‘The Idol’ Isn’t The Britney Spears Story, Sam Levinson Says; Creator On HBO Series Controversy; Weeknd Likens His Character To Dracula

Yes, there’s a reference made to Britney Spears in Sam Levinson’s new HBO series, The Idol, and Lily-Rose Depp does play a Britney-like character who’s looking to rise from her funk, but as the Euphoria creator said at the Cannes press conference today, “We’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star.”

Levinson added, “It’s a lot of pressure — to have to constantly be on, and to be what everyone wishes you to be. It’s a lonely life… We can all pretend that everyone is looking out for someone’s best interest, but I think fame really corrupts; it’s really easy to surround yourself with myth-makers who continue to prop us up.”

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Levinson said that when he first saw all the news about the controversy on The Idol set, he knew he had the biggest hit of the summer. A Rolling Stone article detailed that the production went off the rails with a poor-working environment, last minute script changes and budgetary issues, including Levinson scrapping a nearly finished $54M-$75M project to reshoot the entire thing.

HBO released a statement back in March saying, “The initial approach on the show and production of the early episodes, unfortunately, did not meet HBO standards so we chose to make a change. Throughout the process, the creative team has been committed to creating a safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful working environment, and last year, the team made creative changes they felt were in the best interest of both the production and the cast and crew.”

The Idol stars Depp as Jocelyn, a super-ambitious Britney Spears-esque protag who has recently hit the big time in the dog-eat-dog world of showbiz. After a nervous breakdown derailed her last tour, she’s determined to claim her rightful status as the greatest and sexiest pop star in America. She meets Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye’s character Tedros, a nightclub impresario and ‘music manager’ with a sordid past. They hook-up BDSM style and the album she’s been on the fence with all of sudden gets an immediate remix that night, filled with sounds of her sexual panting (Hello? “Gimmie More” from Britney, any one?). Meanwhile, Jocelyn’s team and manager (Hank Azaria) are incredibly suspicious of Tedros.

Levinson mentioned that the Britney reference in the series was essentially a publicist spinning how Depp’s pop star can manage a situation.

Depp emphasized, “We’re not telling anyone else’s story.” Added the actress, “I think something we wanted to do is make her feel simultaneously like a pop star of our time, but one that is in her own plane.” She mentioned that influences were celebs like Sharon Stone after Basic Instinct and Jeanne Moreau.

Tesfaye expounded on the conceit for the series: “We Initially wanted to make a dark, twisted fairy tale with the music industry and everything I know about it and heighten it, and take inspirations from films that both me and Sam love — it was really our love for music. When I found out how much Sam is involved in the music in Euphoria and getting to work with him on the music on the show, that’s when it unlocked it for us. Can we create our own pop star? Can we create somebody who is trying to find themselves, using my experiences, using his experiences, using Lily’s experiences on creating something special, daring and exciting and fun that will make people laugh, piss some people off?”

In regards to whether Tesfaye has met someone like his club owner-music manager character, “I don’t f**king think so.”

“If you did, you wouldn’t be here,” added Levinson.

Tesfaye’s inspiration for the guy? “The first thing I can think of is Dracula,” he quipped. “The shot of the gate as the door opens, I couldn’t tell if everyone in theater was laughing,” he added.

In prepping that character, Levinson went through Tesfaye’s closet, going through clothes which the musician said were “clothes I never wear.”

Added Levinson, “I thought what if this character has all the dreams that Abel has, all of the vision he has about culture, about how to tell a story through music and musi video — but none of the talent. I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be to him. He can’t realize this on his own. It forces him to find a puppet, so to speak. That’s when it started; that night was when the character began to unlock. I’ m really excited to see where this show goes.”

Levinson recounted that he first caught Tesfaye’s act at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011 or 12. He got to know the artist better when he accompanied him on a road trip to a Coachella performance years later, witnessing how the artist prepped for a show, listening to his set list in the car, and doing vocal lessons. Weeknd had only been announced to the show a couple of weeks prior. Levinson remembered that he told him, “‘This isn’t my audience’.” The crowd has been in the desert for three days, tired and ready to go home. “‘They’re not here to see me, but I’m going to win them over’,” was what Levinson remembered hearing. The Euphoria creator watched as the performer seduced the audience, a completely different act from the one he saw a decade earlier. “I thought, ‘Wow, if this is the arc of a career here; he’s 32 or 33. This is the first act’,” said Levinson.

Detailing the further inspirations of the show off Weeknd, Levinson added, “If he can do this, if he can go from being this shy kid behind a microphone to this superstar onstage — he has something in him that’s one in 100 billion. There’s something about that drive, that ambition to win people over, to get them to stop thinking about all the shit of life, the trials, the tribulations, the work; and to give themselves over to the music… Right there is when it clicked for me as to what this show is about… It’s about the ambition and the drive to be a better artist.”

The HBO show screened the first two episodes last night in the Grand Theatre Lumiere and received a five-minute standing ovation, highlighted by an emotional speech by Levinson. The series was co-created by Levinson and Tesfaye and Reza Fahim.

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