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Director Todd Haynes reveals why making Mildred Pierce for HBO gave him such exhilarating creative freedom, and why the small screen is offering exciting opportunities to big-screen talent.
HBO, Todd Haynes, Kate Winslet and James M. Cain… it’s a delicious combination. So it’s no surprise that Mildred Pierce is one of the great pleasures of this year. Already made into a movie with Joan Crawford in 1945, Haynes’ five-hour take on Cain’s novel—for the groundbreaking cable network behind The Sopranos—sees Winslet on stunning form in the title role, a 1930s mother-of-two who faces divorce, tragedy and betrayal with stoic grace. At this year’s Venice Film Festival, where Haynes’ earlier films Far From Heaven and I’m Not There both played, the director grabbed a few moments in-between jury duties to sit down with movieScope and discuss what drew him to his first television outing.
Did you ever consider making Mildred Pierce a film, like the 1945 movie?
I never considered making it a feature-length film. It was always going to be a long, multi-part film. Carlos was also made as almost the same length, and it had a theatrical release, which is more possible in Europe. So I had a fantasy: we could maybe show it in two parts. It was always meant to be in multiple parts. The original film version had done that and had to condense the material in its own unique way. The whole reason to do it again was to do things that that film couldn’t do.
The 1945 film has the murder of the Monty character—that’s not in the book or your version—which frames the story…
They made it into a film noir. They made it into the kinds of crime novels that James M. Cain had become most famous for writing, and which had been adapted into films as well—The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. And that was the furthest intention on Mildred Pierce. He was really trying to write a serious, respectable, realist story of a mother-daughter relationship. And they added a murder, and put in a detective as a framing device.
So what attracted you to Mildred Pierce?
I always wanted to do something set in the 1930s. Every time I get to do a period film—and almost all my films are period films—it’s just an amazing opportunity. I feel like I’m giving myself a gift of education, however partial, about a specific time and place. The clothes, the politics, the social backdrop, the language, the behaviour.
How did you come to cast Kate Winslet?
I knew there were things about this character, Mildred, that she embodied. Kate has this physicality about what she does. There’s a sense of work and labour that she puts into everything that she does. It’s incredibly total. And you needed that with Mildred. And Kate has real self-awareness, which Mildred does not have. But Kate knows how she functions by compartmentalising aspects of her life. When she’s working on a movie, she’s totally there one hundred per cent. When she’s with her kids, she’s totally there one hundred per cent. So I think she understood that aspect of Mildred. And how Mildred had blind spots between those different compartments.
What differences did you find between shooting for television and making a movie?
Nothing really, except the schedule, and how much we were meant to shoot a day. That was the difference. Other than that, my version favours a lot of wide-angle shots. It plays most strongly, I think, on the big screen. I might have failed the television test, because I didn’t really change the way I wanted it to be shot or covered, thinking just of a smaller screen. I really let the wide shots carry a lot of the storytelling.
Had you ever thought about directing episodic TV before, say on a show like Mad Men?
I’d thought about it as a way to make money—I’m lucky even that I have that as a possibility if I need to make some money. But, no, not really. I’d rather be the consumer of it. It’s fun to be on the other side of the TV screen and watching it from that vantage point.
What sort of freedoms did HBO give you?
It was an amazing experience for me. I’ve never worked with a studio before as a filmmaker, and I’ve never met studio executives as smart, as conscientious and as literate as these guys. They wanted this to be a complex, compelling piece of work. They didn’t want it to be commercial. They wanted to respect the integrity of what we were doing, which was amazing.
So there was no censorship?
God, no. They want more sex. More Kate having sex please!
Do you think television is becoming more attractive to actors like Winslet?
Certainly. Absolutely. It’s just because they don’t make dramas [for cinema] any more in the United States. Television is the place where stories about real people, with complicated problems and nuanced relationships can happen. Of course there are exceptions to this, and I covet them. I hate what’s happening. I hate that people don’t go to the movies any more to see serious drama. I hate that minimising, reductive, Marvel Comics inspired franchises [that] are motivating studios to make films, when they’re making record profits. And I always thought when you made record profits that was exactly the time you could diversify and broaden your base.
Would you go back to television again?
I would love to do it again. It’s all about the material. When the material warrants something that needs a longer, broader palette or canvas to tell the story. And not everything does. Some things should be experienced as features, in one viewing.
What will you do next? A movie?
Yes. The script I’m working on is about contemporary, populist, conservative politics. This would be reaching a different audience that I usually reach with my movies. I would want people who are swayed by conservative ideas to see this film. And I would want to be sensitive and open to how they think, and why they think the way they think. Which will be hard, but it’ll be an amazing learning experience for me.
Mildred Pierce is on Blu-ray and DVD from HBO Home Entertainment
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 25 (Nov/Dec 2011)