The Venice premiere captivated the internet for all the wrong reasons (and no, Harry Styles didn't spit on Chris Pine!) but its formidable director Olivia Wilde is proud of her film and her cast (starting with the magnetic Florence Pugh), her career, her children and the choices she has made following her break-up with Jason Sudeikis.
"No matter how much gossip is circulating online, nothing will challenge my confidence in this film that so many talented people have worked on. We have worked far too hard and overcome too many obstacles to be short-circuited by rumours that have nothing to do with the art of filmmaking."
– Olivia Wilde to Vanity Fair, 7 September 2022, two days after the Venice premiere of Don't Worry Darling
It was at a pottery class in North London that I met Olivia Wilde again. As I wanted to avoid yet another interview with a star in a restaurant, I suggested to the director that we change the setting. She suggested I come here: the pottery soothes this great perfectionist. "I want to be good at everything else: at my job, as a parent and as a friend, at sport…" she confides. "Pottery is the only activity that relaxes me deeply. My Instagram feed is an endless string of pots." We sit in front of our pottery wheel, facing mountains of clay. As we discuss Don't Worry Darling, and the demands on the woman who is the film's director, producer and actress, she is beaming and focused on making a bowl.
The American remembers shooting one particular scene. Bunny and Alice, 1950s housewives, played by her and Florence Pugh respectively, sunbathe by the pool, sip cocktails and pass the time until their husbands return from their mysterious offices. The actress-director's real work begins when she shouts "Cut" and heads to the screen to watch the take. "In front of the screen, I review the sequence with my DP before returning to the set. On the way, my arm is grabbed: I have to decide on costumes, design, etc. Once on the set, I get back into my role, yell 'Action! It was the most exhausting day of my life.
Originally an actress, Olivia Wilde has added a new string to her bow. "I talked to a lot of actor-directors and they were all encouraging," she recalls. "But then I realised that I had only interviewed men." As she was in period costume for the shoot, she reprised her role as director in a structured dress, wig and heels. For the pool scene, she wore a bikini. "I already had that to live up to," she says, slightly embarrassed by her outfit. Olivia brought her daughter, Daisy, into one of the scenes, adding a small child to her many responsibilities on set. "I wonder if a man would have the same experience on set," she says.
Never show fear
After Booksmart, Don't Worry Darling is a game changer. Olivia Wilde's sympathetic and gently subversive debut followed two teenage valedictorians (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who regret not making the most of their high school years and try to make up for lost time in one night. This reworked John Hughes (Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Wild Day) teen movie skips the stereotypes for more inclusiveness and kindness, while examining female friendship in all its complexity. Darling marks an ambitious turn. Beyond its surreal beauty that flirts with science fiction, this second film delivers a profound message about the power of women and the bravery needed to challenge an oppressive system that everyone insists on ignoring. Florence Pugh excels as the rebellious Alice, whose role makes you wonder whether she is crazy, as some claim, or a victim of psychological manipulation by an isolated community in the middle of the desert, with the blessing of her exuberant husband Jack (Harry Styles). When we first met in London in July, Olivia Wilde was still in shock: Darling was due to premiere at the Venice International Film Festival alongside the latest offerings from Darren Aronofsky, Noah Baumbach and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
She observes with interest the bowl she is making: it remains perfectly centred in front of the wheel that spins frantically around it. This symbolism soothes her: when the world around is chaotic, one must remain focused.
I ask her how she was able to keep her cool while making a film in the midst of a pandemic. "You should never show fear," she says. "The actors should not perceive any doubt on the part of the director. What about emotions? "No time for emotion.
Growing up, Olivia's parents told her the same thing: never be boring. "It's ingrained in every decision I make. At every crossroads in my life, when one option seems more prudent than the other, I take the opposite direction."
Olivia Wilde has been living partly in London since the end of filming Darling. As anyone with internet access knows, she and Harry Styles have embarked on a romance that has set social media ablaze and given hope to single mothers everywhere. She has two young children, Daisy and Otis, with her ex-fiancé Jason Sudeikis, and is adjusting well to her London life on and off.
