Cinephiles need no introduction to Todd Haynes, the Oscar-nominated, endlessly lauded director of Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Poison, elaborately layered works that double as introductory Film Studies texts. But Mildred Pierce, a five-part adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel whose first two parts air back-to-back on HBO Sunday night, takes Haynes out of the art house and into the living room, an environment where viewers aren’t used to mingling drama and deconstruction. If Haynes’ naturalistic take, adapted with Kelly Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, owes anything to his knowledge of film history, it’s in the way the movie—“miniseries,” though accurate, seems wrong—inserts itself into the lineage of television melodrama, the lowest and least-observed corner of a historically disreputable medium, and one of few arenas where female protagonists dominate the board.
There’s nothing soapy about Mildred Pierce, but it’s an unabashed and enormously affecting weepie, devoted to the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships and staged in the female spaces of bedrooms and kitchens. In the midst of the Great Depression, iron-willed housewife Mildred (Kate Winslet) drives out her unfaithful failure of a husband and pledges to provide for her two daughters herself. The revelation that her mother is getting her hands dirty as a hash-house waitress scandalizes Mildred’s elder daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner for the first three episodes, Evan Rachel Wood thereafter), an innately snobbish child whose hostility to her mother only softens when she begins dating society-page scion Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce).
The battles between Mildred and Veda take on the stature of Greek tragedy, but Haynes never loses track of the details that make the story so enthralling, like the minute efficiencies that turn Mildred’s chicken-and-waffle restaurant into a Depression-era hit. One thing he pays little attention to is Mildred’s 1945 film version, a Joan Crawford tour de force that imports the noir trappings of Cain’s hard-boiled novels. Haynes’ version is flooded with Southern California sun, an ironic counterpart to its increasingly dark turns. A week before Mildred’s première, Haynes sat down with The A.V. Club in New York to talk about balancing contemporary concerns and period feel, and why he toned down his self-aware style to reach out to a new audience. Warning: minor Mildred Pierce spoilers ahead.
The A.V. Club: The natural expectation when word first surfaced that you’d be returning to the source of a classic melodrama was that Mildred Pierce would be a Far From Heaven redux. But Mildred’s style is radically different from anything you’ve done before, in that it’s far more naturalistic.
Todd Haynes: It was always the idea. This will become a redundant refrain, but I always took my cues from the book. The style of the book invariably affected aspects of the way we depicted it, although of course Cain uses this tough, minimal kind of language and one can extrapolate his hard-boiled, more classic first-person novels from The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. But [Mildred] is him trying hard to do something different and be omniscient and speak in the third person and observe this relationship with very selective moments of psychological and emotional description, which when they occur have all the greater impact. Jon Raymond said, “You should read Mildred Pierce, the book—it’s really, really great.” I said, “I’ve seen the film” and he said he’d never seen the film, so we kept it that way. He never watched the movie, and I stayed away from the movie during the making of the film.
I was reading the book during the summer and fall of the financial meltdown, and it made me feel like this was such a relevant story to tell. But how to tell it was the question. I looked to the films of the ’70s as a point of reference, because my first curiosity was at the level of writing. I remember those films as feeling like they were taking American genres and bringing them to a contemporary audience, this new generation of filmmakers. But what exactly was it about them that made them feel contemporary and sophisticated and that they were always speaking about the times they were in? Was it at the level of the script? Was it something they had done differently with the genres of those scripts? And you realize no, it really isn’t. They’re fairly faithful to the generic traditions they take on. It’s really more a manner of eschewing the strong visual styles and filmic language associated with the genres: noir gangster stories in Chinatown or horror films and The Exorcist. There’s a kind of dressing-down of the strong studio language of those kinds of movies and a more observational distance, a kind of restraint of cutting and angles. And a different kind of breed of actors, of course, and different kinds of locations. So those were the cues that we took in a way almost of tricking audiences into feeling that same relevance. That was my goal: to make it feel contemporary while being faithful to the time.
AVC: You come out of a background in semiotic film theory and radical queer filmmaking, both of which involve in a sustained challenge of traditional storytelling modes. Did you have concerns about embracing a style that’s more transparent, that camouflages what you’ve previously worked to expose?
TH: No. I still felt that kind of naturalism was a different set of codes, and another artificial language that could be used for specific means, and I wanted to experience and explore it. I was also aware that this was a very different audience that I’m talking to. I respect that and I like that. I like that it’s coming into their living rooms directly through a piece of furniture that’s in their house.
AVC: Whether they like it or not.
TH: Whether they like it or not. I didn’t want to set up obstacles in how to read this story. To me, the social and political themes that interested me the most were within the narrative itself, or within the story that I was trying to tell. If anything, I wanted to make the themes of the stories, the conflicts of the stories, feel as available to an audience as possible, so that they could really enter into it with their own investment in the characters, and their dilemmas would be what the learning experience would be about, or that’s what the issues and conflicts would come out of. And that, in many ways, just meant paying close attention to Veda and making her feel as genuine and authentic a person as possible.
AVC: Veda’s the great challenge. You’ve got this young middle-class woman who in the midst of the Great Depression conceives this morbid distaste for wage-earning, in a time when large numbers of people were desperate for work of any kind. In the 1945 version, Veda is positioned as an outgrowth of her mother’s social-climbing snobbery, but it’s not that simple here. There are moments when Veda feeds her mother’s ambition rather than the other way around; Veda is horrified her mother is working as a waitress, so Mildred makes up a lie about learning the business so she can start her own restaurant, and then she decides to follow through on it.
