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Todd Haynes and Oscar-Nominated Writer Phyllis Nagy Talk ‘Carol,’ Glamorous Stars, Highsmith and More

Todd Haynes and Oscar-Nominated Writer Phyllis Nagy Talk 'Carol,' Glamorous Stars, Highsmith and More

Author Patricia Highsmith is most well-known for her six Tom Ripley novels (currently heading for the small screen), and many of her works have been made into movies, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” to Anthony Minghella’s 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” When Phyllis Nagy was working as a researcher at the New York Times when she was in her early 20s, she was assigned to accompany Highsmith on a walking tour of the Greenwood Cemetery. They became friends, and thus Nagy came to know the novelist, who lived in Switzerland, in the last ten years of her life.
They corresponded, and when Nagy moved to London a few years later, they saw each other more often. Highsmith suggested that Nagy, who was establishing her career as a playwright (“Butterfly Kiss”), should adapt one of her books. 
“I’d heard her talk about how much she hated all of her adaptations,” Best Adapted Screenplay contender Nagy told me at Cannes, where “Carol” played in competition. (Thursday, the film received six Oscar nominations: for Nagy, its two performers, Carter Burwell’s score, Ed Lachman’s cinematography, and Sandy Powell’s costume design.) “With that, why do it? She liked certain aspects of things, but no, because they betrayed, in one way or another, profoundly the spirit of the book, like ‘Strangers on a Train,’ like ‘Purple Noon.’ I love ‘Strangers on a Train,’ that’s a great film. But I quite understand why she would be unhappy, as they trade murders in her book.”
Highsmith was open about her sexuality, Nagy said. “She was like a studio boss, like Jack Warner, chasing women around desks and beds. She had no problem, personally, with that. And I’ve heard stories about people she chased around. Once she asked me. She would try it on anyone. She kept a billfold with pictures of her girls. One night she casually said to me, ‘I don’t suppose you’re one of these…’ And I said, ‘No, I suppose I’m not.’ And that was that.” 
When Highsmith was working part-time at Bloomingdales on the doll floor, Haynes told me at Cannes, an elegant woman once walked in looking for a doll for her child. She wrote down her address in Park Ridge, New Jersey, which Highsmith kept and later took the train and a cab out to her house to spy on this woman who she never met again. It turns out she was a troubled alcoholic who later killed herself in her garage by leaving the car running with the fumes. This was the original inspiration for “The Price of Salt.”

While Highsmith’s first book “Strangers on a Train” sold to Hollywood for a lot of money, “she had nothing to do with it,” said Nagy. She never was hired by the studios. “And then she wrote ‘The Price of Salt,’ and she was wanting to publish it, and her publisher said, ‘You know, you might want to publish this other thing under a different name, because it’s not…’ They wouldn’t have said ‘the brand,’ but it was basically that. She said, ‘Okay, fine.’ I think, over the years, it had its rabid fanbase because it was the first novel written by a lesbian woman with an ending that was happy.”

About five years after Highsmith’s death, Nagy came upon “Carol,” which Highsmith retitled when she published it under her own name. “It’s not dissimilar from ‘Ripley,'” Nagy said. “It shares all the Highsmith-ian obsessions: sexual behavior, intense emotion.” Written from the perspective of the young New York shop girl Therese, played in the movie by Best Supporting Actress nominee Rooney Mara (who also shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes), the book is “basically an interior monologue of her thoughts,” said Nagy. “In the book, Therese is Pat’s alter ego, so she isn’t a character — she’s the voice of an author.” 
Nagy went on to develop this project for 20 years, many of them with Film Four executive Tessa Ross, as well as producer Liz Karlsen, who brought in director John Crowley, Best Actress nominee Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska (at first Mara didn’t think she could do it). When Crowley dropped out, Karlsen complained to producer Christine Vachon, who had worked with her and debut writer-director Nagy on HBO’s “Mrs. Harris.” Vachon then brought in her frequent collaborator Haynes, who had just become available.

Read: ‘Carol’ Producer Christine Vachon Talks Being Queen of the Croisette 

Then the movie moved forward quickly. “We are of a similar mind, of similar influences, and he understood exactly that we were going for something almost entirely subtextual,” said Nagy. “And that it required bravery and a resistance to over-explication.”

“This came to me as somebody else’s baby,” Haynes said. “And I’d worked with Cate; I felt a kinship with Cate. I was eager to work with her again, particularly on such a different character role…What was so interesting to me when I first read this script is how it basically links that hothouse mentality of the desiring subject, in this case the amorous subject, to that of the criminal subject, in that both are these over-productive minds that are conjuring narratives constantly. The fate of this: if you do this, will you see your object of desire? If I do this, am I going to get caught by the cops? It’s this crazy state of this furtive hyperactivity in the mind.”

Though this was Highsmith’s only novel set outside the crime milieu, Haynes points out, “it is completely consistent with the rest of her work. But in this case, the crime is love, and the love is illegal. She can’t even find the words for it, so it also exceeds syntax. It’s something past language, so Therese can’t piece it together, because there’s no model for it in this kind of world. She recalls seeing mannish women in the world, but she says, ‘I don’t look like that. Carol doesn’t look like that. So I can’t be that.’ 
So whatever her love is is something else that she can’t even locate. It’s about butting up against language and meaning and what you know to be possible and not having the words for it. When they do finally make love and they’re finally caught, it all comes into form, and then the desire can be stated and they can defend themselves in it. So there’s a progression that occurs. In our film, that point of view starts with Therese and then ultimately shifts to Carol, so that you’re always linked to the more amorous and the weaker subject.”