The director grew up in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington D.C., in a family so literary that the unused downstairs bathtub was filled with books. Her father, Andrew Cockburn (Olivia changed his name early in his career to Oscar Wilde), is a well-known documentary filmmaker and writes for Harper's Magazine. His mother, Leslie Cockburn, is an investigative journalist with experience of war zones, as well as an Emmy award-winning producer – both Cockburns have written for Vanity Fair. While pregnant with Olivia, Leslie Cockburn was evacuated from a plane in the Middle East because a bomb was on board. Growing up, Olivia's parents told her the same thing: "Refuse to be boring.
"It's ingrained in every decision I make," she continues. "At every crossroads in my life, when one option seems more prudent than the other, I take the opposite direction. That's what made me dare to be a comedian."
After studying in Massachusetts, Olivia Wilde took acting classes for a summer in Ireland. In the end, she did not enter Bard College but moved to Los Angeles to pursue her vocation. Hollywood being what it is, her early roles overwhelmed her intelligence and worked against her feminist commitment. In Alpha Dog, she sits at a table and laughs with the other actors as they sexually and physically harass a waitress. Many of these films naturally turn to nudity and the sexual objectification of women. "You feel compelled to do this kind of thing," the actress-director tells me, "it's empty and devoid of any real sexuality. I don't know what separates you from a prostitute at that point. But I wouldn't blame it on the directors I've worked with. They can't understand how it feels because they've never been in that situation.
Over the years, Wilde has taken on more prominent roles in Dr. House, Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies and Reed Morano's In the Evening Mist, where she plays a grieving mother. Then her acting career really took off and she worked with legendary directors: Spike Jonze in Her, Ron Howard in Rush, Clint Eastwood in The Richard Jewell Case and Martin Scorsese in Vinyl.
When the idea for Don't Worry Darling was born, she turned to more seasoned peers like Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Usual Suspects who went on to write and direct the last four Mission Impossible films. "She wasn't precious or defensive," observes Christopher McQuarrie. "She didn't want to be applauded for the concept of her film, on the contrary, she wanted to be challenged. You can't imagine how rare that is."
By her own admission, the process can be difficult: "After her first film," McQuarrie continues, "she understood what I still didn't understand after four films. I knew she wasn't in it for the laughs, and Olivia gets right to the point, which is not the way the Hollywood industry works. And she was looking for something different for her new film, which the industry isn't crazy about either.
Her intransigence to ensure respect and safety on the set was put to the test even before filming began. She had originally cast Shia LaBeouf, not Harry Styles, as Alice's husband. During the pre-production phase, Florence Pugh confided that she was not comfortable with the actor. Olivia Wilde herself called Shia LaBeouf and dismissed him: "I had a responsibility to her. I'm like a mama bear. It wasn't an easy phone call but he understood. He approaches his acting with an intensity that can be disturbing. This is not the state of mind I require to integrate my productions. I hope he gets better, it's a big loss when someone so talented is no longer able to work. He denies any problematic behaviour. He and his wife recently had a baby girl, and he was chosen to join the cast of Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis.
Shortly after the American actor left, two women with no connection to Darling accused him of physical, mental and emotional abuse. Olivia Wilde admires women who have the courage to tell their stories. "It's easier to fire someone than to come out and tell the story of abuse," she says. "It's hard and it takes courage.
Rumours of Shia LaBeouf's departure first surfaced in 2020. After our interview with Olivia Wilde, the actor challenged his version of events by sharing an email to Variety in which he indicated that he had left the film of his own free will due to lack of rehearsal time. After the Venice screening and the online broadcast of private conversations, the director told me: "The problem is so much more nuanced, it can't be explained by private messages taken out of context. All I can say is that he has been replaced and we had no intention of continuing with him. I wish him a good recovery."
A source revealed to V.F. that the truth is actually more complex: the actor was disappointed with Florence Pugh's limited availability to rehearse, and she was uncomfortable with the energy he was investing. LaBeouf reportedly gave the director an ultimatum to choose between himself and his on-screen partner. She chose her actress. Most plausibly (and typically Hollywood), in order to spare the male star's ego, Olivia Wilde would have agreed to make her departure look like a resignation.
