While the world of Don’t Worry Darling presents a luxurious lifestyle that harkens back to the Rat Pack era, with all the outward glamour (and entrenched gender roles) of the times, for filmmaker Olivia Wilde, the immediate draw was the chance to investigate the underlying story and themes with a focused gaze and shifted viewpoint that made her truly eager to dive into helming the project.
Director, actress, producer, and activist Olivia Wilde is a modern-day renaissance woman. From directing feature films (Booksmart) to acting on Broadway (making her Broadway debut in “1984,” the harrowing adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian tale), to starring in popular films (Meadowland, Drinking Buddies) and television shows (Vinal, House), Wilde continues to elevate her versatile presence, all while simultaneously giving back to the community.
Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling has been buzzed about since the minute it was announced. The spec was sold in an extremely competitive auction, with more than 18 studios bidding on the project. In the same month, Wilde also sold a holiday comedy pitch to Universal, which was also part of a hot bidding war.
Wilde directs from a screenplay penned by her Booksmart writer Katie Silberman, based on a story by Carey Van Dyke & Shane Van Dyke (“Chernobyl Diaries”) and Silberman.
“This psychological thriller is my love letter to the movies that push the boundaries of our imagination,” says Wilde. “Imagine a life where you had everything you ever wanted. And not just the material or tangible things, like a beautiful house, gorgeous cars, delicious food, endless parties… but the things that really matter. Like true love with the perfect partner, the best friends, and a purpose that feels meaningful. What would it take for you to give that up? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to do what’s right? Are you willing to dismantle the system that is designed to serve you? What if your only choice is really no choice at all? That’s the world, and the question, of Don’t Worry Darling.”
Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) are lucky to be living in the idealized community of Victory, the experimental company town housing the men who work for the top-secret Victory Project and their families. The 1950s societal optimism espoused by their CEO, Frank (Chris 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 inside the Victory Project Headquarters, working on the “development of progressive materials,” their wives—including Frank’s elegant partner, Shelley (Gemma Chan)—get to 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 her idyllic life begin to appear, exposing flashes of something much more sinister lurking beneath the attractive façade, Alice can’t help questioning exactly what they’re doing in Victory, and why. Just how much is Alice willing to lose to expose what’s really going on in this paradise?
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Wilde remembers that beneath the perfectly polished veneer, “I was really intrigued by the overarching concept behind ‘Don’t Worry Darling’—what does it take for someone to do the right thing, despite the massive sacrifice at hand? More specifically, the idea of someone living in a society, designed entirely for their comfort, only to discover that that society is corrupt. Can you be the one to recognize that it’s inherently wrong and should be dismantled? As a filmmaker, I was drawn to this original story featuring a heroine who is brilliant, nuanced and complex.”
Screenwriter, story writer and producer Katie Silberman, Wilde’s recent collaborator on Booksmart, relates, “Olivia and I began to talk about what we could do with the concept and tell a story that was about friendship, romance and an individual courageous enough to face down an entire society. We had just worked together and were eager to do so again. We realized this idea was something we could take and run with, working within an allegory and in the framework of a psychological thriller. We were very excited by it.”
The provocative, relatable themes of the project piqued the interest of Florence Pugh, who plays the heroine Alice—one-half of a deliriously happy couple. “It’s about so many different dynamics. It’s about control, manipulation, oppression, relationships, and sexual fantasies. It’s about how do you keep your life perfect and when it’s not… what are you going to do about it?”
Harry Styles, who plays upwardly mobile Jack, says, “I think, in general, this is about relationships, and trust, and betrayal, and love, and passion, and sex, and the sun, and… Palm Springs.”
Wilde had come across story writers / executive producers Carey and Shane Van Dyke’s concept, which “really came after browsing through old 1950’s advertisements, many of which paint a picture of an ‘oh so perfect’ patriarchal society, with women there to serve their always smiling husbands.
“Some are so bad it’s hard to believe they were real,” says Wilde. “The world depicted felt almost artificial to us. Then, it was a matter of looking at the real world and realizing that it feels like we were moving back to that time. Suddenly, the world depicted in those ads became a very terrifying place in our minds, especially for a woman, and we knew we had to find a way in and explore through the lens of a psychological thriller,” supply the Van Dykes.
Wilde immediately turned to Silberman, who, equally inspired by Van Dyke’s central premise, worked with Wilde, setting the tale in an unfamiliar town shrouded in mystery— Victory—and built the experimental community from the ground up.
The Van Dykes state, “It was always very important to us to have a woman’s perspective in telling the story. So, there were a lot of conversations with, first, the women in our lives to help guide us, then our producers at Vertigo, Miri Yoon and Roy Lee, and [executive producer] Catherine Hardwicke. But, it was Katie and Olivia who really landed it. Having been huge fans of
‘Booksmart,’ we couldn’t have been more thrilled. Katie’s an incredible writer who does wonders with bringing people into the female experience. She’s what the story and the character needed and there’s no one better we can think of to have steered it home.”
Vertigo’s Yoon says, “When the project came to Vertigo, we were immediately able to see the potential for this story to be told on the big screen. The idea of examining a world created and orchestrated expressly by men, and of a woman awakening to that, felt perennially relevant to us. The component of the thriller as the narrative engine helped to illuminate the layers of the female experience within such a world.”
Wilde tells, “We dove in and started stripping away the world down to the very core questions that we found the most compelling. At the heart was what if you had a life that was, in fact, idealized? Why would you take apart such a comfortable life? That’s really what we all need to be asking ourselves. It seems like very few people in history have made that decision, and yet it’s those people who are really the ones who can make the most difference. So, the themes we were working with were the idea of real courage, what it actually means to be an independent thinker and to be able to identify flaws in a system that serves you. But also, this movie is a romance.
“We wanted to tell a story of a love that was deep and authentic—if potentially damaged—but was so real and pure that the audience would find themselves swept away by it, despite their better judgment. As an audience member, I think it’s fun and interesting to feel conflicted. Where you know that something is wrong, but your heart is so empathetically connected to the characters that you can understand why they’re putting themselves in this situation.”
Silberman offers, “We wanted to show how it’s not always easy to recognize that the system you’re a part of is broken. That to change some of the difficult things or things that are fundamentally wrong means ripping up your life from the studs. You can be a part of a system that you’re enjoying, but you know that it is wrong in a more macro sense—that’s difficult to recognize. It takes individuals banding together and recognizing that even the good elements are sometimes the things that need to change. We wanted this to remain an important throughline, something at the centre of the story.”