It was one of the hottest projects Hollywood had seen in years. Eighteen bidders. An ascendant female director. Florence Pugh, the actress of the moment, shooting upward like a rocket. “Don’t Worry Darling” was set up to be a smash.
But now, the $35 million production is being referred to around town as “Kill Your Darlings.” Over the past three weeks, the once highly anticipated movie has become a spectacle in all the wrong ways, with its director, Olivia Wilde, self-immolating on the publicity trail. Now all eyes are on the box office as the film — one of only three Warner Bros. is releasing theatrically through the remainder of the year — debuts nationally on Sept. 23.
Signs of trouble began appearing in March when Wilde’s personal life became entangled with her promotional efforts on a stage in Las Vegas, where her introduction of the “Don’t Worry Darling” trailer was co-opted by a process server presenting her with custody papers from her ex-fiancé, the “Ted Lasso” actor Jason Sudeikis.
That spiraled into internet gossip over Pugh’s lack of substantive promotion for the film, which led to reports of a clash between the director and the star over the rumored on-set affair between Wilde and Harry Styles, the pop star in his first major film role. (Wilde has declined to discuss the rumors other than to tell Vanity Fair that stories that she left Sudeikis for Styles were “completely inaccurate.”) Things ratcheted up when Wilde told Variety she had fired Shia LaBeouf, the actor first cast in the role that eventually went to Styles, only to have LaBeouf dispute her account with both audio and video evidence backing up his contention that he quit.
The saga peaked this month in a tense news conference at the Venice Film Festival, which Pugh did not attend. When asked about the controversy, Wilde tersely replied: “The internet feeds itself. I don’t feel the need to contribute. I think it’s sufficiently well-nourished.”
Wilde declined to comment for this article, canceling a long-scheduled interview last week just hours before it was to take place. A representative for Pugh also declined to comment.
This scandal ranks rather low on Hollywood’s outrage meter. Stephen Galloway, the dean of the Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and the author of “Truly, Madly,” the story of the whirlwind romance between Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, characterized it as “a messy fling.” But the “Don’t Worry Darling” situation is high-profile enough that it could have the power to dim the excitement around Wilde’s potential ascent as Hollywood’s bright new directing talent.
The film centers on Alice and Jack (Pugh and Styles), a wildly-in-love married couple whose idyllic 1950s existence belies a more sinister reality. Originally conceived by Carey and Shane Van Dyke (the grandsons of Dick Van Dyke) in a script that was featured on the Black List, a compendium of the best unproduced screenplays of the year, “Don’t Worry Darling” was rewritten by Katie Silberman (Wilde’s “Booksmart”). It became the subject of a bidding war, with the New Line division of Warner Bros. landing the title thanks in part to its commitment to releasing the film theatrically.
Now “Don’t Worry Darling,” which is set to debut in more than 2,000 theaters, is in jeopardy of falling flat. Based on pre-release surveys that track consumer interest, box office experts had predicted roughly $20 million in opening-weekend ticket sales. In recent days, those estimates have cooled to about $18 million. Surveys have shown that ticket sales could be as low as $16 million. Warner Bros. declined to comment on box office projections but an insider at the studio who was not permitted to speak on the record said it had always expected about $18 million and that interest had not fluctuated.
Early reviews have not been kind. Rotten Tomatoes currently has the film hovering at a 38 percent score, squarely in the rotten category. Many critics have mentioned the scandal surrounding the film. The Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang wondered whether Alice could be “a more fitting stand-in for Wilde, a talented director trying to fight her way out of a misogynistic system, one that wouldn’t blink twice at a male filmmaker in a similar position?”
Is the reaction to the tabloid controversy misogyny at work, as Chang suggested? Male directors, after all, have a long history of both becoming combative with the press and engaging in on-set affairs. Or will this become a case of Hollywood adding Wilde, a daughter of the journalists and documentarians Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, to the life’s-too-short list, meaning that this episode will overshadow her talent? Some question, given the rift with Pugh and her dispute with LaBeouf, whether talent will want to work with Wilde in the future.
“There’s some degree of sexism in this,” Galloway said. “Male directors have done this for decades and gotten away with it. A female director does it and it explodes. That’s unfair. On the other hand, what she did is wrong, just as it was wrong for all the male directors to behave like male chauvinist pigs. Part of me feels bad for her being judged by a different standard. Part of me says, ‘There is a modern standard which we should all be upholding.’”
What’s next for Wilde is not clear. She was scheduled to follow “Don’t Worry Darling” with “Perfect,” about the gymnast Kerri Strug. But according to three people with knowledge of the project who were granted anonymity to discuss its status, Wilde abandoned the movie after asking for multiple rewrites from different screenwriters before walking away, believing the script was still not ready for production.
“It became clear to me that this year was a time for me to be a stay-at-home mom,” she told Variety. “It was not the year for me to be on a set, which is totally all-encompassing.”
She has two projects in early development: a new Marvel movie, which two people involved said was “Spider-Woman,” and an untitled holiday comedy that Universal Pictures has had in the works since 2019.
Some believe the attention caused by the scandal could bring more moviegoers to theaters, following the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
“I think that even a title like this with A-list talent attached, increased awareness in this challenging marketplace totally can help people to know that it exists, it’s out there and it’s coming soon,” said Joe Quenqua, a veteran strategic communications executive.
Warner Bros. is continuing with its original marketing strategy. The studio announced last week that its Sept. 19 IMAX experience, which will include a screening of the film and a live question-and-answer session in 100 locations across the country, is the fastest-selling live event in IMAX’s history.
Wilde will be in attendance. Pugh will not.
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