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NYFF: Todd Haynes Talks ‘Carol,’ Exploring Desire, Identity, Giving Himself “Creative Assignments” & Much More

NYFF: Todd Haynes Talks ‘Carol,’ Exploring Desire, Identity, Giving Himself “Creative Assignments” & Much More

Todd Haynes may be one of the most renowned, under-appreciated filmmakers in the United States today, at least as far as arthouse and mainstream audiences and viewpoints go. As the director of “Safe,” which essentially launched Julianne Moore’s career, “Velvet Goldmine,” which looked at glam rock and sexual identity, the repressed Douglas Sirk-ian sexual desire of the 1950s-set, “Far From Heaven,” and the kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan anti-biopic, “I’m Not There,” and many more, Haynes is a huge figure in cinema despite only having eight features under his belt in nearly four decades. And his films are routinely accepted in the global Olympics of film festivals like Cannes.

READ MORE: Spend Over 1 Hour In Conversation With Todd Haynes

Haynes may be a filmmaker by trade, but he studied semiotics in university, and so it not only makes him an incredibly thoughtful conversationalist, but also a keen observer of human behavior and desire, who can find deep significance in some of the most minute and subconscious gestures. This affinity for nuance comes to the fore in his latest film, “Carol,” a masterful, gorgeous, and intimate love story about two women, Therese, played by Rooney Mara and Carol, played by Cate Blanchett. Haynes often uses female protagonists and looks at identity, often sexual, through the lens of culture. “Carol” is set in 1957 and though it shares some of the Eisenhower ‘50s era sensibilities of his earlier film, “Far From Heaven,” which also looked at sexual identity and repression, it’s ultimately a completely different movie in its aims and concerns.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Price Of Salt,” “Carol” is really just a beautiful and classical love story, but one that plays with the very perceptible notions of desire, longing, power, and scary vulnerabilities as it applies to falling in love. It’s an impeccably crafted movie and a deeply-felt one too; perhaps no movie this year (or this decade for that matter) charts the nervous, exciting, and near imperceptible palpitation of the fluttering heart with such lie-detector specificity and precision like “Carol.”

As the film screened at the New York Film Festival this week, Haynes was joined by NYFF Director of Programming Kent Jones for an absorbing chat about “Carol,” Haynes’ career, his explorations of identity, desire, the radicalness of glam rock, Dylan, and the recent death of cinematic innovator and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. It was a fascinating talk, especially for fans of the insightful Haynes. Here’s many highlights and if you like, you can listen to the entire conversation at the end of page two. “Carol” opens in limited release on November 20 and the auteur will be back for a terrific all-encompassing Todd Haynes retrospective that runs from November 12-29 at the Film Society Of Lincoln Center In New York.

The Influence Of David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” & The Idea of Giving Himself The Assignment Of A Love Story

“I did look at a lot of films for ‘Carol’ and I started as I often do by looking at films from that era, but very quickly I realized that that wasn’t very relevant to this and I wasn’t interested in repeating the Sirk-ian, studio system kind of filter [from “Far From Heaven”] on the style of this film. One of the very first films I thought of when I read the adaptation and the first draft of the script was “Brief Encounter” and I started thinking of great love on film and I thought, ‘ok, wow, this is something that I haven’t really approached it as a discipline as a filmmaker,’ and I always want to give myself some kind of assignment, something I feel like I can learn from each time.”

Point Of View Is Key To The Love Story Of “Carol” Though It Changes From The Novel

“It all started to make sense, because the nove,l ‘The Price Of Salt,’ is entirely rooted in the point of view of Therese, the character Rooney Mara plays in the film, and like most Patricia Highsmith novels, they’re all locked all inside a single mental state and this was no different. And I drew very interesting parallels to that tendency of hers. But it just made me thing of point of view, because as soon as I read the first draft of Phyllis [Nagy’s] script, it opened [the point of view] up and we all of a sudden had access to Carol freely that we didn’t have in the book.”

