Sunday, April 3, 2011

Todd Haynes Showcases Another Revolutionary Lady

Todd Haynes, director of "Mildred Pierce".  The five hour, 38 minute drama airs on HBO.  Omar P.L. Moore/

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Sunday, April 3, 2011


THERE ARE TWO PLATES of food consisting mostly of salad.  The food is scattered, probably because Todd Haynes has been picking at it throughout a very busy day.  The director politely offers his guest a chance to sample what's left.  Removing his glasses and imbibing some water, Mr. Haynes turns away from a pecking ritual and is ready to talk about "Mildred Pierce", his well-received long-form television drama based on James M. Cain's 1941 novel, that debuted on HBO last Sunday. 

The director is prompted to respond to what appears a fetish for a particular kind of scene in his films.  Mr. Haynes showcased spanking in "Dottie Gets Spanked", a television film that aired in the early 1990s on PBS, and it became a mild obsession in other work. 

"For a while there I couldn't make a movie without a big spanking scene in it.  And I think I gave it up around 'Velvet Goldmine' (1998)."

"But it has fully returned," Mr. Haynes said, tongue in cheek. 

Anyone watching Part 2 of "Mildred Pierce" during the week will have seen its re-entry during a moment when Mildred puts her daughter Veda over her knee and gives her a good hiding.

Part 3 of "Mildred Piece" airs tonight, and it stars Kate Winslet in the title role.

"In a weird way, she's almost -- it's almost like she's an outsider to herself.  The intensity of her pre-occupation with Veda, and what she isn't getting -- the emotional frustration of this investment in this child -- and what she's not getting in return turns (Mildred) into this machine of work and productivity, and task-mastering, you know - 'I'm gonna figure this out, I'm gonna make this work.'"

Mr. Haynes has directed films where the outsider or "other" is constrained by the irrationalities, mores or the toxicity of the larger society surrounding them.  In "Poison" three stories surrounded characters shunned by the mainstream.  In "Safe" the atmosphere of suburbia was the sickness inhabiting Julianne Moore's soul.  In "Far From Heaven" Ms. Moore's relationship with a black man (Dennis Haysbert) while her husband's closeted gay behavior is treated as an illness, was wrapped in 1950s Douglas Sirk-like melodrama.

Cinematographer Ed Lachman has worked with Todd Haynes before on such films as "Far From Heaven", and his many shots through glass in "Mildred Pierce" was explained by Mr. Haynes.  "It started, I think, feeling that I had to introduce a sense of watching.  Of watching -- kind of as a thematic in the family dynamic.  In families no one's ever free from being watched by somebody else in the family.  We know from the story that Veda is always aware of what's hidden under the closet. 

"We were inspired by the films of Rainer Fassbinder, who does like to frame domestic settings through doorways.  Then I was introduced to this photographer Saul Leiter, and his mid-century, or his most famous work, sort of mid-century New York-based photographs, "Early Color".  But he loved the innate abstraction that would happen through old glass, antique glass, precipitation through windows, dust on car windows...just exquisitely specific, beautiful sensibility that was really helpful to us."

Director Todd Haynes and Kate Winslet on the set of "Mildred Pierce". 

Additionally, Mr. Haynes used the styles of Fassbinder, Leiter and some 1970s films as an expedient measure for his five hour, 38-minute film for HBO, which was shot in 60mm.

"It also was a way of dealing with our limited budget, because you gain a sense of real space of time, a sense of real specificity in where you are.  So it was a practical interest as well because it limits the frame and muddies it, and makes it more beautiful, but it also makes you feel intensely present."

Todd Haynes's "Mildred Pierce" is completely different from the 1945 noir film directed by Michael Curtiz, which starred Joan Crawford in an Oscar-winning performance as the title character.  The director said he admired Mr. Curtiz and his film a great deal, but made a decision early on to focus more on Mr. Cain's novel, which centralized the tense mother-daughter relationship between Mildred and Veda.  Veda is played by two actresses: Morgan Turner as childhood Veda, and Evan Rachel Wood as teenage Veda. 

There is a great deal of love Mildred and Veda have for each other despite the separation anxieties and tensions typically seen in adolescent daughter-relationships that inherently provoke anger and recrimination in "Mildred Pierce", which plays and repeats throughout this month on HBO.  "And I think it was really important to show Veda's vulnerabilities and moments of self-doubt," Mr. Haynes commented.  He cites moments in the film pointing to Veda and her talents as a pianist.

"Freedom and openness are illusory," Mr. Haynes notes of Mildred, who is trapped by the need to keep Veda in the fold and gain her approval.

"Mildred Pierce" is set in the American Depression Era of the 1930s, with Hoover as the nation's president.  With women winning the right to vote in America in 1920, Mildred has strong political ideas, doing things on her own terms and without apology -- something seen as rare for a woman of that time in the United States.  Set in Glendale, California, Mr. Haynes's drama was filmed on location on the East coast, and during a recent Q&A here the director mentioned that Peekskill in upstate New York served as a location for many of the Glendale outdoor scenes.  Interiors were shot in Los Angeles.  The film shoot lasted 71 days during mid-2010.

Mr. Haynes talks about Kate Winslet as his choice to play Mildred Pierce.  He had never really considered any other actress for the role while reading Mr. Cain's novel in the fall of 2008, which coincidentally was around the time Ms. Winslet was on the big screen in "Revolutionary Road" as a woman with boundless idealism trapped in the rigidity of the 1950s America.  Mr. Haynes said he hadn't been prompted to cast the actress based on Ms. Winslet's work in Sam Mendes's drama.

"She has a kind of physicality, a work ethic, that she exhibits in a lot of her roles that I just saw in Mildred, combined with that sensual side of Mildred in the relationship with Monty (played by Guy Pearce)...and also the fact that [Mildred] was a young mother.  And she was described in the novel as age 28, when we start the story, and age 37 at the end -- all these reasons made me think of Kate.  And I couldn't really shake it."

Ms. Winslet is the proud mother of two children -- one girl and one boy.

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When it is put to Mr. Haynes that he should have been considered an Oscar nominee for directing the Focus Features release "Far From Heaven" as well tapped for a best picture nod -- the film was nominated for best actress, original screenplay, cinematography and music -- Mr. Haynes laughed it all off.  

"That was the one movie I didn't have Harvey Weinstein helping me on.  That might have had something to do with it -- who knows?", Mr. Haynes joked.

"Helping," he added, smiling.

Part three of "Mildred Pierce" airs tonight on HBO and is repeated, as are all episodes, throughout April on the pay-television cable network.

Audio-visual: Todd Haynes on Elizabeth Taylor, March 2011

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