TODD HAYNES SPECIALIZES in two kinds of movies: analytic music biopics (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story , Velvet Goldmine , I’m Not There ) and revisions of the genre that Hollywood dubbed the “woman’s picture” (Safe , Far from Heaven ). We can now add to the latter Mildred Pierce, a five-part miniseries that premieres this month on HBO. Fans of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford will be surprised to discover that in this new versionwhich faithfully adheres to the eponymous James M. Cain novel on which the earlier film, too, was basedthere is no murder mystery. Cain’s novel, an attempt by the author to break from the hard-boiled genre fiction with which he was identified by writing a serious piece of social realism in the mode of Theodore Dreiser, tells the story of a Depression-era mother struggling to give the daughter she loves beyond reason the life she never had for herself. It’s the mother-daughter symbiosis (rather than some trumped-up murder plot) that fuels the narrative in both the novel and Haynes’s miniseries. Hardworking, unimaginative Mildred hungers for the love of her talented but narcissistic and callous daughter Veda, who wants nothing more than to escape her clutches. Centered throughout on Mildred, the series starts slowly, gradually intensifying as the struggle between the two women becomes emotionally brutal. Carter Burwell’s score, punctuated by some lively jazz recordings, and cinematographer Edward Lachman’s lighting are expressive not only of the period but of underlying psychological dynamics. Perhaps the series’ crowning achievement comes at the end of episode 4, when Mildred, who has been completely estranged from the now adult Veda for months, sits staring at a radio from which the glorious coloratura soprano of her daughter issues forth. Never has Veda been more distant from and more mysterious for Mildred than when this medium of mass communication makes her accessible to all. The sequence is stunning, not only in the way it signals an irrevocable divide between mother and daughterthey literally exist in different registersbut also in that it suggests the beginnings of the thoroughly mediated society in which we live today.
AMY TAUBIN: The obvious question: How did you get involved with adapting Mildred Pierce, and why?
TODD HAYNES: I saw the movie first when I was in college at Brown, in Mary Ann Doane’s feminist film class. And we read Pam Cook’s article “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce.” It was all about the hybrid noir-melodrama.
AT: I never thought it was a noir.
AT: No, it has certain stylistic elements of noir in the framing story, but that’s about it. I think of it as a murder mystery crossed with a woman’s picture.
TH: Bifurcated. You know, the framing device of the murder and the detective inquiry, which was constructed by the studio, enabled Michael Curtiz to do nice, neat, tidy flashbacks, voice-over driven, that could supply all the backstory economically. But what I remember is the image of Joan Crawford with a shadow going across her face.
AT: Had you read the book back then?
TH: No, absolutely not. It was only fairly recently that my friend the writer Jon Raymond told me to read it. When I was working on Far from Heaven in New York, Jon was in a graduate program at the New School. I was meeting all of these “Yes, Mr. Haynes, I’ve seen all of your films” kind of assistants, and it just made me uncomfortable. I thought, “I’m going to ask Jon if he’d work with me on the movie,” and he said yes. All of a sudden I had a peer as my assistant, somebody who could sort of laugh a little bit about the whole adventure with me and keep me grounded. Jon said, “You’ve got to read the Cain novel Mildred Pierce.” He had never seen the movie. I had never read the book. This was during the I’m Not There period. So finally, in the summer of 2008, I did. The financial markets were starting to tumble and would reach their full collapse that fall, and there I was, reading this book set in the ’30s, during the Depression. I don’t remember the Depression even being referenced in the movie version of Mildred Pierce.
AT: No, they transposed the story to the World War II era, but the exact years are left pretty vague.
TH: I deliberately didn’t look at the movie again. But of course, we all think of it as a glamorous sort of ’40s Curtiz production with all the trimmings of a Joan Crawford vehicle that ultimately takes her to a level of sophistication and glamour worthy of her status. And yet what I remember is the very last shot, when the police realize she’s innocent, and she and her ex-husband walk out of the criminal-court building together, and the women are scrubbing the floor in the corner.
AT: When I teach the film, I always talk about how the studio had to reenclose her in that marriage, and that is so different in tone from the ending of the book.
TH: When I began reading the novel, I discovered that it bears scant resemblance to the film version. The book felt so shockingly current. It reflected what was happening right now. And then, of course, Mildred’s sexuality and the details of her erotic life are so frank and surprising and vivid and not at all what you expectsince we presume that there was no sex before the ’60s, which is utter malarkey. And so you learn a lot more about the sexual politics of that time and about the contradictions and complexities of this female character and, maybe most important, about the nuanced, mutually projected relationship between mother and daughter. I would classify the Michael Curtiz version as a noir because it offers only two choices for the female charactersto be good or badand that hangs over the film as an enigma that it will ultimately solve: Who’s innocent and who’s guilty of the murder? Mildred or Veda? And you know that as soon as one is deemed guilty, the other is fully redeemed. There can’t be any middle ground. But in Cain’s book, the situation is just so much more interesting, multicolored, and complex. The novel may be even harsher on Mildred than we’ve been in our miniseries. In the book, when Mildred discovers that her estranged daughter has become a coloratura soprano on the radio, she decides she’s going to get her back and that she’s going to marry Monty Beragon [the charming playboy whose social status and disdain for middle-class pieties make Veda adore him] if that’s what it takes. There’s no sense of any chemistry remaining between Mildred and her former lover, just this ulterior motive to get Veda back, and Mildred goes for him like a shark. We changed that a little bit in our version, because I wanted there to be this genuine rapport between Mildred and Monty. Maybe it exists only in the bedroom, but it’s something that can be retriggered and that complements these other goals. Which is what we do in life. We have multiple clusters of motivations for going out with people. Cain’s impetus was to tell the story of a woman who uses men to get what she wants, and he was simultaneously tracing the formation of a coloratura soprano, the evolution of this very distinct character of Veda Pierce.
