Secret Love: Todd Haynes, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara bring Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Carol’ into the open

Movies Features

Among seminal American auteur Todd Haynes’ diverse filmography (now at eight features, including the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce,) the richness of his female-driven movies stands out. From Safe to Far from Heaven, we observe complex women going against the grain of their circumstances and cultural surroundings and enduring the perils of their situation.

Carefully excluding his ’70s glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine and visionary Bob Dylan movie I’m Not There (both of which are “about shaking up expectations and defying fixed identity”), Haynes says the characters in his “domestic” films see the forces of the world act upon them and we watch them suffer the consequences. “The characters I relate to are put in situations where we have to figure out what the problem is, usually things way beyond their power that are wrong with the world itself,” he elaborates.

His latest film, the piercingly gorgeous, magnetic masterpiece Carol, is no exception to these themes—though (with the risk of giving away a spoiler) the outcome here is positive, fulfilling and redemptive. The story is told from the perspective of young, reserved shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls in love with the older Carol (Cate Blanchett) against the odds and the intolerance of 1950s America. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, Carol is a sweeping romance in which every look, frame and deeply colored setting (sometimes behind grainy or rain-washed windows) is filled with unspoken meaning.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Cannes success and festival-circuit darling is rightfully staking its claim in current awards-season conversations, in a refreshing and surprising year chock-full of female-driven contenders like Room and Brooklyn. And Haynes, who nabbed a screenplay nod with Far from Heaven in 2003, once again has a shot at a nomination, but this time as a director (in addition to Carol’s potency in the races for acting, script and crafts).

Haynes was understandably in high demand right before the Weinstein Company release’s much-anticipated opening. So it was on a busy day in a busy year of his life when he joined me on the phone for a brief chat. As articulate, friendly and thoughtful as I’ve ever seen him in previous talks, he kindly reminds me he is engaged otherwise right after our brief conversation, so we jump right in and move fast.

I ask him about all the areas where Carol seems to break the rules of what we often get to see in today’s cinema. A film about two women, subjects that are generally pushed to the sidelines in studio boardrooms and consequentially across American screens. A lush gay love story between women. An indisputable romance picture, a genre that is not often regarded with the same kind of artistic cachet as other, seemingly more high-minded material. Did he feel he was swimming against the current while making the film? Haynes says he didn’t feel the outside dynamics so much, but turned inward and focused more on his own history as a filmmaker when approaching Carol. The fact that it was a love story–which he hasn’t tackled before–was a major attraction. “I felt like this, in and of itself as a genre and as a great tradition in film, I had to really tackle directly,” he asserts. “It made me just want to look at love stories that affected me and see how they work. A lot of it sprung from, obviously, the novel The Price of Salt and how much its power is rooted in the exclusive point of view that you're in, through Therese’s eyes.”

Carol is an anomaly for the filmmaker, as for the first time he hasn’t written the script for a feature he directed. As he has voiced in other interviews, he first heard of the project from costume designer Sandy Powell—who gorgeously dressed and accessorized the characters in Carol—and became involved with it in 2013, with Cate Blanchett already attached. Haynes says the biggest apparent difference in directing a film he did not write was how much less time he had for preparatory research. But other than that, the steps involved were all the same. “I live through my own scripts for a much longer time when I'm writing them myself,” he explains. “You're moving forward from page to casting, location, to shooting, to seeing your dailies, to seeing your first cut. You have to give up what the prior stage told you because it's gone and you can't go back. Flexibility and sometimes ruthlessness is essential. I find that I have to discard my own script, just as I have to discard Phyllis' once we're shooting it and once we're moving into the next stage. I think that's the only honest way to make a film.”

In reworking Nagy’s script, Haynes referenced David Lean’s Brief Encounter as a structuring device. “I thought of the film when I first read [Nagy’s] beautiful annotation,” Haynes says. “I thought it is interesting in Carol that there is a change [of status]. The point of view in love stories is almost always from the side of the person who is more vulnerable. That's certainly true for Therese through much of Carol, but what's so beautiful about Carol is that because of the circumstances that both women encounter, they change. By the end of the film, Carol is the one who has re-evaluated her life and is coming to Therese. She's the vulnerable one. She's the one saying I love you. That offered that structure and that reference to Brief Encounter, an additional dimension where it begins to position Therese as the subject and it ends positioning Carol as the subject.”

