Todd Haynes finds renewed relevance in 'Mildred Pierce.'

Haynes Reaches Mainstream with Thoroughly Modern ‘Mildred’

Michael Fox March 27, 2011

Todd Haynes’ smashing adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce into a five-part HBO miniseries marks the New Queer Cinema pioneer’s first foray into television since the irreverent ITVS-funded short Dottie Gets Spanked. That was back in 1993, a couple years after Haynes’s unflinching Poison challenged gay audiences and provoked gasbag Senator Jesse Helms. In the intervening years, Haynes skipped from right-wing target to Academy Award nominee (for the screenplay for Far From Heaven) to Dylan interpreter (I’m Not There). Only those with long memories, in other words, may find it noteworthy that the iconoclastic filmmaker has been granted entrée to the high-profile world of mass-culture television. (Read to the end of our interview, and you may detect some ambivalence on Haynes’ part.) Most viewers will simply see in Mildred Pierce a continuation of Haynes’ fascination with strong women defined by home, environment, society and the men they choose to get involved with. Kate Winslet gives a bravura, lived-in performance as a single mother juggling work, children and an active sex life in the 1930s. We sat down with Haynes just before he took the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas stage Thursday night to introduce the first two parts to a sneak-preview audience; SFFS Director of Programming Rachel Rosen moderated a Q&A afterward. Mildred Pierce premieres this Sunday, March 27, on HBO.

SF360: Is it easier to talk about the present through a piece that’s set in another time?

Todd Haynes: That’s always been my tendency. My leaning is to pick periods from the past that have a relevance or have some meaning to the present moment. It’s my reasoning for picking that particular subject and that time to tell a story. And that’s definitely true with Mildred.

SF360: The depiction of working-class women, especially in the waitress scenes. reminded me of the contemporary reporting of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.

Haynes: I don’t know if you’d say ahead of his time. I just think he was incredibly insightful about the way he links the potential dangers embedded in mother-daughter dynamics with dangers embedded in middle-class aspirations, and how overinvesting in either place can lead to problems. Now, he wrote this at the end of a housing bubble that exploded and became an economic depression. When I read the novel for the first time, it was just as the financial industries were on the brink in ’08. It was due to the urging of my friend Jon Raymond, who became my co-writer. I’d known the film version and had never read the novel, and he had never seen the film and had only known the novel.

I hadn’t actually seen Mildred Pierce in a while, I don’t think, and I haven’t watched it since I read it and decided to adapt it. But I just don’t remember the Depression in it. You know, I remember it as that beautiful piece of Michael Curtiz production in the ’40s, and it feels very much like a ’40s Joan Crawford vehicle. I think that’s an amazing, indelible performance,  and I think it’s a beautiful piece of some hybrid noir, a Hollywood style with a flashback melodrama going on. But based on just that, I would never have wanted to remake it. It wasn’t until I saw how much the economic themes were driving this story and this relationship, that it was a much longer span of time the book covers—like a 10-year span—and then all of these themes that were completely elided from the film, like Veda’s classical music career. And how much more that means in the guise,  in the language of class and overinvestment in a child and in their potential to ascend.

What the classical music success means versus Veda becoming a torch singer [in the Curtiz movie], which basically means Mildred gets to keep the upper hand through the whole film and doesn’t have to confront the dangers of her own fantasies and visions and investment in her daughter, and how much they basically guarantee her losing her daughter. It’s so much more complicated and interesting. And then the whole sexual description of her life with Monty, which is in the book quite vividly. Extremely modern, [and] in that way it’s a very relevant, ahead of its time book. But it’s just telling us things about the past that in our post-’60s arrogance we never knew they explored.

SF360: Of course, a female character with an active sex life would have been viewed and judged entirely differently in a ’40s film than today.

Haynes: Oh, absolutely.

SF360: I thought of
Far From Heaven while I was watching Mildred Pierce, and I’m now convinced that you’re one of the few living filmmakers with the ability to express a post-camp, post-noir, non-ironic view. Were you aware from the start of pitfalls you needed to avoid?

