Writer-director Todd Haynes is an absolute craftsman. He doesn’t work quickly—he average a new film about once every four years—but when he finally puts a new movie into the world, it’s usually something of exquisite beauty and layered structure that seeing it just once is to deny the work its full due. His latest work, CAROL, is no exception, although it marks the first of his features that he did not write (Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay is adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Price of Salt”).
CAROL is both a timeless love story and a love story very much of its time—the 1950s when being in different in any way was frowned upon and being gay was immoral and illegal. Cate Blanchett plays the title character, a married woman in the throws of a nasty divorce in which she stands to lose everything (including her young daughter) because of her fairly recent lifestyle realization. Rooney Mara plays a much younger shopgirl with whom she becomes mutually infatuated. It’s a film as lovely and sensual as it is tragic and painful.
Haynes has tapped into this brand of middle-age change of life in such works as FAR FROM HEAVEN and his epic HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE, which was one of my favorite works of 2011. He’s also certainly explored broader issues of identity in VELVET GOLDMINE and I’M NOT THERE. He became one of my personal favorite filmmakers with early works such as his short SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY, POISON, and SAFE, which remains one of Julianne Moore’s finest performances. But in many ways, CAROL is a crowning achievement, both visually and with career-best work from both of his lead actors. I sat down with Haynes recently in Chicago to explore the many facets of this extraordinary work. Please enjoy…
Capone: Hello, sir. Glad to meet you. I think we actually spoke on the phone once before, but this is actually the first time in person.
Todd Haynes: Glad to meet you in person. Sweet.
Capone: Almost immediately, the first thing I noticed about the film, even before the story got rolling, was the grain in the picture, and I remember thinking, “He must have shot this on film, but you don’t notice the grain in that way when someone shoots 35mm.” Then I found out that you didn’t shoot it with that.
TH: Yes, we shot it on Super 16, and Ed [Edward Lachman, cinematographer] and I had done it on MILDRED PIERCE. That’s the first time we did Super 16. For MILDRED PIERCE, we started thinking “This is going to be on HDTV, this movie, and even stuff shot on 35mm film on HDTV just gets so clean and shiny and fine grained that you can’t even tell that film was a part of the process, and that was about the Depression years. It just felt like we wanted to see that little bit of texture on the surface.
So for CAROL, I loved the experience on MILDRED, and when I read “The Price of Salt” and realized this was very far from the Eisenhower ’50s—the shiny, glossy, Sirkian ’50s that I had explored in FAR FROM HEAVEN—and the research really supported that. The images of New York City that we were seeing at the time showed this really grungy, grainy, dirty place. The city and country in a state of post-war distress still. Then all the Saul Leiter work started to have even more relevance. The Saul Leiter photography that I started to look at in MILDRED PIERCE, because he’s always shooting through windows and glass and with interruptions between where we are and what we’re looking at or what’s through the glass. This movie was so much about looking and who’s looking at who, and how that becomes a metaphor for desiring.
Capone: It’s funny you say that you were trying to get away from a certain look that was the idealized version of the ’50s. I think Carol, the character, is attempting to capture that look. A lot of what’s fascinating about Cate’s performance is when we see the cracks come through. She was raised that way, her husband wants her to look that way, and this is about her coming through that facade.
TH: Yes. But I do think that even in the elegance and the poise and the luxury that she’s wrapped up in, that she’s perfected as a woman in that place, in that very specific social milieu she lives in, it’s all conducting this powerful impact on Therese, whose eyes we’re seeing Carol through. There’s also something, and this is true in the book, I felt this when I first read the book, slightly searing, slightly mercurial, slightly discontent about Carol that almost contributes to the allure, you know what I mean? There’s some pain in there. There’s something that almost makes Therese think—and this is something we’ve all felt when we’ve been in Therese’s place—“I can rescue her. I have a job. I have been selected to somehow save this person.”
Capone: They both have a mission like that for different reasons. They both see each other as a project in a way, to put it in more modern terms. A lot has been made about the fact that you did not write this screenplay. Did this come to you independently, or were you working on this for a while?
TH: It came to me in quite a package of the book, the script at that particular time, because it had certainly changed over time as they were trying to get it financed well over a decade of time. Cate was attached to it. Sandy Powell [costume designer] was attached to it. And Elizabeth Karlsen was producing it. Elizabeth Karlsen is somebody I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known [Haynes’ regular producer] Christine Vachon—I met her through Christine when I moved to New York after college. So she’s almost like family. She’s an old, old friend. But I’d never worked with Liz before or her husband, Stephen Woolley, who’s produced all the Neil Jordan movies and others.
So it was like “Wow, this is very hard to turn down this package.” And we worked on the script. Once I came on board, there were some changes that happened in the script. But I had a really good working relationship with Phyllis. The whole return structure that repeats that scene at the beginning and end of the movie was not in that book or the script. Some other elements of the book we brought back in. Phyllis was really excited to do it. I think when you’r trying to get something financed for so many years, sometimes you acquiesce or you try to make things seem a little more congenial and appealing. Some of the tensions that I loved in the book, we brought back to the story.
