Both a character study and mystery, HBO’s Mare of Easttown follows a small-town detective, played by Kate Winslet, who’s haunted by an unsolved case.
The English Oscar and Emmy-winning actor seems a dead ringer for another Emmy nomination for her role, but the drama, which is both character study and mystery story, is getting kudos across the board.
The series was also a hit with viewers. “The final episode of Mare of Easttown limited series drew four million viewers over the holiday weekend across HBO and HBO Max, with nearly three million viewers Sunday night (all platforms), marking a series high for both linear and digital, according to HBO,” Deadline notes. “The finale also set the record as the most watched episode of an Original Series on HBO Max during its first 24 hours of availability, besting the finales of recent hits The Undoing and The Flight Attendant over the same period of time.”
READ MORE: ‘Mare Of Easttown’ Finale Hits Series Highs, Most-Watched Episode Ever On HBO Max (Deadline)
Created and written by Brad Ingelsby (Our Friend, The Way Back), all seven episodes are executive produced and directed by Craig Zobel, who approached the limited series as if it were one big feature film.
This included preserving a continuity of story by directing all episodes himself and employing one editor (Amy E. Duddleston) and one cinematographer, Ben Richardson, ASC (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
“That’s not normal for a TV show — even with one director you sometimes have two or three editors,” noted Zobel, whose directing career spans features (Compliance, Z For Zachariah) and television (Westworld, American Gods, The Leftovers), in an interview with Robert Goldrich for Shoot.
“On one hand, a single creative artisan in each key discipline infused the project with a feature filmmaking feel,” Goldrich explains. “At the same time Mare of Easttown was not confined to a couple of hours on the big screen but rather had the luxury of some seven hours for character development and to create a portrait of a small town.”
The look of the show, which is set it in blue-collar, semi-rural Philadelphia, “needed to be naturalistic, all about the acting,” Zobel said. “We weren’t trying to make a show with an aggressive visual style that would impact the naturalism of the acting. The style of the show grew out of the two of us [with Richardson] interacting with each other.”
Richardson’s other major TV experience on TV was the first season of Yellowstone. Of Mare he says, in an interview with Daniel Eagan at Below The Line, “I loved the idea of being able to sculpt the entire arc of the show… In a show like Mare, audiences are tracking both the information being given them in scenes, and the richness of the underlying character arcs.”
He worried about the scope and scale of the story. “There were so many scenes that took place in these domestic environments and a lot of simple dialog scenes in small spaces,” he said during a “Gold Derby Meet the Experts: Cinematographers“ panel discussion.
“What I found was that we could bring all the scope we needed without cheating in any way. We were shooting in the real locations and we could make it all about the nuance and the detail and the scope of these homes, these environs, these little spaces in which these grand events were taking place.”
READ MORE: Mare of Easttown Cinematographer Ben Richardson on the Moment He Realized the Power of Kate Winslet’s Performance (Gold Derby)
Richardson’s camera package was pretty simple: ARRI Alexa Mini and Leitz Summilux-C lenses with no filtration. Anything flashier would have made the aesthetic artificial.
“Some of our real-world locations were lit with old fluorescents in the ceiling that maybe hadn’t been changed in 15 years, or with simple, store-bought practical lamps that people just kind of filled their homes with,” he explains to Below The Line.
“We did what was necessary to manage such fixtures for technical reasons, but tried to stay true to the feel, and also to emulate it on our stage builds.”
The 100-day shoot was interrupted by COVID shut down on March 13, and returned to production in mid-September.
“There’s no version of making a movie or TV show where anybody should find out that their mother-in-law passed away because they worked on this show,” Zobel tells Zak Wojnar at Screenrant. “I was just terrified whenever the producer came up to me [that] she was going to tell me we had to shut down. We were very cautious, I think because we came back so early. I think we had 10,000 tests over the course of the shoot, and we were able to make everybody feel safe, but it was intense.”
That said, half the script had to be reworked in some way to fit the restrictions. These included scenes with the same background actors costumed differently, to avoid having more people than necessary on set. Likewise, “a big rock concert in the story at one point that had to go,” Zobel explained. They also switched to exclusively using remote heads during COVID so that fewer people were needed on set.
Creator Ingelsby says the sense of place was informed by his own background growing up in and around Chester County and Delaware County
“I wanted to portray these communities in a way that was honest — this is how close these people are,” he told Rick Porter at The Hollywood Reporter. “They’ve grown up here, they raised their kids here, and they’ve stayed here. It does feel like a million miles away, even though it’s like a half hour outside the city. I was trying to create a sense of place that felt almost like a bubble, because the claustrophobia of it all helps in terms of the case and the rising tension.”
You know a show has hit the zeitgeist when it gets parodied on Saturday Night Live. The sketch comedy translated the title to “Murdur Durdur” and featured host Elon Musk as a shady priest.
“I loved the sketch on SNL. They nailed our vibe,” Richardson says to BTL. “I was very flattered by that. But we also did seek out these pops of color and levity, particularly in the scenes with Mare and her mom. There were other beats where we tried to find opportunities to lift the lighting, make it a little bit more high key. You don’t want to grind an audience down. You want to give people an opportunity to breathe, give them the sense that life isn’t all dark and gray.”