Despite the niceties in the email Shia LaBeouf sent to the director, his response is scathing. In particular, he leaks a video sent by Olivia Wilde, before the lead actress revealed her discomfort, in which she encourages the actor to stay in the cast. In it she utters a line that could have eliminated her as the real star of the film: "Maybe this will set off alarm bells at Miss Flo's."
In any case, Olivia Wilde has to find a new actor. "Initially I had three names in my notebook," she explains. "Harry's was first. Later I added 'Not available. On tour. She called the singer's agent anyway: the pandemic had had a huge impact on her concert schedule. In addition to a career as a pop star, the singer has already had his first experience as an actor in Dunkirk. Olivia Wilde therefore spoke to the actor about Zoom and recruited him, after receiving the green light from Florence.
"I knew Harry was fearless," she says. "I'd rather work with someone with little experience who is fearless than with a seasoned actor who comes in with baggage and preconceptions. I love working with singers and dancers, they give 100 percent because a dancer who doesn't give it all can get hurt. It's the same with singers. If they only sing 30%, it doesn't work. Some actors get away with only giving 30%.
During the pre-production phase, the director provided her actors with a list of books, articles, songs and films to ingest: The Truman Show, Inception, Men Prefer Blondes and The Unknown in Las Vegas, the original 1960 version of Ocean's 11. Inspired, Harry asks her if she has thought of a recurring soundtrack that would accompany Alice in the gradual discovery of hidden truths. "I'm looking for something classic, contemporary, simple, melodic and romantic at the same time," she tells the singer. She had already isolated a few artists, without having made up her mind. "Five minutes later, he sent me a piano demo. He had hit the nail on the head, that was the song.
Harry Styles is an outspoken feminist (as well as a proud representative of gender-neutral fashion) and it's timely. In a scene in Darling that pays homage to The Bachelor, the actor steps into Jack Lemmon's shoes and struggles to prepare dinner, wearing a frilly apron. "We talked about the apron," recalls the director. "I asked him if he was willing to put it on and he said, 'Sure, why not? And that it sends a message: this man doesn't doubt his masculinity and he's ready to be his wife's equal."
However, a disturbing and misogynistic rumour from the set of Don't Worry Darling continues to rock social networks. Olivia Wilde, the director of a career-defining feature film, is said to be so enamoured of Harry Styles that she has neglected Florence Pugh and the actress and/or cinematographer have been asked to take over the direction of certain scenes.
I question her. This is one of the sensitive issues we have to cover and while some people would have preferred not to comment, Olivia Wilde does not. She's right in her boots, and she's been criticised enough online to speak up for herself today.
"There is a lot of mistrust of women in positions of power," she tells me. "We are rarely given the benefit of the doubt. Florence did the job I hired her to do, and she did it beautifully. I admired her every day. We both worked well. She pauses. "It's almost ironic. My second film is about the incredible strength of women, what we are capable of when we join forces, and how easily a woman can be brought down using her peers to judge and shame her. That's exactly what this is all about right now."
Darling, in both style and themes, is so consistent that it seems unlikely that the director was careless.
"To think that I have more than five seconds to spare a day is crazy," she says. "I was on the set before everyone else and left after everyone else. It was my dream. I love my job but it was a very demanding experience."
"I didn't recruit her to post content. I recruited her to play and she fulfilled all my expectations. That's all that matters to me."
According to the director, it is the character played by Florence Pugh who takes the harder path in the film. "She's going through a cataclysmic existential crisis, while everyone else is having nice dinners and smoking cigarettes," says Olivia Wilde. "On the set, I'm everyone's best friend, I socialise easily. Florence needed time and space to focus, and my way of helping her was to give her that space. Florence went above and beyond for this performance, she put all her energy into it."
Matthew Libatique, the chief op, supports his director: "It was one of the most serene sets I've ever worked on, and in my position I'm usually in the middle of the storm."
Florence Pugh did not respond to V.F.'s questions for this article, and her silence about the film has often been interpreted to the director's disadvantage. "Florence is one of the most sought-after actresses in the world," she observes. "She's in the middle of shooting Dune. I know some people expect her to post more, but I didn't recruit her to post. I recruited her to act and she has met all my expectations. That's all that matters to me.
Even after the tensions that were palpable in Venice, the director supports her star and her team: "Florence delivers an amazing performance in the film. It's infuriating that the media prefer to focus on gossip and overlook her talent. She deserves better than that. As does the film and everyone who worked hard on it.
