In recent years, an increasing number of filmmakers have turned to television for long-form storytelling opportunities that are harder to find in the franchise-obsessed movie business. Networks get bragging rights — and sometimes awards — for working with prestigious artists; directors get richer material and more space to explore it.
Last year, British writer-director Andrea Arnold, a three-time Jury Prize winner at Cannes known for her gritty, immersive style, was tapped to direct the second season of the acclaimed HBO series “Big Little Lies,” starring Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep. Known for films like “Fish Tank” and “American Honey,” about young women on the economic margins, Arnold represented an exciting, out-of-the-box choice for a soapy murder mystery set among a group of affluent mothers in Monterey, Calif.
But a controversy surrounding the Emmy-winning drama illustrates the conflicts that arise when artists accustomed to the director-driven world of feature film move into television, where writers traditionally control the creative process — especially when that director is a woman.
A report published Friday by Indiewire alleges that writer David E. Kelley and Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée, both executive producers on the series, wrested creative control last fall from Arnold, hiring a second team of editors to recut her work and ordering re-shoots so that it more closely matched the aesthetic of the show’s original run.
“The optics were not lost on many associated with ‘Big Little Lies,’” wrote Chris O’Falt, citing unnamed sources close to the executive producers. “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.”
In a statement, HBO said: “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.”
The response did little to quell the frenzy on social media, where many noted the irony of a female director being allegedly undermined by male producers on a show about (among other things) female empowerment. A hashtag, #ReleaseTheArnoldCut, was trending over the weekend.
Several prominent women in the industry weighed in. “We are lucky to have you,” tweeted “When They See Us” director DuVernay. Rachel Bloom, the co-creator and star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” castigated Kelley and Vallée for acting like “weird Hollywood robots” in their alleged treatment of Arnold. “If you wanted her to replicate a directing style, just … tell her. If you don’t like the dailies coming in, just .. tell her. Open your flesh mouths and communicate.”
While the gender dynamics certainly compounded HBO’s woes, the network, which helped ignite the trend of well-known filmmakers migrating to TV, has dealt with creative turf wars before. Director Michael Mann and writer David Milch reportedly butted heads so fiercely that they had to divvy up control of the ill-fated horse-racing drama “Luck.” Similarly, director Cary Fukunaga and writer Nic Pizzolatto reportedly feuded over the first season of the anthology series “True Detective” — which, like “Big Little Lies,” was an Emmy-winning popular and critical success, but in later seasons was helmed by different directors.
Such tensions are all but inevitable as filmmakers pursue work in television. The line between the two continues to blur, thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and the rise of single-director limited series such as “Big Little Lies.” But the hierarchies and processes within each medium are not entirely compatible.
In film, screenwriters have long taken a backseat to directors, who give shape to the raw material of a script and are in charge of major aesthetic decisions. In television, showrunners customarily call the shots, and directors are hired to help realize their vision — typically for just an episode or two rather than an entire season. It is rare for a director of episodic television to get final cut. The single-director limited series is a relatively new form, and one without a well-established creative process — increasing the potential for conflict.
With an array of complicated female characters, many over age 40 and sensitive storylines about domestic abuse, motherhood and friendship, “Big Little Lies” was hailed as a triumph for women in television. There was just one catch: Though it was based on a novel written by a woman, Liane Moriarty, the series was written and directed by men.
In interviews with The Times ahead of Season 1, Kelley and Vallée described an unusually collaborative process between two artists known for being hands-on. Vallée (“Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club”), who edits his own films under a pseudonym, said he took a pass on Kelley’s scripts, something he does on all his projects, because “writers, they’re not always directors.”
One of the most successful television producers of the ’90s and early ’00s, Kelley has long been known to maintain a tight grip on his shows. Both his mentor Steven Bochco and writer David Mills related to The Times in 1997 that the wordsmith’s penchant for writing his own scripts caused consternation in the “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope” writers rooms.
But as Kelley told The Times in 2017, he had to cede some control on “Big Little Lies,” even though he wrote every episode: “The process usually is, you shoot something with all the best intentions, then you get the first cut or the second cut back. You see what you have to work with, and you adjust your writing going forward. [‘Big Little Lies’] didn’t allow for that opportunity. By the time I could see a cut piece, it was all done.” Once editing had begun, the show was Vallée’s “baby,” he said.
By hiring a woman for the second season, HBO earned goodwill. And by hiring Arnold in particular, the network generated enthusiasm about the continuation of a show that many argued should have ended after its first season. “The new iteration of ‘Big Little Lies’ is in perfect hands,” wrote Vanity Fair.
Not only did Arnold have an Oscar of her own — for her short film “Wasp” — but she also had experience in television. She’d directed episodes of “I Love Dick” and “Transparent” for Jill Soloway, suggesting that she was comfortable working within a visual style and tone set by another director — even if, in a statement announcing the news last year, HBO touted her as a “visionary” director. HBO programming chief Casey Bloys told The Times that the network had been pleased with Arnold’s work: “As soon as we saw even the earliest cut, we thought, ‘OK, this show will be great.’”
It’s not unusual for writers and directors to tussle over creative control of a project. But the alleged version of events described in the Indiewire report is depressingly familiar in what remains a male-dominated industry: A female director of distinctive independent films is hired to work on a high-profile project with A-list stars, only to have her vision undermined. Among the most striking assertions in Indiewire’s story is that Kelley and Vallée planned all along for the latter to “become re-involved” with the project after finishing his other HBO limited series, “Sharp Objects” — a plan of which Arnold was reportedly unaware. (A representative for Arnold did not respond to a request for comment.)
Ironically, some promising female filmmakers, such as Karyn Kusama and Kimberly Peirce, say alleged interference such as this is what led them away from studio movies into the seemingly kinder waters of television, where women have found more opportunities to direct. (Women directed 25% of episodes in the 2017-18 season, according to a Directors Guild report). The difference in this case is that Arnold was working on a prestigious HBO drama, not a studio tentpole.
Then again, “Big Little Lies” is a tentpole of sorts — a premium cable “Avengers” with superheroes like Streep and Dern instead of Iron Man or Captain America. And in recent years, there is nothing Hollywood has been more invested in — or more willing to protect — than a lucrative franchise: Indie filmmaker Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”) left Marvel’s “Ant-Man” over creative differences, and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired from the “Star Wars” spinoff “Solo” after failing to mesh with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.
In that regard, the alleged dust-up over “Big Little Lies” is a reminder that, despite lingering debates over authorship and final cut, film and TV may be more alike than ever.
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.