Having written films such as The Way Back and Our Friend (both of which featured on our staff lists of the Top 10 films for 2020), Brad Ingelsby has made a name for himself as someone who forges a deep connection with his characters, drawing in tremendous actors time and time again to play the parts he creates.
That remained true as he made the transition to his first television series, Mare of Easttown. Ingeslby created and wrote all seven episodes of the HBO limited series, which features an all-star ensemble cast including Kate Winslet, Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, and Guy Pearce.
Taking place in the Pennsylvania area where Ingelsby himself grew up, the series has garnered praise (including from us) for its remarkable use of the setting in depicting how this community responds to the brutal murder of a young girl. Mare (Winslet) is the detective charged with solving the case, but she’s got plenty of her own personal struggles to be dealing with at the same time.
I was able to speak with Ingelsby about how he developed the series, why he wanted to make the shift to television, and the importance of setting it in his own hometown. As I have lived in the same area for the last 20 years, it was a delightful conversation where we bonded over the community and the authentic way in which he captured its specificity in the series.
Read on for my interview with Brad Ingelsby:
Mitchell Beaupre: You’ve been working in film for over a decade now, and Mare of Easttown is your first television series. What motivated that transition for you?
Brad Ingelsby: I had seen the shift into television in recent years and how many streamers wanted content. The kinds of films that I was doing, like The Way Back and Our Friend, aren’t the kinds of stories that are being made much as movies anymore, but it seemed like those stories were welcome on TV. When I started thinking about Mare and thinking of a portrait of this community I just couldn’t imagine doing that story in two hours. The seven hours that we were allotted felt like you could really get more of a sense of the place and explore those secondary characters in a way that you would never be able to do in a movie.
MB: The sense of place is such an interesting component of the series. I’ve been living in Newark, Delaware for the last 20 years, which is about 30 minutes south of Easttown —
BI: Oh wow! Yeah, so you know this place and a sense of this community really well.
MB: Exactly, and that was a huge thing for me connecting to it while watching the series. What drove you to want to write something that was specifically set in the area that you grew up in?
BI: It’s funny actually, I had done a couple of movies that were originally scheduled to take place in this part of the world. The Way Back was supposed to take place in Havertown, Pennsylvania, but because of Ben Affleck’s schedule we had to shift it out to the West Coast and set it in Long Beach instead. I also did this little indie movie with Sienna Miller called American Woman that was set in Aston, Pennsylvania, but the tax credit had run out at the time and so we had to shoot it in Massachusetts. I had always wanted to write a show about home and have it shoot at home. I grew up in Berwyn, my grandmother was in Drexel Hill, my other grandmother was in Springfield, all my aunts and uncles lived in Havertown. I just remember growing up and bouncing back and forth between all of these towns and these houses and hearing these women talking all day long, and I had this desire to write about how I grew up. I didn’t grow up with an investigation, or even around a lot of cops, but I wanted something that could capture the rhythms of life in this town.
MB: The fact that you were able to shoot in the area gives it such an authentic texture. I remember seeing an episode of The X-Files when I was younger that said it took place in Wilmington, Delaware but it was clearly shot somewhere like Toronto and it was just silly. There were huge skyscrapers everywhere.
BI: (laughing) Totally, totally! That’s one thing that I have to give a lot of credit to HBO for. When we were starting up the project I told them that we had to shoot this in Pennsylvania in the area where it takes place, and they were completely on board. We didn’t end up shooting in Easttown itself, but rather making a composite from communities in the area like Drexel Hill and Aston. It adds that authenticity like you said, and then also having the actors come into this place and live there and be around the people I think adds this intangible quality that comes from being where something is actually set. Then you’ve obviously got Kate and everyone getting the accent, which I think really paid dividends in bringing life to it that I hope resonates with audiences.
MB: The accent is certainly something that’s been a talking point for viewers both in and outside of the community. It’s such a specific accent and so interesting because it can really vary from person to person. My partner always makes fun of the way that I hit words like “phone” and “home”.
BI: (laughing) I love it. That’s something that was really hard about it because it is such a strange accent. My wife grew up in Aston, so that’s Delco, but she has a very subtle accent. However, you go down the street and talk to a woman a few houses down and she has this incredibly harsh accent that you don’t even know where that came from. It’s such a tricky thing to pinpoint and I think that was something that Kate really wanted to do was create this whole spectrum with the accent. We recorded a lot of people, like my wife and her mother and other people from the area, because we wanted it to land in this space where the accent was specific enough to resonate but not so harsh to where it put people off.
