The revisionist spirit that shaped classic 1970s American films like Chinatown and The Godfather was a guiding source of inspiration for Todd Haynes in adapting James L. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce.
Haynes’ five-hour miniseries – his first foray into television – takes a naturalistic approach to shooting the Depression-era drama, which stars Kate Winslet and premieres March 27 on HBO.
Produced by Christine Vachon and Killer Films, it’s a decided departure from the noir approach of Michael Curtiz’ 1945 film version. “In the ‘70s, a lot of genre movies were getting reexamined by younger filmmakers who were bringing a more contemporary, more nuanced style to the storytelling,” Haynes explained. “I wanted to honor the bigger-than-life elements of the novel, but also bring out some of the human elements that were missing in the original production.”
Haynes’ intense, emotionally involving drama, co-written with Jon Raymond, focuses on Mildred’s journey as she struggles to provide for her children after her unemployed husband leaves, and her relationship with her materialistic daughter Veda, in whom she seems unnaturally invested. It drops the murder plot that was added in the Curtiz film, and features a different ending that adheres more closely to the novel. “James M. Cain despised the ending of the original film,” Haynes said. “He understood that what’s really hard is when all your dreams and aspirations for your child come true, and guarantee you losing them as a result. That makes a true tragedy and a much more interesting story.”
Working in television, Haynes said, was “so much more intense than any film I’ve been a part of – and it’s not like independent film is easy and langorous, by any stretch.”
The 16-week shoot, in which locations in New York and Long Island stood in for 1930s Los Angeles, “was a marathon experience,” he said. “We were hyper-focused every single day.”
Joining the discussion by satellite from London, Winslet revealed that she chose not to watch the Oscar-winning performance given by Joan Crawford in the 1945 version. “It’s a fine line when you know that someone extraordinary has played the role before,” Winslet said. “I saw the first five minutes, and then I thought, I shouldn’t watch this, because I wouldn’t have been able to un-see it. What I was working toward with Todd was just something different, and I knew that I had to just hang on to my instincts about it.”
The cast also includes Evan Rachel Wood as Veda, Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon, Mildred’s playboy lover; James Le Gros as Wally Bergun, a lover and business associate, and Melissa Leo as Mildred’s friend and neighbor.
Here's a trailer for the original Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford, who has been monstrously misrepresented in the media, argues David Denby in his revisionist New Yorker profile.
Here's the trailer for the Haynes HBO update: