Just like James M. Cain's 1941 novel Mildred Pierce and the Oscar-winning 1945 feature film based on the book, HBO's Mildred Pierce, a five-part mini-series which starts on March 27th, (and which hews more closely to Cain's book than the post-war noir classic starring Joan Crawford) gives a glimpse into the life of an enterprising, hardworking single mother in 30's-era pre-feminist Glendale. But along the way, as Kate Winslet's Mildred goes from overwhelmed diner waitress at Cristofer's Café to launching her own chicken-and-pie restaurant and becoming a multi-restaurant maven, it also offers an intriguingly detailed portrayal of life in the Los Angeles restaurant world of that period.
How big of a role does Mildred's dazzlingly precise culinary technique play in this melodrama about social striving, gender inequality and mother-daughter relations, and that is gloriously directed by Todd Haynes and shot in Super-16 millimeter film? Let's just say that her gifts as a pie-maker actually serve as bookends to the 5 1/2 hour long saga. We caught up with Mildred Pierce propmaster Sandy Hamilton, the man whose selection of pies, cakes and buttermilk-marinated fried chicken are so appetite-stimulating that the line at fried chicken mainstays like Pann's or Flossie's will surely get longer in coming weeks. Turn the page…
Squid Ink: Food is such an important through-line in “Mildred Pierce.” What was your strategy when it came to figuring out what Depression-era pie, cake and chicken should look like?
Sandy Hamilton: It all comes from the script or the book. The book actually has some passages that gave fairly detailed descriptions of what's going on.
SI: For example?
SH: Before opening her own restaurant, she goes to work in a diner run by a Greek guy. Again, in the book specific dishes are mentioned — heavy on steaks and chops, stuff like that. There's a character who works in the kitchen at the diner, a guy who is always flinging meat, who she will later hire away. So we knew we needed steaks and chops. When she's working at the diner she realizes that even though there was a large menu, people always ended up ordering the chicken. That's what gives her the idea of opening a restaurant that only serves chicken. So we knew that chicken in various forms had to be at the diner. So when there would be a scene of people eating at the diner, we heavied up on the chicken. If someone is really paying attention, when it comes to the part where she says, “Everyone always orders the chicken,” you'd go, “Oh! Righhhtttt. Chicken was very popular at the diner.”
SI: What were some of the ways you came up with suggesting how innovative Mildred is about the food she serves at her restaurant?
SH: The good thing for us is that the restaurant she opens has this very, very limited menu. But there's an expository sequence where she explains the concept of her restaurant to the help. She says something like, “Oh, I hate it when you order chicken and they give it to you in one big piece and you have to cut it all apart. I'm going to do it differently. I'm going to serve my chicken in pieces.” That meant that at the scenes at the Greek diner, we'd made sure to have the half chicken on people's plates so that at her restaurant the chicken would be in pieces. There were a lot of clues in the book as to what we should be doing. When we were shooting diner scenes not a whole lot of effort was put into making the food look particularly appetizing, there was not a lot of styling, so that the food at her restaurant would look better by comparison. The diner pies had to look bad, too.
SI: What can one possibly do to make pie unattractive?
SH: We used store-bought pies. They were flat, the crust was sort of white and doughy-looking, kind of uninteresting. The filling was gelatinous.
SI: On the other end of the spectrum were Mildred's pies — apple, cherry, lemon meringue, pumpkin — all of them had beautifully crimped crusts and were lit as meticulously as a Hollywood studio-era ingénue. Who made those?
SHf: We hired a food stylist, Colin Flynn, who did some of the food on “Julie & Julia,” to make some and we bought pies from a couple of different bakeries – The Little Pie Company, Baked – until we figured it out. When we actually were filming sometimes Colin made pies for stuff you see up close — he also made the chocolate birthday cake that Mildred iced in episode one — and then we bought store-bought pies for pies you see in a case across the room. You can't have a food stylist make every scrap of food.
SI: What did you want from the best pies?
SH: We wanted her pies to have brown, flaky crusts and has a homemade texture and character. So we made pies in different sizes. Some crusts were brushed were butter; some weren't. Some crusts were made with butter, some with half butter, half shortening. Some were higher, some lower. There was a big discussion of when you make a pie, how do you crimp the perimeter so it is period appropriate? Do you do it with a little roller? Do you do it by hand? The feeling was that each person pinches their crust in their own particular crust. How would Mildred pinch hers? Once we established how she did it, then everything followed that pattern. There was a period in the office where every day there was at least five pies.
SI: What kind of debates would rage in the pre-production phase of “Mildred Pierce”?
SH: There was a huge amount of discussion as to how to lay the kitchen out and what the steps were in preparing the food. The whole point of Mildred's restaurant was that it was like an early fast-food place. They had a limited menu and therefore ordered less and less stuff went to waste. And she was able to prepare it in an assembly line sort of fashion: She'd take the chicken out of the refrigerator, then she'd flour the chicken on a little table. She moved down a counter and around to the stove in order and then got the orders up and then waitresses would take it away. Then we had our own sort of internal plan about her menu. Early in the week they'd have peas as the vegetable, then corn, then beans and then the next day they'd have mixed vegetables because it would be all the leftovers after three days. Her whole idea was that there was no waste and in that way the restaurant could run more efficiently and cheaply and make a profit. We sort of fought about all of that.
SI: As lavish a mini-series as this is, it's still not a $100 million feature film. What were some of the ways you cut corners?
SH: At her restaurant there was basically two kinds of food — beautiful food, which is what we see in close-up, so the viewer thinks, “Oh, that's really good looking!” and then there was the filler. If the waitress walked right by the camera with a tray of food, a lot of effort was put into that. We hired Colin to come in to make pies, work on individual plates and cook chicken. But if food was in the corner and twenty feet away and extras were eating it? It didn't have to look so good. We had the caterer who was catering the film provide trays of background food, just something to put on plates.
SI: Kate Winslet really looked like she knew how to break down a raw whole chicken. Was that TV movie magic at work? Was a chicken-chopping stunt double brought in?
SH:. No. [Kate Winslet] took it all very seriously. She practiced. She met Tom Colicchio at some event, I think, and they became friends. She went to his house and he gave her a lesson on how you correctly quarter a chicken and chop it in pieces. She arrived at his house with a big bag of chickens, chopped them all up and brought them home because she didn't want them to go to waste.
SI: Did she want to go deep when it came to the pie portions of her performance too?
SH: She's got kids and cooks. Colin was always there making pies and cakes and chicken. But she was really interested in it and really thought about it a lot and she did a lot of arranging things in the kitchen because she was working on her own choreography. She was always like, [excited voice] “But wait a minute: If I put this pan in here then it's a wasted movement, so wouldn't I do THIS? So let's move this over here.” She seemed super-game.
Check back later, when “Mildred Pierce” food stylist Colin Flynn explains how he came up with Mildred's fried chicken recipe and why it's a bad idea to give away leftover pies to the extras.