Todd Haynes made a triumphant return to the big screen over the weekend at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where “Carol,” his first feature film since 2007’s “I’m Not There,” premiered to rave responses in the competition. The film’s stars, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, received immediate awards buzz for their powerful performances.
In the ’50s-set love story, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” Blanchett plays Carol, a wealthy housewife stuck in a loveless marriage. While out Christmas shopping, Carol locks eyes with Therese (Mara), a timid department store clerk, and it’s love at first sight. What unfolds is, as Indiewire’ Eric Kohn put it in his glowing review, “a mannered, classical romance.”
I sat down with Haynes, Blanchett and Mara to discuss the overwhelmingly positive reception to the film and the making of it. Watch the full interview above, and read an edited version of our discussion below.
I caught the press screening, so I didn’t make the big premiere, but I heard it played very well. Did the warm Cannes reception overtake any of you?
Todd Haynes: I know the film better than anybody else, but at the same time I don’t know it at all. I don’t have the objectivity that a spectator will ever have. So this moment of revealing this thing that you’re so intimate with, is so important, essential, frightening, informative. And you just don’t really know what that is going to be like. And the stakes get raised to a ridiculous degree when it’s at Cannes. But it was an amazing night, I’m still giddy from it. I’m still processing it. It was like something out of a fairytale, just a walk up the stairs and down the stairs, with these two, with that music, and their gowns. It was something else. Rooney Mara: I was quite nervous actually. I was really nervous. Usually on a red carpet you’re thrown in the middle, and everyone’s screaming at you. But it was nice to be able to have someone to hold on to.
Cate Blanchett: And they were screaming at you still, but they were wearing tuxedos.
RM: They were, but it felt like I had partners.
What was it like for you, Cate?
CB: It was a big relief. I’ve been here a few times, but never in competition, and I think it adds that extra kind of layer of anxiety. Because when you make a film you’re often quite dislocated from it. At once it’s cinematic and theatrical, except there’s nothing you can do about it.
I knew Todd had made a beautiful film, and Rooney was amazing in it, but still you never know whether it’s going to deeply connect with people who haven’t been a part of the process, and for that to happen was a big relief.
Todd, what did you learn about your own film after watching it with an audience for the first time?
TH: They were quiet. They were very quiet, very respectful. I was like, “They’re not laughing at all!” Not that it’s a funny film, but there are little places where the tension might break for some viewers. You know, it’s still an unnatural and overdetermined moment at Cannes. It’s like launching something from the top of a wedding cake. There’s nothing real about it, particularly. But we’re hearing reactions from people from the press screening on that have been really exciting. I’m proud of the film, but it’s a quiet film. It’s not a film that takes you by the throat and shakes your head. So you don’t know that that’s necessarily what everybody is interested in seeing.
CB: But I think the responses were so heartwarming. The reverberations of the film, the ripple effect, sort of stays with you afterwards. And that was really lovely to see.
About the silences, those are what I responded to most emotionally, especially in the film’s closing moments. Can you talk about your choice of imbuing the film with so many of those moments. I don’t recall any line of dialogue, except for, “I love you.”
CB: Oh, thank you [laughs].
TH: You know, it was a very anxious, anxiety-ridden time, I learned in my research. The end of the ’40s into the ’50s — a lot of paranoia, the Cold War had really made its impact on Americans, the sense of hope and possibility that followed the war had all of a sudden frozen up. And these women live in very prescribed and different worlds that they’re experiencing the limits of, respectively. I think a lot of what isn’t able to be said was important. And that’s a beautiful part of the novel, because Therese can’t even find the syntax for describing her feelings for this woman. There is no example in the world that she can point to to put it into language. And there’s something radical, and frightening and wonderful about that.
CB: I was just talking to someone about it before, when you have a baby, you feel like you’re Mary and Joseph — no one has had a child before you. When you deeply fall in love, when you get ambushed by those feelings, like Romeo and Juliet, you discover this for the first time. And I think what is extraordinary about what you’ve really brought out in the screenplay, and I saw this last night seeing it for the second time, is that yes, women are front and center. Yes, these are undeniably two women falling in love with one another, and that’s not something you don’t see on screen very often, but there’s universality to it because they don’t have any name or any language for it. It’s not that different really from a woman falling in love with a man, profoundly and deeply. They’re out of control, it’s running ahead of them and there’s nothing they can do about it. And if they deny it, if they cut of it of, then they’re only living a half-life. I think that it’s sort of simultaneously an outsider film and an insider film, which is what I found really interesting to witness that with an audience last night.
