Well, that’s not what Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce is going to be, but one thing that’s somewhat unusual about it, in the U.S., is that it’s a miniseries written and directed by one person. (Well, written by two people, since Haynes has a co-writer, but you see what I mean.) The normal place of the director in the North American miniseries, or TV movie, is more or less what it is in the North American television series: as a hired gun. The writer or producer is usually the one whose personality dominates the show, with the director in charge of executing it. John Adams, HBO’s most successful recent miniseries, was directed by Tom Hooper, who went on to direct The King’s Speech — he’s a flashy director, but one who specializes in bringing scripts to the screen. The recent Pillars of the Earth was directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, an episodic TV director. Other mini-series use a rotating roster of directors, just like most TV drama series. Episodic TV directors, even the ones who later graduate to features (like Spielberg) spend their TV careers as relatively anonymous stylists: you can see some touches of their own, in retrospect, but the creator of the show has more influence over the style even if he or she never directs a single foot of film.
What’s different about Mildred Pierce, though not unprecedented even in the U.S., is that it’s a Todd Haynes movie that just happens to be made for television: it’s TV as a director’s medium for once, rather than something like Angels in America (which had a famous if past-his-prime director, Mike NIchols, but was clearly Tony Kushner’s show). It’s a writer-director of features making a TV film where his directorial style, as seen in his features, is the key component of the show. People are talking about how its relatively restrained approach connects to the previous work he’s done as a director, and how the story of women in the ’30s is similar to or different from his story of ’50s women in Far From Heaven.
Other countries have done this more often. Ingmar Bergman made several films for Swedish television, including the tremendously successful and influential miniseries Scenes From a Marriage, which he wrote and directed, and which was only subtly distinguishable from his theatrical features (this being TV in the ’70s, he went in for a lot of close-ups, but he’d already been doing that in feature films). In fact it was cut down to feature-length and released, in that condensed form, to theatres, where it was also successful Then there was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, which he wrote and directed for German TV.
In the U.S., some directors have tried to make “directors’ television,” particularly Robert Altman, who started as one of the least anonymous of episodic TV directors. The HBO miniseries Tanner ’88 (written by Garry Trudeau) is considered an “Altman film” as much as any Altman film. And another TV graduate, Steven Spielberg, tried to turn Amazing Stories into a showcase for individual directorial styles — the problem being that while the intentions were good, most of the episodes (with obvious exceptions like Brad Bird’s Family Dog) were not very good. But the director is usually very anonymous in U.S. TV, not only in series — which more or less have to be that way, since every director must imitate an overall style — but in stand-alone projects like miniseries and movies. Mildred Pierce might help change that to some extent.
Of course what TV will always be most of all is a producer’s medium, and if a director wants to stamp his or her style on a show, it probably helps first of all to have a producing credit, as Haynes has on Mildred Pierce and Altman on Tanner ’88. (Scenes from a Marriage was produced by Bergman’s regular producer and former location manager, who was in effect acting as a proxy for the director.)