Writer/director and executive producer Todd Haynes made his film debut with Poison, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His other movies have included Far from Heaven, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There.
His new miniseries for HBO, Mildred Pierce, based on James M Cain’s classic 1941 novel, tells a story as relevant as today’s news, as a single mother (Kate Winslet) struggles to carve out a new life during the Depression to provide for her family, while juggling difficult relationships with her wealthy boyfriend, Monty (Guy Pearce), and her contentious daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood).
When we see this era we somehow expect an operatic style of acting. Were you concerned about that?
I’m a great admirer of Michael Curtiz’s original film.
I was startled and surprised by reading the James M Cain novel, which I read right as the financial markets were tumbling in the United States, at how incredibly frank and how much he was really purposefully trying to not do a film noir as he’d come to be known for in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Identity, but really doing a realistic portrait of a mother-daughter relationship set in the ten year span of the depression in Los Angeles.
The frankness with which he dealt with Mildred’s sexuality, her relationship with Monty, and the complexity between the two women characters, mother and daughter, was so much more nuanced and so much more relevant, I thought, and more relatable than I ever truly felt about the original film, which is a beautifully, stylized piece of Hollywood operatic, noir filmmaking. This felt more modern, contemporary and approachable, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to take it on.
I’m a great fan and consumer of television. I love serial drama. I have been a major fan of HBO’s series for many years, and I have been interested in the whole challenge of doing a long-form piece of dramatic adaptation that lends itself to an extended format like this. So it was exciting. It was a real creative challenge.
How is the miniseries different from the movie?
What the film version [passed over] completely was the success of Veda’s musical career and innate talents and it turned her into a tawdry torch singer in the last act, which James M Cain despised and claimed that it completely dispersed all of the dramatic tension between the mother and daughter, because what’s really hard is when all of the dreams and aspirations that you wish for your child come true and guarantee you losing them as a result.
So the oceans part between Veda and Mildred for all the reasons Mildred wanted and worked so hard to create the correct conditions for. So that makes a true tragedy and a much more interesting story.
Were you ever concerned that Kate comes from England, Guy is from Australia, and they are both playing Americans in this?
It wasn’t an impediment to me for casting these amazing actors. I have seen these actors explore dialects and regional specificity on both sides of the pond in many different roles, and it’s always more difficult.
Evan is an American but she had to speak a very specific kind of dialect that doesn’t really exist anymore, which is a sort of aspiring beyond your middle-class upbringing in the 1930’s. She had to have a precision in her speech that you don’t hear anymore. All of these actors had very specific challenges that go far beyond their regional origins as actors.
Can you talk about casting them for the miniseries?
For some reason, I pictured Kate when I first started to read the book. I had never met Kate. I hadn’t worked with her before. And I could not get her out of my mind while I was reading. It just felt so innately right and so constitutionally correct that this was the only actress I could see playing this part.
Guy Pearce just embodies Monty Beragon. I don’t know how he does it. Watching him become Monty was a thoroughly thrilling thing to behold as he got to the core of that blueblood inherited way of speaking and carrying oneself. It was a beautiful counter-energy to Mildred, who represents middle-class upbringing and all the potential it represents.
Evan Rachel Wood just blew all of our minds with her ability to make her character seem utterly believable in every capacity. The result is so stunning that it’s almost frightening to think, in retrospect, of the outcome had Evan not been our Veda.
Is Veda an indictment against single motherhood? Is she a sociopath or is this about her not being raised right?
It’s so compelling and complex in the book, the sort of parallel tracks of exploration that he’s looking at. One is the mother-daughter dynamic, and the other is class in America and how in both cases sometimes the most natural thing in the world can turn against itself and create irreconcilable conflict.
The mother-daughter relationship is one where the mother wants to always maintain closeness to her daughter and the daughter needs to differentiate herself and individuate and separate These are two absolutely polar opposite urges that get played out in many different ways, in many different homes, but they’re always there to some degree. There is no simple resolution.
The crises explores 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.