The Emmy-winning series, which added Meryl Streep to a cast that included Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman for season two, aired its finale on Sunday, but questions about what happened to the creative vision of director Andrea Arnold still linger.
Earlier this month, IndieWire reported that creative control was wrested from Arnold and returned to season one director Jean-Marc Vallée, stirring controversy about sexism and opportunity in the industry. Speaking to critics and reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association press tour, HBO programming president Casey Bloys refuted aspects of the report, saying there is “a lot of misinformation about the subject.”
Reports that Arnold was promised full creative control of the season only to have Vallée step in after photography wrapped are not true, Bloys said.
In the IndieWire report, sources said that when Arnold was originally approached to direct every episode of the second season of the HBO drama, as Vallée was busy directing the network’s other splashy series, Sharp Objects, she was reportedly told that they didn’t just want her behind the camera, but “they wanted an Andrea Arnold version of the show.”
Yet after Arnold had shot the entire season, showrunner David E. Kelley and HBO reportedly gave control back to Vallée to unify the tone and feel of the new season with what Vallée had done the first go-round.
According to IndieWire, “Not only was Arnold given free rein, it was never explained to her that the expectation was her footage would be shaped by Vallée into the show’s distinctive style.” More, “there was no style bible laying out the visual rules of the show, common for TV series looking to maintain consistency between different filmmaking teams.”
But Bloys said this was not the case: “As anybody who works in television knows, a director typically doesn’t have final creative control. So the idea that creative control was taken from the director is just a false premise.”
He clarified that Vallée did not have “directorial carte blanche,” and that Arnold was “never promised that she would have free rein.” He said that the network was clear from the start that they were not interested in reinventing the show.
Much of the controversy surrounds the show’s post-production, which is when the report says control was taken from Arnold.
Keen-eyed viewers may have suspected something was unusual when the opening credits revealed an unusually large number of editors for each episode, in some cases approaching a dozen. Evidently that’s because Arnold and her team in London had begun cutting their version of the episodes, as they were led to believe they were supposed to be doing, before Vallée’s schedule freed up and he moved post-production to his home city of Montreal, where his team is based.
“The only reason it would be out of the normal is that Jean-Marc is an editor and is very particular about the editing,” Bloys said about the number of editors.
He confirmed that Arnold edited her own director’s cuts of the seven episodes, and then Vallée and his own team of editors honed it to their vision. “For anyone who understands television and how it works, this was business as usual,” he said. “I would be hard-pressed to point to any show that airs a director’s cut as its episode.”
Part of the reason that the IndieWire report caused such a stir was incredulity over the fact that HBO would enlist a celebrated industry veteran like Arnold, an Oscar- and BAFTA-winner with four Cannes prizes under her belt (American Honey, Fish Tank, and Red Road), and then not fully believe in her creative vision.
Then there’s the egregious lack of communication that is to blame for the entire debacle. It’s certainly not unusual—in fact, even normal—for a new director of an established series to be expected to stick to a certain style. But, according to the report, this was never communicated to Arnold. If the intention was to eventually return control to Vallée, why wasn’t she told?
On that matter, Bloys said that Arnold was aware from the beginning that Vallée would be coming back to hone the episodes.
While early reviews for Big Little Lies season two were largely positive, they were written based on the first three episodes, which were provided to critics. As the season wore on, the critical reaction turned much more negative, and many critics were displeased with the events of the season finale and, after it aired, the season as a whole.
That said, the show was more popular than ever. Last week’s finale broke the series’ own ratings record, and it was a constant presence on social media and in the zeitgeist.
As for a potential season three, Bloys said that while it’s not out of the question entirely, it would be unlikely.
He said season two only happened because the creative team discovered that there was a story to tell about these characters grappling with the aftermath of the lie they told at the end of season one. “To me, on the face of it there’s no obvious place to go or no obvious story,” he said about extending the series.
“If [the creative team] came to me and said, ‘We have the greatest take, listen to this,’ I would certainly be open to it because I love working with all of them,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like it, but I’m certainly open.”