MB: Speaking of mothers, I love Jean Smart in this series so much. One thing that stood out to me was how we see her obsessively, and aggressively, playing games on her tablet. That’s such a subtle little detail that isn’t driving the story in any way but really helps to inform the character. Is that something you really love to do, giving characters texture like that with those small details?
BI: A hundred percent. That’s how I’ve always written characters. I feel that the specific is the universal. How I create any character is starting off with this collection of little details and it’s like I’m gradually putting another penny in the piggy back so that after a while I’ve got this thing with some real value to it. With Jean’s character I was thinking so much about my own grandmother. She was this woman in an Irish Catholic clan, the one girl with four brothers, and so she was this very tough-minded woman who ran the household. In her 60s she got awful rheumatoid arthritis which really crippled her, and took this independent woman and forced her to rely on other people. It softened her in a way. I was drawing a lot from that when writing Helen, this woman who you watch and think that she must have not been the easiest mother to grow up with but now because of the tragedies that have occurred in the family there’s a different side of her coming out. It’s really just stealing from your own life to create these characters with as much detail as possible.
MB: Putting character first is something that has always stood out about your writing. With Mare of Easttown being your first time working on something that is so narrative-focused, how was that process for you balancing the murder mystery plotting with the character work?
BI: I always start with the character, and then I’ll think that I have this interesting person and now I have to figure out how to tell a story with them and make it entertaining. Mare of Easttown is ultimately about this woman who had this kind of hero moment when she was a teenager in this town and her life has been this slow kind of decline ever since then, but she still wants that applause. It’s a story about how she is going to change and how she is going to deal with this grief that she’s experiencing. It was a process of figuring out that balance, and it wasn’t easy. There were times where I wish we had more of a procedural, and times where I wish we had less of one.
A lot of it came together in the edit where we were always trying to balance the scales where we wanted it to be a character study at its core. Finding that balance came down often to trying to put ourselves in the audience’s shoes and questioning how much time we could spend away from Mare or away from the case before the audience would need to come back to it. I had never done anything like a mystery show before, so there was certainly a learning process of managing those genre expectations where you wanted to end with a cliffhanger each episode, but you also wanted to do that in a way that feels organic and isn’t just some random huge revelation without having earned it. I don’t even know if we pulled it off, but it was a constant juggling act to try and figure it all out and weigh each episode in terms of the audience and their expectations.
MB: That concept of grief and loss is something that comes up often in your work, whether it’s this or Out of the Furnace or The Way Back and Our Friend recently. Is that theme something that you’re naturally drawn to?
BI: I always find myself writing about the things that I’m scared of in my life. The genesis of Mare of Easttown was that my son was going through these tics himself, as we see Mare’s grandson dealing with, and so we were dealing with that and trying to diagnose it and seeing a neurologist and everything. He’s doing fine now, and we’ve got him with a great therapist, but it was thinking about that and the fear of having to deal with those real issues in life that gave me this ammunition for my writing. Maybe it’s my own way of lessening my anxiety. I feel like I’m an anxious person by nature so it’s like if I can write about it in some way then maybe I can exorcise some of these anxieties and give myself some form of relief or release.
MB: With the series reaching its conclusion, I think it’s safe for people to assume that you imagined this from the start as being a closed loop with a solid resolution. However, with the amount of love and attention it’s gotten, if HBO were to come to you and say they wanted to do a second season would that be something you’d be interested in exploring?
BI: If you had asked me that question a few months ago I would have said that I was done with Mare of Easttown because I think the story closes in a very satisfying way. Some viewers might be disappointed with some of the revelations that come up at the end, but I don’t think that anyone is going to feel like we didn’t answer the questions that were posed in the show. I always imagined it as one show, and certainly when I’m finished writing something I feel like I’ve given these characters everything I could and I’m finished with them. However, this was my first time editing something and when I was in the edit room I slowly felt the love coming back to me for these people and this community and for Mare especially. Kate is so freaking amazing in this series, and there was definitely a part of me creeping in and thinking that if Kate was interested maybe there is another story here with this character. Never say never.
Mare of Easttown airs its series finale on HBO on Sunday, May 30th. Episodes are available to stream on HBO Max.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]