Vulnerable Woundable Parties

“I just wanted to really very conscious of how we enter Carol’s world initially, what that means, but trying to structure the whole film around point of view. And the best love stories on film are rooted in the point of view of the more woundable, more vulnerable, more amorous party. In this case it’s mostly Therese through the story, but what’s so interesting about the [screenplay], that isn’t reflected in the subjectivity of the novel is that that changes over the course of [the movie]. For people that know ‘Brief Encounter,’ it begins in that refreshment stand in the train station and you’re introduced to secondary characters in the story and in the background you see two people having a conversation. And you’re like that’s Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard and you you’re like, ‘Oh, they look like extras in their own film.’ And then a loudmouth gossip friend [shouts] ‘Laura!’ and interrupts and you realize an important conversation has been interrupted.”

The Perils Of Falling In Love & Stealing Directly From David Lean

“What’s so interesting about [the opening of ‘Brief Encounter’] is immediately you’re questioning who’s story is this? And you get deeper her story, her point of view, her narration that she conveys to her husband and her brief encounter which is ending that day is retold in real time. And so i thought, oh wow, that’s such a beautifully structuring device because you then travel through the entirety of the narrative to explain what that conversation was about, what we missed and you replay it at the end of the film and the importance of it and what that interruption meant.”

“But in ‘Carol’ at the end… I lifted that right out of ‘Brief Encounter,’ by the time we come back to the hotel scene in ‘Carol,’ they’ve shifted their statuses in the relationship and Therese who was this young, vulnerable subject very much in formation before our eyes, who fell in Carol and was hurt and developed defenses, protections, limits, and has changed the way she looks and has grown up. And all of a sudden Carol has sacrificed a lot in her life, reevaluating the meaning and value of this very special girl that she met and is now coming back.”

“But it was about shifting points of view and aligning yourself with the person who is more in peril in love. Love relationships do shift and we only remember the times when we’re in peril. So it was really about love stories that were rooted in one of the subjects’ sides that I looked at a lot and gleaned from a lot.”

Visual Language, Similarities To “Far From Heaven”

“I think the visual language of the film was increasingly informed by the historical research that we were doing and what New York City looked like at in the early 1950s, how incredibly different a world it was when we think of the Eisenhower 1950s, which we fully explored in ‘Far From Heaven.’ It’s so funny, I remember doing research of the period, Hartford, Connecticut, 1957, and people saying, ‘there’s a great Italian American population in Hartford, so you might want to consider Italian faces as extras.’ And I was like, ‘Umm, No.’ We want everyone to look like patrician, Hollywood backlot extras like robots. Nothing remotely connected to the real Hartford in 1957. And so many people would say to me, “I remember the ‘50s and it was exactly like that!” and sometimes you’re like, is it movies that change the way we think?”

The 1950s Cultural Terrain Of Which ‘Carol’ Takes Place

“Post War New York City: it looks distressed, dirty, also the process of color photography adds a unique patina to the soil palate, where even the temperature is hard to determine, and there’s a warm and cool interplay which is really interesting. We were still made to feel newly vulnerable, by the arms race with Russian and there lead in that and that incredible frustration with the Truman administration, a real need for a change. Eisenhower had been elected, but there was a much longer time before he took office back then then there is today. So it was really in that interim where this story takes place. So there was a great deal of indeterminacy and insecurity and vulnerability and that felt like a really poignant, gorgeous terrain to watch these roots and sprouts of a love emerge at this time.”

Photographers That Influenced The Look Of The Film

“On top of Saul Leiter’s beautiful work that features windows, reflections, and filtering of images there was also a great deal of beautiful color photography and it’s all by women photojournalists, Esther Bubley, Ruth Orkin who was the partner of Morris Engels, who made “Little Fugitives,” and there was one that they did together called “Lovers and Lollipops,” that’s more set in locations that were relevant to locations in “Carol,” so we kept watching it over and over again. Helen Levitt and then Vivian Maier, who is a more recent discovery but who’s work is amazing and would own the way she indiscriminately capture her own reflection in her work as a documentarian of cities. And that related to the role Therese plays in the story, in ‘Carol’ in our version she’s a aspiring photographer.”

