HBO: MILDRED PIERCE (2011): Interview With Todd Haynes
Even as I sit in good fortune conversing with Todd Haynes in the Sundance Kabuki's green room, anticipating the special San Francisco premiere of the first two episodes of his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) co-presented with the San Francisco Film Society, I am aware that out there in the "real" world I have friends who have been out of work for two, sometimes three, years without being able to find another job, friends who are losing their homes due to predatorial loans and subsequent foreclosures, friends who are losing their health because they can't afford health insurance, friends who have had to migrate out of San Francisco to continue living in the Bay Area, and--for those friends who have been able to find a job--that it's involved setting aside specialized skills and talents to wait tables, tend bars or drive cabs. With few apparent options or remedies, I can't help but wonder how we as besieged Americans can retain vision when nothing seems to be left in plain sight?
This national dilemma is not lost on Todd Haynes who has skillfully analogized James M. Cain's classic 1941 novel Mildred Pierce to the current economic situation in which we now find ourselves. How he has accomplished this is his subversive genius. By staying true to its literary source, Haynes has revealed the relevance of this Depression narrative to our current lives through the long-form format of a cable mini-series, which has allowed the novel to unfold at its own pace. "Mildred Pierce is set during the Depression," explains Haynes, "but not the Depression of dustbowls and breadlines. The crises it explores are those of middle-class privilege--issues of pride and status, the struggle first to regain one's standing and then to persevere through hard work and ingenuity. This feels very much like the particular struggles of our current economic crisis, coming out of a period of unbridled consumption." It reminds me of what my friend Mike Black once characterized as facing up to "the ignobility of work" and how so many of us toil our lives away at jobs that feel "beneath" us. The class struggle here seems to be between those who lead authentic, creative and productive lives and those who simply don't, and suffer for it.
Negotiating around the famous Oscar®-winning performance by Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz's 1945 "noir" classic Mildred Pierce--no mean feat, I might add!--Haynes astutely relies on Cain's novel to reveal the compelling narrative of the rise and fall of Mildred Pierce. Kate Winslet unflinchingly inhabits the role, making it all her own, by remaining faithful to the book's characterization. If mythologist Joseph Campbell's suggestion that an individual's brilliance shines through in the performance of their everyday tasks, then Kate Winslet's Mildred Pierce is radiant with a growth maneuvered task by task, step by step.
The Miniseries debuts on HBO, Sunday, March 27th. Check the official website for details. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
* * *Michael Guillén: I'm of that demographic, Todd, that came to your films by way of Far From Heaven (2002) and then went back to visit your earlier work and I have to say that your films have the unnerving quality of making me bawl in public. [Haynes laughs.] If it weren't for the kind shoulder of the young woman sitting next to me at Far From Heaven, I don't think I would have made it through that film.
Todd Haynes: [Laughing.] That's sweet. Thank you.
Guillén: And, of course, your recent HBO film Mildred Pierce has its moments as well. The scene where Mildred (Kate Winslet) and Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne) agree to divorce is a heartbreaker.
Haynes: I know! These powerful actors of mine.
Guillén: What is it in the specific catharsis you mine from the melodrama of these women's narratives that assists you in your filmmaking vision?
Haynes: It's just the most fascinating form. In a way the term "melodrama" is so clumsy and imprecise unlike other genres that we might talk about--like westerns, film noir, gangster movies or whatever--because it also incorporates a kind of pejorative attitude about emotional or sentimental excess. But it's almost because of that, that it makes me want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and figure out why? What is that? Why is it dealt with derogatorily? Why do we dismiss melodramas and domestic drama as something second-class in preference for genres that are, first, more escapist and more associated with male protagonists? Genres that express more freedom in exploring frontiers (as in westerns) or investigating crimes (as in gangster films)?
Melodramas are stories about families, and women in houses, and relationships that don't always work out, and people making touch choices under the pressure of societal views and prejudices. Not only do melodramas have that brand because women are so central to them but it's really about our own lives; it's really about what we all experience in life. I like that about melodramas, although I've tried to do something quite different in the style of Mildred Pierce than what I did in Far From Heaven. In Far From Heaven--which was quoting from the most stylized period of the melodramas in the '50s and trying hard to be true to those cinematic styles--it was almost more an experiment. It was almost riskier. When people had strong emotional reactions to the material, it proved to me that this genre has incredible legs and really endures because--even though we were working through an artificial visual language and pushing it further than normal--people did have a strong emotional reaction to that film, which says a lot about the form. It says a lot about melodrama.
With Mildred Pierce, however, I was exploring naturalism. It's a more understated treatment of the material than what I did with Far From Heaven. The intensity, the drama, the extremes are all in the material and I didn't need to add to that an extreme visual language or an intense musical score. I wanted to give the audience room to find their way into the material and not overdetermine their emotions.
Guillén: Some of the immediate feedback I've read on Mildred Pierce, and what I experienced watching the first two episodes, has been exactly this measure of restraint. And as you've described it elsewhere, the film exhibits a "relatable" naturalism, which speaks exactly to how a genre can be resuscitated in such a way as to find relevance with modern audiences. Yet still I wonder why a genre that was so blithely dismissed in the 1950s as "women's weepers" has elevated into modern relevance? Would it have anything to do with the power politics in the film's male-female relationships? Your films give the yin and yang of relationship a postmodern flip of the coin. The yin is expressed through your earnest, enterprising women and the yang by your indolent but attractive men. What do you seek out in such gendered tension?
