The return of Big Little Lies to HBO was supposed to be a momentous event for the network. Season 1 of the show boasted an A-list cast, a top-notch director, a juicy story adapted from a hit novel of the same name, and it had the awards and accolades to go with it. Season 2 arrived after fans clamored for more story, bringing in Oscar-winner Meryl Streep and director Andrea Arnold to infuse some new life into the show. In the particular case of Arnold, however, a troubling new report from Indiewire claims HBO took creative control over season 2 from Arnold and brought in season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée to recut the season in his own directorial style.
Indiewire’s report cites multiple sources claiming HBO wasn’t truthful about their plan for Arnold and how she would fuse her vision for Season 2 with the network’s. Arnold was apparently hired with the promise that she would direct the entire season and she would have full creative control over it, too. That, however, was not the entire plan. Per Indiewire, “there was a dramatic shift in late 2018 as the show was yanked away from Arnold, and creative control was handed over to executive producer and Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée.” In doing so, without telling Arnold about it at any point, Vallée was seemingly given free rein to re-cut Arnold’s work into episodes that more closely resembled his own directorial style rather than Arnold’s.
The idea was to make season 1 and 2 stylistically work together but what this news indicates to me, as a fan of the show and a longtime fan of Arnold’s style, is that HBO fundamentally misunderstood Arnold’s directorial style. Arnold and Vallée are not similar in their approach to storytelling even though they both know how to tell a story. Arnold prefers to keep her camera close on her subjects; Vallée’s camera is more comfortable hanging back, observing, noting. Arnold is comfortable bringing out the explosive, emotional moments, using them to illustrate passion, turmoil, frustration, and more (incidentally, all these emotions figure prominently into BLL season 2).
Indiewire goes on to report Arnold was kept in the dark about HBO’s plans to chop up her work and, through Vallée, use what they deemed best without letting Arnold weigh in whatsoever. Sources speaking with Indiewire say “Arnold was given free rein [and] it was never explained to her that the expectation was her footage would be shaped by Vallée into the show’s distinctive style.”
Additionally, Arnold wasn’t even given the tools she needed to succeed in directing the show, including being deprived of a style bible which is a common tool for a director on a TV series to help maintain consistency in tone, style, and look from one episode to the next. As for specifics on how Arnold’s work was handled: sources say a lot of Arnold’s exploration of characters on the show and “ephemeral stuff,” as one source characterized it, were removed from 60-page scripts in order to chop episodes down to around 40 minutes each.
And when 17 days of additional photography were ordered earlier this year, Indiewire says Arnold was forced to watch from the director’s chair as Vallée returned to set as an EP and dictated “not only what would be shot, but how it would be shot.” Whatever is left of Arnold’s work is apparently most prominently featured in the season opener.
For their part, HBO issued 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.”
Indiewire’s report goes even more in depth, but what is clear here is that Arnold was kept at arm’s length in every crucial area of production on BLL as it related to her work. Arnold is allegedly heartbroken over how the footage she shot has been reworked, and it’s not hard to see why; the optics are not good on this. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern — all of whom star on the show, serve as producers, and were vocal supporters of Arnold’s vision for season 2 — have yet to comment on this report. Similarly, neither Vallée nor showrunner David E. Kelley have issued statements responding to Indiewire’s report.