Director's Chair: Olivia Wilde — <I>Don't Worry Darling</I>
Issue: September/October 2022

Director's Chair: Olivia Wilde — Don't Worry Darling

Director, actress, producer and activist Olivia Wilde is a modern-day renaissance woman whose diverse credits include directing feature films and starring on Broadway and in movies and television shows. Her 2019 film directorial debut Booksmart won the Independent Spirit Award in 2020 for Best First Feature. She followed that up with the short film Wake Up, which premiered at Sundance 2020 and was a finalist in the short film category for Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca X Award. 

Her latest film is the new thriller and cautionary tale Don’t Worry Darling, starring Florence Pugh, Wilde, Chris Pine, Harry Styles, Nick Kroll and Gemma Chan. It tells the story of a 1950's housewife, Alice (Pugh), and her husband, Jack (Styles), who live in the idealized community of Victory, an experimental company town housing the men who work for the top-secret Victory Project and their families. The 1950’s societal optimism espoused by their CEO, Frank (Pine) —equal parts corporate visionary and motivational life coach — anchors every aspect of daily life in the tight-knit desert utopia. While the husbands spend every day working on a top-secret project inside the Victory Project Headquarters, their wives spend their time enjoying the beauty, luxury and debauchery of their community. Life is perfect, with every resident’s needs met by the company. All they ask in return is discretion and unquestioning commitment to the Victory cause. But when cracks in their idyllic life begin to appear, flashes of something much more sinister lurking beneath the attractive façade begin to emerge.

Wilde is joined behind the camera by two-time Oscar-nominated director of photography Matthew Libatique (A Star Is Born, Black Swan), production designer Katie Byron ( Booksmart), editor Affonso Gonçalves ( The Lost Daughter), Oscar-nominated composer John Powell ( Jason Bourne), music supervisor Randall Poster ( No Time to Die) and three-time Oscar nominee, costume designer Arianne Phillips ( Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood).

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, Wilde, whose credits include House, Rush, Her and Meadowland, talks about the challenges of the project and her love of post.

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“A psychological thriller in the vein of films like Vertigo and Rosemary’s Baby, and we wanted to make a film that felt very opulent but also very organic, natural and authentic. The way we built the world and all the colors and shapes and how we framed it, we wanted all that to be quite extreme and like a fantasy that in some ways you begin to understand and realize is inauthentic. It’s just too perfect. But we wanted to film the key actors in a very authentic way, and that was quite a challenge.”

How early on did you integrate post and all the VFX?

“Very early as we had a lot of VFX, including quite a bit of blue- and green-screen work so we could combine all the exterior locations with the stage interiors, and then we had all the flashbacks. Dan Schrecker, our VFX supervisor, began working on all that during prep, which was about four months long, and then he was actually on set with us, which really helped, and he made himself available when he didn’t have to. He flew in from New York, and then actually got stuck in our COVID bubble for the whole shoot, poor guy. But it was a huge benefit for me, as I could use his expertise on set to make sure we were covered properly for all the VFX as we shot. And when it came to big VFX sequences, like the car chase at the end, and then creating the illusion of the volcano house in the background when in reality it was another location three hours away from Palm Springs, he was just invaluable in helping organize the VFX that would seamlessly blend with what we were shooting.”

This is your second project with Matty Libatique who shot Wake Up. Tell us about collaborating with him and the look you went for?

“Matty’s very collaborative and very precise. He met with Katie Byron, our production designer, and Arianne Phillips, our costume designer, to go over the color palette. Then he shot tests and we went for a very natural look, and he shot digitally with the Arri Alexa Mini LF, and shot it spherically, and I loved working with him.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was very tough as we had just 45 days and a lot of locations, so it was a very tight schedule. We shot a lot in Palm Springs, and the finale in Barstow, and we did all the main house interiors on a stage in Santa Clarita. That was truly a miracle as it wasn’t a big enough stage for all the lighting we had to use to create the exteriors through the house’s glass walls.”

That opening pool sequence really sets the scene.