AT: So how did this project come about?
TH: Christine Vachon [who has produced all of Haynes’s movies] had worked with HBO on two feature films. She suggested that there might be interest from cable in my doing a long-form dramatic piece. We were great consumers of television series like The Wire and The Sopranos. I’d get caught up in the serial nature of them. Nothing came to mind, though, until I read Mildred Pierce. Because the Curtiz film is such a classic, I knew that the book would need to be explored fresh. And so a long-form dramatic piece made sense.
AT: And when did Kate Winslet come into it?
TH: I pictured her from my first read of Cain’s description of this woman, who has this intense work ethic and this driven physicality, this determination and force. Mildred is a young mother. She was seventeen when she had Veda, and her age span in the book is from twenty-eight to thirty-seven. Kate Winslet happened to be right in the middle of that span. She has this fierce workhorse aspect, and there’s also an erotic side to her that we’ve seen in certain roles, and her fearlessness. I just felt that she was meant to play this role. And that she would bring something totally different to it than Joan Crawford did.
AT: Just sticking with the idea of serial television, were there any miniseries that you were addicted tonot ongoing like The Wire?
TH: As a kid in the ’70s, I was into the BBC miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and then in the ’80s, Brideshead Revisited. With Mildred Pierce, I wanted something that felt like a hybrid of the miniseries form and the revisionist feature filmmaking of the ’70s, which brought a certain sophistication to classic genres, like the gangster film in The Godfather , the detective film in Chinatown , the horror movie in The Exorcist . It imbued those genres with a maturity and a political relevance that they hadn’t necessarily had in the decades prior. But when I look at them today, no matter how stylistically and formally beautiful they are, they don’t challenge the conventions of the genres. They comply with the generic forms. It was more the performances, the cinematography, the rhythms, and, in terms of period films, a kind of dressed-down idea of the costume drama that made them seem more modern.
AT: Doesn’t it have more to do with codes of realism than genre?
TH: Absolutely. Realism is a constructed idea that’s always changing. And that’s why, looking back at films from the ’70s that felt realistic at the time, I was surprised to see that they follow the generic conventions completely. The performances have more nuance, the actors aren’t as glamorous, and there’s no noir lighting in any of those films. They’re using a sense of natural light, real locations, and different kinds of cues to establish their realism. But they still follow the generic tradition. And today those ’70s stylistics don’t connote realism any more than the ’30s style does. Now, handheld camera and the constant showing of every detail are what pass for realistic filmmaking, for naturalism.
AT: It’s what’s called observational cinema, right? So where do you think your series falls in relation to ’70s cinema and today’s? It isn’t handheld . . .
TH: No, no, no. Actually, the term observational is funny in relation to what we did, because our camera is also very self-consciously observationalit pulls back from the action, it favors long shots, and it favors all kinds of shots through windows, through doorframes, through glass, throughyou know, there’s a kind of voyeuristic observational element, but with a completely classic, controlled, and restrained camera.
AT: I was also very much aware, as I always am in your work, of certain kinds of close-ups of process. The first episode opens with close-ups of Mildred’s hands making a pie. It’s exactly like the opening of the book. But did the amount of detail and tight framing have anything to do with television? Were you thinking about a small screen?
TH: It was more about conveying a sense of time and place through detail. When I made my image book of the film to use in discussing the look with the production designer, the cinematographer, the costume designer, and whichever actors were interested, I pretty much took historical photography of Los Angeles in the ’30s and interlaced it with this new naturalism of ’70s filmmaking. It was different from the stylized sort of language of ’30s cinema vis-à-vis the ’50s that I had explored in Far from Heaven. I was also looking closely at Bound for Glory , a collection of the work of WPA-era photographers, and some of it is color as early as the late ’30s. The quality of the color is like nothing you see anywhere elsenot in the early color films of the ’30s or in late-’40s or ’50s color photography. It’s totally distinct. It has a muted palette but still maintains its full spectrum. It doesn’t look like hand-tinted photography or like early Technicolor. That was a real influence.
