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Pretty as a Picture Reader’s Guide

By Elizabeth Little

Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

READERS GUIDE

Introduction

A Conversation with Elizabeth Little

The action of Pretty as a Picture takes place on a film set helmed by a notorious and egomaniacal (though fictional) director. What inspired you to write this story? Why did you want the backdrop of your mystery to be a film set?

I should probably say up front that I kind of hate Hollywood because it made one of the people I love most in the world really sad. When we moved to Los Angeles nine years ago, my husband had just landed his first studio directing job. His career had been trending downward since I’d met him, a daisy chain of stalled deals and failed pilots and second-place finishes. It was getting to the point where, whenever he talked about work, his palpable air of frustration and desperation had people edging away in case it might be catching. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I think Deadline’s headline about his movie was something like, “‘Roger Dodger’ director Dylan Kidd to finally ‘Get a Job.’” (Because that’s Hollywood for you: an industry that sees a career breakthrough and immediately mines it for small humiliations.)

It seemed like things were looking up, but then my husband revealed to me that the Powers That Be wanted Get a Job to be a raunchy, R-rated comedy. And I sat there across from my deeply sensitive, clinically depressed husband, a man who had written and directed two quiet indies about people just trying to process their shit, and asked, “And they hired you?” Suffice it to say, his career did not turn around, and he’s now going back to school to get a degree in social work—so he can help people process their shit. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Hollywood nearly ruined my marriage. And who knows, it still might!

And yet, somehow, despite all this, I’m still fucking wild about the movies—I always have been. We got a VCR when I was five, and in that moment it was all over for me. My first job was at Blockbuster; the first long-form fiction I ever wrote was a screenplay; I wanted to be a film critic long before I wanted to be a novelist; I married a fucking filmmaker.

Pretty as a Picture is a product of these two irreconcilable positions. Can I still love movies even while I loathe the institutions and many of the people that make them? Or do I have to only love some movies? Or only love some of my husband? Or some of myself? High Fidelity and every dating profile in the world would have us believe that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like—but what if what we like is Annie Hall? Or Rosemary’s Baby? Or Braveheart? What does it mean to love responsibly? Ethically? Consistently? If all our faves are problematic, are we problematic, too?

I wrote this book because I hate Hollywood. I wrote this book because I love Hollywood. And, like every other novelist, I’m just trying to figure myself out.

Did any real-life directors inspire Tony Rees, Pretty as a Picture’s ambitious, mercurial, and difficult auteur?

I mean, sure. They’re all subclinical megalomaniacs, even the decent ones. You have to be almost delusionally self-confident to want to do that kind of work—or to even believe you’re capable of it. Probably only presidential candidates and Silicon Valley CEOs and novelists really have it in them to be worse. Anything that rewards “visionary” thinking is bound to attract the very worst kind of overachiever. The most true character beat in TV history was Dawson Wade Leery wanting to be a director.

In terms of process and personality, the character of Tony Rees was at least partially informed by the usual suspects: Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola and Orson Welles, with a dash of David Fincher. I also read basically any online listicle that contained the words “difficult” and “director.” That said, I wasn’t particularly moved or inspired by stories of unequivocally unacceptable behavior—there’s nothing interesting to me about David O. Russell screaming at Lily Tomlin. He’s just being an asshole.

What did interest me, however, was when bad behavior was readily excused on account of imagined artistic merit. For instance, if you watch Vivian Kubrick’s Making ‘The Shining’, there’s footage of Kubrick treating Shelley Duvall like absolute shit—and it’s immediately followed by an interview in which you can watch Shelley Duvall, in real time, convincing herself that Kubrick was just doing it for her own good:

“You always dislike whatever the cause is of pain. You always resent it. So I resented Stanley at times because he pushed me. And it hurt. And I resented him for it. I thought, ‘Why do you want to do this to me? How can you do this to me?’ You know, you agonize over it. And it’s just a necessary turmoil—to get out of it what you want out of it.”

Whether this turmoil is actually necessary is the central question of Pretty as a Picture.

Our narrator, Marissa, is an accomplished if deeply socially awkward film editor who often thinks, speaks, and translates emotions through movie references. How did you develop Marissa’s voice? What makes her unique from other narrators in this genre?

Like so many writers, I’m compelled to write about whatever’s perplexing me, and my narrators are no less a product of that than my plots. When developing Marissa, I just kind of chiseled off the piece of my personality that was giving me the most trouble at that particular moment, and then I held it up to the light. In this case, I was focused on professional frustration and social alienation. I drank a shitload of coffee, indulged in every last little anxious, maladaptive daydream—and then added jokes.