“Yes, and we were inspired by films like The Graduate and its party scene, as it was all about capturing the energy of the main characters. It was all hand held. Then we moved to drone overhead shots of the convertible doing doughnuts in the desert, and that introduces you to the scope of the story and its world, and motifs like the circles.” 

Is it true you were the first film ever allowed to shoot at the famous Richard Neutra Kaufmann house in Palm Springs?

“Yes, and I never expected it to happen. I had a print of the famous Slim Aarons shot ‘Poolside Gossip’ on my wall when we were writing the movie, and that inspired me to set the story in Palm Springs. I remember staring at it and thinking, ‘How can we possibly build a set that looks like that?’ Later, when we were location scouting there, Katie Byron and I drove to the house, and she said, ‘Why don’t we actually try to film there?’ No one had ever filmed there, and we wound up actually getting it thanks to our great location manager and the owners, who realized we’d be making a love letter to the architecture of the era and Palm Springs.”

Tell us about post. Was it remote because of COVID? Where did you do it? 

“It was based in New York at PostWorks, where we also did the DI. I was in London to begin with and because of COVID, I was editing remotely with Affonso, who was in New York. It was interesting to discover that post can work remotely, and it allows the editor that quiet time they need to spend and ‘simmer’ with the material, without having the director constantly breathing over their shoulder. Then I joined the post team in New York, which included Dan Schrecker, our VFX supervisor, and his team, along with my amazing colorist Alex Bickel and sound mixer Scott Lievsay, who both did my last film.” 

Do you like post?

“I love post, as it’s where you start cooking all the raw ingredients you’ve gathered, and you start adding more new ones to the recipe. We had a really interesting exploration process in this post where we were creating all the interstitials — the dreamlike moments we called ‘transitions.’ A lot of those were born in post and based on ideas I had in prep — motifs like the eye and the circle of dancers, and together with my editor and Dan, the VFX supervisor, I played a lot with all that in post. So it was a lot of fun to take advantage of post as a rewriting and creating opportunity in that way.”

Affonso Gonçalves cut this. How did you work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

“I originally thought the film would start on a much more sinister note, with the Busby Berkeley dance sequences introducing the film. But Affonso very wisely suggested starting with a much more optimistic, dreamy opening to seduce the audience. That allowed them to settle in before we dealt with the much more sinister reality. Then we had a lot of challenges in terms of the film’s logic and what you reveal and when, and we ended up rewriting quite a bit of character arc in the edit, and moving stuff around and experimenting a lot, as there were so many different ways you could edit the material. We showed cuts to people along the way, and the film did change a lot in the edit.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you. 

“They’re like characters in any film, but for this one they were transformative, even though my composer John Powell came on pretty late after the film was about finished. Again, I thought we’d do a much more sinister-sounding score, but John pointed out that at its heart, the film’s a love story, and he wrote these sweeping, beautiful, romantic pieces that were just perfect. We did the mix at Warners in New York, and Skip and I set out to create an almost subconscious, subliminal sound design that has a lot of deep rumblings, and that represents the madness that seeps into Alice’s mind. And there’s also the women’s voices and breathing that, to me, are like siren calls from the rocks.”

There are quite a few VFX. Who did them and what was entailed?

“Raynault and Mavericks did them, and I love working with VFX as it’s the chance to create something impossible and they can also solve so many problems. For instance, for the huge gala party scene, we had no background because of COVID, but Dan was able to multiply a few background actors into a big crowd. That was really mind-blowing to me, how well it was done. I’m actually incredibly precise in reviewing all the VFX shots to make sure it’s all as real-looking as possible, and I really enjoy the whole process.”

What about the DI? How closely did you work with the colorist and the DP?

“I’m very involved, and Matty and Alex did a great job with the look. It’s another part of the post process that actors never get to see, but which is really fascinating to me – especially on this, as we had to create three different worlds, including the dream sequences. So we had the opportunity to be really experimental and play with it creatively instead of just adding some grain and making digital look more like film.”

Despite the changes did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?

“It did. And given the tight budget and schedule, it actually surpassed my expectations in many ways.”

I assume you want to direct again?

“Absolutely. I see myself directing more and acting less, as for me directing is in many ways more satisfying. Acting for me is a chance to spy on other directors and see how they work.”