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Todd Haynes Responds to Critics of Mildred Pierce

Todd Haynes's Mildred Pierce, an HBO mini-series adaptation of the 1941 James M. Cain novel, stars Kate Winslet as a single mother who rises from waitress to restaurateur, trying all the while to please her spoiled, spiteful child, Vida (played by Evan Rachel Wood as an adult). With the show ending this Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, Vulture checked in with Haynes about his response to critics, the sassy e-mail Winslet sent him before she was cast, and middle-class moms.

How do you feel about the reviews the series has gotten?
I am delighted with them. I’m thrilled.

Does it bother you when critics compare the series to the book and/or the 1945 film?
I don’t mind when they bring up the novel, because that really was our reason for making it — we wanted to be true to the novel and to the scale of the novel, so that I welcome. The constant comparison to the film, at a certain point, I don’t think it helps people, because they really are separate works and are quite different in their aims.

The New York Times said the series was less satisfying than the film, even though yours was far more faithful to the novel. How do you respond to that?
I don’t want to get into taking positions against particular critics, but I just didn’t completely follow that line of thinking. I think that critic was talking about the more condensed, classic noir style of the film version, and that she wanted our version to be more hyperbolic and condensed, too. And then she criticized Kate’s clothes and her “frumpiness.” Perhaps she just wanted it to be a more stylized, more glamorous experience. We were going for a realism that she didn’t seem to like.

Did you always envision Kate playing Mildred? And how did you get her onboard?
While I was reading the book, I somehow settled on Kate in my head. I didn’t know her and hadn’t worked with her before, but I just couldn’t shake the idea of her as Mildred. We met and we talked, and she was lovely and receptive. She e-mailed me afterward to say, “You didn’t even ask to look at my legs!” In the book, there are a lot of mentions of Mildred’s legs being one of her most incredible assets.

There are some fairly graphic sex scenes between Mildred and Monty, Guy Pearce’s character. Were you concerned about how those would be received?
I think the sex scenes are very important parts of the story. Monty is someone who explores Mildred’s body in ways it has never been explored before. And it’s a really interesting equilibrium in the story, the way that the sexual relationship between them gives sanction to things that Mildred’s strong suspicions about class and stature wouldn’t allow her to play out if they happened in her real life. The bedroom might be the one place Mildred enjoys wearing that waitress uniform and having him traverse around her.

One criticism has been that the series is too slow and luxuriant. How do you respond?
I’m sure some viewers are not up for this experience. I don’t agree, but it is all according to people’s tastes. I think it’s good for us, in our era of constant distraction and digital multitasking, bite-size information and endless texting, to have an experience where you actually move through someone’s life without leaping hysterically, flashing forward, and jumping around. I’ve never done anything this doggedly linear in my career as a filmmaker, and that’s what the novel does — it spans nine years. The novel is intensely, realistically linear, and that is one of the challenges that I took on. I think if you enjoy getting in-depth, and you enjoy following characters over time, you will enjoy this. It’s an experience that is more akin to reading a novel than watching a single film. And with these performances, and this amazing era that you get to travel through, there’s an awful lot to enjoy beyond just the narrative.

Is there a lesson contained in Mildred Pierce about maternal love and middle-class ambition?
What is really great about the material that we inherited from the book is that it links and draws a parallel between very universal maternal conflicts about not wanting to let your kid go, and wanting to always bring them back to the bosom, with very solid American, middle-class aspirations for your child’s success, to give them a better life than the one you had. The conflict is that in giving your child these things, you are also pushing them further away from you. You are determining their ascension from you. And so these values are bound together, but they are also diametrically opposed.

Note: This Q&A was compiled from two separate interviews.

Photo: Patrick McMullan