Haynes: The one thing I would question is I think Far From Heaven is so different, and that actually I was going head-on into the artificial language of ‘50s melodrama and wanting to take it completely to heart and see if the sort of classic melodramatic form could ever do the kind of work today that it did then. That work includes or embodies a lot of political subtext and social criticism within this completely consumable package. But it also employs the sort of pure cinematic plastic art like nothing else, because the subjects are relatively mute. They don’t really speak for themselves, they don’t really know who they are and so music and mise-en-scène and sets and camera angles fill it all in for you and tell you things that even they don’t realize about themselves. That was one experiment, and it was an experiment.

In this case, I really was aware that I was using the television medium. Of course, I was going to have this great longer form, this almost formless form, much more like a novel and less like generic cinema to tell the story, which was a great opportunity for me and a new experience for me. But I was also speaking to a very different audience, and I felt like it was important to remember that and respect that, and realize that we were coming into their lives through their living rooms. You know, entering their domestic space and talking about domestic issues. That meant finding a different model for what the style would be, how to tell this story. Noir didn’t make sense because it’s not a crime drama. I started watching movies from the ’70s, because I remember that all those films—I mean, I was coming of age watching those films for the first time, but of course now we all know that was that first film-school generation of filmmakers who loved classical Hollywood genres and were returning to them but without that intense reliance on traditional storytelling, filmic storytelling. The shadows, the mise-en-scène, the plastic form of cinema—they were actually dressing down those stylistic traditions and sobering up a little bit, and pulling back and observing the action with a little bit more restraint. And giving the audience room to read the stories and, I think, invariably read them against the times they were living in.

In this case, that goes back to the very first question you asked me. I think that’s why those films feel contemporary and relevant and modern, even though they are still intensely faithful to these traditional forms. There’s still the detective story in Chinatown, it’s still the gangster story in The Godfather, it’s still the horror film in The Exorcist. But they’re told with this serious, somewhat classical naturalism. And it’s different kinds of actors. It’s a different generation of actors who don’t all look like movie stars.

I literally made a list, because another weird thing about ’70s movies is how many are set in the Depression. I came up with like 50, just off the top of my head—I fudged by starting in ’68 with Bonnie and Clyde—but so many films! Also, Obama was campaigning in ’08 when I read the novel, and I thought maybe, maybe, just maybe that conservative era that began at the end of the ’70s was maybe ending now. So I felt that going to that midpoint in the ‘70s that preceded the conservative era, that had a direct link to the ’30s, [marked] the beginning and end of the progressive or liberal era. If we have to foreclose it that way. (laughs) I was less clairvoyant about the fact that the conservative era might have completely ended. But I do think there is an interesting identification from the ’70s to the ’30s. I was saying this as an aside because I didn’t even remember that Sounder was set in the ’30s when I thought back on it. It just felt like a story that you could totally get into, whereas costume dramas from decades prior always felt like ‘Costume Drama. We’re wearing the costumes now.’ The [’70s] films, because the actors were natural and the subjects felt like they were intensely believed in and treated with subtlety, felt relatable.

SF360: Thank you for so politely pointing out that it’s simplistic to lump Mildred Pierce and Far From Heaven together.

Haynes: No, no, the differences are so interesting but of course there’s continuity in domestic drama, and female-driven stories have been a continuing interest of mine from my first short movie, Superstar.

SF360: Peter Weir was recently quoted, when he was promoting The Way Back, ‘I’m not sure I’d go into film today. I might go into television, but I’m not sure about film. We’re in the midst of a tremendous sea change in the last 10 years. [Film’s] really swung over to being a children’s system of entertainment.’ Do you see your future in high-end television?

Haynes: I would definitely have another experience like this one in terms of the creative experience of working with a really smart studio that just happens to be in cable production. Also, I really love the idea that some stories make better sense told in multiple hours. That’s just a great option for a storyteller to have, so there may very well be ideas I have that would fit that. But in terms of working with the people and their support of the project and their support of the complexity and their continued investment in the most interesting themes of the storytelling, [it was] a component of the experience I never really expected based on working with any kind of financiers in the past. It’s always tough when you don’t always feel like you’re speaking the same language. [HBO] is also a solid, serious studio with resources. It was cool, it was very cool.

Ultimately it was about the fact that I picked all my favorite film people to work with, and we all innocent, ignorant filmmakers were working for television under that uniquely constrained, condensed time to shoot and complete the editing.

SF360: How many days did you shoot?

