On the Set of HBO’s ‘Mildred Pierce’Author:Lindsey Shook
To recreate the Depression-era Southern California backdrop for Mildred Pierce—a five-part miniseries starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce—production designer Mark Friedberg set up shop 3,000 miles from the setting of James Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name. “We found Southern California in Long Island,” he says of the story, which takes place from 1931 through 1940 in Glendale and Pasadena. During the two-and-a-half-hour drama, Pierce starts as a struggling housewife and becomes a successful restaurateur, but fails to win her daughter’s respect along the way. “She goes from an overreaching middle class household to a Pasadena mansion with a wall devoted to menus from her restaurant chain,” says Friedberg. “We had to show the phases of her life.”
Many exteriors were shot in Merrick, Long Island, an enclave of Mediterranean-style homes built in the 1930s to attract the Hollywood set to New York. Although the existing architecture worked for the most part—the crew did have to install some terracotta roof tiles—the foliage didn’t. Friedberg’s team shipped succulents, palms and avocado trees to New York to create a believable desert landscape.
The interiors were built on a soundstage in Brooklyn, but for authentic period details, Friedberg studied the genuine article. “We spent weeks looking at real homes in neighborhoods like Hancock Park that were built in that era and restored,” he says.
From humble to luxurious, the sets speak to a vernacular we know well in the Golden State: textured stucco walls, wrought-iron light fixtures and Spanish Revival furniture. As Pierce’s position changes, the trappings become bigger and better. But even though the possessions multiply, they never fulfill her, and she ultimately becomes hopelessly mired in debt. As Friedberg says, “The novel was written 70 years ago, but it’s remarkable how meaningful it is still today.”
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