For Haynes the movie is built around a key central scene, “the prolonged and extended sexual liaison between the women… You’re waiting for it — you don’t know when it’s going to happen, how it could happen. There’s weird codes, like two women deciding to live together in 1952 is easier than a man and a woman living together in 1952 who aren’t married. I felt this in ‘Far from Heaven,’ that there’s actually more liberty, more freedom, in hiding, or following certain social conventions outside the common thinking that give strange permission for closeness. So you’re watching how these women pursue each other. Oh, Carol invites a girl out to lunch. It’s probably more acceptable at the time than it would seem today. It would probably seem like even more of a come-on, whereas, in fact, Carol says, ‘I wouldn’t have asked a man to go to lunch. That would’ve been something else. But I can ask a woman to go to lunch.’”

Read: Cannes review: ‘Carol’

Thus in Haynes’ movie the point of view shifts to explore the power dynamic between Therese and the older, wealthier and more glamorous suburban about-to-be-divorcee Carol, starting with misplaced gloves. Initially, Carol is the aggressor, but when the two women go on a road trip together, she doesn’t push the sex. “As we move to Carol’s point of view,” said Nagy, “the expected shifts are turned on their head as Therese gets stronger and comes into her own.”

Unlike many gay movies, these characters proceed to act on their desires, which do not “give them pause,” said Nagy. “That is what I think gives it a subliminal power. No, there is no speech about, ‘Should we be gay? Is this the right thing?’ It’s like a strange, subversive world of gay women at different points in their lives. Abby [Sarah Paulson], who’s just out there; Carol, who wants to be out there and has to make that choice; and Therese, who’s just finding out.”

“It was so much about looking at classic love stories,” said Haynes. “The most memorable ones were those that put you on the side of the weaker and usually more desiring subject, and that puts you from Therese to Carol. I always love it when words escape characters, and there’s things that happen that can’t be articulated, or go beyond articulation, also that that is really where the visual language of film is given its most necessity. I tried to find a visual language for describing what was going on in these very separate lives, limited lives — locked-up lives, in many ways. But it’s a quiet film, and I didn’t necessarily know how that would draw people in or not. I felt incredibly moved by the performances, and then all of the creative partnerships — from Judy Becker’s design to Ed Lachman’s cinematography to working with Affonso Gonçalves again in the editing to Carter Burwell’s score — was just such an essential part of that process.”

Haynes and costume designer Sandy Powell talked to the actresses about finding the looks of the two characters. “It was a key process,” said Haynes, “because so much of it is also about an extremely codified period for women. Carol is the emblem of both a certain privileged class and a perfect manifestation of female glamour and elegance. That sort of disarms Therese, and maybe, if anything, initially furthers her anxiety about herself and who she is. But it ultimately informs it, so we used Carol’s look as a way of defining the movement that Therese ultimately makes to the end, where she grows up and changes and she wears a full skirt and cuts her hair and all of those things. She’s just a dead ringer Jean Simmons!”

Haynes has always focused on stories about women. “They always — maybe more than films about men — contain the limits of social burden,” he said. “That women’s lives are more burdened by society, and the choices they make in carrying on the institutions of the family, satisfying men, raising children — there’s less freedom of movement in women’s lives, and I find that those invariably speak about the culture. And films about men are often more escapist, where you can pretend those things don’t exist. This also means I’m less interested in stories about women overcoming every obstacle, and more interested in how we all share those restrictions and burdens.”

Watch: Cannes Video: Haynes, Mara and Blanchett Talk ‘Carol’ 

Other alterations from the book include Haynes’ “Brief Encounter”-inspired bookend, and more information about Carol’s life. “You’re free to imagine Carol’s life, which is not fully imagined in the book,” said Nagy. “So that was the first thing: to really focus on the nature of what it’s like to fall in love from two points of view. The other thing is that they are just behaving. They are not inhabiting positions.”

“I love that brief scene where you’re introduced to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard,” said Haynes, “as if they’re extras in the background of the movie, and then you realize, ‘Oh, no — this is going to be their story, her story in particular,’ and the whole film is her narration to her husband when she goes home. And then you come around, full circle, to that same day, and you know what that conversation was about, given her experience. We do the same thing.'”

For Haynes, “the road trip is essential to the novel. It’s a turning point in every regard. It’s where we think we’re free from the constraints of society, but in fact they find that they’re anything but free. It’s the only place they’re able to have sex and become intimate with each other, but then they pay the price for that.”
For the trip through America, Haynes and his D.P. Ed Lachman looked at Steven Spielberg’s “Sugarland Express.” “It’s just beautifully shot, the Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography,” said Haynes. “It’s just beautiful cinematography with cars and long lenses, and I was just interested to see how those shots work. It’s cool.”

What was important to Nagy to include was what she considers “one of the major points of the book,” she said. “The most subversive thing that happens: the woman who releases her child, because she can’t be a good parent until she is herself. You accept it. That was the major thing that we had to get, as far as I was concerned. Otherwise, it becomes ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ And Cate nailed that.”

Haynes compares the movie’s conclusion to “The Graduate.” “They fight the families and they escape the church and they sit on the bus and they’re finally free, and then real life begins,” he said. “And you really don’t know what’s in store for them. I feel sort of the same way for Carol and Therese. They changed a lot in the course of the film, so they’re not the same people that they were when they first met.”

For her part, Nagy hopes that with success for “Carol” she’ll be able to move forward on some of her other projects. She’s writing one adaptation for Colin Firth, and a movie about the Welsh actress Rachel Roberts, she said, “which is another parable of what happens to women with real talent, but some real problems.”

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