Todd Haynes interview: bringing Carol to the screen

Todd Haynes has been making films – some of modern cinema's smartest and most daring – for nearly three decades. At this year's London Film Festival he discusses his stunning new picture, Carol, a tremulous love story between two women in 1950s New York

Feature by Philip Concannon | 10 Nov 2015

After watching Todd Haynes' Carol early on a Wednesday morning, and when speaking to the director just over 24 hours later, the film is constantly replaying in this writer's mind. The odd thing is that the details that keep percolating passed almost unnoticed while watching the film; it's only later that the significance and emotional weight of every fleeting glance, every gesture and every touch become apparent.

The forbidden relationship at the centre of the film, between young shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) and the older, married Carol (Cate Blanchett), is constructed almost entirely from these moments, with a silent exchange of looks between the two characters at the end of the film carrying an indelible power. This is a film that quietly breaks your heart.

“I didn't really think of it as so quiet when I was making it, but I think it's just my preference,” Haynes says when told of this reaction.

“I really love the disquiet that Therese would feel in the company of Carol, and that there was not a simple, easy or immediate rapport between the women. I mean, there was a conflict, there was interest and curiosity, but there are a lot of moments that were indecipherable to Therese. Carol came with a complex web of issues in her life and an ambivalence about this relationship that Therese has to keep navigating, so that silence and those moments of indecipherability were really important and loaded. They create anxiety but they also create desire, and I love the tension that produces.”

Patricia Highsmith: an anomaly

That tension, and that exploration of conflicted desire within the constraints of a conservative era, is something Haynes handled masterfully in Far from Heaven. Also set in the 50s, that 2002 film followed a well-to-do housewife (Julianne Moore) who falls in love with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) around the time that she discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay. Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, is so perfectly attuned to Haynes' sensibility that it comes as a surprise to learn he didn't originate the project.

“I was given the script [by Phyllis Nagy] and the novel, which I had not read before and didn't know, in the same moment in May of 2013,” he explains “and there had already been a long history preceding this project. I had actually heard about it through Sandy Powell [costume designer on Far from Heaven], who was planning to do costumes, and she told me that Cate was already attached to this and [The Crying Game producer] Liz Karlsen was producing it. So I knew it existed, but I kind of forgot about it and was working on other things before it came to me.”

The book might feel like an anomaly in Highsmith's body of work, which is best known for dark tales of murder and psychological intrigue (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley). For Haynes, however, it was the way in which Highsmith approached this subject matter from the perspective of a crime novelist that was most intriguing.

“It made you feel like falling in love was like having committed a murder,” he says, “and having to recount and examine all of the evidence stacking up against you to see what your chances are of getting away with it. Every detail and nuance, particularly if it's coming from your object of desire, is a sign to be decoded and you start to fixate on it to try and read what it means. So there's a kind of pathology to it.”

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Although it's tempting to use Far from Heaven as a point of reference for Carol, this is a very different film. While the earlier picture was intended as an overt tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk, Carol feels like a love story rooted in a recognisably real depiction of 1950s America, shot in muted tones by the great Ed Lachman (who shot Haynes' Far from Heaven, I'm Not There and mini-series Mildred Pierce) and with performances that don't feel stylised. 

Instead of looking to greats like Sirk for inspiration this time, the 54-year-old filmmaker talks enthusiastically about a little-known film from 1956 called Lovers and Lollipops: “It had a female character at the centre of the story and the way she moved, and her range of gestures, was quite different from the way actresses from movies in that time behaved, and yet it was still quite codified and very particular to the time,” Haynes explains. “It just felt more like a documentary, like it wasn't filtered through Hollywood language, and that was very interesting. I felt like there were aspects of femininity that had gone away, and that I wanted to be really true to.”

This is Haynes' first feature film since I'm Not There, his unconventional take on Bob Dylan from 2007, and despite having established himself as one of the most interesting and artistically adventurous filmmakers in American independent cinema over the past 25 years, making films like Carol hasn't become any easier.

Velvet Goldmine, because it had a music theme and a lot of young people in it, was a little bit easier to finance, but it was still a very modest budget and I've never felt that I've had anything other than a modest budget for the ambitions of the project,” he says. “It has really narrowed because people just don't go to the theatres to see those movies as much, so financing has dried up. And DVD sales, that whole ancillary part that supplemented independent filmmaking for so long, has now gone away with streaming and the way we watch things today.”

Todd Haynes on the Rise of the TV serial

Is it any wonder that more independent filmmakers are taking the opportunities offered by television? After all, Haynes found the experience of making the miniseries Mildred Pierce in 2011 to be an extremely rewarding one. “The more open dramatic form of the miniseries was already an exceptionally different and interesting challenge, but you have to shoot so many pages a day for TV and that was the biggest daily challenge,” he recalls. “But I loved working with HBO, and once we all agreed on the budget and were greenlit I felt a kind of security under me that I hadn't felt before.”

Part of Haynes' attraction to television is that there seems to be a lot more space for the kind of stories he wants to tell. “There are probably more and more dramatic programmes with female characters. Showtime seemed to specialise in women-driven stories for a while and HBO is catching up a bit, but all of that is helping competition and broadens what we get to see, and that has not been the case in independent filmmaking.”

While the rise of the TV serial over the last decade or so has been great to see, we can't help thinking about what we would lose in terms of cinema if filmmakers like Haynes make the full transition to television. It's hard to imagine a version of Carol existing as a miniseries without it being more narrative and dialogue-driven, and consequently losing those almost imperceptible touches that gradually accumulate such emotional force, particularly when viewed on a huge cinema screen.

We're still marvelling at the way Haynes has crafted this film and concocted such a tangible sense of yearning, sadness and chemistry, but when asked about it, he typically demurs: “All you can do is provide a conscious series of decisions and specific choices showing who these people are and expressing it at different moments, and to use all the tools of the medium – the music, the visual language, the silences – to inform those things.” Ultimately, it's up to the viewer, he says: “They bring the emotion and they bring what's alive to the film.”

Haynes is entrusting his delicate and beautiful new movie to our hands. Let's treat it well.

Carol is released 27 Nov by StudioCanal

Todd Haynes Safe screens at HOME, Manchester on 11&15 Nov as part of HOME's Safe: Alienation, Fear, Paranoia and Film Form season. HOME's new visual art group exhibition is also called Safe (14 Nov 2015 – 3 Jan 2016) and takes Haynes' film as a starting point for a series of new commissions