news HBO’s ‘The Idol’ Controversy Suggests The Weeknd Has an Auteur Problem (Column)

This week brought troubling news of an actor calling the shots on his own project, but before we get into that subject for this week’s column, it’s worth acknowledging the auteurs around the corner. Cannes buzz is in the air, with reports of premieres for “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate” and “Killer of the Flower Moon” hinting at plenty of Hollywood on the Croisette. There’s another movie expected in the lineup that won’t enthrall red-carpet gawkers, but should thrill true cinephiles: a 20-minute short directed by the late Jean-Luc Godard.

“Funny Wars” marks the last complete cinematic vision by the French New Wave legend before his assisted suicide last year, and sources say it’s locked in the lineup. (He left notes behind for another short, “Scenario,” that his longtime collaborators Fabrice Aragno and Jean-Paul Battagia are working to complete.)

The “Funny Wars” premiere should provide a bittersweet salute to one of the most adventurous filmmakers in history. Like much of Godard’s late-period work, “Funny Wars” had no need for actors: Godard used a collage-like approach that blended fragments of images and text to convey more abstract ideas than any performer could provide. Expect a wide range of philosophical meditations on the modern world, possibly including some chilling references to suicide as a form of insubordination. Godard didn’t just make movies up until the very end; he lived inside them, better than any actor. Filmmaking was his state of mind.

I was thinking about Godard’s growing disinterest in actors in light of new reports about the production of HBO’s upcoming “The Idol.” Much of this troubled story isn’t new: As I reported in this column last year, series director Amy Seimetz was pushed out after Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, the series’ star and co-creator with Sam Levinson and Reza Fahim, took issue with the show’s so-called “female perspective.”

“Euphoria” creator Levinson was already an executive producer on “The Idol” — the shows shared multiple producers — but with Seimetz’s exit, he became its writer and director. Anonymous sources have assailed the revised show for containing draft scripts steeped in sexual violence, including one scrapped scene in which Tesfaye’s character gets an erection while assaulting his romantic partner, played by Lily Rose-Depp.

As much as the internet-fueled rage machine may want to take issue with Levinson for conceiving of such grotesque material, in all likelihood, he’s operating in deference to his star. Nobody’s talking, but when I heard about the aforementioned scene, it sounded a oddly familiar — and then I realized that it was essentially stolen from Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer,” the ultra-gory 2001 Japanese cult classic featuring a murderer aroused when he kills.

And, it just so happens, that Tesfaye acquired the English-language remake rights to “Ichi the Killer” a few years ago, going so far as hiring Paul Schrader to write a script — then ghosting him. “I asked if he was sure he wanted to play Ichi,” Schrader told me when I asked about their initial exchange. “Ichi was a supporting character. He said he did. That made me think he hadn’t given the venture a lot of thought. Ichi was in the title, so of course he wanted to be Ichi.”

It’s also possible that once Tesfaye moved on from that idea, he decided to sublimate it into another project. By all indications, “The Idol” is The Weeknd’s project first and a “From the Creator of ‘Euphoria'” joint second. The same guy who bankrolled his own Super Bowl performance seems to have bought his way into the extended universe of HBO’s most-watched series after “Game of Thrones.”

It’s hard to say how this will play out. “The Idol” may get to shrug off the drama if it becomes a hit, but the outcome comes at the infuriating cost of headaches that no one should have. Sources tell me Levinson wanted to keep his distance from “The Idol” while trying to take a break between “Euphoria” seasons, but was enlisted more for the purposes of talent management than creative oversight. There was too much on the line for him to outsource: the future of “Euphoria,” as well as its role not only within HBO but as a critical part of A24’s growing TV presence and overall market value. (The company recently launched a makeup line inspired by the show.)

However the final result comes together, “The Idol” suggests a cautionary tale of giving inexperienced talent too much creative control. The Weeknd may be an extraordinary musician and stage presence, but in this case, he’s cosplaying an auteur despite greener than your average production assistant.

The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp in The Idol

The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp in “The Idol”


More and more American stars have insisted on producing credits in recent years to ensure they receive appropriate compensation on the end result. These credits often lead to the perception that actors can run the show, too. There’s a reason why France still embraces the auteur theory, to the point where the country actually has laws defending the director’s final cut: The best storytelling in film and TV requires tremendous collaboration, but the greatest results come from a singular vision. With movies, that’s the director; in TV, it should be the showrunner — although for the moment the official showrunner for “The Idol” is Joe Epstein, who has no other credits on IMDb. Again, there’s no real question who’s actually calling the shots here.

Major actors looking to influence popular culture, as Tesfaye has done, might consider the potential of producing new work without starring in it. That’s what Emma Stone has done with her new production company, which premieres Julio Torres’ directorial debut starring Tilda Swinton, “Problemista,” at SXSW this month. (Buzz for this timely comedy, also produced by A24, is strong.) Stone’s talent and stardom is secure; if “Problemista” goes on to wide acclaim, she can bask in some credit without having forced her way into it.

Of course, The Weeknd didn’t just want to see “The Idol” get made; he wanted to be the literal star of the show, and got his wish. But talent with such extraordinary resources should think twice about whether it’s better to force others to tell their stories or enable genuine storytellers to create their own work. Whatever the best solution, when dramas like this play out in public, it’s hard not to imagine Godard looking down on the mess with a wry grin and having the last laugh.

As usual, I encourage feedback on the problems highlighted in this weekly column via email:

Check out earlier columns here.