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Does controversy sell movie tickets? The cast of 'Don't Worry Darling' might find out

Italy Venice Film Festival 2022 Don't Worry Darling Red Carpet
Vianney Le Caer
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Invision / AP
Gemma Chan, from left, Harry Styles, Sydney Chandler, director Olivia Wilde, Chris Pine, Florence Pugh and Nick Kroll pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Don't Worry Darling' during the 79th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.

The 2022 Venice Film Festival started a little over a week ago, and one film has dominated much of the conversation not because of its cinematography, editing or script, but because of reported behind-the-scenes drama that's stolen the spotlight.

Don't Worry Darling is director Olivia Wilde's second feature film, following her 2019 debut, Booksmart. The movie, which stars Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan and Wilde herself, premiered on Monday at the festival and is scheduled for wide release on Sept. 23.

The film is a psychological thriller set in the 1950s, in the fictional town of Victory, Calif. Pugh and Styles play Alice and Jack, a married couple who live in the town, which was built by the company Jack works for. As Alice tries to learn more about her community, tensions begin to arise between her and her new neighbors.

Reportedly, the production of the film had also been filled with tension, and interactions between the stars at Venice left the internet to speculate wildly.

"Some aspects of the unfolding interpersonal drama definitely appear like an unwieldy mess," Nicholas Baer, Assistant Professor of Media, Arts & Society at Utrecht University, told NPR. "So although it's always tricky to gauge intentionality, I'd imagine it's a combination of 'authentic' drama and savvy image manipulation."

The memes begin at the Venice Film Festival

On Monday morning ahead of the premiere, Wilde and the film's stars participated in a press conference — most of them, that is. Absent from the panel was Pugh, who flew to Italy from Budapest where she had been filming the sequel to Dune. Festival representatives told Variety that her nonattendance was because her flight to Italy wouldn't land until after the presser had taken place.

Pugh has not spoken much about the film on social media or to press since it finished filming, which has led to speculation that she did not enjoy her time on set.

The press had many questions for Wilde regarding her working relationship with Pugh and, in response, the director praised the actress for her work. "I can't say how honored I am to have her as our lead. She's amazing."

When asked about working on the film, Harry Styles — who is dating Wilde — gave a response that the internet is still trying to understand: "The thing I like about the movie is that it feels like a movie." Chris Pine's reaction to this moment birthed memes that would pave the way for many more to come.

Florence Pugh toasts the internet

Pugh later arrived at the festival in time for the film's red carpet premiere. In a video originally posted to Instagram, Pugh was seen toasting the camera while carrying an Aperol Spritz in a purple Valentino ensemble — a carefree look that sparked yet more buzz.

Across the great divide on the red carpet

The night of the film's premiere began relatively lightheartedly, with Chris Pine taking pictures of Florence Pugh on the red carpet.

But then, as the cast began getting ready for a group photo on the red carpet, it appeared that Pugh, Wilde and Styles were strategically separated by fellow actors Pine, Chan, Sydney Chandler and Nick Kroll.

Could all of this be a PR stunt? Experts weigh in

Internet speculation didn't stop once the cast went into the theater. The actors were placed in a seating arrangement closely resembling the cast photo, and Chris Pine once again continued his run at the top of the meme leaderboard as he put on his sunglasses just as the lights went down in the theater.

This brings us to a hotly debated moment between Harry Styles and Chris Pine. In a video circulated on social media, Styles approached his seat next to Pine and appeared to lean slightly over, with his lips moving in a puckering motion—then, a moment where Pine stopped clapping, looked down at his lap and laughed. The suspicious movement around Styles' mouth made some wonder: Did Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine?

Although Pine's publicist told People that such claims are "complete fabrication," the video regardless sent the internet into an uproar of jokes, takes and slo-mo'ed video. Analyzing the videos of #Spittake, as some users have put it, has become the Zapruder film of Twitter.

The film has generally not been well received by critics, and there continues to be heavy speculation online that all of this press has been drummed up to help create a buzz for the film.

"As a communications guy, my gut reaction to this kind of thing when it is on an international stage is that it is all about getting attention," says film and media historian Chris Yogerst. "Of course, we learned there was more to the story with the notorious Oscars slap. That may be the case here as well, but because there were many smiles all around, my guess is that this is a PR move or an inside joke of some kind."

A lot of speculation and confusion surrounds what is really going on behind the scenes in the movie, which runs parallel with themes seen in the film, Baer said —"a focus on polished appearances and the cracks in attractive facades."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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