Dominating the conversations of murder mystery obsessives everywhere, Mare of Easttown has been a major talking point of the first half of 2021. It’s the kind of series any director would dream of having, and it almost didn’t happen for Craig Zobel.
The man behind films like Compliance and The Hunt wasn’t originally supposed to direct the HBO limited series from creator/writer Brad Ingelsby. Warrior director Gavin O’Connor was initially set to direct, but when a scheduling issue prompted him to leave, HBO brought in Zobel, a reliable hand who had directed highly acclaimed episodes of The Leftovers and Westworld for the network.
Zobel directs all seven episodes of the series which follows Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) as she attempts to solve the murder of a teenage girl in the titular community. Co-starring Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, and Guy Pearce, the series has earned massive acclaim for its use of its particular setting as well as its addictive mystery and layered character work. (See our review here)
I spoke with Zobel about his experience working on the series, along with many other topics including what it was like having a film release in theaters as theaters were shutting down at the start of a pandemic, and how his projects seem to constantly be tapping into hot button issues.
Read my interview with Craig Zobel below:
Mitchell Beaupre: You came into Mare of Easttown a little late, replacing Gavin O’Connor who was originally supposed to direct. How did you first get involved with the series?
Craig Zobel: HBO reached out to me because they knew that I had done all the episodes of a show before with this series One Dollar for Paramount Plus (although it was CBS All Access at the time), and they thought I would be a good fit. I read the scripts immediately and thought this would be a great way to do something different and try to have the genre elements of a murder mystery while also basically getting to do the the kind of story that was being done in like the late 90s and early 2000s as a Sundance drama. People don’t really do those stories anymore, and this felt like the opportunity to create that experience again.
MB: You have experience working in television both as someone who has directed the entire season of a show, and also coming on to do one episode of a series like The Leftovers or Westworld. How does the process differ for you when you’re able to map everything out from start to finish?
CZ: I’ve done this twice now, directing a whole series, and I feel like I’ve finally just now gotten the hang of it. At the same time I think I’ve exhausted myself and never want to do it again (laughs). It really is its own thing, there’s an endurance to it that’s very different from doing an episode or even a movie because on a movie you can be really tactical and prepare what you want to do and know what everything is. We certainly tried to do that on Mare as well, but with there being so much narrative you have to be a little more willing to figure it out as you go along at times. It’s a cool skill to develop.
MB: Brad wrote this story to take place in the area where he grew up, and you came into that community as an outsider with your own perspective. What was it like working within that community element of the piece?
CZ: I found it really interesting working with Brad, who was from the area and able to have that kind of voice for it. I thought it was valuable that I wasn’t from there because I felt like that gave me the distance to be able to speak to whether or not something feels universal in the series as well. Brad would include things very specific to the area and I could spot them out and say that they would still translate because they were things that I recognized. It was almost an anthropological experiment in a way.
MB: The series had to shut down in the middle of production last year due to COVID lockdowns, with you picking it back up and finishing in the fall. You had a very interesting perspective on how the pandemic shut the industry down, as your film The Hunt was pretty much the last film to get a full theatrical release before things started shutting down. What was that whole experience like for you?
CZ: Oh yeah, I won’t ever forget it. We were supposed to be shooting for Mare on Friday, March 13th, but the night before pretty much every other show had shut down so we were just kind of waiting for the official word that we were shutting down as well. Of course, at the time we were panicking because we thought that we would be shut down for maybe 3 or 4 weeks at the most, with no concept of what we were about to get into. At the same time, I was supposed to drive that night to New York to do a Q&A at the Alamo Drafthouse for The Hunt and I was realizing that there was no way we were going to do that because everything was about to shut down and we weren’t going to be able to go to movie theaters anymore.
MB: Things have changed so much in the last year in the way that films are being seen, with streaming and theatrical windows shifting things in a whole new way that is looking likely to impact the industry moving forward. What are your feelings on that evolution that the industry has taken and where things are going now?