In Carol, the quiet moments in the film are just as impactful as the dialogue scenes. Haynes credits his collaboration with his actors as much as his work with Nagy, and believes his spare approach reflected the style of the entire production. “Our group was really special because we clued into [the silence] as something that distinguished this story. I remember being in rehearsals with Rooney and Cate. We continued to reduce and minimize the words,” he recalls. “I remember Rooney saying, ‘Does she need to say this?’ All of us would be like, ‘No, she doesn't need to say it. Let's lose it.’ It felt so great to all be on the same page about distilling down the language. I think this was already something Phyllis realized as a strength when she felt almost intimidated by the novel, which she loved. She realized she could let tons of it go and she regained possession of it in the process. That put it back into her hands. That just became our motif, which was reflected in the performances, in the camerawork, even the score, where the simplest melodic themes that Carter [Burwell] came up with were ultimately the ones that we settled on.”

Haynes’ supporting cast was also part of this paring-down process. He praises the skillfulness of Sarah Paulson (whose part as Carol’s friend Abby was reduced) and Kyle Chandler (as Carol’s husband, Harge) in pulling their weight in the drama. “I just think what Sarah brings to the film is so absolutely distinctive and specific and it's unimaginable in anybody else's hands. It's so indelible what that character means and that it registers with such economy, an entire complicated backstory with Carol and Abby, as does the marriage, depicted by Kyle and Cate. Harge is reflecting on Carol in ways he never has in his life before. Realizing her value in his life, that he probably had taken her largely for granted…until he started to lose her.”

Haynes notes that the backdrop of the film, the 1950s, is not the same view of the decade seen in his Sirkian melodrama, Far from Heaven. “Simply from the time that it's set, it's a very different 1950s from the ’50s of the full Eisenhower era of Far from Heaven,” he says. “This is a much more transitional period of American history. There was a great sense of uncertainty and upheaval after the war years. I would say this is almost more of a culmination of the post-war ’40s. The Truman administration was not alleviating or resolving for a lot of Americans, so they were really eager for a different kind of leadership. There was ambivalence and anxiety about the Cold War, so the country was susceptible to demagoguery like Joseph McCarthy. So much of those issues were very present, and you see it when you see images of the time. It's not this shiny, chromey city by any stretch. It really looks like a tired city that's been through something and is eager for a different outlook.”

It was no easy task to create those elements on a modest budget, yet still make them look lived-in and authentic. Haynes says the challenges of the tight budget and schedule (the shoot was 34 days in total) were endless, with every part of the frame, especially outdoors, becoming a cost consideration. He and his team knew they had to be extremely specific. That’s how the film came to be lensed in Cincinnati, Ohio, yielding considerable savings. Haynes talks about that “fantastic city” fondly, noting that many of its period architectural elements are still in place and have been left untouched. “We literally shot some exterior shots with existing signage on the streets of Cincinnati. It brought production value to the movie that would be uncountable if it was really shot in today's Manhattan. We just found fantastic interiors as well. It just kept giving. The extras and a lot of our day players were all from the area. The fantastic actor who plays Carol's lawyer. The woman who wants a cigarette at the party. The extras looked like real people. They had awkwardness and a reality to them and an ease that was just really exciting.”

As a filmmaker who’s been in the independent scene for over two decades, Haynes offers up his perspective about what has changed for him as a storyteller and filmmaker. Surprisingly, he doesn’t talk about the challenges from the filmmaking end, but the change in audience habits. He laments that people who love cinema don’t necessarily go out to see dramatic films on big screens as much, the way they used to. “We have all these other avenues and ways that we access content, as people call it. That experience of watching films communally and what that means and how much more beautiful films are when they're projected on the screen... The fact that we don't even project films anymore on film but on digital carriers… It sounds like an old fuddy-duddy, but I can't help it because it's just such a incredibly lush and gorgeous medium that I can't easily give up to the shiny surface of digital technology without some regrets.

“That's why I keep shooting on film and keep trying to frequent the cinemas in my town, in Portland, Oregon. The audiences really do go out to the screenings there. Or [look at] what Quentin Tarantino did with the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. It's fantastic, the returning to the revival cinema. Those, in the old days, are where I gained my education.”