The last time we spoke to Todd Haynes, he told us he was packing up his supply of historical melodrama for a move to television, to direct the Mildred Pierce miniseries for HBO. Nearly three years later, Haynes woke up Thursday morning to 21 Emmy nominations for his adaptation of the James M. Cain book about a Depression-era chicken-and-waffle entrepreneur with a singularly ungrateful daughter. (The haul included nods for his direction and his writing with fellow Portlander Jon Raymond.) To keep his hot streak going, it was time to tell WW his latest plans. On the eve of a local appearance, and the NW Film Center's showing of Mildred Pierce in its 330-minute entirety on the big screen, the Portland-based indie tyro was thinking about...economics, mostly.
WW: Twenty-one Emmy nominations have got to make you want to stay in TV, right?
Todd Haynes: The door seems to be open, and the welcome mat is extended to us with HBO. I have to say, that was an exemplary experience for me, in terms of working with such an intelligent and committed production company. I've never made a studio film before, but the financing of any independent film, especially like the ones I've made, is always the biggest struggle. The relationships are always complex and not always perfect. And this was a really different experience.
Is TV replacing independent cinema?
Oh, I really hope not. I just can't accept that, because just the experience of watching a film on a screen with an audience is such a unique one, and there's nothing quite like it, no matter how big and crowded your entertainment room gets in your house. But we're definitely in a perplexing time, in terms of the range of films getting financed—and the fear factor, the nervousness about doing anything that falls even marginally outside an existing "hit" model. That's certainly disconcerting to filmmakers. Especially when studios are reaping in record profits. That's the thing that you could apply to almost any aspect of our industries in this country today: the lopsidedness of profit-driven incentives in every industry, and how much we are eating shit to keep the wealthiest and the CEOs and the stockholders happy. It's so distorted, even in companies that are performing exceedingly well.
Have you had projects shot down? I think people assume you've gotten to do everything you wanted.
I've been lucky that way, but I'm also extremely...maybe...simple. I'm very single-minded, in that when I want to do something, it's all I have on my slate. We haven't mentioned [producer] Christine [Vachon] yet, but that is largely due to how she fights for what I have stuck in my head.
The distorting power of greed is a theme in Mildred Pierce as well. Was that something you were seeking?
Definitely. It's not just greed, although that's certainly a factor, but how economic incentives or economic conditions interface with emotional and domestic situations and conflicts in the most subtle and mercurial way, each mirroring the other. There almost isn't any emotional event that occurs in the book that isn't played out at some level in monetary terms. [It's] a really amazing way of looking at domestic conundrums, like the mother-daughter relationship.
You've had a lot of scenes in your work of shocking confrontations, but there can't be one more shocking than the final bedroom scene between Mildred and her daughter Veda.
That kind of goes off the charts. It's all James M. Cain. We did our best to really honor the sickly shock of that scene, and I think we succeeded. That's a powerful moment in the book—one that, of course, wasn't possible in the '45 version—and it was also the point of some discussion with Evan Rachel Wood, who felt some hesitancy at first about it. And then Kate Winslet—who has had nude scenes in her films from the beginning and obviously has had a proud and respected career regardless, or perhaps as a result, of how she handled that kind of material—she was a great cheerleader and supporter for Evan's nervousness. We dealt with it. And Evan was fantastic and in the end, I think, proud of it.
You know a scene has some power if it gives Evan Rachel Wood pause.
Yeah, right? Well put.
What are you working on now?
Jon [Raymond] and I are actually starting to develop something together. It's really, really early, so it's hard to talk about it, except to say that it examines the populist conservative culture, and the latest chapter of paranoia in the American political style.
That sounds like you're making a tea party movie.
Well, yeah, kind of. Kind of are. We're really curious about what's been going on, and concerned. But I think we have to approach it from the inside out, and not the outside in, which is really where we stand in our lives. So it will be a process, that's for sure. It's great to work with Jon, and I think we both have a similar curiosity, and frustration with aspects of it. But the way we want to approach it narratively is without a strong judgmental point of view going in. Which is tough.
It's just amazing how it continues to evolve, those same instincts and ideas, and how they get applied in new ways. Reading the [Richard] Hofstadter book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which Jon and I just were reading, and it was finished in '64, right after Goldwater. So it was even before abortion became the instigating cause that brought evangelicals back into a political organization, and they realized their power in numbers afterward. It was before all that, but the basic tenets, the basic instincts, the basic characteristics of a lot of these feelings of disempowerment and resentment—of elite culture and educated culture and Ivy League leadership—just all of it is all there. It's just amazing how far back the roots go.
Hopefully, there'll be things to discuss. But it won't be starring George Clooney, in other words.
SEE IT: Mildred Pierce screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 pm Saturday, July 23 (330 minutes with one intermission). Todd Haynes will hold a discussion with producer Christine Vachon at the Whitsell at 7 pm Sunday, July 24.