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How HBO and showrunner David E. Kelley reportedly undermined Big Little Lies director Andrea Arnold

Big Little Lies’ second season may be built on a lie told to director Andrea Arnold.

Meryl Streep in HBO’s Big Little Lies.
Meryl Streep in HBO’s Big Little Lies.
Jennifer Clasen/HBO
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The biggest mystery of Big Little Lies’ second season isn’t a murder — it’s whether the uneven set of episodes would have fared any better had the season’s credited director, acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Arnold, actually gotten her vision on the air.

According to a report from IndieWire, HBO, Big Little Lies showrunner David E. Kelley, and season one director Jean-Marc Vallée ultimately took creative control away from Arnold, editing her work to more closely mirror the style and tone of the first season — with mixed results.

“The goal was to unify the visual style of Season 1 and 2. In other words, after all the episodes had been shot, take Arnold’s work and make it look and feel like the familiar style Vallée brought to the hit first season, which won eight of the 16 Emmys it was nominated for in 2017, including Outstanding Limited Series,” IndieWire reported. “According to sources close to the executive producers, it had always been the plan, although unbeknownst to Arnold, for Vallée to become re-involved in the show last fall.”

This account paints Vallée and Kelley as having told Arnold a very big, not-at-all-little lie about how much of her work would actually appear on-screen as she intended. IndieWire explains that Arnold was given full rein on set but was never informed of how much of her work would be tinkered with to fit into Vallée’s vision. Arnold and Vallée reportedly never spoke, and Arnold never got to submit her cut of an episode without Vallée’s edits.

Making matters worse for the production is that Arnold and Vallée each have distinct visual styles. “Arnold’s ability to create emotional immediacy with her raw handheld work marked a departure from Vallée’s more ponderous floating camera emphasizing the gravity of the situation,” IndieWire explained. Any attempt by Vallée to bring Arnold’s style more in line with his own was doomed from the start.

IndieWire cited anonymous sources close to the production, but many of the details bear out in the show itself. Adding credence to this report is that Big Little Lies’ second season episodes involve so many editors — the first season credited only five. Here are two screenshots from the opening credits (taken from season two, episode four) showing the names of 12 different editors who worked on a single hour-long episode:

Big Little Lies editors.
Big Little Lies editors part II.

This report drops toward the end of what some reviewers, including me, have found to be a middling return for the series, whose first season aired in 2017 as a seven-episode miniseries adaptation of Lianne Moriarty’s novel.

Initially the current season’s critical reviews lauded performances, but a common refrain was that it felt very different from season one. I’ve found that, although the season started on a strong note, the show has since become a little disjointed, its story feeling perhaps even unnecessary. Season two has overall been lighter in tone and a bit more interested in allowing its star actresses some standout, meme-worthy moments, like Renata’s outbursts and Celeste slapping Mary Louise, rather than telling a cohesive story.

IndieWire connects that disjointedness to how Arnold’s version of the project was altered in editing without her involvement. Though, to be sure, a second season of Big Little Lies without the source material of Moriarty’s novel (season one followed the novel to its conclusion), never seemed like a great idea to begin with.

Regardless of whether one loves or hates this season, there’s something uncomfortably hollow knowing that a story promoted by HBO to be about the power of women, starring some of the most talented and powerful actresses in the game (who have been promoting how important the show is because it is about women), and directed by someone as lauded and respected as Arnold, was all built on taking away a woman’s creative freedom — by two men, no less.

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