Carol is Todd Haynes first film since 2007’s I’m Not There (although, he did shoot a five-part mini-series for HBO in 2011, Mildred Pierce) and the first work he’s ever done without being credited as a screenwriter. This is a rich adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) novel, but make no mistake, Carol is unmistakably authored by Haynes. The colors are lush, the attraction—between a 50s suburban mother (Cate Blanchett) and a young department store clerk (Rooney Mara)—is achingly observed through the barrier-lines of the era, and the performances are classic. It is one of the best films of the year, and after the eight-year wait, thank the (far from) heavens that Haynes already has a new project lined up, because Carol reminds us of his particular dramatic nuance that has been absent from the American film landscape for too long.
Haynes and I sat down in a garden to talk about how he and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy stripped a lot of the dialogue from the original script to create a visual language of attraction and self-questioning. We also talked about the current state of filmmaking and his longtime partnership with producer Christine Vachon.
I’ll start by saying, I absolutely adored this film, and I’ve adored a lot of your work, so I have a lot of questions. Firstly, you’ve written or co-written every film that you’ve done until Carol (Phyllis Nagy adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt). So Cate Blanchett is already attached and the script is already written, what made you want to make this your first film where you’re solely the director?
TODD HAYNES: I guess in general I’ve been doing a little more reading of scripts in the last several years. I know a lot of directors have always done this, but I never really did, and that’s just not just having that one project that you’re developing or focusing on exclusively to the exclusion of everything else until it gets done. I sort of have a dog-minded single strategy but I am a little more open to stuff that’s out there, now and looking at scripts in the world and seeing if something that already exists can spark my interest and my curiosity. I am feeling a little more flexibility I guess in how things evolve. It might just be not having that same crazy younger obsessive energy to just shut everything else out and completely originate my own material.
This one just came with too many amazing attachments and participants already engaged —starting with Cate, of course—and then this material took me by surprise. I didn’t know the book, The Price of Salt, but Phyllis’ script amazed me and my fall opened up in 2013 when I was waiting on another project and [Carol producer] Liz Karlsen just asked Christine Vachon (Haynes’ producing partner), “Do you think Todd would want to read it?” I really responded to it, and Phyllis and I—by the way, I loved what she did with that novel,—started to work together on on the script and I think It got into a good place when we started to collaborate a little on the on the writing as well.
One thing that I absolutely love about this film is how it’s told visually within the relationship. Like where Carol’s hands are, where her eyes look, etc. There’s so much feeling without having dialogue or narration of their feeling. Is that something you worked with Phyllis on to remove a little bits of narration or direct dialogue and to make that visual? And why was it important to tell this love story largely through gestures?
HAYNES: Some of that did happen in the work that we did when I came on board. I also felt—and I think she felt relived by this visual approach—that some of the anxiety and discomfort that was felt pretty strongly in the book between Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara) had relaxed a bit in the drafts. I think when you’re trying to get a film together that’s had a long gustation process before I came on board and was trying to get financed in various stages, sometimes you’re trying to make it more friendly to the financial interests or the commercial interests of various parties. Phyllis was like “Oh good, Yes, lets!” Because she loved the novel, she knew Patricia Highsmith’s language, and she really had a long and interesting history that informed this.
I love the tensions and the disquiet that Carol often imposed upon Therese; this climate of anxiety and uncertainty is so universal to those feelings of falling love, so stripping out dialogue was part of making it authentic. So, with financing and shooting there must be a trust that really fine actors and a very selective way of shooting it and observing it can reach an audience that would understand this, and be able to fill in those gaps.
The acting is magnificent, I know that Rooney Mara was your choice to bring on board. What did you see in her previously that made her perfect for Therese?
HAYNES: You know, I first saw incredibly diversity and range, but she has almost exclusively been used for in your face characters, like in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have always had an interest in performers who play against the most obvious of expectations and are able to find something secret, something withheld, and some level of restraint. I find that so many of her choices are interesting. When I saw Side Effects, the [Steven] Soderbergh film, where she’s having to play up the reality and the ruse at the same time, that the effects of depression through prescription drug addiction, I saw a kind of reserve of despair and a full emotional range. From that performance, I just knew that she could also play someone who’s emotional range is sort of unformed, young, uncertain and awkward. I knew that we could watch Rooney evolve into something else in the course of the film, and that was what I most wanted for Therese, a finding of her own identity.
I know that you have a huge appreciation for film and especially 50s film as well. When I was watching Carol I felt like there were some moments that had some classic Bette Davis—Olivia de Havilland exchanges; for instance, Blanchett gets the kind of big melodramatic lines like “Just when you couldn’t think it could get worse, you run out of cigarettes” and Mara has to act more modern in terms of reaction, like de Havilland’s ingenue opposite Davis. Is that something you were trying to play with or interested in?
