BY Ari Karpel
March 09 2011 5:00 AM ET
Haynes’s first full-length feature, the art-house hit and 1991 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize–winner Poison, brought queer studies to life on-screen as it introduced his unique fusion of the academic and the sexual. Its three unconventional stories featured unapologetically graphic depictions of gay sex and an undercurrent of rage against government policies on AIDS. Along with Gregg Araki’s The Living End and Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Poison inspired the term “new queer cinema” and at the same time earned Haynes derision from the Right, which dubiously dubbed him “the Fellini of fellatio.”
His follow-up film, Safe, was a prescient, love-it-or-hate-it horror film of sorts on toxicity, alienation, and modern life, starring Julianne Moore; next came Velvet Goldmine, a British glam-rock fantasia set in the 1970s that must have been an inspiration for the Scissor Sisters.
His projects have been wildly diverse (his most recent film was I’m Not There, a star-studded, deconstructed Bob Dylan biopic), but Haynes’s 2002 masterpiece, Far From Heaven, brought him into the mainstream, earning four Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Moore. Haynes’s ode to Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas can now be seen as a precursor to his Mildred Pierce. If anything, though, his approach to Pierce is the opposite of Heaven. Here, instead of reveling in the genre’s conventions, Haynes restores a well-known melodrama to its true origins as a sexually frank classic of Depression-era fiction.
Jon Raymond, who has written movies for indie director Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendyand Lucy), gave Haynes the book. “I was on a plane back to New York reading it right after the economy collapsed in 2008, and I couldn’t believe how current it was,” Haynes recalls. He says he watched and loved the original Mildred Pierce when he was a semiotics major at Brown University, but the memory of all that fell away as he read the novel. “This is not a Depression story about dust bowls and bread lines,” he explains, “it’s a Depression story about middle-class pride and loss of identity, and you don’t need to look very far to find examples of that everywhere you look [today].”
Haynes knew immediately that he wanted it to be his next project, which he would write with Raymond. He also knew he wanted Kate Winslet for the leading role. Partly because she lives with her children in New York and partly for financial reasons (New York State offers a substantial filming rebate), they decided to fake Southern California on the East Coast. “We went to L.A. and we looked at all the neighborhoods where the film takes place and we realized that the ’30s of Los Angeles doesn’t exist in Los Angeles either,” he says as he sits on the terrace of West Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel, itself a rare rehabilitated relic of that era. Amazingly, his team found 1930s L.A.-style neighborhoods in Queens, Long Island, and Westchester County that—with the addition of some palm trees — convincingly stand in for Glendale, Hollywood, Pasadena, and Laguna Beach.