HBO Says Andrea Arnold Was Never Promised Final Cut on 'Big Little Lies' [TCA 2019]

Midway through the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies, a controversial story broke saying director Andrea Arnold had her creative control taken away from her by first season director Jean-Marc Vallee. Arnold directed all seven episodes of the season, as Vallee did for the first. However, Arnold’s work was then turned over to Vallee, who allegedly recut and reshaped the season. 

Big Little Lies stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern as a group of women in a community who were all involved in a murder. The mystery of season one revealed who was murdered and how they lied about it. Season two dealt with the women trying to live with the lie, as people questioned them and new people came to town, including the victim’s mother (Meryl Streep).

HBO Programming President Casey Bloys answered several questions about this during his executive remarks for the Television Critics Association. He provided some clarity as to what Arnold was promised, and what circumstances led Vallee to return. 

Arnold Did Complete Her Director’s Cuts

Bloys said that Arnold was allowed to complete her director’s cuts of each episodes. However, he pointed out that in television, the director’s cut is not the final cut, as it tends to be in feature films. 

“As anybody who works in television knows, a director typically does not have final creative control,” Bloys said. “So the idea that creative control is taken from a director is just a false premise. Typically what happens in TV is directors turn in director’s cuts and the showrunner and producing team use that to hone it. That’s what happened here.”

That is true. It’s not uncommon for show runners to take over episodes. Jean-Marc Vallee was not the showrunner of Big Little Lies season two, though.

“I think there was some misinformation that Jean-Marc somehow unilaterally decided to come in and take over,” Bloys said. “Andrea did director’s cuts for all seven of her episodes, handed them in to the producing team.”

Jean-Marc Vallee Was Asked Back

So, how exactly did Vallee end up being involved in reediting Arnold’s episodes? Vallee had wrapped Sharp Objects and was not intending to come back to work. Bloys said the Big Little Lies team requested him. That included David E. Kelley, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Bruna Papandrea, Per Saari and other producers. 

“Jean-Marc was on a break but David and the entire producing team – Reese, Nicole, Bruna, Per – all asked Jean-Marc to come in and help hone the episodes,” Bloys said. “It’s not unusual at all to ask an executive producer to come in and help on all the episodes. This was business as usual. I’d be hard pressed to point to any episode that airs a director’s cut as an episode. It’s typically the raw materials.”

Again, that is true. Vallee was an executive producer as well as a director. The Director’s Guild of America has rules for features that prevent producers or actors from replacing a director, but those may be different in television. Plus, Vallee didn’t replace Arnold on set, only in post. 

HBO Never Promised Arnold Final Cut

A crux of the story is what Arnold may have expected of her job. Bloys said everything was above board with her, including an expectation that season two would feel consistent with the first season.

“We were clear with Andrea as were the producers that coming in, nobody was looking to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” Bloys said. “We didn’t want to reinvent the show. There’s always the challenge of expressing yourself but also staying true to a framework that’s been established. There were no surprises in terms of how this is going to work.”

Were this Law & Order, a director would be foolish to assume she could stray from the formula. The difference with Big Little Lies is that the first season was unique in television for bearing Vallee’s directorial stamp on all episodes. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Arnold to expect the second season would give her her own stamp as long as she directed every episode. However, Bloys said she met with Vallee before beginning and was aware he could return when she finished. 

“Jean-Marc was involved in the scripts we were developing,” Bloys said. “I believe he had a meeting or dinner with her beforehand. His involvement was very well known to her.”

Jean-Marc Didn’t Have Final Cut Either

Another reason the Big Little Lies situation is troubling is because it could represent the gender inequality of Hollywood. If a female director’s work is retooled by a male director, that sets a dangerous precedent. Bloys was clear to state that Vallee did not have carte blanche for his season either.

“Jean-Marc was not given carte blanche,” Bloys said. “He, David and the producers happened to have an aligned vision. Because they were establishing the look and feel of the show, they were working in unison. Andrea was never promised that she would have free reign.”

So, Vallee had oversight too, but coincidentally the other producers liked what he was doing and didn’t change much. Season two may have been more of a director-for-hire situation. 

“We were clear, producers were clear again that while we hired her for her eye and her talent, and I think she got extraordinary performances out of this cast,” Bloys said. “She understood we were not looking for someone to come in and redo things.”

Don’t Be Alarmed By the Number of Editors

The credits of Big Little Lies listed a lot of editors in season two, giving credence to the story that others were hired to rework Arnold’s episodes. It would make sense that if Arnold had her team and Vallee had a different team, that would total more editors than usual. Bloys said they also had a time crunch.

“Jean-Marc is an editor and is very particular about editing,” Bloys said. “For Andrea to do her directors cuts, when they were turned over to the producing team, when they went to Jean-Marc, deadlines were approaching. He’s an editor and has a team of editors he works with. The only thing that was unusual is he’s very particular about how he works and who he works with.”

So, What About Season 3?

There was never supposed to be a second season of Big Little Lies. The first season covered the book, and the mystery of the lie. Given season two was a new story, Bloys isn’t sure there is any more story for a third season. 

“As the person who greenlit the Deadwood movie, never say never,” Bloys said. “My sense though is having approached a possible season two skeptically, what became clear to us was there was a story to tell. What happens after a big lie like that? To me, on the face of it, there’s no obvious place to go, no obvious story. That said, this group if they all came to me and said, ‘We have the greatest take, listen to this,’ I would be open to it because I love working with all of them. Who knows? It just doesn’t feel like it but I’m certainly open.”

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