cannes 2023

Sam Levinson on The Idol: ‘Things That Might Be Revolutionary Are Taken Too Far’

Photo: HBO

At the press conference the morning after The Idol’s highly anticipated Cannes premiere — followed by an after-party that raged until 5 a.m. with Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, behind the DJ booth urging everyone to get off their phones and dance — Sam Levinson, Lily-Rose Depp, Tesfaye, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Jane Adams, and Hank Azaria gathered to face questions about the upcoming HBO series. The Idol has been a hot topic in the press since the March Rolling Stone story that alleged the show had transformed over the course of production into “twisted torture porn,” among other things.

According to the critics who finally managed to see The Idol, Levinson’s typically provocative filmmaking tends to curdle the series into something both leering and unintentionally pedestrian. Variety wrote that “Levinson’s worldview seems corrupt. It shouldn’t take degradation and suffering to make Jocelyn stronger. Euphoria audiences won’t be too surprised by the shameful way he treats Depp’s character, as both she and the show appear trapped under The Weeknd’s thumb.” The Hollywood Reporter pointed out that in “trying so hard to be transgressive, the show ultimately becomes regressive,” and Vanity Fair wrote that it’s “certainly trying hard to shock and titillate us. But there’s something oddly prosaic about what I’ve seen so far. There’s a slight awkwardness, too, as if Levinson and his actors are talking dirty for the very first time.”

Nonetheless, the cast presented a united front at the press conference, defending Levinson’s artistic vision and speaking warmly and forcefully about their filming experience. Depp echoed Levinson’s premiere remarks that the group had become “like a family”; Tesfaye called them all “the people that I love.” He recalled coming to Cannes before he became an actor and producer, watching from the audience as filmmakers and their cast members cried over receptions, thinking to himself that he’d never break down publicly in the same way. “Of course, once I looked at Sam and Lily, I fell apart,” he said, “because I love them.” Tesfaye, who plays Tedros in the series, added that they all wanted to “create something special, something fun, to make people laugh, piss some people off.”

When asked about the show’s nudity and sexuality (Depp’s character is often onscreen in various stages of undress, twice shown masturbating while choking herself, and at one point instructed to “suffocate on [Tedros’s] cock”) and how Levinson and Depp toed the line between representing female sexuality in a way that’s “revolutionary” and a way that takes it “too far,” Levinson gave a lengthy response:

“It’s funny, sometimes things that might be revolutionary are taken too far. We live in a very sexualized world. I can’t speak to other countries, but especially in the States, the influence of pornography is really strong in terms of the psyche of young people. And we see this in pop music, and how it sort of reflects the kind of underbelly of the internet. Lily and I had a lot of discussions about who Jocelyn is as a person, what she’s feeling, what she’s angling, who she’s playing to, and from that point, the sexuality comes out of that character. There are two things that happen when you have a character with such a strong sense of self and such a strong sexual sense: You end up kind of underestimating her, because you’re not quite sure, ‘Well, why is she doing this? Why is she wearing this? Why is she singing about this?’ But at the same time, it’s what allures and attracts an audience and an imagination. I think it’s very true to what almost every pop star is doing these days.”

“I second that,” said Depp. “Jocelyn is a born and bred performer, and that extends to every aspect of her life, not just her professional life. The way she dresses, for example, is her trying to say something to the people she’s around and express herself in some kind of way. The occasional bareness of the character physically mirrors the bareness we get to see emotionally … I’ve never felt more involved in those types of conversations across the board.”

Joked Azaria, “I was always trying to throw blankets and coats over Lily on set: ‘Are you cold? Are you cold?’” Randolph implied that the show was going to surprise audiences by shifting its tone over time: “It’s femme-forward and empowering,” she said. “What you all saw last night — no, no, no, no, no. It’s way more. In the best way possible.”

Near the end of the conference, a reporter asked Levinson and the cast for their thoughts on the Rolling Stone piece. Depp replied in brief: “It’s always a little sad and disheartening to see mean, false things said about somebody you care about. It was not reflective at all of my experience shooting the show.” Levinson elaborated. “We know we’re making a show that’s provocative. It’s not lost on us. But it’s an odd one. When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and I just said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’ And in terms of the specifics of what was in the article, it just felt completely foreign to me. But I know who I am. There’s two jobs in this business: the work, and the managing of the persona. And managing a persona is not interesting to me. Because it takes away the time and energy that I would spend on the work. They’re free to write whatever they want. I think my only slight grievance was that they intentionally omitted anything that didn’t fit their narrative. But I think we’ve seen a lot of that lately.”

Azaria took issue with the allegations that The Idol had been “chaotic or dysfunctional” to shoot. “That would be like going onto the set of Curb Your Enthusiasm or a Judd Apatow movie, where people are improvising brilliantly, and saying, ‘Oh, they don’t know the lines.’ I’ve been on many a dysfunctional set, where pages come in late and nobody knows what’s going on and the work isn’t great. This was the exact opposite. It took some getting used to as an actor — I felt challenged for the first time in many years. It revitalized my joy in the filmmaking process. A lot of that was because of the spontaneous nature of what was going on.” Adams added, “I’m just getting upset with society these days. Can we create? Can we have freedom of thought? Can things be messy?”

Levinson explained that he’d only had “four or five weeks to prep it and start shooting” after taking the reins from previous director Amy Seimetz. “I called Hank, who I’d worked with on Wizard of Lies. I called Da’Vine, who I’d only seen act in a couple of things that I was just blown away by. I just said, ‘Look, I know it’s not on the page here just yet, but I promise you, if you take this leap of faith and come with us, I’m not letting anyone fall by the wayside here.’” The improv-heavy, long-take, three-camera structure of shooting “created this energy that we see and recognize in reality television,” he added. “I wanted reality to seep in, and for those mistakes and the fumbling of dialogue and the confusion to become part of this piece. That is the business, in many ways — that’s the feeling that exists inside of creatives and executives, this slight terror that it all may just go awry. I think that’s a really visceral emotion to capture and it’s a hard one because you can’t manicure it.”

Tesfaye hopped back on the mic: “And you fucking nailed it.”

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Sam Levinson on Taking The Idol ‘Too Far’