Olivia Wilde remembers driving to Palm Springs for the first time 20 years ago, taking in the Midcentury Modern architecture, the palm trees, the lush golf courses and the flowing fountains, a verdant city plopped in the middle of a desert. Every time the native New Yorker looked out the window, the same thought ran through her head: “If we settled Mars, this is what it would look like.”
“It felt like the ultimate expression of man’s dominance and power,” Wilde says over the phone, taking a walk around New York. “It’s so beautiful, but it’s also a really strange place. If not for all the creature comforts that man has created, you would die very quickly out here. And it’s the desert, so it’s spooky. I recall thinking that someday we have to make a horror movie out there.”
That day has arrived with “Don’t Worry Darling,” opening in theaters Sept. 23 after world premiering next week at the Venice Film Festival, a psychological thriller about a couple (Florence Pugh and Harry Styles) living in a utopian desert community called the Victory Project. It’s a place where men leave in the mornings in their vintage Corvettes and Pontiacs for mysterious jobs while the women stay home, make the beds, scrub the bathtubs and cook up a pot roast for dinner. The ethos, in the words of the community’s leader, Frank (Chris Pine), is all about mining “pure, unbridled potential.” That and hedonism. The women must keep the liquor cabinets fully stocked too.
As the song goes, “It’s the good life” — if you’re one of the men nuzzling your submissive wife over a bacon and eggs breakfast. Otherwise, to use another line from the same Sinatra song, “You hide all the sadness you feel.” The tension between the colony’s seductive glamour and the level of control it imposes on the women who live there (imagine the most draconian HOA and you get the idea) gradually becomes exposed as Pugh’s character begins to question her surroundings over the course of the film’s two-hour running time.
There was a moment when “Don’t Worry Darling” might not have happened in Palm Springs. Wilde, writer Katie Silberman and production designer Katie Byron, the trio who collaborated on Wilde’s directorial debut, the acclaimed 2019 teen comedy “Booksmart,” had embarked on an early road trip to the desert to start scouting locations. It was July 2020, hotter than hell and the beginning of the pandemic, which made the Victory Project’s life of revolving dinner parties feel like a complete fantasy. Taking in all the butterfly rooflines of communities like Canyon View Estates, they were certain they had found the movie’s setting.
But because of COVID, Wilde says, “very reasonable powers that be” suggested moving the production to New Zealand to save money. Wilde understood the logic but resisted, believing that, on a subconscious level, Palm Springs connected to what she calls the “patriarchal masculinity” that was essential to the story she was telling.
“For me, New Zealand is this ecological gem that’s evidence of nature’s power,” Wilde says, “and feels connected to Mother Nature and femininity. I think if I made a sequel about the matriarchy, New Zealand would be a reasonable place to go because it’s a place where you go to be humbled by nature. That’s the opposite of what the character Frank wants. He wants people to feel that nature is humbled in their presence, that man has molded nature to his will.”
The location for Frank’s home was vitally important, and Wilde lucked out in securing the Kaufmann Desert House, a marvel of Modernism, a home made from glass, steel and Utah stone, epitomizing the indoor-outdoor Southern California lifestyle aesthetic. The home, built in 1946 to the designs of Richard Neutra, has been immortalized in photographs, including Slim Aarons’ “Poolside Gossip,” a shot that, coincidentally, Wilde had pinned to her wall while she was developing “Don’t Worry Darling.”
“To have that image on the wall and then be able to crawl inside it felt like that scene in ‘Mary Poppins’ when they jump into the chalk drawings on the sidewalk,” Wilde says.
The movie makes use of a couple of other Palm Springs landmarks, the City Hall and the Visitors Center, both designed by renowned architect Albert Frey. But for another key location, the building that stands in as the Victory Project’s mysterious headquarters (employees only!), the film’s location manager, Chris Baugh, ventured a couple of hours north to the Mojave Desert community of Newberry Springs. There, atop a 150-foot cinder cone, sits a building known as the Volcano House, a saucer-like structure that appears to have materialized from another planet or dimension.
“We got shivers down our spines when we first saw it,” Byron says. Adds cinematographer Matthew Libatique: “It just feels like it melts into the landscape. It’s a trek to get out there, but when everyone saw it, they knew: This is it. This is what the Victory Project’s headquarters would look like.”
The triumph associated with the community’s name appears to be confined, as the film’s trailer hints, to a small slice of the population. And yet, Wilde says, it’s easy to be seduced by iconography of the midcentury, Rat Pack era, which is why she hoped to keep “Don’t Worry Darling” from being didactic in its depiction of its patriarchal world.
“There’s a recklessness to the debauchery that feels almost aspirational to us today,” Wilde says, “Because it feels like a world without consequence. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it really compelling and alluring. I didn’t want to make a preachy feminist parable that depicts men as villains. I think the film is about our collective complicity in this futuristic infrastructure that objectifies women.
“And what I found so interesting was the complicity in myself,” she continues. “That feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m all about new-wave feminism and smash the patriarchy.’ But here I am loving this era — and you can use the Rat Pack as an example of it — that was really horrendous for women. That tension between knowing something’s wrong but still being very seduced by it is where the movie sits. I want the audience to be tugged back and forth between those emotions.”