Haynes: It was 71 shooting days. You’d have to shoot three to six pages a day. In film, it’s one to three. That was tough.

SF360: It’s hard to find a way to ask this without taking onboard the fact that you’re an openly gay filmmaker, but what did you relate to about Mildred?

Haynes: I identified with her in the sense of thinking of times in my life where I’ve been in a not-great relationship that I’m overly fixated on because it’s not great. Where you’re stuck because you’re not getting what you want, or you’re in an overly desirous place and it’s not coming back so the desire stays really strong. So you’re caught in that desiring trap and yet I would need, at times, to go out and be me the director and make something and be productive. And I could tell that I was transforming those frustrations into work and into productivity. I was, at a certain level, grateful that I had that as a means to survive, basically to get it out of my system, externalize those frustrations and turn them into something else and work them out of me, which not everybody has.

But Mildred does that. And she doesn’t even realize it. She’s fixated on a relationship that is inappropriate and overly invested in her daughter, and romantic feelings are confused with maternal feelings, and all the rejection she’s receiving from this child has too much sway on her. And yet she turns that into stuff all the time, and that stuff is remarkable, and it keeps growing, and it keeps building, and she learns things about what she can do in the world that she never knew she could until she has to. But it’s out of a negative depletion that the positive excelling happens. That’s a fascinating pattern.

Veda is also an incredibly talented, productive person. Driven, committed, but everything she does and says is treasured and hung up on the wall [by Mildred] and then she’s a coloratura soprano and everything she does is gold. Mildred can give or take what she [herself] makes; she does her pies to sell them to make the money to pay for the dress that she wants to buy for Veda. And then she gets a restaurant and a second restaurant and a third restaurant but she’s not like, ‘Wow, check me out.’ She’s really like, ‘I just have to do this to get through.’ And at the very end, she’s like, ‘Take it all. I don’t give a shit.’ That’s so interesting to me.

SF360: Mildred’s business is an attempt to fill a void, but on some level it’s not really what drives her.

Haynes: The void keeps producing the need to keep doing other things that keep producing all these real things that are great. But you feel like she’s going to be OK, because I don’t think she’s totally through with Veda at the end of the movie but you do think, ‘She still has those hands. She can still do what she needs to with them when she has to.’

SF360: Your adaptation of Mildred Pierce points to a post-queer cinema. But what are your thoughts on where queer cinema is right now.

Haynes: My big concern is I don’t know what queer is anymore. I think it’s hard for me to consider movements, whether I’m a part of them or not, that don’t have something to do with resistance. When there was an AIDS epidemic that was being ignored, and when content associated with gay experimental artists or performance artists or fine artists or film artists were being challenged at the base level of content, there was a reason to resist and challenge a status quo or a set of assumptions that were already in play.

Since many of those battles have been won to a large degree, since now we talk about gay marriage and gays [serving openly in] the military as the leading gay issues, I’m inspired by those questions ’cause they have nothing to do with resistance, they have only to do with entering mainstream society and being absolutely and totally accommodated by it. I think those rights are absolutely germane and should exist and there shouldn’t be differentiation, but I’ve always been probably into the Genet view of homosexuality that what’s cool about it is why people think it’s criminal. That gives it real power. That gives it social usefulness. Because it makes you question dominant culture, mainstream culture, heterosexual culture, whatever you want to call it. It’s a way to undress, or critique, the mainstream. So entering the mainstream doesn’t give me any reason to make movies about that. I just don’t really care. There are many stories to tell about gay, straight, black, white, Republican, Democratic people. But unfortunately it’s not motivated by that great moment that I felt where a community defined by sexual orientation was fueled politically and culturally to take arms against brutal denials and dismissal of their worth around a particular epidemic.

We’re still in really interesting times, there’s no question. It’s sort of like three steps forward and 20 steps back or something. I don’t know how to define the times we’re in. The election of Obama was one extraordinary thing but then you saw what it’s unleashing in the acceptable rhetoric. Racial undertones or overtones that have born from that are highly disturbing. It’s a curious time we’re in; it’s a really intense time. And I also just worry that I’m just post my most experimental radical sensibility (laughs), like any person who’s been doing it a while may feel about their art. You start to feel like you’ve established yourself in the world, and I’ve benefited greatly from that, and the fact that actors want to work in my movies and I can do that, but it’s a different audience, too.