The 1945 Warner Bros. feature film Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz and photographed by Ernest Haller, ASC, is a classic of American cinema. The film features noir lighting, complex sets and memorable performances by Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth in a conflict ridden mother-daughter relationship set against a noir background that includes a murder mystery told in flashbacks.
Mildred Pierce has now been re imagined as an HBO miniseries by filmmakers Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman, ASC. The duo previously collaborated on Far From Heaven, which was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s films All That Heaven Allows and Reckless Moments, and I’m Not There, which took the songs and biography of Bob Dylan and adapted them into episodes with visual styles that referred to 1960s and 70s films from the United States and Europe. Lachman earned an Oscar® nomination and the Silver Frog at the Camerimage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography for Far From Heaven, and took home the Bronze Frog for I’m Not There.
Edward Lachman, ASC on the set of Mildred Pierce. (Photo by Andrew Schwartz, ©HBO 2011)
Morgan Turner (l) and Kate Winslet (r) filming a scene from Mildred Pierce. (Photo by Andrew Schwartz, ©HBO 2011)
Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce. (Photo by Andrew Schwartz, ©HBO 2011)
The new miniseries stars Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce. Haynes and Lachman went back the original source material, the 1941 novel of the same title by James M. Cain.
“Our Mildred Pierce is not a remake of Michael Curtiz’ 1945 film noir classic,” says Lachman. “Instead, it sources the book, which is less noir, and more of a psychological character study between a mother and a daughter. The story is set during the Depression, within middle class privilege, and deals with issues of pride and status.
“Most domestic dramas inevitably concern female characters confronting social constraints, suburban repression and vulnerability,” says Lachman. “Mildred Pierce is an exception. She becomes liberated sexually and finds herself financially independent, but her tragic, unrequited love for her daughter becomes her undoing, and she self-destructs.”
Lachman and Haynes decided to eschew the consciously stylized dramatic studio look of classic 30s and 40s noir lighting. Instead, they designed a style that echoes neo-noir films of the 1970s, which found a distance in their expressionistic naturalism.
“We saw this neo-noir approach in films like Klute (1971, photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC), Chinatown (1974, John Alonzo, ASC) and the Day of the Locust (1975, Conrad Hall, ASC),” says Lachman. “Those films have noir elements, but there is a relatability and frankness that comes from their naturalism, even when they are slightly expressionistic. Those cinematographers used longer lenses, and light that was more motivated from practical sources as opposed to studio lighting.”
The filmmakers also looked at the work of Saul Lieter. “Lieter was a street still photographer—more like a painter,” says Lachman. “He used found objects, textures and reflections as the content for his images. The images’ abstractions, within a social realism context, became the content of the found objects. On the street and in the world around him, Lieter’s search is less about finding content in the image and more about the feelings these shards of reality evoke.
“For Mildred Pierce, we tried to create a certain distance to her, as if she is being observed,” Lachman says. “The images of Mildred are seen through objects, reflections in mirrors, and through beveled glass doors, fragmenting her world and creating a prismed, dislocating and ultimately broken state. The images become not only a representational view of the world, but a psychological one.”
As for the color palette, Lachman and Haynes looked at color still photography of that period, including images commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. In addition to the more familiar FSA photos from the Dust Bowl, they studied images of Los Angeles in the late 1930s and early 1940s taken by photographers including John Vachon, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott. Color range in these images was more limited, and saturation and contrast was much different from today’s full range color negative films, according to Lachman.
“Another photographer I rediscovered from that period was Paul Outerbridge, who worked in still life, nudes, and stage photography,” says Lachman. “Outerbridge became a master of the tri-color carbo transfer, an early three-color process that resulted in richly muted colors with a limited range of saturation in the green-magenta layer. But his images became almost translucent, and unsurpassed.”
Another aspect of their approach was the format. “We decided to shoot Mildred Pierce using the Super 16 film format,” Lachman says. “I know everyone is interested in digital formats, and the advances that digital cameras are making today. I have shot two films with digital cameras – Prairie Home Companion and Life During Wartime. But for me, the tests I’ve done show that film still has a greater exposure latitude, and the way it renders color is different, whether in color temperature or using gels. The exposure latitude is greater than with digital formats, and we also thought that the grain structure of Super 16 was more like 35 mm film in the 1970s, reminiscent of the 70s neo-noir films we were inspired by.”
Lachman used Kodak VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 and Kodak VISION2 250D Color Negative Film 7205. He also shot some exterior scenes on Kodak VISION2 50D Color Negative Film 7201. Using two cameras helped the crew produce five and a half hours of material in 70 days. The cameras were the new ARRI 416s, and the lenses included Cooke S4 primes, and a Zeiss 16.5-110 mm zoom. The filmmakers also made extensive use of a zoom that had been converted from a 35 mm format Cooke 20-60 mm T3.1 lens to a Super 16 format 10-30 mm T1.6 lens.
Despite being set in California, Mildred Pierce was filmed on exterior locations on Long Island and in Connecticut, and on stages at Steiner Studios in New York. Lachman mimicked California sunlight with PAR T-12s, lamps that produce an extremely intense light. He says he concentrated on lighting the environments, as opposed to the individuals. He allowed windows and cars to be dirty, and let Translites overexpose to avoid the impression of total control.
“Often in period films, there’s a tendency to over-romanticize,” he says. “We did everything to capture a reality and naturalism of light on the set, including the atmosphere, the pollution and the grittiness. Even the mansions we filmed in are portrayed in their frayed decrepitude, because these characters are barely holding on.”
Lachman says that Haynes thinks of film as one language, even when he is using different visual references and styles to tell his stories. “Mildred Pierce is a domestic drama of the 1940s set during the Great Depression,” he says. “But it mirrors the times we live in today.
“Our job is to allow the audience to enter this world with their emotions,” he continues. “The Super 16 film format was chosen with this in mind. I like the idea that light etches the different layers in the film, like an etching, and the randomness of the grain structure contributes to the sense of depth. To my eye, film still lends more depth and emotion to the image than digital formats.”
Mildred Pierce is scheduled to begin airing on HBO on March 27, 2011.