When film-makers are lured to the small screen, things dont always go smoothly but the situation is barely any better in the movies

The first episode in the second season of Big Little Lies was more tellingly titled than most of us could know: What Have They Done? Still, there was high excitement around the shows return. The previous series in which a murder elegantly bled into a group portrait of five complicated women in Monterey, California had been an award-winning slice of golden age TV, a show with the cast of a movie, led by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Giddily, for season two, they would be joined by Meryl Streep. And there was another intriguing coup. The whole series was to be directed by the Oscar-winning British film-maker Andrea Arnold. Kidman spoke on behalf of the production. They were, she said, in the hands of [a] visionary.

That was then. Now, the season finale will air this weekend only after an industry scandal: an expos in IndieWire revealing that once the series had been shot, creative control was taken from Arnold by the producers and all seven episodes recut by Jean-Marc Valle, the director of the first season. Reportedly, Arnold was informed Valle had always been due to resume his involvement; it was just that nobody had told her. When the re-edit was done, she had to spend 17 days reshooting under his extremely hands-on supervision. The experience is said to have left her devastated. A statement was provided by HBO. There wouldnt be a season two of Big Little Lies without Andrea Arnold, it read. There was no denial of the basic story.

Episode one of Big Little Lies second season. Photograph: HBO

It at least solved a mystery. Many fans had found the second season oddly edited and padded with flashbacks. Even so, most episodes ran 10 minutes shorter than those of the first series. More generally, it was questioned how a director as singular as Arnold the creator of such raw, lyrical films as Fish Tank and American Honey could end up making something that felt so often like the beigely polite work of Valle?

The answer was she had not. The proof, we assume, remains on whatever hard drive holds the show she made before Valle began his edit. (There is already a social media campaign to #ReleaseTheArnoldCut.) Amid the many troubling details, it emerged that Arnold had been encouraged both to shoot as she saw fit and allowed to start her own edit in London before, predictably, her most distinctive sequences took the brunt of Valles cuts.

Arnold is a sharply intelligent woman with a gleeful sense of mischief; accepting the Oscar for her short film Wasp in 2005, she declared the feeling to be the dogs bollocks. She does not like talking to the press at the best of times, and these are not those. (She did not respond to a request for a comment for this piece.) She is also no ones idea of a cautionary tale. While her films are rough, boundary-pushing beasts set in Tilbury (Fish Tank), working-class Glasgow (Red Road), the wild midwest (American Honey) and 1840s Yorkshire (Wuthering Heights), she has also successfully done time in the mainstream. Before Big Little Lies, she had been in the US directing episodes of the shows I Love Dick and Transparent. The atmosphere she created on set in Monterey was, by all accounts, happy and productive. She is, put simply, a vastly experienced working director.

And also one with a credibility that Big Little Lies quickly laid claim to. In modern, high-end TV even with film directors flooding the market to have a series overseen by someone with Arnolds history of Cannes prizes and art-cinema excellence was a status symbol. The same publicity push in which Kidman called Arnold a visionary saw HBO carefully namecheck her films, suggesting at least someone involved had actually seen them and wanted their style in the show.

Evidently, not really. In the future, no director will confuse such flutterings with actual power. What followed played like, were careers not involved, a slapstick workplace comedy: writer-producer David E Kelley drifting on set for the occasional hour, convinced that whatever weirdness Arnold was up to could be later squashed into familiar shape by Valle, Gareth to his David Brent.

It also tells a grim story about the continued trials of women directors. According to IndieWire, Kelley had both planned to bring Valle back and failed to tell Arnold. If true, the male power axis is an ugly look for a show adapted from a novel by a woman, Liane Moriarty, and much praised as a home for robust female narratives.

Jean-Marc Valle, brought back to re-edit season two. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Deadline/Rex/Shutterstock

The picture is complicated by the roles as executive producers of Kidman and Witherspoon, each unlikely to have known nothing of Arnolds crisis. Neither has commented. (On the day the story broke, Witherspoon tweeted a sun-bright snapshot of herself, Kidman and their co-stars on a Pacific beach with their children. Feeling extra grateful for this incredible cast and amazing crew, it was captioned.) Still, the gender dynamics at play feel clearer if you simply tweak the question asked in that first episode from What Have They Done? to Would They Have Done It to a Man?

Broader still, the drama reminds us that directing is the original gig economy, and like every dodgy economic model, women get the worst of it. The revelations feel doubly shocking because we think of directors as gods with megaphones, the top of the food chain, when most are just more anxious freelancers. Which is why it would be a mistake to assume that the whistleblower came from Arnolds camp.

Next month will see the director Pedro Almodvar release Pain and Glory, an autobiographical drama about an ageing grand auteur. A certain melancholy comes from knowing that this kind of near-extinct figure was a product of the cinema, a space that many directors have now left for TV. What they have learned is that golden age television is still television, a medium in which the role of creative final boss falls not to them but the showrunner, typically a writer-producer whose own relationship with directing may be as an occasional sideline or something that one of the staff does.

Pedro Almodvar, whose latest film is about an ageing auteur. Photograph: James Rajotte/The Observer

New eras can look like anything but up close. While both Arnold and Valle came to Big Little Lies from film, the showrunner was Kelley, a 63-year-old network veteran whose career in television began in the 1980s and whose signature hit was the legal comedy-drama Ally McBeal. In the IndieWire report, Kelley was said to believe in unified style as a first rule of TV. The phrase translates as a measure of what pulls in viewers and who holds which cards as a result. Plot is king and no one watches for the director; indeed, too much directing gets in the way. Cue the altogether less obtrusive Jean-Marc Valle.

The irony is that as directors have poured into television, Kelleys worldview has spread the other way. Mega-budget film-making now follows the same logic: all-powerful rights-holders hiring malleable directors to work within a strict house style for minimal spotlight. How many viewers of Game of Thrones would be able to name the shows directors? Increasingly, the same is true of movies. Where multiplex crowds would have once sought out the latest Spielberg on the basis of name recognition, $2.8bn worth of tickets to Avengers: Endgame were not sold to fans on the basis of the Russo brothers unique style.

For directors in 2019, their professional life is less bound up with the screen their work ends up on than the global shift towards the franchised and episodic whether that is Big Little Lies or Spider-Man. If a vanished film culture created the auteur, the new era calls for something more anonymous: a custodian of intellectual property, there to safely chauffeur the story from one season or instalment to the next. Visionaries are not what matters. The brand is.

Again, much of this mirrors the wider economy; a world with the middle fallen out. Now, for the director driven to follow an idea rather than get in line at Marvel, the only answer is to do it cheap, then cheaper still. There are, of course, the old-school dudes able to call on corporate patronage for their fancies: Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino. For everyone else, the task is to survive outside the unified styles. The finale of Big Little Lies airs this Sunday. Many directors may feel that if you chose to watch Fish Tank instead, that would be the dogs bollocks.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/18/does-andrea-arnolds-experience-on-big-little-lies-suggest-that-auteurs-are-doomed