At the beginning of the project, Mark Friedberg, our designer, who was also the designer on Far from Heaven, became the most significant figure creatively. We were thinking about how to convey the 1930s when we didn’t have the budget to construct ’30s Los Angeles in LA or in New Yorkyou know, to do whole street builds. Mark said, “You should look at this guy,” and dropped a book of Saul Leiter’s color photography on the table. All of a sudden we were looking at these unbelievably beautiful photographs that were riffing on some of the images that I already had in my production book but took it way furtherrefracted shots through precipitation on windows, and dirty bus windows looking out onto the street, and reflections and distortions. They conveyed much more of a sense of time and place than a panoramic view of the street would, and which we could never produce anyway. And that became a touchstone. I gave the book to Jon Raymond when we were being asked to cut the script down to a size we could afford to shoot. And the Saul Leiter visual language gave us a template for minimizing the plot and the writing on the page. It was influential in a lot of surprising ways.
AT: So now it becomes obvious why you shot on film. Ed Lachman said you used Super 16.
TH: Because Super 16 can accommodate the aspect ratio. I wanted 16 because I really wanted that grain. Stocks and lenses today are so fast, so high-speed, that you lose the grain. And when you look at these ’70s films, the first thing you see is grain dancing on the surface of the screen.
AT: When I was talking to Lachman, he asked, “Why are so many gay men interested in Mildred Pierce?” And the film is also an icon of feminist studies. But, frankly, I can’t see many heterosexual men being interested in the Mildred Pierce mother-daughter dyad.
TH: In fact, the movie had never been one of my favorite maternal melodramas, a form that has had a huge impact on me as a filmmaker.
AT: Which are your favorites?
TH: Well, [Douglas] Sirk’s and many others. If you’re talking about strong female actors from that period, I will take Bette Davis over Joan Crawford anytime. It’s just my personal taste. And the Veda-versus-Mildred conflict in the original film just doesn’t sustain my curiosity. Veda is cast as so venal and irredeemable, and Mildred is sort of proud and proper. It’s so true to Joan Crawford’s own life that it’s like watching a documentary. But Cain’s Mildred is contradictory, and these ambiguous aspects were harder for Crawford to convey because she was so invested in propriety, in attaining respectability. She really had a lower-middle-class upbringing and spent most of her life striving to gain status culturally, through marriages and through different relationships. It’s very similar to Mildred’s plight.
AT: What is it about the mother-daughter relationship in the book that drew you to it?
TH: The ways in which it relates to issues of identity. And, of course, identity and its pathologies have always been interests of mine. What an incredibly fraught process the separation of mother and daughter is, maybe even more so than of father and son. Because of the role as object that women are encouraged to play in society, the differentiation between mother and daughter is full of confusions and projections. I think that men, who are allowed to simply become subjects, have an easier time. Male aggression and competition help propel that division between father and son, through classical Oedipal terms.
In the book, the struggle for identity is all tangled up in the American dream of social ascension, the hope that your children can achieve goals that you yourself couldn’t. Mildred gives Veda all these things that she didn’t have growing up. She dreams her daughter will one day be a concert pianist. And Veda is striving to be something great, which for her entails rejectingeven looking down oneverything her mother stands for. It’s amazing to me that the one consistent thing about the woman’s film is the extent to which class plays into the mother-daughter dilemma, the way women and women’s bodies are the displayersalmost the conductorsof class aspiration in the family. The mother is always the one who says, “No, we’re this kind of a family, and these are the things we do, and this is how we dress, and this is how we behave.” And that plays into the American desire to keep transcending class limitations generationally. And it’s all the more fully played out here because Mildred is the provider. Mildred is this industrious figure who is the breadwinner, so she literally materializes the rise in social standing that she also projects onto Veda. What I discovered is how much those middle-class American expectations of ascension took shape in one decade: the 1920s. And today we’re suffering from this psychic crisis of a crumbling economy after thirty years of unbridled consumption. We share the same crises of social identity after the crash that we see in Mildred Pierce, which is the story of middle-class identity crisis. Today it’s not breadlines and dust bowls but the middle class worrying about who we are now that we’re not making the money we once did. Those expectations and values took form in the ’20s.
AT: So your Mildred Pierce is a contemporary update on the woman’s film in the way, say, Chinatown breathed new relevance into the detective story during the Watergate era?
TH: I’m so proud to be telling this story right now, this tough-love morality tale that takes the innate pathologies of domestic life, in the mother-daughter relationship, and links them to the irreconcilable pathologies inherent in the American dream of social ascension and the psychological costs that underwrite it. There’s a fine line between being a solid middle-class mother who wants the best for her daughter and the spoiling of those very values, just as there’s a fine line between the rugged, can-do pluckiness that defines us as a cultureor so we’d like to thinkand the contamination of that virtue. What you end up with is an unbridled character like Veda.
Working on Mildred Pierce, I came to love the way those two irreconcilable things are paralleled. And it’s not sentimental. It’s a woman’s filmit’s full of emotion and death and so on, but there’s a dose of hard-boiled toughness from Cain and the kind of 1930s “buck up” sensibility that’s just so lacking today. We’re such an indulgent, whiny, self-pitying culture. So there’s a lot to learn from that time. It’s exciting to be putting it out there now. And I did TV. I didn’t do Berlin Alexanderplatz, but come on, you can’t have everything.
Mildred Pierce premieres on HBO on March 27.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.