How Warner Bros. has sold movie that’s been as dramatic off-screen as it is on-screen
Don’t Worry Darling, new in theaters this week from Warner Bros., stars Florence Pugh and Harry Styles as Alice and Jack Chambers, a young couple whose marriage is tested by the mysteries of the town they live in, Victory, CA. Victory is a company town created by Jack’s employer, run by Frank (Chris Pine). Alice becomes obsessed with discovering the truth behind the enigmatic “Victory Project” her husband works on and her investigation leads to problems throughout the town and its citizens.
Olivia Wilde directed the movie and plays Alice’s friend Bunny, married to Bill (Nick Kroll). Kiki Layne, Kate Berlant, Gemma Chan and others also play members of the Victory community.
There’s lots going on here, some of which even has to do with selling the movie to audiences, so let’s take a stiff drink and get started.
announcement and casting
After reports there were multiple interested parties the script was finally acquired last August by New Line in a deal reported to be unusual in the high “backend” fees the creators can see if/when the movie succeeds.
Wilde shared a first look on Instagram in March but it wasn’t until September that New Line/Warner Bros. set a 2022 release date.
Warner Bros. gave CineEurope attendees a look at the movie in October 2021.
In other interviews later that year Wilde shared how the films of Adrian Lyne served as inspiration and warned audiences should expect to see more female desire and pleasure than is usually shown in films.
WB finally shared a release date in late April and made the movie part of their CinemaCon presentation to exhibitors and journalists. Things got weird, though, when Wilde was served with legal papers on stage, reportedly custody papers from her ex-husband Jason Sudekis. A back and forth over who knew what when commenced over the next few weeks.
This is no longer the weirdest off-topic anecdote about this film, as we’ll see later.
the marketing campaign
The first trailer (5m YouTube views) was released at the beginning of May. It opens showing a party with all the key characters having a good time before offering us a glimpse of how in love Alice and Jack are. Frank then explains, via voiceover, how important the wives are to the work their husbands are doing for the mysterious “Victory Project”, which the women are encouraged to not ask about. When Alice starts doing just that strange things start happening, including a couple suicides and other incidents. In the end it looks like a slightly trippy drama about the illusory nature of 1950s domestic bliss and all its confines.
A plane flies over the idyllic planned suburb of Victory on the poster released in mid-June, but a trail of smoke comes from the back of the plane. Not only that, but on the motion version of the poster the whole image flips upside down, indicating everything isn’t as it seems.
There’s even more of an overt horror vibe given off by the second trailer (2m YouTube views), which came out in July. We get the same basic premise as the first, but the strange hallucinations and other happenings begin even sooner and are even more disturbing.
Shortly after that confirmation came the film was scheduled to screen at the Venice Film Festival.
Chan was featured in a cover story for Harper’s Bazaar UK. A short while later Pugh got similar treatment on the U.S. version of Harper’s while Styles was profiled in, naturally enough, Rolling Stone.
Another motion poster takes the image of Jack and Alice in a warm embrace and mixes in a few quick glimpses of something terrifying lurking beneath the surface.
At the end of August Wilde was the subject of a Variety cover story in which she praised the other actors, talked about the film’s sexuality and lots more. It also served as the flame striking the tinder of a number of controversial issues and topics, many of which dominated as everyone prepared for Venice. They included:
- Wilde’s assertion she fired Shia LaBeouf, who had originally been cast as Jack, in 2020, citing his “combative” on-set energy. LaBeouf subsequently denied he was fired but that he quit, with the truth eventually landing somewhere in the middle.
- While Wilde had nothing but nice things to say about Pugh, the latter didn’t offer her own comments for that story, resulting in continued suspicion of on-set tension between the two and a general lack of enthusiasm on Pugh’s part to promote the movie.
Another interview with Wilde later on had her saying that as steamy as some of the shots in the trailers are, the MPA cut out even more explicit clips. She also shared how the lousy experiences she’s had on previous projects has informed her own directing approach and who the real-life inspiration for Pine’s character was.
As Venice approached things continued to get uncomfortable when it was reported Pugh was to be on the red carpet for the screening but not participate in the press conference with the rest of the cast.
That press conference and screening were notable for many reasons, including:
- Wilde refusing to comment on her reported conflicts with Pugh
- The festival moderator intercepting questions about LaBeouf so Wilde wouldn’t have to answer them again
- A massive internet investigation into whether Styles spit on Pine at the screening (he didn’t)
- Pine’s many fantastic facial expressions at the press conference that quickly became memes on social media
Things got more tense when Pugh said she wouldn’t attend the film’s New York premiere, once again citing her commitment filming Dune Part 2.
All that tension was once more dismissed by Wilde as the internet eating itself in another profile about how her personal life has become so enmeshed with the promotion of this movie.
At the beginning of September IMAX announced it would feature a live Q&A session with the cast in advance of early screenings of the movie just before the official release date.
An exclusive Dolby Cinemas poster was a reworking of the image of Jack and Alice in bed.
The first clip offers an extended look at the dinner scene where Alice challenges many of the other attendees, especially Frank, as she looks for deeper answers than she’s been getting about what it is the guys are working on and where everyone else is from.
Another clip shows Alice having a very odd moment in front of some dance studio mirrors, a moment glimpsed in the trailers.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique did what he could to talk about the film’s look and feel in an interview of his own but also had to deny there was any on-set tension between the talent.
Wilde appeared on “The Late Show” to promote the film and talk about her character but also, of course, had to deny Styles spit on Pine and so on.
There’s at least some speculation that, based on tracking, the film could open to a healthy $20 million in its first weekend, either in spite of or because of all the drama and controversy that has enveloped it and seeped out into the public conversation.
The campaign itself is pretty good, dipping occasionally from being a straight drama to elements that are more in the realm of psychological thriller. Pugh is clearly the main attraction here as she’s seemingly asked to carry the burden of the story while all the other actors support her.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s been overwhelmed by all the inside-baseball rumor mills and other pettiness. The press cycle could have been about Wilde’s second directorial outing after the much-acclaimed Booksmart and other more relevant topics, but instead we’re trading gossip like we all just came out of a junior high assembly. If I were a cynically-minded person I’d say that’s been the focus because it gives the press (and public) an opportunity to once again pit one woman against another.