Haynes: Mildred Pierce is different from traditional domestic dramas that usually explore women who are somewhat disempowered and who are more in a domestic space and don't usually trespass beyond that. A real line is drawn between the working world and the home world. Children are the ones who are ushered out to cross that boundary, such as in the more traditional classic mother-daughter stories like Stella Dallas (1937) where--and this is often true with these stories--the kid represents the tension. The mother doesn't want to let go of the child but she also wants the child to move up the social ladder. That usually ends up with the mother having to sacrifice greatly and sometimes even hand the kid over to the wealthier part of the family and let somebody else bring her up better than she could. That's how Stella Dallas ends, for instance, with her maternal sacrifice.
But what's so interesting in Mildred Pierce is that it's women who are running the show. The men are waylaid by the economic catastrophe of the 1930s that they're all trying to figure out; but, it seems like women just had to--by necessity--take action and become active in the work place. In Mildred's case, it starts with small steps as you've just seen in the first two episodes where she has to get a job and re-examine who she is in the world as a single mother and what her middle-class identity is really all about. So she has to take a job that she considers beneath her; but, through that experience, she learns a great deal, and discovers she has a lot of innate talents and skills that she keeps learning more about to see how far they can take her. Ultimately, they take her quite far indeed.
But the men in Mildred Pierce are passive and I think that's so interesting. It's not the war years yet--it's not the time when the men are gone and women are running the factories--it's prior to that. In a way, all of the men in Mildred Pierce are passive failures, of various varieties in the story.
James M. Cain has said that one of his missions and what he set out to say by writing Mildred Pierce was to tell the story of a woman who uses men to get what she needs. What I think he probably meant is that she doesn't see what she's doing; she's doesn't do it knowingly; she does it instinctively. And then gets in trouble. And then discovers how it happened. Of course, what it really is all about is this mother and daughter relationship. Mildred finds men and puts them to the service of her ambitions that are all being fueled by the needs of the daughter. She is preoccupied with and over-invested in this one child. The men fall into service to that mission, with all sorts of various outcomes along the way.
Guillén: Elsewhere, you've referred to that intense mother-daughter relationship between Mildred and Veda as an unrequited love affair. And there's already some buzz about your having "queered" the narrative by inbuing an incestuous lesbian flourish to their dynamic. Do you agree with that?
Haynes: Not if you read the book! It's even more startlingly pronounced in Cain's amazingly modern 1941 novel, on which the 1945 film version was based. More people are better familiar with the 1945 Crawford vehicle than even the novel, but that film took great liberties and changed a great deal of the novel. There was no murder element in the original story.
Guillén: They slapped some noir onto it?
Haynes: Exactly. And to try to appeal to and bridge to the audience that they had established so well with Cain's crime novels. There is a scene--which you haven't come to yet if you've only seen the first two episodes, and I hope I don't give too much away--but, when Veda first confesses to Mildred that she has been seeing a boy and is pregnant as a result, in the book it literally describes Mildred as doubling-over with nausea out of utter jealousy. She doesn't react like, "Oh my poor daughter, she's going to have a kid! What are we going to do now? Her reputation is screwed." Or whatever the typical maternal reaction might be. Instead, she experiences utter jealousy that Veda has gone out with a boy and gotten knocked up without her knowing anything about it. It's intense. There's also a kiss you will see in Episode 5 between mother and daughter, but it's directly out of the book, this remarkable book, which is incredibly fearless about venturing into territory that challenges all traditional and acceptable ideas about mother and daughter and the limits of those relationships.
Guillén: Let's talk about the film's visual flourishes related to gesture. The gesture that specifically sticks in my mind as near-brilliant is when Mildred repossesses the car from Bert, arguing that she needs it because she's working. She drives him back to where he's staying, drops him off, and then you have that image of her right hand gripping the steering wheel, flexing its fingers. Her taking command is evident; but, it made me wonder how you direct a gesture like that? How do you know when you have the gesture right?
Haynes: It's a really good question because it gets to the core of this specific character, this woman who functions by doing and by action; not by reflection and self-awareness. In fact, Mildred is someone who has big blind spots about what motivates her. But she muscles through life by doing things and by transforming frustration into productive work of all kinds: whether she's baking a pie, or repossessing the family car. But what's interesting is that's the way that many actors, including Kate, prepare their role: the externalization of the character through physical tasks and challenges. It's often just simply practical.
For example, Kate had to train how to separate chickens and look like a master doing it. She had to have waitress skills that were convincing for when she ultimately masters that task as a character. All of the physical tasks that define Mildred as a character and chart her growth and her rise as a business woman are activities the audience had to absolutely believe. This is true as well for Evan Rachel Wood who--as the grown Veda--becomes an opera singer who had to master arias in different languages. Evan had to learn how to sing them so that she looked like she was singing them properly. Morgan Turner--who plays the younger Veda--likewise had to learn how to appear that she could play the piano.