The Recent Death Of The Late Chantal Akerman And Her Influence.

“It’s still so… the weight of that loss is still being understood or how it can be. And maybe now that weight of her amazing body of work.” Specifically of Ackerman’s “Jeanne Dielman,” Haynes called it “profound and really exhilarating… so inspiring as a filmmaker and as someone thinking about female subjects and how they’re depicted and what we come to expect is occupied onscreen when we’re dealt the story of women’s lives and what is important and what is not important. You just fall into the incantation, the unbelievable spell of observing labor, of observing work in the kitchen, of observing routines,” he said, noting that that movie features a lot of what’s removed from films now, the sort of everyday events that people ascribe great meaning to in their own lives.

Haynes called her influence, “The sheer power of understatement and negation of action and how much we make those events meaningful and how when they are slammed by them in traditional films, we’re numbed by them.”

Akerman’s Influence of Haynes’ “Safe”

“When it came to ‘Safe’ it was a seminal film that I couldn’t not think about and I was also interested in setting up different kinds of obstacles to the way we normally we identify with central characters in movies and what the viewer does in recourse of that, the circuitous way that you compensate and how you fill in yourself. How hungry we are to participate in narrative and emotional experience and so it’s interesting to pare down what we normally just throw out at spectators in films. And so with ‘Carol’ it was an evacuation of a subject that was really the starting point for this person and her relationship — like you feel in ‘Jeanne Dielman,‘ albeit in a very different way — to her environment and her domestic life. [It’s] at times almost an oppressive center position in the frame that somehow she does not feel like she owns and if anything she feels dwarfed and minimized in.”

The Strength of The Novel, Changes From The Book & The Power Of Love & Love Like The Criminal Mind

“I loved how in the book Therese is a little bit more artistic aspirations in her ambitions and Phyllis’s draft had already removed that and it made these character less equipped for the love and these experiences they were about to encounter. And it just depend this idea of: what I love about the novel, it describes love so much from that tunnel that you’re in when you’re first falling in love and you think no one’s ever been there before you and you’re so impressed by that specificity of your desire finding its exact object in this person. And your life is a minefield of signs and things to be decoded; every gesture, every phone call, every pause in their breath means something that’s gonna tell you whether you live or die, basically. And that is so fucking gorgeously conveyed by Patricia Highsmith because it is like the criminal mind, it’s exactly like that… like in all her other novels which is like weaving these intricate webs of possibility, how you will get caught or not, how you’ll avoid being found out. So I thought that was brilliant.”

“Safe” And How It Tied To The AIDS Epidemic

“I was also really interested in the disease movie as a genre and the way that it reassigns identity, the illness strips you of the identity you’re supposed to have, it makes you completely have to question every marker of who you are. And then it reassigns you with a new certitude that you are this cancer sufferer or you are this victim of environmental illness. And it was in this time in the [early ‘90s] that we were still in the throes of the AIDS epidemic and whole notions of cause and culpability around HIV were in discussion and I think a desire to make some sense of this virus that was frightening the hell out of the world.”

Haynes said he felt the recurring theme “about the desire to blame yourself when you are outside of situations you can control, so culpability became this means of controlling an uncontrollable situation. It’s like the little kid who asks his parents, ‘mom, dad, why are toy getting a divorce, is it because of me?’ We come to understand things by implicating ourselves at the center of them… and there’s something so heartbreaking and universal about that.”

The Terrains of Identity And How They Applies To “Velvet Goldmine”

“Identity is this imposed state that we’re supposed to fulfill… change and mutability, stability, artifice, and construction play no part. We’re supposed to find an authentic and organic self, that is whole. We espouse those terms and elevate those ideas and values. At least of my feature films, the first terrain where I was trying to look at radically different strategies, practices around that was with the glam rock [scene in] ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and how weirdly rebellious and disquieting that moment was, that sort of bisexual androgynous rallying cry in the early 1970s.”

