Culture / TV

What ‘The Idol’ set chaos can tell us about the myth of male genius

the idol sam levinson

From the outset of its only trailer, HBO's The Idol declares itself to be from the "sick and twisted minds of creator of Euphoria, Sam Levinson and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye". One Rolling Stone exposé later, including 13 accounts of a turbulent set and troubling script changes, the irony is many of us are sitting here thinking: no kidding.

The first inkling that there might be turmoil on set of the The Idol emerged in April 2022, when Variety reported that its original director, Amy Seimetz, had exited the show with roughly 80% of the series already shot. Production sources told Rolling Stone they thought "HBO handed her a shit stack". Meanwhile, Levinson, who was already involved in the project, would step in to oversee a complete creative overhaul as its new director, which meant scrapping the $54-75 million dollar project to reshoot.

The series originally intended to follow Jocelyn, a pop star played by Lily-Rose Depp, as she falls in love with Tedros (Tesfaye), a club owner and cult leader, and fights to reclaim her agency in the exploitative music industry. However, with The Girlfriend Experience director involved, Tesfaye expressed concerns that the series was focusing too heavily on a "female perspective" – coded language for a feminist slant.

With Seimetz out and Levinson in, the Euphoria creator gutted the original cast and jammed it with hyped names (Rachel Sennott, Jennie from BLACKPINK, Dany Levy and Moses Sumney); upped the sex scenes and nudity, and injected violent and graphic scenes that were likened to "sexual torture porn" per one source; resulting in a watered down version of the series' original message.

“It was a show about a woman who was finding herself sexually," one production member explained, "turned into a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman and she loves it.”

Meanwhile, the regular script changes that were common under Seimetz' reign, snowballed into a work environment where nobody knew what was happening. "I was so drained by the end of it,” one crew member told Rolling Stone. “I was like, ‘I can’t have a job make me cry everyday because I have two hours to sleep, and I’m being pulled 100 directions because nobody knows what they’re doing, or nobody knows what they want because we don’t know what we’re filming.”

But despite the tense atmosphere on set, exorbitant money being spent on the reshoot, concerns around unnecessarily brutal scenes towards women, and even now, no prospect of a release date, production members disclosed how it seemed Levinson was using the third season of Euphoria, HBO's biggest show, as leverage to do whatever he pleased.

“I got the vibe that the mood on set was, ‘What’s HBO gonna do, pull the plug? Yeah, right. If they want a third season of Euphoria, they’ll give me what I want." More importantly, it seems to be working.

When it comes to bad behaviour, Hollywood is still willing to turn a blind eye if the work is good. As if to prove this point, Tesfaye posted a one minute long clip on social media of The Idol's Jocelyn and Tedros calling Rolling Stone irrelevant after its incendiary report was published. Instead of acknowledging any of the accusations, Tesfaye responded with what was essentially a middle finger to the valid concerns of crew on the set of his series.


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Let me be clear, while distasteful at best and disturbing at worst, there are no allegations of misconduct in the Rolling Stone article. But what it does take aim at, is the kind of unchecked power and arrogance that enables toxic behaviour and in worst cases, abuse. Even in a post Me Too world, Hollywood is still clinging onto the misguided trope of the male genius.

Historically, women who make a set challenging for all involved are labelled difficult, divas and in worst cases, blacklisted. Men like Levinson and Tesfaye on the other hand? The gruelling slog is a hallmark of the male genius and his process. But if this doesn't sit right with you, it's probably because you simply don't understand what it takes to produce a work of such merit and magnitude.

Many of the script changes detailed involve Lily-Rose Depp. But it's condescending to assume that Depp is somehow a victim in all of this. She's spoken publicly about having a positive experience working with Levinson. In the same way Levinson treats Zendaya with reverence on the Euphoria set, it's easy to imagine this being the case with Depp, and not a matter of one actor toning down her answers to be seen as frictionless and agreeable. More telling is Levinson's relationship with women who don't have nearly as high a profile as Zendaya or Depp.

Aside from the experience of unnamed crew members, a salient example of this is another instance in which Levinson was said to have created a toxic set, this time involving Barbie Ferreira during the filming of Euphoria's second season. Despite Ferreira's public statement that there was no bad blood between Levinson and her, rumours swirled that there had been a falling out between the director and actor over the story arc for Ferreira's character Kat Hernandez. Kat was noticeably less involved in the plot of season two and in August 2023, Ferreira announced her exit from Euphoria entirely.

I'm sure there can be many takeaways from this. Tesfaye has certainly revealed himself. As for Levinson? While not yet confirmed (we have not watched the series), if we go off what the published accounts say, it's clear part he's hellbent on doling out explicit content. Is it to the detriment of the storyline? That we cannot say. But his methods are certainly having an effect on his team.

For now though, like HBO all we want is a release date. Only then will we find out if the output outweighs the process is took to get there. Which is to say, if The Idol generates anything near the amount of money Euphoria did, as far as HBO is concerned, the slate is clean.

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Image: @lilyrose_depp