AVC: Is there a kind of conservatism embedded in that? The blueprints for her husband’s failed development project, Pierce Homes, bear the slogan “Good enough for folks,” which is a much more modest form of aspiration than Mildred embodies. Is there a sense in which she’s punished for reaching too far beyond her station?
TH: I think there’s a cautionary element in there. One can’t help apply to the fact that this story comes right out of an excess of consumption in the ’20s and the housing boom that collapsed, and that I re-encountered it at the end of our own much more brutal, or comparably brutal, boom and bust, and a much longer period of mindless consumption that was revved on by a conservative strain of middle-class values or whatever drumbeat. What it doesn’t tell you is that there is a right way to do it. It doesn’t show you the good example. It shows you that there are these potential dangers lurking in basic middle-class yearning and that there are extreme dangers embedded in maternal configurations and expectations, and the irresolvable conflicts between mother and child.
AVC: There are polls showing that Americans consistently place themselves higher in social class than they actually are; in one case, that 19 percent think they’re in the top 1 percent. It brings to mind the poignant symbolism of Monty Beragon living in this enormous mansion that’s been stripped to the bare walls, maintaining a single room as a vestige of his former wealth. There’s a basic failure to face up to reality there.
TH: Exactly. Amazing. I know.
AVC: It’s the Depression-era equivalent of driving a leased Lexus while defaulting on your mortgage.
TH: Well, it’s one way that we can explain why so often American voters vote against their own interests and preserve whatever: deregulation and voting for big business and favoring the wealthy, and then going out to the Lotto every day and spending that dollar, hoping and thinking that might just be them, and you better not foreclose those freedoms at the top.
AVC: American movies aren’t particularly interested in work, especially women’s work. Men are identified with their jobs, even though we don’t see much of them, women by their relationships, as mother or lover or friend. But in Mildred Pierce, some of the most loving sequences are devoted to the way the restaurant kitchen operates, and the refinements Mildred makes to the process over time. I felt a giddy kind of joy watching the plates changing hands.
TH: I agree. That’s how I felt reading the book. That’s what got me so excited about doing the film version and having the space enough to develop that and get into stuff that people would think is wasted time, or that you can condense it or you don’t have to tell the whole story or show the whole process. At a certain point, the opening of the restaurant is almost like a backstage musical. The upstairs and downstairs are the wings and the audience, and I loved that about it. I think that’s so exciting. You get completely invested in what it takes, and the small elements really matter. Watching her become skilled and train herself, and watching this sort of innate, almost unacknowledged talent that she has, starting with making pies and ending up being a sort of entrepreneur. Things she never knew she even had until she was forced to go out there.
AVC: The very first thing we see is Mildred’s hands making pies, although it takes a couple of episodes to fully grasp its significance. Her fanatical emphasis on efficiency—“Never make a trip in or out without something in your hand”—makes her the Henry Ford of chicken and waffles, if not the Frederick Taylor.
TH: Yeah. A sense of economy. It really is about capitalism, this story, and I think in some ways how those themes or models invade domestic conflicts. There’s this value that both women keep extracting from the other and each requires from the other. It motors a machine of withholding and desire that propels them and fuels this engine that gets played out through themes of money and labor in the film.
AVC: Mildred’s emphasis on hard work—“Do your duty and a little bit more”—contrasts with Veda’s grotesque sense of entitlement, as well as her innate gifts. She practices piano for years, but has to confront the fact that she’s only a “Glendale wunderkind,” and then all of a sudden she finds out she’s a natural operatic coloratura. The way that’s glossed over is a little bit absurd, although there’s the superficial explanation that she’s simply built to sing.
TH: It is the explanation. Exactly. But it is something that she’d been intensely training and committed at. She had skills. It took a combination of something innate and something intensely practiced and procured over time.
AVC: She’d never admit that, of course, that the music training her mother paid for is integral to her eventual success. That’s what’s so infuriating about her. The vicious and heartless way she treats her mother makes it difficult not to loathe her, but even though we’re meant to identify with Mildred’s sorrow and her feelings of betrayal, we also need to understand what she loves in Veda, or else she’s just a sap. How do you understand where Veda comes from?
TH: I find it easy to understand, up to the last episode where it takes certain turns. The aspects of her duping of the Forrester family, that is narratively excessive. But kids always have to push back against their parents, and when you have strong maternal investment in you—which I had, and even though I didn’t have the kind of mother/daughter extra stuff that often accompanies that, I still had to push back and create some space and become the executioner, almost, of that love. I witnessed stuff between my mother and my sister that only emerged when my sister was in adolescence, an extra kind of scrutiny and pressure from the mother to the daughter that I may never completely understand. That’s about the maternal projections onto the daughter and the difficulty of two women trying to forge distinct and separate lives, subjectivities, who are also objects in the world. And learning what that means and what their bodies represent and suggest and what sort of powers their bodies contain. The level at which Mildred invests in Veda means there is going to need to be extra pushback—I mean, an extraordinary amount of it. When [Veda’s younger sister] Ray dies, that sort of hysteria around loss is all the more unnatural.
Then there are these really key moments, very important ones narratively, like when Veda is first cast out of the music teacher’s office, the first one, and she says, “Mother, I thought he wasn’t going to take me and then he said that I was good and I had a mind.” You realize her own self-doubt is exposed, and that façade of being completely intact and secure is shifted. Maybe even more importantly with the second one, when she really is rejected as a piano student by Treviso. Everything about her self-regard: The projections of Mildred’s investment in her are just mortifying and horrifying to her, and it makes her feel even more of a failure because of all of the estimations that Mildred has been laying on her through her whole life. That’s just pure teen self-hatred that you project onto your parent. These are all things I remember, and I came from nothing like this household. There was a sort of brutality that was required to exert your own voice.