More intimate rumours are also circulating about Olivia Wilde. Although she and Jason Sudeikis parted on good terms, the timing of their break-up is now a matter of much debate. Last year, her ex-husband told GQ that their relationship ended in November 2020, just two months before the photo of her and Harry Styles holding hands was published. According to some observers, the Ted Lasso actor was implying by this that their relationship overlapped.
"That's bullshit, I never left Jason for Harry. We had ended our relationship long before I met Harry."
"That's bullshit, I never left Jason for Harry," she says, without flinching. "We ended our relationship long before I met Harry. Like all break-ups, it doesn't happen overnight. Unfortunately, my relationship with Jason was put to the test and we made our separation official at the beginning of the epidemic. We had two children to raise during the lockdown and we shared parenting responsibilities. When living together was no longer possible and no longer did the children any good, we decided it was more responsible to remain friends and live separately.
The director is dressed up for the shoot (men's shirt and oversized blue suit trousers, blue eye shadow, huge curls) and this outfit makes her point all the more striking. "I don't understand this need to create false stories. Haven't children suffered enough already?
Olivia Wilde has been very supportive of her offspring in dealing with the situation: "They understand that sometimes you have to make decisions to protect yourself and have a happy life. I changed a lot between the ages of 27 and 35. I found myself as a director. And I found myself as a person. Growing sometimes means getting out of relationships that were based on an old version of ourselves."
At CinemaCon, Olivia falls into a trap as she takes the stage. A woman in the crowd hands her a brown paper envelope. She jokingly asks if it's a script. It's legal documents related to the custody of her children with Jason Sudeikis. The director closes the envelope and continues her presentation without flinching. "At the time, I had a mission to fulfill and I did," she says. "I was able to detach myself from it quite easily because I was very focused on the film and the work that was being done."
A source close to Jason Sudeikis insists that the actor didn't know when or where the papers would be handed over, and didn't intend for things to go so wrong. According to the actress and director, her ex-spouse did this to "sabotage" her moment.
"People were in shock," she recalls. "Unfortunately, it didn't surprise me much. I left the relationship for a good reason. But it was very saddening and upsetting… Getting the usher into the room must have taken a lot of effort and preparation. There are other ways of doing things. I don't live in hiding. If this incident had not been made public, I would never have spoken about it to protect my children.
Of course, the whole incident was filmed.
"I learned a valuable lesson from every mistake I made"
Olivia Wilde has long been a favourite with social media trolls. But in the last two years, she has been targeted by particularly violent comments that have left her feeling unsettled. "I'm fucking strong," she explains. "The whole world has seen me get papers seeking custody of my children." She continues: "Women judged me after I broke up with Jason. Some people have brutally insulted me, said I was a bad mother. They threatened me, they threatened my children and said I should lose custody of them." When she is photographed with Harry Styles, some people mistakenly think she is neglecting her children: she and her ex-husband have joint custody. "When they are with their father, I trust him to be a great parent. When they're not with me, I live my life and I get judged for it."
In February 2021, TV host Wendy Williams made some cruel extrapolations from paparazzi photos of the director." You don't just walk away from your kids and your fiancé," she told her audience, before turning to the camera to directly chastise Olivia: "When your kids grow up, Olivia, you're going to look like the worst mother ever."
To these allegations, Olivia Wilde replied: "It broke my heart, not only because Wendy Williams' opinion means so much to me, but also because of the applause from the audience. Did these women get any pleasure from it? Did they feel comforted in their lives, their judgements and their choices, without even questioning why I had made those decisions?"
For the sake of her children, the director took inspiration from Michelle Obama's famous phrase: "When they stoop, we rise". "I remembered that no one knows my private life except a very small circle," she explains. "And my self-esteem must not be in any way linked to other people's idea of me, otherwise it's a losing battle."
Wilde is careful about what she reveals about her relationship with Harry Styles. "As soon as you crack the door open, people with bad intentions can get in because you've given them the space." Yet the singer's impact on her life is unquestionable.
