Mother dearest: An interview with Todd Haynes

Forget the 1945 noir classic – Todd Haynes tells Gabriel Tate how he stayed true to the mother-daughter story at the heart of James M Cain’s novel to make ‘Mildred Pierce’ the mini-series

Todd Haynes films both embrace and subvert genre to captivating effect, whether with the sweeping melodrama of ‘Far from Heaven’ or the picaresque narrative of his rock biopics ‘I’m Not There’ and ‘Velvet Goldmine’. But ‘Mildred Pierce’ presented a new set of challenges: working on a TV mini-series, of course, but also having to reconcile memories of Michael Curtiz’s mighty 1945 noir with the James M Cain novel that inspired it. Kate Winslet takes on one of Joan Crawford’s signature roles – as the housewife whose marriage collapse frees her dormant business instincts but leaves her emotionally dependent on her eldest daughter, Veda. But she’s tremendous, bolstered by a near-flawless supporting cast and Haynes’s utterly assured writing and direction.

The story at the heart of ‘Mildred Pierce’, of people picking themselves up after a financial meltdown, has obvious relevance.
‘Clearly. I knew the film version but only got round to reading the novel when [co-writer] Jon Raymond insisted. It was just as the markets were starting to shake in 2008 and I’d been thinking about doing something for cable anyway, with things getting tighter in independent film. They turned the film into one of James M Cain’s classic crime novels by inserting a murder investigation as a framing device. But the book was actually a real departure for Cain: a realist, third-person narrative about a mother and daughter, applying the hard-boiled style to something quite different. It’s about the workplace, money and how economic and emotional relationships tie up.’

Your series is the opposite of hard-boiled – was it a luxury to have so much time to draw out the themes?
‘It was an interesting process. All the characters are challenging, but Mildred is so doggedly blind in her fixation with Veda. It’s super-compelling, but frustrating to watch – you want to shake her.’

It’s a tale of unrequited love.
‘It really is. The moments of intense emotional reconnection come when they’re furthest apart, and over the course of the series we have all the tableaux of emotional excess that you find in the classic love stories. It’s a universal conundrum, the parent-child relationship. This one is taken further than most, but most people will recognise how the power dynamics shift.’

It’s a mini-series, but it’s introduced as ‘a film by Todd Haynes’. Why?
‘We approached it as a long-form film, but I was aware of making it for a different audience and being respectful of that. It’s not necessarily a film-savvy audience that we’re addressing, it’s people sitting innocently in their living rooms! So I looked at the filmmaking of the ’70s that introduced the mini-series as a really valid dramatic form – a lot were British series that we saw on “Masterpiece Theatre” – and movies that took classic genres and made them feel weirdly connected to the moment. Films like “The Godfather”, “Chinatown” and “The Exorcist” brought a realism and currency and understatement to their genres that we wanted for “Mildred Pierce”.’

Mildred.jpg

Does that explain the naturalistic, straightforward approach?
‘Exactly. The framing needed to remind you of a sense of watching that happens in households and families. You never really know who’s witnessing what, and the attempt to conceal or separate information from family members almost always fails. It permeates the environment, so it’s full of reframings, shots through windows and doorways. It’s a little removed and less active than you might see in a more contemporary approach.’

One character rhapsodises about Mildred’s legs. Is that why you hired Kate Winslet?
‘There’s an immediate sense of Mildred’s physicality that made me think of Kate. She brings a physical, almost workhorse quality to her parts, so it really was the legs in that sense. Mildred literally works through her conflicts and doesn’t reflect on them. It’s about someone getting stuck in a bad relationship, and how that can yield surprising results when you direct all that emotional frustration into other things. I’ve certainly seen that in my life.’

Why is melodrama a dirty word?
‘It always has been. It took an entire generation of critical thinking for Douglas Sirk’s films to be really appreciated. But that’s what I love about it! You have to fight to remind people that we call these stories melodramatic, but they’re closer to what we experience in our lives than most other genres can offer.’

What’s next for you?
'Jon [Raymond] and I are just starting a feature about contemporary conservative politics in America. We’re trying to figure out a way into it now.'

'Mildred Pierce' stars on Sat 25 July at 9pm on Sky Atlantic

Author: Interview: Gabriel Tate





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