Self-inflicted wounds are always the most fascinating to analyze, right? I thought of that when a few veteran P.R. people texted me this week asking how Olivia Wilde, an exciting new filmmaker and recently the subject of a fierce bidding war, had suddenly turned the press for her own movie into a snakepit of tabloid headlines and social media bile.
Google “Don’t Worry Darling” right now. Actually, don’t. It’s depressing. Tons of media attention, sure, and who knows, maybe the noise will generate a huge lookie-loo turnout on Sept. 23. Nonstop headlines—good, bad, whatever—might actually be what it takes to break through these days. But the frenzy has almost nothing to do with the actual movie, or even the very famous pop star Harry Styles’ performance in it, and certainly nothing to do with Wilde as a talented director. And that’s thanks in major part to Wilde’s own comments.
Ask yourself, as I’ve asked myself this week: Is this just sexism? Wilde is being attacked online, pitted against other women, criticized for dating the superpopular star of her own movie, and altogether held to a different standard than her male peers, many of whom did all the same things she’s done, right? (Which, ironically, is a theme of her new movie.) Or, gossip aside, is this also a pretty consequential case study in modern media mismanagement, and how quickly a heralded project—and goodwill toward a filmmaker—can go off the rails in the public’s eye, with potentially harmful consequences for the work? Maybe it’s both.
Regardless, there’s been a lot of head-shaking this week at Warner Bros. among people involved in Don’t Worry Darling, Wilde’s period sociological thriller about “female pleasure” that is set to premiere next week in Venice. You’re officially forgiven if you’re not following this stuff. But in a nutshell: Lots went down on the Darling set. Male lead Shia LaBeouf was either fired and/or quit, and he was replaced by Styles, who then began a romantic relationship with Wilde. Florence Pugh, the film’s 26-year-old star, wasn’t a fan of her director disappearing so often with her leading man, according to multiple sources on the project that I spoke to. (Pugh’s rep, Cara Tripicchio, declined to comment.) Pugh has mostly ghosted Darling on social media, is limiting her promotion, and, earlier this year, she went public with her displeasure at how the film was positioned in its provocative first trailer. “When it’s reduced to your sex scenes, or to watch the most famous man in the world go down on someone, it’s not why we do it. It’s not why I’m in this industry,” she told Harper’s Bazaar.
That’s just the prologue here. The movie also made headlines in April when Wilde was served child custody papers by her ex, Jason Sudeikis, while onstage introducing footage at Cinemacon, the moviegoing conference in Las Vegas. I witnessed that one live, and it was indeed strange and invasive, but Sudeikis has said he had “no idea” she would be served that way. Who knows; I’m a former litigator who often hired process servers, sometimes to track down difficult-to-locate celebrities, and I rarely knew the details of how these guys effectuated service. That’s kinda why you hire them.
Anyway, it all blew up this week when Wilde, who is typically very smart and strategic about her media profile, did a bizarre interview with Variety in which she A) trashed Sudeikis, bringing fresh attention to the Cinemacon drama. (“It was not something that was entirely surprising to me,” she said of the incident, which she dubbed an “attack.” “I mean, there’s a reason I left that relationship.” Ouch. Instant headlines.) Then, in the same interview, Wilde B) claimed that LaBeouf was replaced in Darling to “protect the cast” from his “combative energy.” (She didn’t say “fired,” that was Variety’s word, but her story contradicted the “scheduling conflicts” line that Warners had fed to the media, violating the unwritten rule that filmmakers have about not criticizing talent publicly, however nuts they might be, and creating another spate of not-helpful headlines.) In the actor community, however, the message was clear: beware to those who work with Wilde in the future.
Plus, predictably, it prompted LaBeouf—not exactly the most stable person—to defend himself, sharing an email to Wilde with the media in which he writes, “You and I both know the reasons for my exit. I quit your film because your actors and I couldn’t find time to rehearse.” More damaging, Shia also shared a video online of Wilde asking him to come back to the project, in which she says “I think this might be a bit of a wake-up call for Miss Flo,” referring to Pugh. “If she really commits, if she really puts her mind and heart into it at this point and if you guys can make peace.” Cue another round of headlines, with more Shia emails leaking online, including a new one tonight claiming that Wilde tried to continue working with him on a music video after she supposedly fired him. I’m told more are about to be released, and Wilde sat for a separate Vanity Fair interview that hasn’t come out yet, so God knows what she said there.
