But You Left Some Things Out, Didn't You? Behind-The-Scenes Power Plays On Big Little Lies' Second Season


Written by Lindsey Cook

One of the things I've been looking forward to the past few Sundays is tuning into Big Little Lies, the hit series from HBO, but tuning in this week, it was a little more difficult to fully immerse myself into the lives of the Monterey Five. Turns out that there was more drama unfolding behind the scenes this season, and what happened is as frustrating as anything taking place on-screen.

Just a few days ago, IndieWire broke that Andrea Arnold, the acclaimed Academy Award-winning director of films like American Honey and Fish Tank, along with episodes of Transparent and I Love Dick, and who was hired to direct the second season of Big Little Lies, didn't have much say over the final vision of the season.

An auteur with prestigious awards and a distinctive style, Arnold was under the impression that HBO hired her for her unique vision. The company promised free rein over the direction of the season, allowing Arnold to bring in her own team, including a new cinematographer and team of editors.

Season one of Big Little Lies had been shot by Jean-Marc Vallée, another acclaimed director with his own singular vision of the world, and whose quick edits and juxtapositions of crashing waves became Big Little Lies' signature. Vallée would remain an executive producer on the second season, but due to a conflict with Sharp Objects (the Amy Adams-led limited series that aired on HBO last summer, which Vallée also directed) HBO decided to bring in Arnold instead. When season two arrived, we should have seen a fresh direction, all guided by Arnold.

When the first episode of the new season premiered, however, it felt more or less the same stylistically. Some scenes were choppier than usual, with odd cuts and transitions that gave the impression that some things were left out, but for the most part Big Little Lies appeared very much a continuation of the first season's aesthetics.

Was it because Arnold adhered to a strict style guide, inspired by Vallée's season one direction? Unfortunately this is not the case. What happened instead was a behind-closed-doors co-opting of Arnold's footage by Vallée and showrunner David E. Kelley. Unbeknownst to Arnold, the material she shot for the second season was sent off to Vallée's team of editors to be reshaped into his image. When Vallée needed more scenes to perfect his vision, they ordered additional shoot days where he dictated the direction of scenes even though Arnold was still, at least in name, the director. The show we have been watching these past few weeks is so far removed from Arnold's vision that they might as well slap Vallée's name on as co-director.

Had this been Arnold's understanding from the start—that she would be filming scenes but that Vallée would have final say and direction over her work—that would be one thing (and frankly, an independent artist like Arnold probably would have declined the gig), but instead HBO decided to give Arnold the illusion of complete creative control, all while Kelley and Vallée plotted behind the curtain to rework her product according to their own whims.

To hear about this happening on any set is frustrating. To have this happen on a television show that is centered around the idea of women reclaiming their agency and their power, often over the men in their lives that treat them poorly, is insulting.

Big Little Lies stars some of the most acclaimed actresses of our time, with several of them holding executive producer credits on the series. Throughout the production of season two, they voiced their admiration for Arnold and how much they loved their direction. And yet even these women, who are some of the most powerful and privileged in the world, could not prevent Kelley and Vallée from seizing control.

If you needed yet another reminder of how antiquated and misogynistic Hollywood can still be, this is it. Even on a show that is full of strong female characters, it seems that in real life the very same men who brought those characters to life cannot deal with the real independent women before them, women like Arnold, and it's a damn shame.

None of the show's stars have spoken out about the controversy as of now, but with the season still airing, they might not get vocal about Arnold's mistreatment. The rallying cries I've seen from critics and fans alike to #ReleaseTheArnoldCut are promising, however, and should Big Little Lies receive a third season, I would hope that HBO allows another female filmmaker to tackle the direction and this time actually grant them real creative control.


What do you think about this controversy? How should HBO address it moving forward?