A cinch for nominations in several Oscar categories, one of the most talked-about and best-reviewed movies of the year is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, opening this Friday (November 11). To make it, veteran director Todd Haynes encountered a pre-existing screenplay from Phyllis Nagy, who adapted it from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. (Ireland’s John Crowley, who went on to make the similarly toned Brooklyn, was originally slated to direct.)
“As you know,” says Haynes, calling from his Portland, Oregon home, “This is the first thing I’ve made that I didn’t really write and develop myself. Turned out that it was pretty exciting to work with a different kind of energy—less prep time, less research time than it usually takes. And that left me some freedom to concentrate on different aspects of the story.”
A New York reporter who became an acclaimed London playwright, Nagy got to know Highsmith during the late American author’s elder years in England. The author of Strangers on a Train and the Ripley books encouraged the younger woman to adapt one of her novels. Nagy eventually hit on Salt, published pseudonymously in 1952, when publishers thought the book’s up-front lesbian content would be an instant career-killer. It was subsequently issued under Highsmith’s own name in the 1980s and rechristened Carol, after the object of its narrator’s desire. Nagy conflated some of Salt’s characters, cleverly incorporating bits of Highsmith’s own history into the tale. But the gist is intact.
“Phyllis had been working on her screenplay for almost 20 years,” Haynes explains, “and it was very close to what we ended up with. There were some structural changes, mostly inspired by Brief Encounter, with what you could call a conversation interrupted by the rest of the movie.”
That 1945 David Lean romance is an obvious touchstone for Haynes, who likewise revived the Technicolor bathos of Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven, about a closeted hubby in the witch-hunting fifties. That and his HBO take on Mildred Pierce are period companion pieces to the new film, which stars Blanchett (she also played a version of Bob Dylan in Haynes’ offbeat I’m Not There) as socialite Carol, and Mara as budding photographer Therese, who drops everything to travel across the U.S. with her barely hidden crush.
In the gorgeously shot film, the central relationship is less maternal and more balanced than in the book. Carol’s third-wheel pal, Abbey (Sarah Poulson), has become more like a wised-up Highsmith. And Therese, only 20 in the book, is now a photographer instead of a theatrical set designer.
“That was all there in the script,” says Haynes. “But there were other things in the novel that I particularly loved. And when I took them to Phyllis. She was so excited to go back to the source and dig them out again. I sensed that in the process of trying to get this thing made she had softened the scripts edges in a couple of places, in order to make it a more congenial experience for financiers.
“What’s crucial to the novel, however, is how much anxiety there is whenever Carol and Therese are together—particularly at the beginning of the story, when they’re first getting to know each other. And that is just so true, regarding how you feel when you’re in Therese’s shoes and falling in love with somebody without being sure how they feel about you.”
Most reviews have focused on the tale’s theme of verboten love, without which this would be just another thorny love story. The director, currently rumoured to be working on a Peggy Lee biopic, can see it two ways.
“In a general sense, that’s true, because there have to be social forces keeping the lovers apart. Otherwise, there isn’t any real dramatic conflict. Many great love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, become indictments of oppressive morality. At the same time, when I read this novel I found it dominated by the granular experience of being so attentive to the details and nuances, to every little awkwardness when in the company of the person you’re falling in love with—particularly when they hold all the power. That transcends period and place and object choice and sexual orientation. And that universal aspect immediately made me feel eligible to take Carol on, because it reminded me so much of myself at that age.”
Beyond the social and personal implications, Carol gave Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman, who worked with him on numerous other features, the opportunity to put a profound visual stamp on the project. Drawing on the inspiration of New York street photographer Saul Leiter (with hints of Vivian Maier and our own Fred Herzog), they took a skewed view of period settings, built around odd angles, reflected surfaces, and faces obscured by cars and buildings.
“This is seen in Therese’s own photography in the film—the way she initially has trouble depicting human subjects. By the end of the film, it’s Carol who sees Therese through taxi-cab windows and out in the world, almost as if Therese has entered one of her own frames.”
Indeed, the film is built as much around the interstices between the frames as what’s within them.
“Yes, the whole movie is, in a sense, a study of negative space. We were interested in some negation, some way in which you don’t fill in the gaps with information and signification. That was absolutely essential to a story like this, which would have been easy to oversell. That extended to the score; when Carter [Burwell] first gave me sketches of music to go with various scenes, we learned very quickly that the simplest approaches were in every case the best. It was the least telegraphing themes that carried the most power, and gave more space for the viewer to inhabit. That’s really what we’re talking about: getting a good start and allowing viewers to finish the film for themselves.