I just don’t understand the strategy, and Wilde’s P.R. rep, Maria Herrera, declined to comment. Again, she is very smart and strategic. The whole point of press interviews—especially when you’re a director looking to be taken seriously—is to promote the work. Wilde had to know the Sudeikis and LaBeouf comments would derail that effort, putting the focus on the tabloid stuff she’s supposedly been trying to avoid. Maybe she just couldn’t help herself, or she thinks more attention is good attention, or she didn’t care. Warner Bros. certainly does. (A New Line rep declined to comment.)
Remember, this was the project that studios were falling over themselves to make back in the summer of 2019. Eighteen bidders, CAA made sure we were told. (The number of seriously interested parties was actually much lower, but still impressive). Booksmart, Wilde’s directorial debut, might have grossed only $25 million worldwide, but the reviews were great, and her pitch for the Stepford Wives-esque Don’t Worry Darling promised to mix social commentary with sci-fi chills in a mid-budget package—Jordan Peele from a woman’s perspective. That’s catnip for studios looking for a responsibly-budgeted buzz title and to promote a promising female director; the kind who, a generation ago, would have struggled to cross from indie to studio budget. In Wilde, Hollywood has an actress making the same transition that so many male actors have done before: a historical injustice that many executives are eager to correct. The town wanted Wilde to succeed.
Hence the bidding war, and Wilde’s confidence is said to have grown in step. Warner Bros.’ New Line label won the project with a promise—in writing!—of a theatrical exclusive. And just like with the Warners’ smash Crazy Rich Asians, Wilde and her producers took less money upfront in exchange for a bigger slice of success. She was betting on herself, and the industry was fully invested in her.
I’ve now talked to a few people who worked on the movie, and there are stories of Wilde’s ego and punishing demeanor. Honestly, I’m reluctant to pass along those comments if they aren’t on the record. Directors often elicit strong feelings, and managing a film shoot necessarily entails the kinds of hard decisions that generate enemies. Plus, criticism of a female director plays into stereotypes of women in power, and, let’s be real, Wilde is hardly the first director to run a tough shoot, or to begin a romance with a star, or to anger the leading lady of the film. That list is long and distinguished.
Having said that… Her relationship with Styles during the shoot was pretty obvious and annoying to the three people I spoke to, and the duo were sometimes tough to find during set-ups of shots. Pugh in particular was angered by the absences, according to these sources, and one source personally witnessed a tense conversation about this issue between the two. It doesn’t seem like a great environment.
But remember, this movie shot in the fall and winter of 2020-21, an incredibly difficult time. Darling was one of the first Warners movies to start after the Covid shutdowns. As such, Wilde would often hold meetings preaching Covid safety and asking cast and crew to avoid large gatherings, especially around the holidays. Then she and Styles appeared together at the early January wedding of Jeffrey Azoff, Styles’ manager, at San Ysidro Ranch. Some on the crew took that as a sign that the safety rules Wilde preached didn’t apply to her and Styles.
The film suffered several Covid-related shutdowns as it filmed in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, requiring an extension of the shoot dates. That’s not uncommon these days. The budget also ballooned from a planned $20 million to between $30 million and $35 million, per sources. As with many Covid-era films, the delays led to conflicts with the schedules of key collaborators. To keep one of those artisans on set as long as possible, Wilde asked Warner Bros. to pay for a private jet to facilitate travel, a request Warners’ then-chairman Toby Emmerich denied. So Wilde paid the $28,000 PJ costs herself. Given the Covid hurdles, one source at Warners said the studio didn’t consider this project to be particularly challenged. New Line’s Richard Brener, the lead executive on the film, has told people he would work with Wilde again.
That’s why the Wilde media meltdown is so odd. She’s sullying her own film. Even the greenest stars these days know to stay on-message, lest you become grist for the aggregator mills and social media hordes. Doesn’t Wilde—a 38-year old who is under a microscope, has been doing this for a long time, is enjoying the kind of platform reserved for the upper echelon of filmmakers, and even happens to be the child of journalists—know better? She must, right?
None of this matters, of course, if the movie opens. And maybe this will all be additive. David Herrin of The Quorum did some polling this weekend, and the preliminary result is that awareness of Don’t Worry Darling increased from 17 percent to 21 percent this week. That’s a 24 percent spike, likely driven by the noise, though overall awareness of the film is still low. (TV ads haven’t started.) Interestingly, among those who learned about this film this week, about 70 percent said the news made them want to see the movie more.
So we’ll see. If so, Wilde may have the last laugh here. And then maybe we’ll all herald her as a media genius.