For all of the love and female friendship that appeared to manifest during the filming of Big Little Lies Season One (back when it was just a limited series), the series may henceforth be more defined by macho drama behind the scenes. In a damming report posted today on IndieWire, Chris O’Falt details how Season Two director Andrea Arnold was effectively hired as a stand-in for Season One director Jean-Marc Vallée. And when her work on the series (despite praise from the cast at the time) turned out to not be what writer and EP David E. Kelley was looking for in terms of visual cohesion (despite, again, giving Arnold free rein to make it her own style), things started to get messy.
As O’Falt writes: “According to sources close to the executive producers, it had always been the plan, although unbeknownst to Arnold, for Vallée to become re-involved in the show last fall. Kelley, whose TV career started in the 1980s writing network shows, is a strong believer that TV is different than movies: Shows have a unified style, rather than directorial voice. In working with Vallée during the first season, Kelley grew to trust and appreciate the distinct tone and visual style the director brought to his series, and entered the second season seeing it as the established look of the show.”
Now, for anyone who has seen both Vallée and Arnold’s work (the latter of whom is known for American Honey and Fish Tank), visual comparisons would not typically be drawn. And yet, when those early episodes became available, many of us who reviewed it (myself included) commented on how much Arnold had brought Vallée’s Season One style into the new episodes. Except that wasn’t actually Arnold—it was Vallée.
As the article goes on to say, Arnold was not given any visual notes for the new season, nor did she receive any kind of feedback or communication from producers after they were given the dailies. Arnold shot and completed the entire season before, apparently, Kelley and HBO decided that it wasn’t what they wanted. At that point, Vallée was rushed back in for reshoots, while an incredible number of editors (eleven, to be exact) recut the season. According to the article, “While there was a significant reworking of the show’s story through additional photography and an increased reliance on Season One flashbacks, a large part of what guided Vallée’s reconfiguration of the second season was removing Arnold’s signature contributions. Sixty-page scripts were slashed down to 40-plus minute episodes, sources say, largely by chopping up a scene to remove what one source described as Arnold’s character exploration and ‘ephemeral stuff.’”
There have been no official statements on the hullaballoo beyond HBO speaking of a “collaborative” approach to the series, “and we think the final product speaks for itself.” It does, but perhaps not in the way the premium network would hope. The choppy season, which felt disjointed to start, has settled in firmly to reflect Vallée’s original vision with increasingly inconsistent writing. And as noted in the above quote, the episode runtimes are noticeably shorter than the first season.
What does this mean for a potential Big Little Lies Season Three? There’s still plenty more, surely, that will come out in the coming days and weeks regarding the production’s future, as well as where its stars (and EPs) Kidman and Witherspoon stand on the report. After all of this, it feels like the show would almost have to return for a third season to redeem itself both in front of and behind the camera. Then there’s the horror of wondering if Arnold will get nominated for a directing Emmy this coming Tuesday…
It’s not a good look for anyone other than, perhaps, Arnold right now, but beyond all of the shock and Twitter snark is a hard truth. O’Falt sums it up best by saying:
The optics were not lost on many associated with Big Little Lies: A show dominated by some of the most powerful actresses in Hollywood hired a fiercely independent woman director – who was now being forced to watch from the director’s chair as scenes were shot in the style of her male predecessor.
Big Little Lies airs Sunday nights on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV