How Aja Gabel is perfecting the art of grounded sci-fi
The film adaptation of her pandemic-themed short story Little Fish releases Feb. 5.
In Little Fish, the new indie film starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O'Connell, a mysterious memory-destroying illness is sweeping across the country. The central couple are falling in love while the world is falling apart — cities are quarantined in an attempt to stave off the spread of the disease, flights are grounded, treatments are desperately rushed through to consumers. It sounds like a project that was conceived and greenlit during the COVID era, but it's actually based on a short story written by novelist Aja Gabel almost a decade ago. You can read the full story here, published online for the first time, and below Gabel talks to EW about her eerie timing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This story feels incredibly contemporary but was first published back in 2011. Can you tell us how the idea came about?
AJA GABEL: I was taking a class called apocalyptic fiction — it was mostly a reading class, but one of the assignments was to write a short story. At the time I remember thinking, "Are people going to believe they would ground all the flights? And can life really go on as normal as people are dying all around you?" But of course now we've seen much worse.
Did you do specific research to build out the elements of the pandemic, or did it come straight out of your imagination?
I had read I Am Legend and books like that, but they mostly took place far after everyone had died. So I was trying to imagine this world where things were crumbling. The way that happened just came from my imagination. What's funny is that Mattson [Tomlin, the screenwriter] put a whole part into the movie about a vaccine-like treatment, and there's a mad dash to get it and even to get off-brand treatments. I remember watching the first cut of the film in 2019, and we had a lot of discussions about whether people would really be storming the place trying to get the vaccine. Then of course just this week I read articles about people in L.A. lining up trying to get leftover vaccines.
Can you talk about the process of adapting a short story specifically, and what changed from the page to screen?
When I sold my novel [The Ensemble] in 2016, I signed with a book-to-film agent and she read everything I'd ever written. She found this story and thought, "Let's just send it out and see what happens" — and that was optioned too. Olivia Cooke was attached from the very beginning; when they bought it, she and Mattson were already signed on, and that was what made the deal. They shot it in 2019 and were putting it together and looking for distribution right when the pandemic hit, so it took some time to find a home.
When Mattson first started going through the story, he was taking notes on almost every line. It's only 18 pages, and it moves pretty quickly at some points, so he went sentence by sentence to brainstorm what could happen from there. He of course added the vaccine story line, and he made up a whole thing about [Cooke's character] Emma's job. To me, the process seems easier and more fun than to adapt a novel, when you have to slash and cut.
The Ensemble was optioned as well, right?
It was, and I adapted it myself, and then the deal fell apart. But it was a beautiful lesson. And after I had convinced everyone to let me adapt The Ensemble, which was so hard to do, I've been able to prove that I can write screenplays and now I've gotten more.
What can you tease about your next book?
I was trying to do something similar to Little Fish, actually — grounded sci-fi, which feels like such an industry term, but the way I think of it is that it's science fiction with a literary bent. It's a story about a marriage that falls apart in the middle of a time-travel scheme that the husband gets caught up in. It all came out of wanting to write about Marfa [Texas], where I had spent some time, and Tokyo, another place I just really wanted to write about.
I did so much research before I started writing, but I've realized that you cannot write a novel for physicists. I'm never going to be able to write a novel where a physicist reads it and is like, "Wow, she really did it. She invented time travel." But I did interview a lot of them, and I'll definitely thank them in the acknowledgements.
(Video courtesy of IFC Films)