Big Little Lies may have more drama off-screen than on. According to a new report from IndieWire‘s Chris O’Falt, HBO and showrunner David E. Kelley conspired to take creative control of Big Little Lies Season 2 away from director Andrea Arnold and instead place it in the hands of Season 1 overlord Jean-Marc Vallée. O’Falt reports that in late 2018, Vallée assumed full command in an attempt to unify the show’s two seasons — a plan that had been in place since the second season began pre-production. While Arnold declined to speak with IndieWire, a source close to the filmmaker said that she is “heartbroken about the experience,” particularly because she was promised that she had “free reign” to put her stamp on the Emmy-winning drama. Decider has reached out to Arnold for comment, but did not hear back by the time of publication.
When HBO first ordered Big Little Lies Season 2, Arnold was brought on board to take over for Vallée, who was busy shooting limited series Sharp Objects. From pre-production into post-production, Arnold was told that she could craft the second season based on her own vision, and she was “given free reign” to do so. O’Falt reports that, despite the distinctive style of BLL Season 1, the British director was not given a visual bible for the next installment; she was also allowed to hire her own cinematographers and editors, and she didn’t report regularly to anyone, including Kelley or Vallée, an executive producer on Season 2.
However, Arnold’s creative freedom seems to have been as tenuous as Madeline Martha Mackenzie’s marriage. IndieWire reports that when HBO hired Arnold in December 2017, there was already a plan in place for Vallée to “unify the visual style of Season 1 and 2” by taking over in post-production. The creative team reportedly believed that Arnold’s work on films like American Honey was similar to Vallée’s — although that’s debatable — and they “collectively decided to hire her,” as Kelley and other execs thought they could “easily shape” her shots into BLL‘s “distinctive style in post-production.” Never was this plan mentioned to Arnold, who signed on with expectations that BLL Season 2 was hers, and hers alone.
Filming went smoothly — in fact, HBO and executive producers reportedly offered “glowing” praise after watching dailies footage — but it didn’t matter. In late 2018, the scheme was put into place, and Vallée took over in earnest. O’Falt reports that before Arnold could hand over a full episode, Vallée moved post-production to Montreal (it was originally in Arnold’s home of London) and ordered “17 days of additional photography.” Suddenly, Vallée went from absent to ever-present: he began “dictating not only what would be shot, but how it would be shot, oversight that Arnold never had during the initial shoot,” writes O’Falt.
Back in Montreal, Vallée and his team removed many of Arnold’s contributions, including her handheld, roving camerawork and what a source described to IndieWire as “ephemeral stuff” (you know, pesky stuff like character development and responsible contextualization. Not at all important in a story like this). What viewers have seen over the past five weeks on HBO is thus a combination of Arnold and Vallée’s work — a result that many viewers have criticized for being choppy and abrupt.
When asked about Vallée’s involvement, HBO gave IndieWire the following statement:
“There wouldn’t be a Season 2 of Big Little Lies without Andrea Arnold. We at HBO and the producers are extremely proud of her work. As with any television project, the executive producers work collaboratively on the series and we think the final product speaks for itself.”
For her part, Arnold declined to speak with IndieWire, but a source said that the experience has left her “heartbroken.” The source said that while Arnold knew there “was a reasonable fear” of “friction, or pulling on the reigns during production,” the way the situation played out made it even worse. Writes O’Falt, “To have been allowed to shoot and start to edit her version of the show and then have it taken from her, without explanation or warning, was devastating.”
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