Look at the movies written by Brad Ingelsby and you see the grounded working class sensibility that created HBO’s limited series “Mare of Easttown.” In his first crack at creating a television series, the seven-episode drama broke out with 16 Primetime Emmy nominations — enough to challenge frontrunner “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Eight years ago, finicky movie star Christian Bale was so impressed with Ingelsby’s script for Pennsylvania rust-belt drama “Out of the Furnace” (2013) that he signed on to play Rodney Baze, a stoic, hard-working factory welder trapped in an unforgiving steel mill town. And Ben Affleck ran with Ingelsby’s grieving, self-destructive, alcoholic high school basketball coach in “The Way Back” (2020), directed by Gavin O’Connor.
Both movies feel rooted in the real world, as does “Mare of Easttown,” which grabbed the interest of Oscar-winner Kate Winslet (“The Reader”), whose commitment got the series greenlit at HBO. And Ingelsby became a rookie showrunner as well, collaborating first with his chum O’Connor as the solo director of all seven episodes, and when the director fell out due to scheduling issues, Craig Zobel (HBO’s “The Leftovers”) took over.
“Mare of Easttown,” set in the Drexel Hill/Aston Pennsylvania area where Ingelsby grew up, was a story that was “hard to do right in the movie space,” he said. “It’s about community: how do [you do] that in two hours? In the movies I’ve done, the protagonist has a goal, [and] you’re tracking that one hero character over the course of a story. You don’t have a ton of time. You can’t investigate and examine the other characters in telling a murder story. This was more a story of community and trauma and how it impacts all the families. Mare is the eyes and ears.”
The first catalyst for the procedural mystery was an Ingelsby conversation with an East Coast police officer who worked in a converted train station with 12 officers and one detective. “Sometimes, a specific detail like that can spark other ideas and threads,” said Ingelsby, who put those details into the show, complete with a depot as police station.
From the start, Ingelsby fashioned his solo Easttown detective as a woman, living under one roof with her mother (Jean Smart), a teenage daughter (Angourie Rice), and a grandchild (Izzy King). “I grew up surrounded by women,” said Ingelsby, “my mom and three sisters, hearing them chat at the dinner table. I admired the way they stood by each other, helped out, and knew each other’s kids and their problems. I recreate these women in the story. Everyone is intimately, acutely aware of each other’s hardships. They fade away and split apart, but they are always there when times require them to be.”
As the movie landscape contracted, Ingelsby watched other writers he admired move into feeding the hungry television maw. “I’m a character writer,” he said. “I was never going to write a superhero movie. That I could write a lot of different characters and give them their own arc and story and space was appealing to me.”
Ingelsby sent the first two scripts, the pilot and Episode 2, to Winslet back in 2018. “She has proven she can do anything,” he said. “She’s not posh at all. Kate is a lot like Mare, in many ways, that’s what attracted her to the part.” With Winslet attached, HBO expressed interest. Then Ingelsby had to finish the scripts. He wound up writing seven episodes, which was “liberating — you get to spend time with so many more characters. Mare is the nucleus of the world, but I could go off with Dawn and Lori and Siobhan. I didn’t feel ultimately tied to the plot. […] I could pursue those strands that you can’t with a movie, when you have to stay on point.”
Part of leaning into women was escaping the overly familiar police formulas. “I’ve watched detective shows where the male has some drinking problem he’s trying to deal with,” Ingelsby said. “Here’s a woman who was a kind of leader years ago, who people still looked up to in different ways. She’s trying to maintain the facade of having it all together. That’s how she likes to be viewed in town. Mare might act grumpy or annoyed, but she likes the applause. She’s not immune. We’re dropping into a woman’s life at a time when the facade is crumbling. She’s a woman detective and a mother who saw herself as a failure. The aggregate of those pieces started to become a character you can’t get out of your head. The only way to get rid of them is to write them.”
And Ingelsby was also moving back and forth between a family drama (as Mare copes with the suicide of her son) and a detective mystery (about a teenage mother’s murder). “I had a constant awareness of having to blend the genres and always be aware that an audience has come to this story with certain expectations of the procedural suspense and mystery tropes,” he said. “They’re coming to see that story: Who did it? I had to embrace that part of the show. I had to always be strategic about the balance of drama and mystery. I’d see how much drama I could get away with before the audience got hungry for the procedural. It was a tricky thing. If I did the mystery and the drama right and found the balance, when I got to Episode 7 and put the cards out on the table, it would be a gut punch surprise. And if I ran the parallel tracks right, the audience would be invested in the characters and feel it was devastating.”
