When feature producer-writer-director Todd Haynes began work on the five-part HBO miniseries adaptation Mildred Pierce, it was his first television project aside from a 1993 short film for PBS entitled Dottie Gets Spanked. It reeled in a chart-topping 21 Primetime Emmy nominations, including three for him alone. It was quite an Emmy initiation for the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Far From Heaven (2002) and I’m Not There (2007). Haynes spoke to Deadline TV Contributor Ray Richmond:
DEADLINE: What was it like to wake up the morning of the Emmy nominations and find 21 nominations?
TODD HAYNES: It was very unexpected, to say the least. I didn’t even know that Mildred Pierce was eligible in that many categories. This is a slightly new world for me. But it was obviously an incredibly prideful moment. So many people worked extremely hard on it, and we tried to bring the best to the project that we could. So to have the work be acknowledged like that was quite a special feeling.
DEADLINE: Did the experience of Mildred Pierce leave you wanting to make more television?
HAYNES: Oh, absolutely. I love those guys at HBO. I had such a unique experience making this for them. I’m used to always having struggles getting finances together and keeping precarious budgets alive in the independent film world. So it was such an amazing thing to work with a real studio that had money, that was solid, that was looking after the product and caring about how it was made. They were right there with me to make sure we delivered something comprehensive and complex and weren’t just focused on generating a number as a sign of success. There’s no better place to do a longform project than HBO. I loved the creative teams I got a chance to work with.
DEADLINE: Why do you think that so many TV channels and networks in general are able to do this kind of work now?
HAYNES: There’s a high quality that television production can aspire to now. Considering the kind of schedules they have to work under and the number of pages they shoot per day, the level of production they’re able to achieve is rather amazing. The highest-caliber dramatic work produced for TV – not just in cable but something like The Good Wife at network – is consistently great. Being a part of it and seeing how it works gave me a whole new appreciation for what they’re able to do in TV every day. I think it gets back to the fact they aren’t panicked about an opening weekend box office number. At HBO, you’ve just basically got a studio full of artistically driven smart guys and women who really care about the quality first and foremost. And they’ll step up and spend what needs to be spent.
DEADLINE: So did you have blank check for Mildred Pierce?
HAYNES: No. And our budget wasn’t what they spent on Band of Brothers or any of their World War II epics. It was also a lot less than they spent on John Adams or the kind of money they had to throw around in the past. But they provided us an amount that it could be realistically produced for, and that alone made for a radically financial different relationship than I typically have on my projects.
DEADLINE: Where do you as a feature director find the best dramatic opportunities right now?
HAYNES: Actually, the opportunities are greater in TV, I’m sad to say. There is just more freedom and the accommodation of a wider parameter of work and genres and material now in television. Unfortunately, independent film and studio filmmaking feels narrower every day, which is sort of counterintuitive considering how well the studios are doing. They’re banking so much more from their hits, yet they aren’t parlaying those opportunities and profits to broaden the base of dramatic work and character-driven stories they’re open to. It’s just gotten so tough. Cable is a clear place for directors who come from film to turn to. There are a lot of cable channels stepping up and doing really extraordinary stuff of the caliber that HBO does, like AMC obviously. And Gus Van Sant just directed the pilot of the new Kelsey Grammer drama series pilot Boss for Starz.
DEADLINE: What if anything can the theatrical creative community do to turn things around?
HAYNES: It’s really hard to fathom how we can reverse the process of profit-making. There’s no way to go back, I fear. I mean, when my first feature Poison opened in 1991, it made a million dollars for a film that cost $250,000 to make. It was considered a small success for an experimentally challenging film. But as soon as Pulp Fiction made what it made as an indie breakthrough, everything that came before in terms of finances was now obsolete. That was the new benchmark. The new records of profit-making changed everything in the film business. It didn’t just affect film and TV but every industry. Digital technology has been able to break down and personalize everyone’s taste and level of curiosity. The media feeds that idea and certainly impacts people’s taste.