She tells me that she attended one of his concerts in front of 21,000 people. Jenny Lewis, the indie rock star who opened for him, was standing next to her. "We looked around and there were so many happy women," she recalls. "I burst into tears. Can you see that anywhere else? So many women united in joy, loving and encouraging each other? It was a great opportunity for me to be there.
The director insists that Harry Styles' fans welcomed her with open arms: "His fans are a very loving group. I witnessed some very touching moments of compassion and acceptance of each other. To be in the middle of all these women is…" She searches for the right words, to no avail.
Does Olivia Wilde ever consider getting married again? Simply put, yes. She sees her parents as the model of a healthy relationship: "They're very supportive of each other and they've grown individually and as a couple, they've had to deal with the unexpected and the obstacles. They are best friends. And I think that's really what marriage is all about. It's committing to remain best friends, and it's a union."
The director continues to rely on a piece of advice she received from a Father Christmas in a shopping mall over a decade ago. "He told me, 'Love yourself first as much as you can, and someone will fall in love with the surplus. Despite the somewhat dubious source, I've passed that message on to so many people. Thousands of dollars spent at the shrink's office were not nearly as effective as those five minutes spent in the company of a Father Christmas."
In the weeks that followed, I saw Olivia again in London, as the internet went wild over Don't Worry Darling. At the film's Venice screening, the nickname Miss Flo was trending on Twitter and seemed to exacerbate the frustrations Florence Pugh felt on set. The actress was also absent from the press conference in Venice, citing schedule constraints. Olivia Wilde said she was there to talk about her film, not the rumours: "The internet feeds itself". For his part, Chris Pine seemed lost and was instantly turned into a meme.
"I understand today that the darkest and most difficult times make us better people, better mothers, better friends and better artists."
After the press conference, Florence Pugh's stylist released a video of herself strolling through the festival with an Aperol spritz in hand… Surely in preparation for a high-voltage preview, and where to begin? The director and the film's star were sitting three people apart. Harry Styles is said to have deliberately spat at Chris Pine and the video of the incident has been scrutinised with chilling accuracy (verdict: it's not true). And although the film received a seven-minute long standing ovation, keen observers noted the lack of eye contact between the pop star and his partner on screen.
After the festival, Olivia Wilde e-mailed me: "Venice was a spiral, from the moment I got on the first boat. I was able to see the Grand Canal and St Mark's Basilica, passing the huge poster for Don't Worry Darling overlooking the Lido. It was a dream come true. To be reunited with the cast and to finally be able to present the film to an audience of moviegoers was a most moving experience! Our costume designer Arianne Phillips received the Passion for Film Award. I was so proud of her, our production designer Katie Byron and our brilliant cinematographer Matty Libatique. Our little family has been through a lot, and it was important to be able to celebrate together that night.
A source tells me privately that the director was baffled by the series of incidents at the festival, but as at CinemaCon, she had a mission and she carried it out. Even the film's mixed reviews highlighted Florence Pugh's magnetic performance, a great victory for the director and producer who put in three years of hard work to bring this film to life.
"I have learned an important lesson from every mistake I have made," Wilde tells me. "You have to see it as a new chapter, a new page. The older you get, the more you realise how fleeting your emotions are. And we console ourselves by saying that only the lessons we learn from each moment last. She adds, "I now understand that the darkest and most difficult moments make us better people, better mothers, better friends and better artists.
Rest assured, Olivia Wilde's first priority remains her children. "They are the apple of my eye," she says. "I love taking them to school every morning. Baking pancakes. Putting them to bed every night. They are my best friends." She says her children have given her the strength to face this chaotic time. "You almost find more strength in protecting others than you do in protecting yourself. I was able to withstand all this madness because I was protecting them.
The director has been busy and is already focusing on other projects: her first documentary, which will look at the legendary Flipper's Roller Boogie Palace, the roller skating temple of Los Angeles. A secret collaboration with Marvel. A film about gold medalist Kerri Strug and the cutthroat world of gymnastics.
She has no current plans to pursue acting, but the right script could change that. The idea that actresses should just fade away after 40 has always bothered her. "The more experience I have, the less valuable I am, it doesn't make sense," she says. "As a director, it's the other way around: the more experience you have, the more valuable you become. You want to become Agnès Varda and have people think that when you are 80 years old you will be at the top of your game."