CZ: I think it accelerated something that was already happening. I’ve kind of made my peace with people finding things in different ways. Like anyone, I like to have the experience of going to a movie theater and I believe that viewing stuff that way is the best version of it. We, the makers, create movies for that experience. We sit in a big room and sound mix for that space and imagine what the image is going to look like with people’s faces ten feet tall. It’s just unrealistic at this point to imagine that is how most people will watch your stuff these days. I’m okay with that and I think it’s good because maybe it’ll mean that we’ll get to see different kinds of stories now that we’ve gotten over this idea of debating whether a film is legitimate if it didn’t get a full theatrical release, or any theatrical release. At least I hope that we’re over that debate now because I surely think there is such a thing as a legitimate movie that didn’t get a theatrical release and I don’t think any movie is somehow lesser for not having one.
MB: Something interesting about your work is how you’ve always had your finger on the pulse of what’s in the air socially at the time. The Hunt weirdly came out at the right time because over the last year we saw how that film was speaking directly about what has been happening in the country. Even Compliance was talking about this idea of culpability and questioning blind allegiance to authority ahead of the curve of those discussions. Have the events of the past year shifted your mindset at all when it comes to the kind of art that you want to be making and working on in the future?
CZ: That’s a really interesting question. I think that these things are so hard to do, and take so long, that you have to be committed in some way to the questions that the story is trying to ask in order to really be able to do them. I don’t know that I’m actively shifting priorities or anything, but it’s certainly important to me to be conscious of these things. A big part of the story of Mare is talking about someone who has grief in her life and hasn’t quite dealt with it in the right way, and that was something that I needed the story to be about in order to make sense for me. She’s someone who I don’t think would necessarily go to a psychologist or do therapy unless she was forced to, and in the story she is forced to do that and she comes to see it as a good thing. For me that was really interesting just based on where I’m at in my life right now, which is why I felt like I needed to tell this story now. My hope is that I keep looking for and finding things that are interesting to me.
MB: A big part of why the series is so effective is because there is so much effort into putting character first while still developing the murder mystery side of the narrative. What was the process like of bringing that dimensionality to the characters, particularly with Mare?
CZ: Kate is so amazing and had such a great read on what this was, so I wouldn’t want to say that I really had any contribution to her choices, but I would say that if I had any input it was that it was okay to allow Mare to be unlikable at times. When you’re creating a character like this who is inherently kind of an unlikable person, as the performer you don’t want to put distance between yourself and the audience to where you become unlikable in a way that people don’t want to watch. The truth of the matter is that because of how specific Mare is I found myself liking her more when I saw her be more unlikable. It was empathetic for me and made me feel like I understood her more. It was a challenge trying to find that right balance of letting her be unlikable at times without making her unlikable in an overall kind of way.
MB: That’s part of what works so well about the show is that it’s not lionizing her in any way. She is the protagonist, but you’re not saying that she’s this holy figure who can do no wrong.
CZ: Exactly yeah, she is the protagonist. That’s a good way to say it. She is a flawed protagonist. You’re watching her and just wanting her to not do the thing that you know she’s about to do. I feel like the crux of the story is that if you’re invested in Mare in that way then hopefully that means you care about her because you don’t want her to be making those kinds of mistakes.
MB: I’d love to talk to you about the end of episode five because that is such a heart-stopping sequence. What was the process like of putting all of that together?
CZ: We definitely carved out more time for that than other things. It was predominantly an action sequence really, and so we ended up shooting part of it on a soundstage and then another portion of it on a real location. We probably worked on it for three days, and that was something that I did a lot of planning on with storyboards and everything. My instinct was that by the end of episode five the audience is getting antsy so we needed there to be something cool there and in that kind of tone to keep the viewer engaged. Hopefully they were engaged by it at least.
MB: I know I certainly was, and I think a big part of that comes from having that investment in these characters that has grown over the series. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but I’m also hooked into finding out what happens next with the case so I can’t look away.
CZ: (laughing) That’s music to my ears! That’s exactly what I would hope it would be. That is part of the benefit of being able to do a series as opposed to a film. You wouldn’t have the time to make as deep of a connection to a person in an action sequence in a film. You’re not going to have as much investment simply because you don’t know them as well, so that is absolutely awesome.
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]