8 Great Filmmaking Lessons from 'Mare of Easttown'

'Mare of Easttown'Credit: HBO Max
We're truly in the golden age of television. 

This summer, it felt like everyone spent their Sunday nights working out the clues to a small-town murder mystery and practicing their Philadelphia accents. Mare of Easttown brought us all together and kept us on the edge of our seats.

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The American crime drama limited series was created by Brad Ingelsby and premiered on HBO. It starred Kate Winslet as the titular Mare, and the ensemble cast included Jean SmartGuy PearceJulianne NicholsonAngourie RiceDavid DenmanEvan PetersSosie Bacon, and John Douglas Thompson. All seven episodes were directed to perfection by Craig Zobel.

When we write columns like this, we usually cover movies, but as the line between film and television continues to blur, I think it's time we expand this series to television as well. There's so much any storyteller can glean from an interesting show like Mare

So what are some of the best lessons you can learn from the show? 

8 Great Filmmaking Lessons from Mare of Easttown

1. Engrossing Characters 

Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of the show was how many diverse and interesting characters it brought to the forefront.

Of course, Mare herself was deep and well-formed. We saw the trauma she carried and the pain as well. But her mother, daughter, ex-husband, and even daughter-in-law all had their own distinct stories. So did her friends and even the side characters. Each person could have been the star of their own show, and that's what made them all feel whole, and also what drew bona fide stars to round out the cast.

How can you focus your character creation? Make sure the people you come up with are the stars of their own story threads. 

2. Immersive Community 

One of the things I appreciated, as No Film School's resident suburban Philadelphian, was how much the show showcased the community within the suburbs of Philadelphia. Easttown might be a fictional place, but it is within the very real location of Delaware County.

The show's creator, Brad Ingelsby, is a local who wanted to tell a story about his home. He did that, showing the best and worst parts. Contextualizing the public's struggle with the opioid epidemic and also the perseverance of the people within it.

What do you know about your area? Where are the places you're familiar with that you can make come alive? 

3. Plot Twists 

You can't have a detective series without twists of the plot. What I think this show did better than a lot of its contemporaries was that these twists all paid off in one way or another. Nothing felt like a red herring or useless information. Everything we learned informed either the mystery or someone's arc.

Sure, some clues lead to dead ends, but even our person in the hoodie looking in windows helped pay off who Mare is and what she means to the community.

When you start writing your plot twists, think about where they come from—are they actually building the character and stakes, or are they just there as a cheap thrill? 

4. Episode Endings 

Along with the twists, each episode of Mare left us wanting more. Every single one ended with something new that changed our perspective or whet our appetite. The pilot ends with the murder of a girl, the second episode ends with the lead suspect being shot, and so on. Each time we thought we knew what was going on, the filmmaker reorganized our thoughts in a way that made us want to go back and track the story through the episode.

Endings are so important, especially in a limited TV series. You need people to come back each week, so make sure your endings keep people excited to tune in. 

5. Clear Themes 

One of the central themes of Mare was the idea of dealing with grief. It helped carry us through Mare's own arc, but the way it extended over the community was key to making people feel empathy for the characters. Grief over the lost son, a lost brother, grief over a missing girl, a cheating husband, a case you cracked through mediocre evidence.

Everyone in this show was mourning something. What kind of themes are you writing in your story? What covers the characters and weaves so neatly into the world you built for them? 

'Mare of Easttown'Credit: HBO Max

6. Realistic Accents 

You knew we couldn't go much further without talking about the very specific accents at the center of this show. They almost were not a part of the story. Even creator Brad Ingelsby was worried about using them, but Winslet heard them and knew they had to be a huge part of the show and the character. Making it authentic caused Winslet to throw things around her trailer, and even to hire a dialect coach who took her through all the worlds. 

"There were a lot of things I could have really leant into that would have made it sound like I was doing something a bit gimmicky and I didn't want that to happen," Winslet told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "So I just had to drill it and drill it and drill it."

What kinds of things can you add to your idea to make it more authentic? How can something as small as an accent give you more character? 

7. Collaboration

In TV, more so than almost any other medium, collaboration is key. Craig Zobel directed all the episodes and worked closely with Ingelsby to craft the look and feel of the show. But the conversation didn't stop there. Winslet was a producer on the piece and came in with her own opinions as well. Everyone inside the story was working together to make sure what hit the screen was special and original. 

Who are you collaborating with? Are you listening to ideas from the cast and crew? How can you assemble a team that wants to help you get your best ideas onto the big or small screen? 

'Mare of Easttown'Credit: HBO Max

8. Closure 

The ending of the Mare series was a fitting finale for her character and the show. It was never just about solving the case, but about a community finding closure after its grief. While it is meant to be just one season, there is certainly more elbowroom to tell more stories, if Ingelsby so chooses.

But what's poetic about the show was that even after the case was closed, the characters involved had to find a way to move onto the next part of their lives. That tied into the theme and into some of the tropes we come to expect from a detective show.

Does your ending provide closure? Are you setting us up for more? How does it compare to the tropes of other ideas within the same genre?

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1 Comment

The show was great, one of the best of the year because of all the things mentioned above, BUT...

SPOILER!?!

9. Plot Holes - Make sure your ending doesn't hinge on something that directly contradicts what has already been established, especially within the same episode! Don't have a character imply (since the old man didn't actually say it) something had been missing for at least a few days, and then tell the audience that something was actually only missing for a couple of hours. (The old man did not know it was missing from 11 pm to 1 am, and if he did, that's what he should've said!) Instead, this could have been fixed very easily by having the old man know two of the items that the something used were missing... real easy fix that doesn't blow up the ending.

June 29, 2021 at 6:20PM, Edited June 29, 6:26PM

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Thomas Prill
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