many artists are incredibly … what’s the right word? Incredibly sensitive. And it wasn’t without its toe-to-toe screaming matches. [Laughs.]

What was the biggest fight?
Oh, it was always over language. It was over the nuance of language because Jean-Marc is from Montreal and he doesn’t share the love of the English language that I do and Gillian does in the same way. He’s much more interested in imagery and telling stories through pictures, and he’s brilliant at that. He has a comfort level with visualizing things to music, and he gets very attached to certain pieces of music. I totally understand that now as I’m learning more and more as a director, but I love language. I studied theater at Wesleyan before I became a writer, and the beauty of language, particularly in the Southern Gothic tradition, is so important to me. I kept talking to him about The Night of the Hunter, and he didn’t want to listen to me! [Laughs.]

That makes a lot of sense when I think about Big Little Lies, because it’s so visual and music-driven.
Yes, and Sharp Objects is the same. But myself and Jessica Rhoades, one of the key producers from Blumhouse [Productions], and Amy and Gillian and another producer who I insisted be brought to the whole production so that he could also go toe-to-toe with Jean-Marc over words … over the words! You’ll see over the course of Sharp Objects that it fulfills the promise of Big Little Lies, but I would argue it’s even better because he shot the text.

I want to go back to Buffy for a minute to ask about working with Joss Whedon. Last year, Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole claimed that he’s “a hypocrite preaching feminist ideals” in a piece for the Wrap. How do you think and feel about that today?
Here’s what I feel I can say about it: It broke my heart because I felt Kai’s pain so acutely. I never experienced him that way, and I think that what I felt when I read that was … I felt really angry at THR [Editor’s note: the op-ed was published in the Wrap, not The Hollywood Reporter] for publishing it because it didn’t feel like it was clear enough. It reminded me a little of Aziz Ansari in that it felt like it was subtle. Like, the personal and the political were too enmeshed.

I remember people saying they thought I must be sleeping with Joss. I will go on record and say that never happened, I never did, and he never asked me to! I’m known for nothing if not real candor, and it just didn’t happen. So it was incredibly painful for me to revisit that era and have to re-confront the idea that I was successful maybe only because someone wanted to fuck me. All I’ve been able to say about it is that I just never experienced him that way.

What do you think about the feminism of Buffy — do you think it holds up?
Can you repeat the question? I left my body for a second thinking about the last question. I was like, “Was I fair?” I just want so much to be fair to Kai. i don’t know her personally anymore, but we all loved her, and she’s a loved woman to almost everybody I know on that set. So it’s a little bit like talking about your parents who broke up real bad. You don’t want anybody to get mad all over again.

I agree that it was a muddled and strange example of #MeToo, but I do think it has damaged his feminist image on some level that’s hard to ignore.
Well, then that leads to this other question about context, too: Are people giving anything to history? Think about how different things are 20 years later. We’re just getting to the part of the conversation where we say #WomenAreHumanBeings [Laughs.] Twenty years ago, I almost feel like men, if they weren’t flirting outrageously with every woman they worked with, there was something wrong with them.

To go back to the feminism of Buffy today, does it hold up, you think?
I was so afraid that Buffy was going to be the height of my career and that I would never emerge fully as a creator myself, so it’s actually been weirdly painful to go back and watch it because I was working so wholly to try to meld into the voice of Joss and this genre that was a little bit foreign to me, because I was kind of a straight drama writer. I haven’t revisited it very much. I think parts of it hold up really well, and other parts are a little rickety! [Laughs.]

Which parts do you think are rickety?
There were parts of season six where I feel we went too far. We pushed into some categories that almost felt sadistic and that Buffy was volunteering for things that were beyond just “bad choices” and were almost irresponsible for the character. That may have to do with my own history. [Laughs.] The personal, right? It’s personal. And I think that killing Tara was — in retrospect, of all the people, did she have to die?

A question that has haunted Buffy fandom for years. You were the one who brought Amber Benson on to play Tara, right?
Yes, yes. Oh yes.

I wonder what you think about Xander, and whether or not he’s a good guy — another divisive subject on Buffy message boards. To me, he seems like both a perfect distillation of the male gaze — always watching Buffy and judging her — as well as a stand-in for Joss. It feels like that’s how he’s positioned on the show.
That’s what’s interesting, at least for me as a creator: Every character is you, and in some ways, Xander is impotent male anger. He’s not “super,” and everybody else in the show gets powers, right? He stands on the sidelines feeling left out of the revolution.

Yes, he does. Watching Dietland and Sharp Objects, there’s not really a man who ever gets a privileged position like that — someone who doesn’t bring anything to the table but gets to be there as an observer/arbitrator of what’s happening, or what should be valued.
The actor who plays Plum’s friend Stephen, Tramell [Tillman], is so good. I have some ideas for him in season two. But it’s really interesting you would bring up Xander, because the “best friend” role is so thankless in a way! It always is. Now you’ve made me think about challenging myself for what that’s going to look like.

What should it look like? What could it look like?
Well, the funniest part about myself to myself in a way is what an optimist I am. Like, when we had the election, I was so convinced women would not elect Donald Trump. And all my friends who had families who had really experienced oppression in recent history, people who weren’t white and upper-middle-class like me, were, on the day, like, “We’re fucked.” And I was the one going (sing-song voice) “Women will save the daaaay!” That little Pollyanna in me was so rocked by, what makes people who have been sidelined and marginalized vote for the bully who does that to them? I’ve really wondered what in Stephen, who was a closeted gay man in the South, could make him vote for Trump? I’ve just been asking myself that question. I’m not quite sure where that goes.

It’s kind of connected to the idea of self-harm, which is another theme in Sharp Objects. And I’ve heard you talk about how Rachel in UnREAL experiences a version of Munchausen by proxy.
Right, in the first season I was all about that. I fought for her [Rachel’s] mom to be treating her as a patient.

What is your interest in Munchausen? I’m fascinated by it, but why does that theme draw you in?
I want to understand what people who would like other people to be sick get out of that. Now I understand it so much better. When you teach someone that they are frail and incapable, they are much easier to control. But I actually came to a different answer about why certain women, to me, would vote for someone who is a bully or who oppresses them — that’s the same person who can protect them from other bullies. Let’s break it down into a tribe: if you feel threatened, and you’re a tribe member who doesn’t have a lot of power, you’re going to vote for the scariest guy to lead you into battle. Times are weird, you know? None of us know how long the planet is going to be safe to live on. And the people who might save us are scientists and nerds! [Laughs.] People are so fucking afraid, but all we know how to do in that circumstance is just hunker down into our tribes and be like, “Bully!” It’s like Donald Trump against the Sun!

The thing that also occurs to me is that there’s never been a period of human history where we didn’t think there was some kind of looming apocalypse. That’s one of the oldest human fantasies.
I completely agree, and I say that to my kids all the time when they’re feeling scared about what’s going to happen. The world has been ending as long as I’ve been alive, and I’m still here, and so is the earth.

I do think that’s one of the things about Buffy that holds up well: this idea that the world is constantly ending, and that someone is constantly saving it.
That’s the part of human nature that maybe makes me such an optimist. We really don’t stop trying. There are a few outliers bent on destruction, but I go back Emily in Our Town — I really do believe that some people are good.

Marti Noxon on Joss Whedon and Buffy’s Feminist Legacy