HAYNES has been back in New York since January 2010 working on Mildred Pierce, and the city, perhaps still feeling spurned, isn’t being particularly welcoming. There’s that cold that’s sidelined every cast and crew member but one; his assistant’s rental car got a flat; a “historic” storm threatens to derail production, again. The problems have become a running joke during the mammoth undertaking. “I was convinced Joan Crawford had cursed us,” says Evan Rachel Wood. “Lights started exploding, illness; anything that could go wrong went wrong. Mommy Dearest was lurking about, and every time something went wrong, we would just shake our fists in the air and go, ‘Joan!’”
Creating a five-hour miniseries in little over two years is akin to creating three movies for the price, time, and space of one—this by a director who has generally taken four years to make a film. “It’s certainly one of the biggest undertakings any director could take on,” says Wood. “Of course, there’s the length. But also it centers on one woman—a single mother in the Depression. It’s not something you’d immediately think would be able to be a five-part miniseries that would keep people’s attention.”
Women-driven dramas have been rare since the days of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Crawford. In large part, investors aren’t willing to pay for them. (It took Haynes nearly two years to find financing for Far From Heaven because it lacked the then-sure bet of box-office queen Julia Roberts.) “I think in some ways, contemporary film audiences and the industry itself is more geared to men now than it ever has been,” he told NPR during Far From Heaven’s release. Indeed, the very term “melodrama” is now a pejorative.
With Mildred Pierce, Haynes has stepped away from the more mannered formalism of Far From Heaven in favor of a gritty naturalism. Inspired by the revisionist films of the 1970s, such as The Godfather, Chinatown, and The Exorcist, which updated their classic genres (gangster, noir, and horror, respectively) with subtle, naturalist sophistication, he wanted to revisit the mother-daughter melodrama as well as the Great Depression with a similar style. Instead of following the 1945 movie’s two-dimensional noir portrayal of suffering Mildred and insidious Veda, he sought to make both equally culpable in their complicated, dysfunctional relationship, just as The Godfather introduced psychological depth and ambivalence to mobsters.
He shot the miniseries with film stock and camera techniques from the 1970s to introduce an intimacy, subtlety, and texture that were anathema to noir, which was all about the contrast of darkness and light. The film’s dancing grain further combines with the grime and dirt of the sets to invoke the grittiness of the Depression, an aspect totally missing from the original film.
Haynes also looked to the revisionist films for their practice of injecting contemporary issues into historical stories. Chinatown’s plot, for example, reflected the newfound willingness of the late 1960s and early 1970s to point a finger at The Man for screwing over the masses to benefit the rich. “When you look at movies from that period,” he says, “they’re infused with the sense of the political and cultural discussions and arguments of their time, and because of that, they bring to their genres new or alternative meanings.”
The historical infusion works both ways, and using stories and genres from the past to reflect contemporary issues in a provocative, often saturated light is trademark Haynes. Poison and Safe deal with differing aspects of the AIDS crisis; Far From Heaven draws unsettling parallels between the culture of the early Bush years and the Eisenhower years. With Mildred Pierce, Haynes aims to reweave the now well-worn comparison between the current financial crises and the Depression by journeying through the 1930s with a surprisingly modern character. He and Raymond find Cain’s novel so exciting because it escapes the rote images of dust bowls and breadlines for an open portrayal of a sophisticated, sexually frank, socially aspiring middle class. Yet even without the 1945 movie’s murder, the ending isn’t pretty, and therein Haynes identifies his biggest connection, and warning, between the Depression and today.
“The story speaks to these intensely American yearnings and expectations of the middle class and how easily they can get corrupted,” he says. “This idea of ascension and giving your kids everything you never had can very easily slip into a kind of worship of wealth and privilege that can be damning.”
And that gets to the heart of why Haynes keeps returning to women-focused stories. While some gay men of his generation donned the trappings of their female idols and took to the stage, Haynes went the opposite route: peeling off the layers of female iconography to reveal the everyday forces that shape and constrain the lives of women—and by extension, gays and other social outsiders, both modern and historical. While movies like Wall Street might deal with themes of ascension and excess, such flashy Hollywood blockbusters don’t speak to most of their audiences’ experience. Domestic dramas do. “We don’t all live the westerns and the gangster movies and the romantic comedies, although we like to think we do,” says Haynes. “What we really live are the stories of love and betrayal and divorces and heartbreak. While we like to denigrate them by calling them ‘female genres’ or ‘women’s genres’ or ‘weepies,’ these are the stories we all live.”