Marissa is particularly dear to me because she’s so deeply uncool and sweet and weird. She isn’t a typical leading lady for the genre—she’s someone you’d be more likely to find in a romantic comedy. And not a mainstream romantic comedy, either. I’m talking an Andrew Bujalski film. She’s vulnerable and awkward and loyal and hilarious and annoying and really, really good at her job. I love her. I hope readers love her, too.

For those not in the film industry, what does a film editor do? Who are some famous female film editors who might have inspired Marissa’s work?

At its simplest: An editor takes the film captured by the director, cuts it into pieces, and then glues it back together in a sequence that tells a story. In the early days of film production, what we now call film editing was considered to be fairly menial work—it was an entry-level position in the studio’s film lab. You started off as a “film joiner” or “patcher” and then graduated up to a “negative cutter.” It was a difficult job, but there wasn’t thought to be much artistry to it.

Is that because young women did the bulk of the cutting in early Hollywood? Or is that why women were allowed to do the buIk of the work? I’m sure film historians have a better answer than I’m able to give you.

But the fact remains that in Hollywood—at least at first—most of the film editing was done by women. The most well-known early female editor is probably Margaret Booth, who started her career with D. W. Griffith before eventually becoming MGM’s supervising editor. She’s credited with developing many of the editing techniques that are now so omnipresent in cinematic grammar we don’t even recognize them as techniques. After the 1940s, editing jobs were increasingly given to men, but a few women managed to fight their way to the top—like Anne V. Coates (Academy Award winner for Lawrence of Arabia), Dede Allen (Bonnie & Clyde, Serpico), Sally Menke (every Quentin Tarantino film from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds), Verna Fields (Academy Award winner for Jaws), Margaret Sixel (the absolute goddamn masterpiece that is Mad Max: Fury Road), and of course the great Thelma Schoonmaker. While taking a six-week editing course at NYU, Schoonmaker was asked by a film professor to help rescue one of his student’s short films from an overzealous editor. She would go on to edit that same student’s debut feature film—and then twenty more of his movies, winning three Academy Awards along the way (for Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed). Her partnership with Martin Scorsese is one of the great creative collaborations in the history of film.

Despite its origins, film editing today is overwhelmingly dominated by men. According to data collected by Women and Hollywood, in 2018 only 23% of the 500 top-grossing films employed female editors.

… on films with at least one female director, however, that number jumps to 47%.

Two of the characters in Pretty as a Picture launch a true crime podcast following the events of the novel. With a thirst for true crime podcasts, documentaries, and more, do you think there’s an “ethical” way to approach the genre?

When I started thinking about this book, one of the first movies that came to mind was Heavenly Creatures, the 1994 film about one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. On a hunch, I did a little light googling, and learned that when Peter Jackson made Heavenly Creatures, he shot on location in the city where Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker grew up. And on very specific locations. This is the quote that really kicked my brain into gear: “As far as possible,” Jackson said, “the film should be shot at the actual places where the events occurred.”

Now, this was before Lord of the Rings. This was even before The Frighteners. No one knew who Peter Jackson was. At this point he was the director of: a dirty puppet movie, a rat-monkey zombie flick, and an aliens-want-to-turn-us-into-Big-Macs splatter pic. And yet, this guy marched into Christchurch and was like, MY DREAMLIKE IMAGINING OF THE INNER LIVES OF TWO TROUBLED GIRLS ALSO REQUIRES RIGOROUS FACTUAL ACCURACY. PLEASE DIRECT MY LOCATION SCOUT TO THEIR REAL-LIFE HIGH SCHOOL.

To be fair, Jackson was reportedly sensitive to the ethical complexities of the project. He shot on a closed set to keep the press at bay, and he chose not to film at the actual murder site, which he deemed a step too far.

These arbitrary lines in the sand fascinate me. Are they genuine attempts at moral courage or ultimately meaningless nods at respectability that just help us pretend we’re good people—or maybe there’s not much difference between the two. It’s an issue I struggle with as a crime writer. I feel a moral responsibility to write about violence and its ramifications in a realistic manner—but it’s also kind of my job to show people a good time. How do I do both at once? Maybe my arbitrary line in the sand is “be super serious about the bad stuff and funny about everything else.” And maybe it’s no more logically sound than Jackson’s.

Regardless, I’m determined not to blame young women for whatever moral crisis the media might be having about true crime right now. I’ve seen this bubbling up in think pieces, murderinos derided as ditzy serial killer stans. Speaking as a youngish woman myself, I can understand the forces that might compel a person to become fixated on some seriously dark shit. Moreover, the women of my acquaintance who are the most invested in true crime are also the women best able to speak eloquently about the moral complexity of the genre.

I’m not interested in shaming people who listen to true crime podcasts. I do, however, think it important to continue to interrogate content creators about their process and their intentions—like, seriously, Quentin Tarantino, what the fuck did you think you were doing in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?—and to be aware of the corporate interests driving such content creation.

