Having a Mare
Brad Ingelsby, creator and writer of Mare of Easttown, and director Craig Zobel break down the HBO crime drama and its titular character, a woman celebrated for former glories but now facing up to personal and professional crises.
We may be living in the age of binge-watching, but don’t write off the appeal of watching a series as episodes are released weekly just yet. Earlier this month, Line of Duty became the biggest UK series of the 21st century when almost 13 million people set aside an hour on a Sunday evening to tune into the finale of the police drama’s sixth season. And now another series, this time from the US, is keeping viewers on their toes and generating no end of potential theories as it races towards its conclusion.
HBO drama Mare of Easttown stars Kate Winslet as Detective Mare Sheehan, who is asked by her chief to revive the unsolved case of a missing girl amid increased community pressure in small-town Pennsylvania. When the body of another local girl is then discovered, Mare is forced to face up to past tragedies as life crumbles around her.
“It’s all about the ending, really,” creator and writer Brad Ingelsby tells DQ before he is due to finish the mix of the final episode. “I hate to say that because it takes away from the hard work of all the earlier episodes, but I’ve watched enough crime shows now to know that if you don’t stick the landing, you’re in trouble, man.
“I had Mare and all these characters in my head for eight months and I refused to start writing because I knew that, unless I had a good ending, it’s a waste of my time. But I hope people like it. Having watched it about eight gazillion times now, I’m definitely proud of the ending and I think it’s true to the series we’ve made.”
Ingelsby has been working on Mare of Easttown for the past two years, ever since a police officer friend first told him about his job working in a small police station in a rural community where, like the series, there was only one detective and all the officers worked out of a converted train station.
“I liked this idea of one detective who is tasked with having to solve all the crimes that happen in this town,” he explains. But the show also gave Ingelsby an opportunity to return to his home state of Pennsylvania to write a series that explores the dark side of family and community.
“I’ve been trying to write a story about home for a long time. I’ve come close – I would say I’ve written about home but have never been able to shoot something at home. I had a couple of movies that have gotten made that were about this part of the country, but then, just for production reasons and tax credits, they had to be shot elsewhere,” he says. “It was a real desire to write about home and where I grew up and how I grew up.”
Then the character of Mare became lodged in his mind – a former high-school basketball star who gave her town a moment of glory and has been trying to live up to that for the rest of her life.
“Now we are dropping into her life at a time when she’s unable to hold up that ideal anymore,” Ingelsby continues. “She’d been acting as if her life was in order but then a grenade dropped on her life, the death of her son. In the midst of that personal crisis, there’s these two cases that have to be solved. That felt like a lot of conflict.
“I love that character, and then I also really just wanted to talk about home. I didn’t grow up with a murder investigation. I didn’t grow up with police officers, but I did grow up in houses like that. I grew up with the Catholic Church, the pizza and the cheesesteaks and the [NFL’s Philadelphia] Eagles, so that was part of my life I have access to as a writer. I don’t have to research that stuff.”
It’s Mare’s inconsistencies that make her particularly believable: kind to the people in the town but harsh with her family, lacking patience yet incredibly empathetic, a person to whom the town can turn and yet now flagging under that pressure.
“Mare is incredibly good at just getting on with life,” Ingelsby adds. “Life is painful. It’s hard, but you get on with things. It’s that strength that she has that people admire and look to in times of need. She can be harsh at times but there is a deep well of empathy that she has and a sense of duty.”
Despite Ingelsby’s film background (Run All Night, The Way Back), Mare of Easttown’s focus on community and its ensemble of characters meant the project naturally gravitated towards television, with HBO producing in partnership with Wiip. A two-hour feature-length running time would barely have scratched the surface of the tensions bubbling away in the town, nor would it have allowed viewers a chance to invest in secondary characters like Mare’s daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), Mare’s mother Helen (Jean Smart), Mare’s best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson) or the detective’s potential love interest Richard (Guy Smart), not to mention the numerous Easttown inhabitants who become drawn into Mare’s investigations.
“You’d just be like, Mare has to solve the case, and if I was going to tell a story about a community, you have to give the characters time to breathe and you have to give an audience time to become immersed in the world,” says Ingelsby, who wrote all seven episodes himself. “I don’t know if I’d ever do it again unless it was a story about my home town. I said to myself, I could start a writers room but then I have to tell them about my town and give them all the details. And that would take just as long as doing it myself. Because so many traits in so many of the characters come from people in my own life, I felt like it was probably best if I told it. But it was a long ride.”
Ingelsby’s inside knowledge led him to spend a lot of time with production designer Keith Cunningham as they visited some of the real locations that inspired the series. It also helped him to collaborate with the cast and answer their questions about the characters.
“When Kate, Julianne or Jean had a note, these women are all mothers and sisters and if something wasn’t ringing true or didn’t sound right, I would change it,” he says. “Then I was in the edit every day editing the show and helping score the show. This was way more involved than anything I’ve had to do in the past.”
