IT’S A FRIGID FEBRUARY DAY in New York City. The streets are covered in snow, a historic storm is imminent, and director Todd Haynes has a cold. But in the post-production screening room of the company Technicolor, all talk centers on warmth. “Can you make it more butterscotch and honeycolored?” Haynes asks the resident colorist, inflecting his voice for emphasis with the treacly tone of a late-night phone-sex vixen.
This is the Academy Award–nominated director’s 13th month away from his Portland home and 27th week of post-production for the ambitious five-part HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce, Haynes’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s sprawling novel about a divorced woman’s rise in business and fall with her daughter, famously personified in the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford. With the first two episodes set to debut on March 27, Haynes is whittling away at the final details. Wearing a plaid shirt, Adidas high tops, and his wavy brown hair tousled, still boyish-looking despite the encroaching gray, he is huddled in the dark theater with the colorist, the director of photography, the editor, and his assistant over a lunch of lemongrass pork. They’re color-correcting the pivotal fifth episode—when Mildred risks her hard-earned business on a gamble to get her daughter back—shot by shot, minute by minute.
“It’s still feeling drained,” he says of the next camera angle, between bites. A meticulous eye for detail, he’s eating now because he spent his entire lunch break tweaking a single 10-second camera pan. “It’s doing what we never do, but can you make it more warm?” he asks. This time, affecting a droll of an academic lecturer, he adds, “Put it through the traditional period drama filter.”
Of course, coming from the same director who cast Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, Mildred Pierce is anything but the traditional period drama. Like his other films, it is a complex layering of genres and cultural references, a story as much about today as it is about its setting in the Great Depression. Most of all, it is Haynes’s latest reinvention of that all-too-rare genre in contemporary filmmaking: the female-centered drama. While over the 24 years of his independent film career, Haynes is equally known for his flamboyant, collage-like, boy rock movies I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine, it is the narrative, genre-defined, women-driven domestic dramas that have won him his greatest victories, artistically and commercially.
Far From Heaven, the 2002 stylized scrutiny of a 1950s upper-middle-class woman (Julianne Moore) struggling to find herself amid suffocating social norms and suburban isolation, earned four Academy Award nominations, won numerous other awards, and became his first mainstream success. Haynes’s second feature, 1995’s Safe—about an emotionally bereft housewife (also Moore, in one of her first leading roles) who develops an allergy to the chemicals pervasive in modern life and retreats to a New Age center in search of an antidote—was named the best film of the 1990s by the Village Voice’s poll of critics.
“When young filmmakers say, ‘There’s one movie that made me want to be a filmmaker,’ half the time that’s Safe,” says indie superproducer Christine Vachon, who met Haynes in college and has produced all of his movies.
Due to a unique burden of conformity that they carry and a direct relationship to emotions, women are the most interesting subjects on film. —Todd Haynes
With Mildred Pierce, Haynes continues his practice of recasting the past, in particular the tribute he paid to the “women’s pictures” of the 1950s with Far From Heaven. The 1945 movie version of Mildred is a giant of the genre, one that spun the story closer to novelist Cain’s hard-boiled noir classics, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, by adding a murder and upping Mildred’s glamour to make the costumes worthy of Crawford. Haynes, though, returned to Cain’s original story and cast the decidedly un-Crawford-like Kate Winslet as the bootstrapping Mildred, who kicks out her unemployed husband and struggles from waitress to restaurant owner. Despite its startlingly frank portrayals of her sexual relationships and her willingness to clomp over the era’s social stigmas against divorce and women in the workplace, Mildred Pierce is at heart an unrequited love story between Mildred and her daughter Veda (played by Evan Rachel Wood), whose insatiable hunger for status and wealth threatens to destroy her mother’s hard-earned success.
The gritty miniseries may be most viewers’ first introduction to Haynes, for unlike many other successful independent directors, he hasn’t chosen to parlay his critical success into a ticket to direct big-budget blockbusters. Yet while Mildred Pierce will beam his un-Hollywood tastes straight into the mainstream’s home entertainment centers, for Haynes it’s not about the accolades or the exposure; it’s about the best way to tell the story. “I want to do it as a miniseries so it can be as long as it needs to be, because there’s so much that goes on,” he said when he first started writing the script in late 2009. “But also I want it to be in people’s living rooms. It should come right through the portal into your domestic life, because female-driven stories relate to the domestic sphere and speak about the most basic relationships that we all participate in.”