The latest from director Craig Zobel, Mare of Easttown is a show that proved to grow and grow from its very first episode to its very last. One of only two programs in HBO’s vast history to rise in ratings every single episode, Mare of Easttown has skyrocketed from humble beginnings. Initially considered as just another prolific HBO mini-series, it is now widely seen as a juggernaut. Engaging characters and an enthralling mystery brought in more viewers by the day through the sheer power of word of mouth. Despite its initial plans, the impressive ratings led to growing calls for another season, and these calls reached their crescendo when Mare of Easttown received 16 Emmy Nominations last month.
Among these slew of nominations was one for Craig Zobel, who also took on producing duties aside from helming all 7 episodes. While Kate Winslet is the undeniable face and star of the show, Zobel’s understated directorial touch helps lay the foundations for the unabashed realism present throughout its entire length. With Mare of Easttown up for Best Limited Series as well as Best Direction for a Limited Series, it was a great pleasure to get the chance to sit down with Craig Zobel himself and dive into the nitty gritty of the show.
I wanted to start off by saying congratulations on Mare of Easttown’s numerous Emmy nominations! What’s your reaction to being nominated for 16 Emmys?
Craig Zobel: Well, thank you. I’m completely overwhelmed, flattered, and so excited for all of the categories of different technicians who got nominated. It was just exciting to see everybody even in the sense of a nomination.
The limited series category is totally stacked this year with Wandavision, I May Destroy You, The Queen’s Gambit, and Underground Railroad as well as Mare of Easttown. What do you make of the move towards a more limited TV format and the quality in that area?
Craig Zobel: I think the quality is super high. I’ve loved all of the other shows that you’ve listed, and I think it speaks to the fact that there is something in between a 10 year-long show and a movie. For a while, that got kind of a bad rap because of 80s and 90s miniseries that maybe that didn’t live up to their promise or something. But I think it’s a cool concept, and it’s one that the networks and some streamers value. I recognize that it’s a little different for a network, I think they would rather have something that plays for multiple seasons usually. But it does allow you to tell stories that have a scope that aren’t necessarily never-ending, and a lot more like a book, honestly.
So what first drew you to Mare of Easttown?
Craig Zobel: I was so drawn into the project by the fact that it was a cool detective story, but it also felt like an opportunity to tell a story that maybe you don’t see on TV as much anymore, just a family drama. Going through natural and real-life stuff, and to get to tell that story while also being entertaining with this murder mystery.
You just mentioned the sort of family drama and the complexity in Mary’s character. What was the process like for you, as a director, in helping portray that character on screen?
Craig Zobel: I quickly saw that Kate had a very clear sense of why she wanted to do the project and what’s in the character. I was able to kind of grasp that and see what was so compelling, like I hadn’t seen in a while. So a lot of it was encouraging Kate to keep going towards those directions when maybe Mare isn’t always a “likeable” character. You know, there would be some hesitancy, at times, where we questioned “are we going too far and making her too much of a grump?” We were all really just trying to be really specific and drill in on something that can make her still an appealing person to watch, but also a real person.
Yeah, absolutely. What was it actually like working with Kate Winslet? Based on past interviews, I very much got the feeling that she was a leader on the set, as well as obviously being the lead actress.
Craig Zobel: Very much so. She really took it to heart that she was number one on the call sheet and she made sure to support the cast, especially the younger actors that were there. There were days where I really did feel like it was just me and her making a cool thing, which is obviously patently not true (laughs). I mean, there are hundreds of people around and doing amazing, beautiful work, but it did feel intimate. And like that I had a partner, and in the making of the thing, I really felt like we were making something together, which was a fun experience.
She’s spoken about the degree to which the emotions of Mare had an effect on her personally, in her dedication to getting into character. How did you approach those very emotional moments that you had to shoot with a delicacy and awareness of that?
Craig Zobel: It’s interesting, I wouldn’t have described her as being a method actor at all or anything like that. But she certainly knew what Mare would be doing at any kind of moment. So I essentially just tried to be empathetic as much as I could and understand where we were. When we were approaching scenes that were emotional or deep for the character, especially stuff in the therapist’s office, I actually have to admit that I was more wanting to make sure that everything was okay. And Kate very much understood that we still have to shoot the scene, so let’s get on with it! “Let’s do it!”
Then, of course, as we would get into the scene, I would just get excited because I would see that the performance was so fun, interesting, and layered. I would run in and be like, “That line! When we say that thing, what if you retreat during that part?” So we would just get into playing with the themes, which helps makes the scene feel not so insurmountable in a way. But also, it was fun – we were trying to get colors and different layers to the performance. So once we would get into them, the tension would go away to a certain degree. I think she would agree with me on that! I imagine when she would walk off set, it would all come crashing down.
As well as Kate, the entire cast is just stacked from top to bottom. How much easier does it make your job as a director when every supporting character has such an amazing actor or actress playing them?
Craig Zobel: I’m not even sure it actually makes the job easier! Because then it becomes a matter of making sure that everybody gets a chance to do the amazing work. So in some ways, it felt like more responsibility. But, you know, I would never trade that, it was like the best. I hope to continue to do such a thing, to find an entire ensemble. The general vibe on set was very good, there was a lot of comedy and a lot of community really between everybody. Everybody was aware of being a good scene partner in addition to just making sure that their moments were good. I think you can see that in the show.
