Todd Haynes has spent his filmmaking career working far outside the mainstream -- yet he seems surprised when a reporter refers to his new miniseries, HBO's Mildred Pierce, as surprisingly conventional for him.
Haynes points out that he did direct Far From Heaven, another "women's" picture, inspired by Haynes' love of the work of Douglas Sirk and 1950s-era melodrama. But that film offered a twist on racial and sexuality politics that Sirk could only deal with obliquely, even in films like Imitation of Life.
Still, Far From Heaven seems like an anomaly, an accessible entry in a filmography that includes the Sundance-winning (and homophobe-provoking) Jean Genet adaptation, Poison, and the conceptually challenging Bob Dylan homage, I'm Not There. But Haynes sees Mildred Pierce, based on the James M. Cain novel, as right in line with his other films.
"As I thought about it, I was thinking of revisionist genre films of the '70s," Haynes says, sitting in a small conference room at HBO, "and what it was that made those genres feel relevant again. Films like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Klute, Chinatown, Network and The Parallax View: They were drawn from the genre tradition, but they dressed down the stylistic telling of those traditions and genres.
"There's a pulled-back quality to them that I liked. The audience feels like there's room for them to find things themselves in those films. The locations feel like real places with natural light. There's a relatability. I felt like, well, this is TV =- I want people to feel drawn into the story and still feel respected as viewers."
Haynes' take on Cain's novel is faithful to the book, which makes it a departure from the 1945 film version, in which Joan Crawford was directed in the title role by Michael Curtiz.
"I admire the original as a beautiful piece of Hollywood product," Haynes says of the 1945 film, which departed significantly from Cain's plot.
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