Capone: One of the differences is that the book is strictly from Therese’s point of view, and now you’ve made it split more or less evenly. In the book also, Carol came across as a more biting; she’s knows Therese’s emotional buttons almost immediately. It almost makes me wonder if Therese is maybe an unreliable narrator. Was that something that you thought as well?
TH: If anything, we made it a little less comfortable between the two of them than it was in the draft that I first received, and I liked that about the novel. Of course when you adapt a novel, you’re economizing everything about it. I think Phyllis herself says one of the early realizations she made in adapting the book was to have the freedom to let a whole lot of it go and reinvented it herself, and I understand what she means. And that’s the thing about filmmaking is that every stage that you enter into is a process of discarding the previous stage. You have to let it go. So I needed to let go of the script, and that’s true whether I wrote it or someone else wrote it.
Capone: You mentioned the opening scene, which is repeated later, and I wondered why that particular scene? What did you want us to have learned by the time we get back to it?
TH: Initially what I liked about BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which is what that idea comes from, was how much it foregrounds the whole question of, whose story is this? Where you’re sifting through these peripheral, secondary characters to get to the person who we are going to be inside of. The person you’re inside of in love stories is usually the person in peril. That is, though most of CAROL, that is Therese. But that changes through the course of the story, so when you come back to that scene, it’s no longer Therese who’s in the state of peril; it’s Carol. Carol is now the one who comes as an open book, with her heart on her sleeve to Therese. So not only do you understand what the whole story meant and what happened between these women and what that interruption meant of that conversation, but you also come about it from the other angle. You’re now fully on the other side of the romantic dynamism.
Capone: By complete coincidence, I had seen the poster recently for THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and saw this image of Audrey Hepburn on it and realized that Rooney looks almost exactly like her in this movie. It hadn’t even occurred to me until I saw that poster.
TH: [laughs] And now look at a picture of Jean Simmons from that period, because in my mind if you have to pick one actress that she really resembles the most it’s Jean Simmons. But it’s not a bad combination.
Capone: No, not at all. I talked before about her clothes. They look uncomfortable on her initially, which I guess is the metaphor.
TH: Even when she’s the younger, the floppy Therese.
Capone: She just looks literally uncomfortable in her skin, so to speak. Did you dress her that way to give us that impression?
TH: Yeah. She wears that floppy knit cap and that scarf, and she wears a lot of little tunic dresses with layers underneath. There’s something both constricting about them, the dresses themselves, and something baggy and indeterminate about the outerwear that she wears. She’s really figuring out what her shape is, what her contour is. I almost feel like when she says, “I can’t take pictures of people,” it’s really like, “I can’t see myself yet.” And yes, Carol becomes her first subject as a photographer, but then ultimately I feel like she enters the world and she’s changed, and she resembles Carol when she does.
Capone: I wanted to ask you about the love scene, because you could have gotten away with not having one. I realized their initial connection is a physical attraction, so you want to somehow embody that. Was there ever an option in your mind about not having it?
TH: No. To me, it’s like a suspense film that’s leading to this question, and the whole question of how they get there and what path they have to take and what social mores they’re challenging or not, even some that we forget are actually more permissible for two women on the road than an unmarried man and woman on the road. There are actual ways in which it’s like, “Oh, right. They have way more mobility.” The way we’re reading that eventual moment is the way Therese is reading everything with Carol. It’s like, how is it going to happen? What does she even feel? You wonder will they have sex? Do they want to have sex? Is that possible at this time? All of these questions that make you crazy.
Capone: Believe me, no one is more surprised that I’m saying that than me [both laugh]. I’m just saying, I almost feel like you could have gotten away with it. But it certainly unlocks a tension that is building between them too.
TH: That’s interesting. I think the tension needed to be released at some point, because they are considerable and they keep building though the movie. Even at the very end of the movie, you build up again, and it cuts to black and you’re left to relieve them yourself somehow. And the way it’s described in the book is so powerful and beautiful.
Capone: I don’t think enough is being made of the importance of the Abby character, played by Sarah Paulson. She’s a really crucial part to this relationship. Can you talk a little bit about that? She’s almost like a third version of this ’50s lesbian character that is the most out.
TH: The most out. The most comfortable. They literally make jokes about her having a crush on a redhead. No, I think she’s such an essential component to it, and you’re so right. And it was hard because we had more of everything. We shot more than was in the film. It was a pruning down process. There was more stuff with Sarah that I loved, but it’s a balancing act. I still think you leave with such a strong sense of who this woman is. Exactly as you say, her difference from Carol and from Therese, clearly. And of the intense ambivalence and complex feelings she feels towards Carol and towards Therese.
I was just telling this journalist that when Cate first saw the cut, the one part she just started to cry during was the shot of Sarah Paulson driving Therese home at night. Just something in her face when she grimaces, and it made her sad. It just penetrated, maybe because it wasn’t herself. It’s hard to watch yourself the first time, or the scenes that you were in, and it reminded her just what women had to deal with at the time and how hard it was. It just really cut through to her.
Capone: Your previous film, MILDRED PIERCE, also features a woman coming into her own after a marriage, albeit through a very different story, but it seems to be a theme that binds these two films.
TH: Yeah, that is true.
Capone: Todd, thank you so much. It’s great to meet you.
TH: Thanks. And thanks for noticing the Super 16 [laughs].