Would you say that the sense of community between the cast really helped in portraying the close knit town that the show portrays?
Craig Zobel: 100%. Absolutely. And while that sounds obvious, you still have to focus on that. I definitely think that the sense of community on set was in effect – a strength of trying to tell the story about a community, for sure. But I would say that everyone wanted to support the other person and make sure that they were giving enough in the performance, that the other person got their chance to shine as well. Which doesn’t always happen. That was really lovely to see, just in terms of watching people work together. Then even us making the “making of the movie” was special. I think that the show is special partly because you can feel that we were having fun making it.
I would say that the relationship between Mare and Lori, and then Mare and Colin, are the two core relationships that drive the show, and they also contrast quite a bit. How did you approach these relationships?
Craig Zobel: You’re right that those are the two that fundamentally help Mare’s arc, and they do that in different ways. I mean, they really are kind of the same relationship. You know, Laurie and Mare probably went to kindergarten together – they’ve known each other forever. So that is one kind of story. I would also say that, on a very practical level, it’s later in the story that Laurie becomes more significant. Julianne [Nicholson] – who is an amazing, just truly gifted actor – she never gives a bad take. Honestly just never does. There’s never one that doesn’t feel believable and real, and we wanted to make sure that you felt her presence throughout the show so that she could be powerful at the end. So a lot of the work was making sure that she felt like part of the community and part of Mare’s life.
But a lot of her character and the catharsis is in the last couple episodes, whereas Colin is slightly different, he’s earlier in the story. That was just a really fun experiment, honestly, between myself and Evan [Peters]. There’s a version of that character that was like hotshot detective from the big town that comes in and thinks that they know what’s going on. It just became obvious that it would be more fun to play it that way. Or like the insecure person that is pretending to be a hotshot, that’s almost how [writer Brad Ingelsby] originally conceived it. I think after I started looking into, “what if he’s just in a strange place where he has a lot of imposter syndrome?” And he’s looking at this other police detective who’s so much more capable kind of like getting started. That’s when it really got interesting.
It’s quite a unique dynamic because I feel we’ve seen the “hotshot” detective clashing with all the gruff detectives in past stories. The dynamic between Colin and Mare is a very unique and fresh one I feel.
Craig Zobel: Thank you. That was by design, trying to sort of acknowledge that cliche and then avoid it.
You mentioned about Julianne’s fantastic realism in every take that she gives, and the show has been hugely praised for its commitment to realism. How much was this a conscious approach? And if so, how did this develop as the project went on?
Craig Zobel: Yeah, it was always there. I even imagined that more than maybe, what was translated onto the screen. I was eager to have characters that would be speaking on top of each other all the time, and it feeling a lot more like real life. In real life, I observed that, oftentimes, people end up in scenarios where they’re sort of waiting to say what they want to say, instead of listening, where movies don’t actually work like that. You actually need people to kind of be effected in the scene so that a person “wins the scene and loses the scene”. So there’s something about drama that can’t really kind of be actually natural. So you have to find ways to make it feel that way while also achieving the scene.
And Julianne is a perfect example of that. But, you know, I can take anyone from the show and feel that. For example, Cailee Spaeny is only in one episode, she’s just in the first episode. She played Erin, the woman who died, and she immediately picked up on this and was trying to be the most natural version of the character. And to give some credit aside from the performances, I think it’s important to point out, Keith Cunningham, the production designer, fully understood what sort of show we were making.
You referred to Erin there and her death at the end of episode one. As a director, how did you try and implement visual cues to give hints towards the wider story behind her death, as well as obviously the ones already in the dialogue?
Craig Zobel: The conversation often times floated around how to be using film grammar well, but be unfussy about it. I didn’t think that this needed to be a story where you said, “Wow, that was a cool shot!” We were hoping that maybe you would feel that it was a cool shot, but that you wouldn’t be consciously thinking about that. I truly was trying to get out of the way of that or not be putting too much of that forward because I didn’t feel like that would help with the naturalism setting.
The more that you feel the filmmakers hand and film grammar in shot selections, the more I think you don’t feel like it’s natural because it isn’t – it’s like you’re seeing what that person is choosing to show you. So how do we still be graceful? We used that word alot, “what’s the graceful way to do this?” A lot of which was trying to make sure that we were telling the story in a way that was unfussy and as simple as that could be, really.
FInally, you’ve been asked countless times about a potential second season, but I was wondering as to where you stand on the difficulty of continuing a show that was originally intended as a limited series? At least in terms of Mare’s personal arc, I would say things are tied in quite a neat bow at the end. So where do you stand on those sorts of discussions around a season two?
Craig Zobel: I don’t have any kind of specific knowledge on whether there will be one or not. I would also say, I love Mare and the Sheehans [her family], and I would totally like to see more of Mare in a season 2 if there was a reason for it.
To answer your question, especially because of the nature of a limited series, we went into it with the idea that this was the story, and this would be the only story. So we went into the idea that we were, you know, telling you about the most important part of this character’s life. It would be a challenge, on the heels of that, to find a season two – that would also beat season one. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying that this is truly the nature of all of these limited series. You are making it with a sense of finality. That is probably why people like it so much. It’s awfully challenging to do that. I can’t speculate as to whether or not there will be another season, but I would be excited if there is one, as well as being excited to see what everyone does as the next project. So that’s honestly where it kind of stands.