Rooney, what was it like to play those silent beats?
RM: You know, I always love those moments in film. The silent moments that fill up the space between the words. I always feel like you tell more of the story in those moments. There’s certainly a lot of those moments in our film. And I love playing those moments, and I loved watching them in the film.
This is a film that lives or dies on the chemistry between its two leads. Now Cate, I know you were attached to the project before Todd came on. Todd, how did you go about choosing Rooney as her partner? How did you know they’d work out?
CB: He just prayed [laughs].
TH: I’ve been watching Rooney’s work from the beginning, and just being so amazed by the differences in her performances and her characters, and then I’ve spoken to people who have worked with her and I just was like, “Oh my god I just have to experience this for myself.” And I really found that these guys bring the same kind of serious regard to the work — the preparation, the care, the concern about detail. And so, the fact that there was that chemistry, the connection between them, was not a surprise to me. And a real kindness to the collaboration and the people on set.
RM: I feel like chemistry isn’t something you can really predict, it’s kind of like a freak thing that happens. It’s like catching lighting in a bottle. It either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t create it, it’s either it’s just there or it’s not.
So it was there from the first read through?
RM: It was really there. I felt it right away [laughs].
CB: It’s still there to this day [laughs]. That’s why Todd’s sitting between us.
TH: I’m here as a barrier.
RM: That’s why she’s all covered up.
CB: Please, please sit between us.
On the Cannes circuit, you two have been complimenting each other fashion wise. When one wears black, the other wears white, and vice versa.
TH: Talk about chemistry.
RM: We did not plan it.
Well, it works.
CB: See that film “Single White Female”? [laughs]
I love what Carol says about Therese in the film. What is the line?
CB: Oh, an angel flung out of space. “What a strange girl you are, flung out of space.”
When I walked out of the film everyone who commented on your performance said how you embodied that —
RM: Was an alien?
Yeah, in a strange way. Did you use that line to delve into who Therese was?
RM: No, actually. I remember that line — I always was kind of scared of that line. Thinking, well am I? I didn’t feel flung out of space.
TH: Which is exactly Therese’s reaction
RM: Exactly. But in watching it, I could see that. In playing it, I did not feel flung out of space. I felt quite ordinary.
CB: But there’s a real sense, and I think that the film really describes this, of the women’s isolation. And I think that’s kind of that space man in orbit, it’s that lack of — she connects with people, and then somehow they miss one another, and then when she connects with Carol you kind of have that feeling like, “Oh, thank God.”
TH: It’s also exactly as you described, the universal unknown of falling in love. Where your entire sense of self is rooted in the biggest question of all which is do they feel the same way that I feel. There’s no bigger definition of being flung out of space than in the mercy of the unknown of that person who you just want to know, and that’s what lurks for both of these characters.
The film has the look of an old studio picture, but it’s an indie film, much like “Far From Heaven.” I’m guessing you had more money to work with on “Mildred Pierce,” given it’s HBO. What was it like going back to the struggle of getting “Carol” financed and made?
TH: It was challenging, the budget. It made every decision an essential one. But I was actually not looking at studio films from the time, as much as I was looking at the photo documentation, the photojournalism and the art photography that I was seeing in the research. A lot of it taken by female photographers who were being published in Life Magazine, and who were making documentaries. Ruth Orkin made a documentary with Morris Engel. They did three actually. The best known is “Little Fugitive” from ’53.
CB: That was amazing
TH: But “Lovers and Lollipops” was this film —
RM: Oh, I loved that.
TH: And they shot it in real places in New York City in ’54 or 55′, they shot it in Macy’s department store in the toy floor. They shot it in the streets of the city with real extras —
CB: Yeah, I had forgotten about that. That was really useful to watch that.
TH: So useful right? The way they moved, the way the women’s bodies moved —
RM: — and the sound of their voices —
TH: So really, I was looking much more at the actual, historical material as influences.