Just before shooting began in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2019, O’Connor fell out, and HBO suggested “Leftovers” director Zobel. “I felt he knew what he was doing, and was confident he knew how to execute,” said Ingelsby, who at the start had no idea if he had the right stuff to be a showrunner. He had rarely shown up before shooting on his movies, only occasionally during, and never in post-production. “You’re thrown into the water and learn how to swim,” he said. “I got a crash course, made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot of lessons. I was on set every day.”
During filming, Zobel and Ingelsby also listened to their actors, especially executive producer Winslet, who held onto the big picture from when she first read the scripts in 2018, keeping Episode 7 a secret even from her children. “I take the smartest idea in the room, which is usually not mine,” Ingelsby said. “We had lot of great women actors on set.”
With television, Ingelsby learned, often less is more. During the scene at the end of the show when Mare visits her estranged best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson), Ingelsby had the resigned, dejected Lori look around as Mare touches her arm and say, “My whole life is gone.” But Nicholson told Ingelsby, “I don’t want to say that. It’s more powerful if I don’t say anything. The look will say it all.” Said Ingelsby, “She was right. The look on her face of heartbreak and devastation didn’t need dialogue at all.”
Zobel also helped Ingelsby to simplify and pare back. “The scripts were dense,” said Ingelsby. “I had no experience. I was naive. I didn’t know how many scenes are in a 58-minute TV episode. Craig was strategic about what essential scenes we needed. He knew the format.”
The team filmed the show until lockdown in March 2020, cross-boarding locations across multiple storylines. During the hiatus, with about 60 percent of the material the editors needed, they got started on the edit and examined what was left to do. For his part, Ingelsby obsessively pored over all the dailies. “When eventually we had everything in the can and got to edit the show, I had copious notes,” he said. “I loved editing. It’s rewriting, cutting a line off earlier, making it work with a piece of music.”
Rewriting was required to meet safety protocols as the series continued production at the end of September, finally wrapping in December. “We had to get this wedding and still maintain the emotion of scene without any extras,” said Ingelsby, who moved one scene with Siobhan from a Haverford sorority house to a more intimate radio station. “It was a team effort of how to get over the hump.”
As editing continued, Winslet gave notes on each cut, and kept in touch via text, email, and Zoom. “As soon as we saw Kate in the edit, how magnetic she was and how she melted into the character, we believed she had lived in the place her whole life,” said Ingelsby. “When in doubt, cut to Mare. They were always checking me: ‘We’re away from Kate for 3 1/2 minutes.’ The audience always had to get back to her.”
Before the show aired, Ingelsby was on tenterhooks. “It was such a guessing game, constantly second-guessing ourselves up until HBO gave us the ‘Cut’! Have we shown too much, too little?” As a movie person used to research previews, Ingelsby hated not being able to screen it before a live audience. “You get a sense of what’s working and what’s not. It was hard not getting feedback from outside people. ‘Is it actually going to work?'”
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the interview contains spoilers for “Mare of Easttown” Episode 7, including the ending.]
The trickiest thing was the Episode 7 reveal of the teen killer. “We were struggling with, ‘How do we preserve the secret but also be emotional?'” said Ingelsby. “If we hide Ryan too much, do we get to the end of show [and people are left asking] ‘Who?’ He has to be someone the audience will know and care about and still be a surprise. We have to show Ryan was there but can’t show him too much.” Winslet suggested that they restore Ryan to one scene in Episode 3, and also show the audience the Carroll House again before the final reveal of the gun. “‘We need to see the security console,'” she told Ingelsby.
And Winslet came through when a key role fell out, calling her “Mildred Pierce” costar Guy Pearce to replace Ben Miles in what was really a small romantic sideline to the plot. “When Guy Pearce came in, it helped us,” said Ingelsby. “For an audience member, when such a big actor pops up, he has to be involved somehow. He’s come to town, he’s a killer or something. We were holding onto that until the last episode reversal. It helped us to keep the mystery going as long as we did.”
Winslet argued against having the duo find too happy an ending. “If Mare’s life is too good at the end of the show,” said Ingelsby, “and it feels like it all has come together now, and everything is lovely, it dilutes Mare’s gesture of going over to Lori’s house. It felt true to the story we’re telling if everything does not wrap up just the way you want it to.”
As for how to continue the series, several ideas are on the table with Winslet and HBO. “We are all interested in trying it,” said Ingelsby, “but we are aware of how hard it is. The question is, we gave her so much trauma, where could we go to if we pulled trauma out of the toolkit? What could we give her personally to match that arc we had? We’d never be able to match the death of a child, the loss of a best friend. That’s heavy stuff. The question is, ‘What’s a deserving second chapter?’ A continuation of Mare’s story could be just as emotional and surprising and funny. Of course, any version would have to include Helen and Siobhan. Audiences are interested in Julianne and Lori. And the audience would come back wanting to get wrapped up in another mystery of some kind.”
“Mare of Easttown” is streaming now via HBO Max.