Haynes said artists like David Bowie, The Stooges, Brian Eno, and  the Velvet Underground were inspired by this anti-hippie ethos and played with it. “That notion of radical instability in terms of sexual orientation and identity is still uncomfortable today in our very advanced state of progress around issues of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues because it’s so much easier and so much more legislatively tidy to talk about sexual orientation as something that we’re born into, that’s biologically determined and stable, and then you could just say no there’s no choice involved, a desire to actually change it up, and what was so interesting about the glam moment was that it was addressing the inherent instability of adolescence around young people and how much they don’t know who they are day to day and that fantasy or metaphor of an alien androgynous space creature who was bisexual was so liberating and so radical in so many ways and continues to be today.”

Identity As It Applies To Bob Dylan And Haynes’ Film “I’m Not There”

“Dylan was a very American version of someone who was refusing [labels],” Haynes explained, noting that he first got into the artist as a teenager, but it wasn’t much later in life until he began to see Dylan as a a “shapeshifter.” It wasn’t until later in life that Haynes rediscovered his music and then rediscovered the man. “He always connoted that cocksure-ity, that engine of defiance is true. I didn’t identify the plugging in electric [period] and seeing that on a similar continuum as becoming Christian. But when you look at the whole [of Dylan], it made so much sense. It was a way of throwing back at the societal expectations of a kind of constancy — this person who was not going to do it the same each time.”

Haynes joked about seeing Dylan in concert and how the musician notoriously deconstructs some of his most iconic songs into constructs audiences barely recognize. “Fundamentally he’s a creative entity who has to be making things to survive life. But under the pressure of what he became at that time [of being famous], the demand to keep fulfilling social expectations was too constraining and he had to lash out against that. And there was a hostility, maybe healthy creative hostility in that practice.”

Shooting “Carol” On Super 16MM

Haynes said they came upon the choice of shooting on Super 16 because when they shot “Mildred Pierce” for HBO on 35MM. And having watched his movie shot on film presented in HDTV, the filmmaker said it lost its grain and looked like digital photography. “So it was like we really wanna see the grain and have it be a movie! Everybody who did ‘Mildred’ came from film, including Kate Winslet, she had never done TV before, and we were all proud of that — that we didn’t know anything about TV. But we wanted [‘Carol’] to look like a movie and so we did and the results were really great and it was kind of fun and radical to downgrade to a 16mm camera.”

Douglas Sirk & The Power Of Melodrama

An audience member wanted to know if — much like Douglas Sirk, who Haynes loves — if there were any other similarly overlooked filmmakers who were due for a critical reevaluation (Sirk was dismissed at the time, but found favor with critics decade after his heyday). Haynes was stumped (though Kent Jones did offer Richard Quine’s “Strangers When We Meet” and the works of Delmer Daves, which Haynes had hadn’t seen and got excited about), but it did lead him to go on about melodrama and “the especially the way melodrama has been denigrated as a genre alongside all the others that are more often associated with male subjects. But there’s something fascinating, radical and gorgeously constructed about these films… but they leave you with a sense of dissatisfaction.” Haynes quoted Sirk, who said, “You cannot make films about things, you can only make films with things.”

He continued, “Basically what [Sirk] is saying, I think, that all I can do is show you the conditions that we all live under and I’m not going to show you these characters figuring them out of them or overcoming them, that’s what you need to go home with. [These films] don’t stroke you, they don’t solve problems for you and that’s makes them less purely satisfying.”

“Carol” & The Qualities Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara Possess

Hayne called “Carol” a “tribute to the seminal, lesbian women in my life” and joked that when he learned Cate Blanchett was already attached to the film, “that was kind of a drag, but as a director you make due,” he quipped. The director had high praise for the underrated emotional intelligence of Rooney Mara, who he said was wise beyond her years. “In such a short amount of time she’s distinguished yourself as such a totally, thoughtful, serious and gifted actor. When you see a young actor like that who somehow understands the scale of the medium so well that she knows how to underplay, how to reduce down and minimize the gesture and have even more impact through understatement, that’s rare. And that speaks to real intelligence and innate understanding that exceeds her years.”

”Carol” opens in limited release on November 20. Listen to the full Q&A below.

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