British Oscar-winning actor Winslet’s absorbing performance as Mare, complete with Pennsylvanian accent, is likely to see her become a fixture at awards ceremonies over the next year, with Ingelsby describing her work in the show as “astonishing.”
“Every time I see her on the screen, I completely believe her as this little-town detective. It’s just amazing that she melts into the character the way she does,” he says. Ingelsby had never imagined Winslet as Mare until his agent sent her the script and she signed on after reading only two episodes. But her role goes far beyond playing the lead character, with the actor also working as an executive producer on the series, which is airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic and streamer Now.
“I’ve never worked with an actor who goes as deep as Kate does, cares as much as she does and wants to get it right as much as she does,” he says. “Even in post-production, I would send her the edit and she’d come back with notes. Her story brain is incredible too,” the writer says.
“She had such specific ideas as to why Mare’s the way she is. And then after she had mastered her character, she became a creative exec on the show. A lot of the time, actors only have notes about their character. With Kate, she had such a strong sense of how the mystery would play out, the things we needed to set up and how a misdirect here would come around there, so her role in the narrative became way bigger than just Mare. It was such a valuable resource to have her involved in that whole process from the beginning.”
Behind the camera, Craig Zobel (The Leftovers, Westworld) directed all seven episodes after joining the project once Winslet was already on board.
“I couldn’t think of a character that was like Mare, or like Kate wanted to do as Mare,” he says of the appeal of the series. “It’s a challenge because you don’t want to make her so unlikeable that she would push you away from the show, but what was interesting to me was this flawed person. I loved her for her flaws. That really was the attraction.
“At high school, Mare was the one who made the winning shot and then became the police detective, so it’s like she’s the biggest fish in her pond and is over it a little bit. I thought that was really interesting.”
In Ingelsby and Zobel’s early conversations, the writer pointed to British dramas Broadchurch and Happy Valley as examples of shows that might sit in the same universe as Mare of Easttown. They also discussed the central dilemma that haunts each character: facing up to the past. With Winslet, Zobel says his main role was to encourage the choices she had made about playing Mare.
“It’s scary to play a character that’s unlikeable because it’s hard to be unlikeable but likeable enough to make the show not just a downer and a turn-off,” he says. “It’s fun to watch her in the messes Mare gets herself into, and I really liked the style of performance that she was pursuing. It was unique and it was cool and I hadn’t seen it before.”
The director had some rehearsal time with his cast, but most of their preparation would take place over Sunday-evening phone calls to discuss the scenes that lay in wait for them in the schedule that week. In particular, Zobel wanted each character to be recognisable to the audience, such as when Helen angrily plays a video game on her iPad when she’s upset.
“To me, that was the kind of stuff where I felt like, ‘Oh, I recognise that. I’ve seen a person do that,” he says, “so it was about looking for as many moments like that as you can find to help elevate the story, and making sure people felt specific and real. Obviously you can go shoot shots of the town, and we did, but it’s really about the people.”
With much of the show filmed outdoors, the pandemic’s impact on production was somewhat mitigated, though some scenes involving large numbers of cast did need to be revised. One example involved Mare’s daughter Siobhan’s rock band, who were due to play a show but ended up performing the scaled-back ‘Live in the Lobby’ slot for a local radio station.
“We found this amazing college that had a lot of locations we still needed to shoot, like courtrooms, government buildings and college buildings, and we were able to be there for a bunch of days in a row because the college was closed because of Covid,” Zobel says. “It meant we could use it so we weren’t travelling all over the city all the time and could design around what we had access to.”
While Zobel had the challenge of keeping the show efficient, joking that it could have run to 100 hours, Ingelsby faced balancing his interest in the characters of Easttown with the show’s procedural drive.
“My tendency is always to write character scenes, but this is a mystery. It has to have procedurals. It has to be surprising. The audience have to be on their toes. That was hard,” he admits. “I had never exercised that muscle ever in anything. It’s a constant balancing act.” There was even some restructuring in the edit, the writer reveals, where scenes that looked fine on paper didn’t quite work on screen.
“It was a bit of a Rubik’s Cube at times, just to try to make sure the momentum of each episode was right and the setups and pay-offs were happening in the right places,” he adds. “I guess we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see if we did it well.”
Mare of Easttown is ultimately the story of one woman realising the facade of her life is crumbling away as viewers watch how she reacts to challenges from the past and present.
“What you’ll see is that, as the case deepens, it involves everyone in town, everyone close to her, in ways she could never have anticipated,” Ingelsby says.
“There are lots of secrets and tragedies that come, but I hope it remains a deeply human show. I don’t think anyone who likes mystery shows is going to be disappointed, but they can expect it to be a really human portrait of a community as they have to come to terms with some very hard truths that slowly start to emerge. Nothing is quite as it seems, and it’s up to Mare to suss out the lies and deceit and the truth.”