“I’m drawn to female characters; not all of them are strong,” Todd Haynes told Interview Magazine in 2011. In just one sentence, the director encapsulated the pathos of his work. The women of Haynes’ movies and miniseries, from “Safe” to “Far from Heaven” to “Mildred Pierce,” navigate an intensifying ennui — one that threatens to destroy the status quo of their constrictive social roles.
Now, Haynes has trained his lens on two women, each of whom disrupt their lives to do something radical: Fall in love. “Carol,” based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” and one of the most buzzed-about films on the festival circuit this year, is a portrait of tempestuous love bubbling under a cool 1950’s surface. Haynes tells the story with restraint, capturing the intangibility of desire through doorways and windows. Cate Blanchett (as Carol) and Rooney Mara (as Therese) craft an unspoken language onscreen, at once perfectly in sync with each other and at odds with their circumstances.
At the 53rd New York Film Festival, Haynes took to the stage with the festival’s director of programming, Kent Jones, to chat about “Carol.” Here’s what we learned. (Some light spoilers follow.)
1. He stole from “Brief Encounter.”
The 1945 British film “Brief Encounter” opens with a conversation. The context is not completely understood, but its significance is all too evident. At the end of the film, when the scene replays in the natural narrative, the conversation takes on a microcosmic importance; much has happened between the characters, and seeing the scene again affords the viewer a chance to assess that change.
“I lifted that right out of ‘Brief Encounter’ and put it into our script,” said Haynes. “I thought it was a beautiful way to structure a narrative: You start with an encounter, and you travel through the story to explain what we missed. And then when you replay it at the end of the film, you know the importance of it.”
“By the time we return to the scene in ‘Carol,’ they’ve shifted their status in the relationship,” continued Haynes. “Therese was this young, vulnerable subject in formation before our eyes who fell in love with Carol and was hurt and developed defenses and protections and limits. She has grown up and changed. And all of the sudden Carol has surrendered, reevaluated the meaning and value of this special girl she met. Love relationships do shift. We only remember when we’re in peril.”
2. It’s different from the book.
Haynes sees every new movie as an opportunity to give himself a challenging assignment. The assignment this time? Playing with point of view. “The novel, ‘The Price of Salt,’ is entirely rooted in the point of view of Therese,” said Haynes. “But Phyllis [Nagy]’s script gave us access to Carol in a way we didn’t have in the book. I wanted to consciously enter Carol’s world, and try to structure the whole film around point of view.”
The challenge to incorporating Carol’s subjectivity into the film was not just that it marked a departure from Highsmith’s book. In fact, Haynes found Therese’s point of view to be inherently more interesting in the first place. “The best love stories on film are rooted in the point of view of the more wounded, vulnerable, more amorous party,” said Haynes. “In this case, that’s Therese.” But by entering Carol’s world just as the power dynamics begin to shift, Haynes hoped to bring a new dimension to the story. “What’s so interesting about the story is that the wounded party changes in the course of the love affair.”
But Haynes ultimately hoped to retain the soul of Highsmith’s novel. “What I loved about the novel is that is describes love from that tunnel that you’re in when you’re first falling in love,” he said. “You think no one’s ever been there before you. You’re so impressed by the specificity of your desire finding its exact object in that person. Your life is a minefield of signs, things to be decoded. Every gesture, every phone call, every little pause in their breath means something. That is so fucking gorgeously conveyed by Patricia Highsmith, because it is like the criminal mind weaving intricate webs of possibility.”
“I love stories of love cropping up unexpectedly in life almost as a problem, as something you don’t ask for,” continued Haynes. “Something that messes everything up and makes you rethink everything.”
3. The visual language was inspired by street photography.
“The visual language of the film was increasingly informed by the historical research we were doing,” said Haynes. He was particularly surprised by the discrepancy between what he saw in his mind’s eye and the reality of New York in the ’50s. “It’s an incredibly different world than what we think of as the Eisenhower ’50s. New York looks like a post-war city. It looks distressed. It looks dirty.”
Haynes recalled a similar experience researching “Far From Heaven.” When shooting in Hartford, Connecticut, the director cast Patrician Hollywood extras in order to create a certain environment in the film, knowing all the while that Hartford at that time had a significant Italian population. “It was nothing remotely connected to the real Hartford,” he said. “But so many people from Hartford would see ‘Far from Heaven’ and be like, ‘I remember that, it was exactly like that!’ Is it movies that change the way we think?”
The cinematography in “Carol” was deeply influenced by the ’50s photographer Saul Leiter, who captured intimate moments amidst the bustle of the street, often through the frosted or rain-streaked windows of cabs. Haynes also mentioned street photographers Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier as inspirations.
The visual emphasis on street photography wasn’t simply aesthetic; it also served a purpose in the story. “Therese is a photographer, but she’s uncomfortable taking pictures of people,” Haynes said. “But then she starts taking pictures of Carol. It’s a way for her to start seeing herself in the world, as a subject.”
4. Blanchett was pre-cast, but Haynes chose Mara.
When Haynes signed onto the film, Blanchett was already attached. “That was sort of a drag,” joked Haynes. “As a director, you make do with the material that you’re given.”
“I picked Rooney, though, I’m happy to say,” he continued. “I had watched her in the films that she’s done, and in such a short amount of time she’s distinguished herself as a serious and thoughtful and gifted actor.” Haynes recognized in Rooney an understanding of restraint that would prove critical to the role. “She knows how to underplay, how to reduce and minimize gestures, to have almost more impact through understatement…That’s so rare,” he said. “It speaks to real intelligence and innate understanding that exceeds her years. You see that in this performance more than anything she’s done.”
When it came to casting Kyle Chandler, who plays Carol’s husband, Haynes said the choice had much to do with the actor’s traditional sense of masculinity. “Without sounding sexist, you have to cast a real man opposite Cate Blanchett,” he said. “You need a guy who’s grown up. A lot of actors just don’t seem grown up no matter how old they get…just juveniles with grey hair. Chandler can hold his own with her.”
Because Therese is reticent, her lover needed to convey a wide spectrum of personality. “Jake Lacy’s performance astounds me still,” said Haynes. “He made something absolutely recognizable and flesh and blood on the other end of this series of interesting conceptual questions about who Therese is.”
5. It’s a tribute to his lesbian friends.
“Making a movie about the love between two women was really a tribute to the lesbian people in my life, my dear friends who are seminal in my life,” said Haynes. “It was just fun to make a film about women falling in love — especially an older and a younger woman, where the older woman is the object of desire and the younger woman is enthralled by the beauty and allure of the older woman.”
Haynes also revealed that the impossibility of the love affair attracted him to the story. “Love stories always need obstacles between the lovers, things that keep the lovers apart. That’s what made ‘Brokeback Mountain’ work. It’s the most unexpected place and time of love. I think ‘Carol’ has that.”