For actors, the externalization of who they are through tasks is really helpful. It's concrete and helps them find the character through the act of doing something. It's specific. But this is also interesting because it says a lot about how Mildred the character and Kate the actress share this as people. Kate really understood that about Mildred. Kate has self-awareness and the critical faculties that Mildred doesn't because she's an actress and an incredibly brilliant woman.
Guillén: So the actors come to you with gestural suggestions that either comport to your vision or not?
Haynes: It's not even that deconstructed. It's just part of the meaning we're trying to convey in this particular scene or that particular scene. Unless it's literally her separating chickens because there are specific ways to separate chickens. Kate and I are both massive Top Chef freaks and we visited Tom Colicchio at his house and he gave her instruction on how to separate chickens. He came up to me at the party we just had a few days ago at the New York premiere and thanked me for thanking him at the end of the film. Whenever I see Tom Colicchio coming up to me, I always think that the smile's going to drop and he's going to ask me to do some really tough challenge. [Laughs.] He's actually really nice in person. He is to me. Tom was incredibly helpful and Kate was relentless about mastering it and doing it right. Kate had to feel that she was doing it right and she approached everything she had to do as the character accordingly.
Guillén: Clearly, it's a given why you cast Kate Winslet in the title role and I'm aware that she was in your mind even as you were drafting the script, but I'd like to draw some attention to the supporting actresses in the series who--in the two episodes I've seen--are already revealing remarkable work. When a frequently-heard complaint is that there are few good roles for middle aged actresses anymore, you have populated Mildred Pierce with nuanced performances by a variety of great supporting actresses, most notably Melissa Leo as Mildred's friend Lucy and Mare Winningham as Ida. Can you speak to casting?
Haynes: It's an embarrassment of riches when you're picking actresses in that age bracket of who can play these roles because we have so many fine, great serious actors who don't get offered roles all the time who are in their forties, during their fifties, whenever it is, even late thirties and into their sixties. To me, that's the walking troupe of our finest actors, because they have the life experience at this point and the professional experience to bring to roles they may not have had 20-30 years ago when we first knew their work. No, it's disproportionate, there just aren't enough great roles for that brand of actor. For several of these roles it was hard to narrow it down to make an offer to one because they were all so great. There was a long list of really solid people.
Guillén: Shifting to your working relationship with your cinematographer Ed Lachman--who's worked with you previously on Far From Heaven and I'm Not There--you mentioned earlier that your intention with Mildred Pierce was to shift away from the overblown melodrama you were quoting and subverting in Far From Heaven. Yet Richard Porton, in his recent column for CinemaScope, has observed: "Haynes' talent for balancing intimacy with a distancing mise en scène in which the actors are viewed through windows, bars, or mirrors is gloriously Fassbinderian." Which harkens, of course, to a notedly different style of melodrama.
Restrained, "relatably naturalistic" as you put it, the scene of Mildred sitting in the café realizing that she has to swallow her pride and suffer the ignobility of work that is "beneath" her was rendered so heart-wrenching, all the more for being watched from the street through a dusty window. And then Lachman's camera seems set adrift, roving around the restaurant, observing just the women in this environment, just what they're doing--listlessly counting money at the till, gossiping about Garbo, clearing off tables, picking up tips. There's a feeling of disenchantment in the camera, as if it's becoming aware of something disappointing revealing itself beneath the surface. Did you intend that? Am I reading too much into this?
Haynes: No, I like that! That's interesting. You're right obviously about the tendency of the camera to hold back and observe. In a way I wanted to suggest that in houses--especially where there's a lot of overinvestment in members of a family--that everybody's always watching everybody else; that there's no place where you're completely alone. We hear this in the story. Veda is always snooping around Mildred's things and knows exactly when there's a uniform or a bottle of scotch stashed in a closet. She knows exactly when Bert her father leaves because his clothes are gone. So there are these third eyes that are always observing behavior and I just wanted to have enough distance to feel like you don't really know who's watching who all the time; but, there is a feeling of being watched and that adds a level of tension to the intense difficulty of a kid needing to separate from their parent and identify themselves as their own person. But there's such mutual contamination--of space, of investment, of desire, of love, of projection--onto this girl Veda and a lot returned. There are a lot of weird projections of Veda onto Mildred that the separation of mother and daughter becomes a much more fraught process. But, yeah, as you say, we play it out in scenes that go beyond the house and that happen in the world outside.
I started by watching the films of the really great revisionist films of the '70s that would take classic genres and material and be faithful to the genre and tell the stories sincerely and passionately. But there was something about how they made audiences feel that there was something modern and contemporary about the way they were doing it that made me think it was somehow about today. When you look at those movies, what you see is a restrained camera that pulls back, that lets shots play out at length, and I think what that does is it makes the audience see things for themselves. You're not always cutting to what the audience is supposed to look at. You're not scoring it to tell them what to feel. By letting the shot play out, the audience feels like their own reading is important and there's room for them to find what's important in the frame and to navigate the frame themselves. It gives them room to apply what they're seeing to other contexts. That was the spirit of it.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.