HAYNES: You know, I did look at films. I always go through a process of trying to distinguishes this from other things I’ve done. What Carol is about for me, is the language of film in particular. Maybe on a basic level, I can learn something from that I haven’t already explored elsewhere. I started Carol as I almost always do, by looking at films from the time and they were less, they actually felt less relevant to me, in terms of their bigness, although we do have some big 50s types moments in Carol. But when I read the book, and when read the script, Brief Encounter (1945) was one of the first films that I thought of. And what I returned to that films was to look at is how much it introduced in terms of questioning subjectivity, point of view, and that point of view is actually a marker for weakness, or at least has the higher potential of being hurt. Basically, the weaker party is the one who we most resonate with in love stories and is also the person that we find ourselves orientated around. That made utter sense in what I was seeing as the source material for this.
What was interesting about Carol is how that vulnerability changes, and how that changes in life, in love relationships. You know, who could get hurt more, who is in more dangerous. You’re absolutely right that passivity of the de Havilland character versus the powerful Bette Davis character obviously has aspects of that power dynamic, but I wasn’t looking particularly at that genre of melodrama, but perhaps more so giving a 40s approach to a 50s movie.
We kind of touched on this a little bit but I do love the line where Dannie says that he has watched Sunset Boulevard six times to see what people are doing instead of what they mean. We talked about the writing process of Carol—in terms of stripping some dialogue—but can you elaborate on how you staged the film and used body placement to say the things they want to say, but aren’t saying?
HAYNES: What I was provided by the source material and what I was provided by the script were very, very specific and curtailed spaces and zones. Which allowed for very specific kinds of movement, and maybe more importantly did not allow for other kinds of movement and other kinds of expression, and really what it boils down to in a story like this is how is this sexual desire going to manifest itself? How are Carol and Therese going to take certain steps around societal propriety to get close? How are these people ever going to touch each other, let alone make love to each other, and so I really want the audience to place close attention to the movement, possibilities of movement, possibilities of trespassing boundaries and observe what’s possible in different social settings, and different settings of class designation as well.
I find there are also these surprising places of more freedom of movement for gay people in unexpected historical moments, and maybe more so with lesbians because their love was so utterly unimaginable and unrepresentable at the time to many people, and maybe continues to be so for many people. Lesbians seemed to escape legal constraints, because their sexual expression fell outside of all the arbors of power. And so the ways a woman, an older woman could invite a younger woman to lunch she met once, or who returned her gloves was utterly and totally acceptable, where as Cate says, as Carol. “I could have never invited had lunch with the head of the Ski Department,” because it would be considered romantic. I felt that also in Far from Heaven, too, that in some ways through the fact that the society could not even conjure the possibility that two men would want to be together in this place or in that way. That in some ways the Dennis Quaid character in Far from Heaven had more freedoms in secrecy than the Dennis Haysbert’s character had as a black man whose color and race was so over-determined, that the slightest intimation of movement of gesture would be overdetermined by the people around them and protested. So with homosexuality of that time period and this time period there is a freedom of movement, if that movement is contained to certain rules in public. I think that even though we are more free and open now that that code of language might be easier to pick up on when watching Carol.
You and Christine Vachon have been working together since 1991, she’s produced every one one of your projects…
HAYNES: All my feature films starting with Poison.
What is it about your working relationship that has allowed you to work for 20—almost 25—years together?
HAYNES: Drugs, just really good drugs [laughs]. I mean, I’m just so fortunate. I think we just feel still really committed to this idea that we’re doing work that we believe in that stands somehow outside dominant trends of filmmaking. And that means some aspects of the practice have to be different. I think we still, as most people do, as they get older a lot older still think of themselves as they were when they were young and are always a little surprised when they look in the mirror and see they are not those people anymore. We basically still feel like we kinda snuck in the back door and are still doing it our own way and we’re very proud and surprised every time anything kind of cuts through and succeeds. Yet when you look back on the actual evidence we’ve been succeeding pretty well all these years and doing what we want to do our way.
Speaking of youth, you’ve made a number of films, and a full TV mini-series before that was en vogue (Mildred Pierce), there is so much of talk about directors that came up in the 90s about the state of filmmaking now. Spielberg recently said that he thinks now is maybe the best time to be a filmmaker because there’s just so much audience everywhere. How do you feel about being a filmmaker in this day and age, as opposed to when you were younger?
HAYNES: I know what he means, and I think one can’t lose sight of that. I love what cable offered and offers filmmakers today. A really healthy climate of competition for doing more challenging subject matter via the long-form format. But, I also feel like that audience that might be more prevalent for following challenging films is also harder to locate than ever before, harder to feel its breathing and its pulse in the room, you know. And of course that just maybe boils down to the simplest things that people just don’t go to the theater to experience films as much together in the dark, in mass, that very old fashioned idea still matters a lot to me. The fact that we don’t shoot on film anymore, although I do, but that matters a lot to me.
I do think that, yes, one should always be receptive to the fact that there are many different types of audiences and they are not necessarily in a clean reductive demographic like they once were. That’s great, you know. I do know my own films don’t necessarily work within that high-pressure reductive moment of the opening weekend, or all the ways that many people assess the value of movies. They actually just sort of live in the past, those moments must be remembered because success for certain types of film come months and years later. Ultimately it’s when a movie makes you want to go back to and think about again, and revisit it, there are so many different ways of doing so today, and that gives films a longer life to find an audience now, than before.
I can’t wait to see this again actually.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.
Carol opens in limited release, Friday November 20.