Not content to rank among the first tier of independent filmmakers working on the big screen, Todd Haynes took a gamble last year and collaborated with the folks at HBO for what would become one of the must-see events on television: “Mildred Pierce,” an epic adaptation of James M. Cain’s acclaimed novel. But the filmmaker responsible for some of the most daring and unusual cinematic works of recent years said that the reason he decided to undertake the project on the small screen was simple – namely, he couldn’t have made it otherwise. “I don’t know that we could have made 'Mildred Pierce' as a feature film,” Haynes told us in a recent interview. “The appetite right now among financiers for female-driven historical dramas is scant, and narrowing, and we could have made the good fight, but it certainly would have been a condensed version of that novel, which I thought was already quite significantly accomplished in the first round, in that ’45 film.”
After hauling in impressive ratings when it was first broadcast last year, “Mildred Pierce” arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this week with four Golden Globe nominations under its belt, including Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made For Television. But the deluge of acclaim it has received feels more like a reward than an inevitability, given the production challenges Haynes said he and his crew faced. “The actual production experience was tough, because everybody I brought to it were from film production,” he explained. “I brought the best people I knew from working in New York in the past – my DP Ed Lachman, my production designer Mark Friedberg, these fantastic New York crews who are mostly accustomed to film production. And my actors; I mean, this was the first time Kate Winslet had ever done anything for TV and done anything of this extraordinary volume, period, where she was in literally every scene, if not shot, of the film, rooted as it is in Mildred’s point of view.”
Although Haynes is intimately familiar with rushed production schedules and modest budgets, he said that the biggest challenge was the size of the story, and getting enough of it shot each day. “It was simply a matter of how much material we had to produce daily in a rather condensed shooting schedule for the amount of hours that we needed to accomplish,” he said. “I don’t think we would have been able to have done it without that great team around me in front of and behind the camera.” He indicated that he felt encouraged by his star, Kate Winslet, who he said was not just capable of handling the weight of the production, but was eager to take it on again.
“Kate said it was the hardest thing she’d done since ‘Titanic,’ and then she said, ‘When do we get to do it again’,” Haynes revealed. “So I know it was a great experience for her to kind of throw herself into the center of that storm and her commitment, her vitality as a person, a performer and a collaborator was just so extraordinary.” He also said that Winslet buoyed the spirits of the rest of the crew: “She is just amazing – she is so spirited, and so conscientious and so kind to the crew and such a cheerleader for everybody’s beautiful work on the film. It’s hard to imagine pulling it off without Kate at its center core.”
According to Haynes, the initial appeal of the project was precisely the freedom afforded him by the medium of television to tell an expansive story, and in the specific case of “Mildred Pierce,” address a lot of issues not previously examined in Michael Curtiz's 1945 version. “The reason to do ‘Mildred Pierce’ was based entirely on what a different kind of an audience and a different kind of venue could offer, in terms of a multi-part extended drama where you could really faithfully adapt a novel,” Haynes said. “It wasn’t until I read that novel, which so much was not a part of that original film, the Joan Crawford version, and which felt so startlingly relevant to our exact, immediate economic crisis that we were confronting at the time.”
“I read the book in the summer of 2008 right as the financial markets were starting to topple, and as they fully fell, I was like, man, this is like talking about what’s happening right now,” he continued. “But it was also so much about a sort of middle-class identity crisis around the Depression set in Los Angeles at this particular time, and I just felt like, that’s exactly this audience, or that’s what we keep hearing about.”
Ever the iconoclast, Haynes admitted he felt like he was being slightly subversive by bringing these intimate issues right into the homes of people whose lives the film was exploring. “We’re hearing about middle-class identity and a radical shift in who we are as a culture and what our options are as a middle-class culture,” he observed. “It felt relevant, and it felt by sort of sneaking into people’s living rooms with this material, it could actually be a much more meaningful engagement with these issues.” Meanwhile, he admitted he wasn’t sure if viewers took away all that he attempted to expose, but he appreciates the audience turnout all the same. “Whether that happened or not, I don’t know, but I know more people saw ‘Mildred’ than probably anything I’ve done as an independent filmmaker. And I kind of dug the idea that this was going to be a very different audience for me.”
It remains to be seen whether members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association respond as strongly to the project as audiences did. (The Golden Globes are being held this Sunday, January 15.) But Haynes said his relationship with the folks at HBO was so good that he’s eager to collaborate with them again. “I had a fantastic working relationship with the HBO folks,” he said. “I found them to be extremely smart, extremely supportive, extremely demanding of complex material, open to my rhythms, the rhythms of the film and the pace, the detail that we were able to show, I was truly impressed by that.” While he said there were several ideas he’d like to explore for the network, the only potential TV project he could discuss was one that would reunite him with his longtime leading lady, Julianne Moore ("Far From Heaven," "Safe," "I'm Not There").
“There are things I’m thinking about that would warrant another multi-part long-form treatment,” he revealed. “There’s a property Julianne Moore brought to HBO, this book called ‘Dope,’ set in New York in the 1950s, sort of the drug underworld of New York. It’s a very interesting piece that she was interested in developing into a series and asked me to do the pilot episode and sort of launch it, which I would love to do if that was something they were still behind. So that’s sort of in the periphery of my immediate future with the company.” Regardless, Haynes seemed confident that their partnership would continue for years to come.
“I have some plans up my sleeves with those guys,” he said. “They were great. And I think they felt the same about us.”