Female friendships are central to the plot of Pretty as a Picture. Was this intentional? If so, why was this such an integral part of your plot?

Female friendships are central to the plot because female friendships are central to my life. And in the past three years, I’ve found myself leaning even more heavily on my female friends—and letting them lean against me in return. I suspect it has to do with anger. And fear. And also probably improved group chat technology.

Whatever the reason, my friends are a source of great joy and comfort to me, and so when it came time to think through the relationships that form the backbone of Pretty as a Picture, I found I wasn’t interested in the tropes so many psychological thrillers have deployed so successfully. I didn’t want to write about rivals. I didn’t want to write about frenemies. I didn’t want to dissect an intense, quasi-sexual folie à deux. I just wanted to write about imperfect but big-hearted women who were totally there for each other.

If I had to write an epilogue to Pretty as a Picture, it would feature the surviving female characters creating a WhatsApp group chat for the sole purpose of swapping plant care tips and Schitt’s Creek GIFs.

How has the mystery-thriller genre evolved since your last book, Dear Daughter? Are you excited about the changes?

It’s hard for me to even remember what the genre looked like back then, because when I wrote the first draft of Dear Daughter, the publishing landscape was fundamentally different: Gone Girl had yet to be published. It’s like trying to remember billionaire erotica before Fifty Shades of Grey or literary fiction before old white men. You almost can’t do it. Gone Girl changed the genre, full stop, directly paving the way for Dear Daughter.

It was a very exciting moment there for a while, when it seemed like female authors were going to get to create the messy, complicated main characters of their dreams. The world was our bitchy, pissed-off oyster. But ultimately Gone Girl was too successful, and nothing that profitable ever set anybody free. Very quickly, the genre was nudged into an even narrower shape than before: Every book, it seemed, was about a wife. A wife who didn’t remember something. A wife who drank and didn’t remember something and then maybe somebody died and they thought she did it—but did she? We’re finally past the point where Gone Girl is the default comp for any new psychological thriller, and I’m delighted to see authors experimenting more and more as time goes by.

Other positive developments. Quite a few female writers are turning to the crime fiction space in order to process their post-#metoo feelings. I am very much in favor of this. Every time a furious woman publishes a gives-no-fucks feminist revenge thriller, an Elizabeth gets her wings.

Even more heartening, the crime fiction community is slowly but surely becoming a more diverse and inclusive place thanks to the tireless efforts of writers like Kellye Garrett, Attica Locke, Kristen Lepionka, Alex Segura, Steph Cha, and others. It’s a change that’s long overdue.

To say I am excited about where the genre’s headed is an understatement.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Marissa struggles with anxiety throughout Pretty as a Picture. Do you think her relationship to her anxiety changes by the end of the novel? Which characters are most important in helping Marissa to see herself differently?

2. Marissa is a true cinephile, so much so that she relies on her encyclopedic knowledge of movies to inform her response to real-life circumstances. What did you think about her relationship to movies and how she often uses them to make sense of tricky situations? Did Marissa’s perspective shine new light on any of your favorite movies?

3. Unreliable narrators are ubiquitous in today’s crime fiction. In contrast, Marissa is presented as remarkably, compulsively honest. Did you ever question the truth behind her presentation of the story?

4. Throughout the novel, the author indicates that there’s a thin line between Hollywood’s egotists and the villains in their movies. At any point, did you suspect Tony Rees as a villain in this story? What clues can you identify that give us insight into how the book will end?

5. Marissa is an immensely talented storyteller—quick-witted, charming, and idiosyncratic, but riddled with severe social anxiety. What parts of her personality did you most relate to?

6. In the face of Isaiah’s real-world logic, Marissa has a dawning realization: Movies are meaningless fantasy with no positive real-world implications. But in the end, she is the one who pieces together the story that solves the crimes. What do you think the author is saying about the power of narrative-building?

7. Pretty as a Picture delves into the complicated intersection of ethics, ambition, and personal taste. The movie Marissa signs onto is helmed by a murderer at worst, and an ethically questionable egomaniac at best. Was Marissa’s decision to work on Tony’s movie questionable from the start, or do you understand where she was coming from in taking the job? What would you do if you were offered a similar opportunity? And on the scale from ethically questionable egomaniac to murderer, where do you draw the line?

8.  Ultimately, in Hollywood as in life, everyone is complicit. Does anyone get out clean in this story?

9. Tony wanted to create the ultimate meta-movie. This is the age of autofiction, after all; authenticity is paramount, and the creators of popular art are expected to be people we can know. How do you think the rise of true crime fits into this movement?

10. Having read about Marissa’s idiosyncrasies and innermost feelings of alienation, do you think that she is any more or less “weird” than anyone else? Did Anjali’s comment at the end about weirdness being a privilege change how you understand either character?

 
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