ComingSoon.net interview with Carol director Todd Haynes
Over the past 25 years, Todd Haynes has solidified his reputation as a filmmaker’s filmmaker, a true auteur, who has won over critics and audiences alike with his sadly sparse filmography that consists of only six feature films during that time period. (Granted, he wrote and directed the HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce” since his last feature film, 2007’s Dylan film I’m Not There.)
Haynes’ new film, Carol, returns him to the familiar time period of the ‘50s that he previously explored in 2002’s Far from Heaven, and for which he received an Oscar nomination for the writing as well as for his frequent collaborator, actress Julianne Moore. It’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s beloved novel “The Price of Salt” and it stars Cate Blanchett (another Oscar nominee from I’m Not There) as the title character, a woman going through a bitter divorce with her husband (Kyle Chandler), while her romantic dalliances with a shy shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) causes even more problems in the custody battle for their young daughter.
As with Haynes’ previous films, it’s a sumptuous and lush film that captures the beauty of films from that time period with authentic costumes, production design, beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Edward Lachman with an equally gorgeous score by Carter Burwell. There’s definitely something timely about this love story between two women from very different backgrounds which has been connecting with audiences ever since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May where it won a number of awards. (Carol has also been nominated for three Gotham Awards and will likely be in the discussion throughout awards season.)
ComingSoon.net sat down with the Carol director during the New York press day for his film, following a really interesting press conference with his entire cast and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who had been working on adapting Highsmith’s novel for over a decade.
ComingSoon.net: There’s a lot of interesting things about this movie, but it’s an adaptation and it also didn’t originate with you, which is what all your previous movies had in common. You were a writer first and you directed stuff. What made you decide to do that? Did you just find a script that was a kindred script to your own tastes?
Todd Haynes: It started with a really remarkable book that I really loved, “The Price of Salt,” for the first time and I really thought Phyllis did a fantastic job in adapting it, but our very first conversations also talked about some things that she let go a little bit from the book. She’d been trying to get this made for 15 years, and what happens in that long a time is that scripts can very easily… the harder edges can get softened as you’re trying to appeal to financiers and make people happy. I kind of sensed that a little bit of that had happened to the script and when I talked to her about it, she was like, “Exactly! You said it!” It was fun for her and me to go back to it and restore some of the stuff that we both loved in the book. And then also a couple other thoughts that I had about the structure of it, which I wanted to explore, which had to do with this structuring device of returning to that lunch. Having that lunch start the film, get interrupted and then to return to it at the end of the film, which came from the movie “Brief Encounter,” which was one of the first films I thought of when I read all the material. But I liked what it did in a lot of ways, the whole way that Therese is forced to reevaluate the relationship after she says “no” to Carol at the end of that lunch.
CS: Did you know Phyllis beforehand?
Haynes: No, I didn’t know her.
CS: At any point, did you try to get the rights yourself?
Haynes: No, I didn’t know anything about it. The book and the screenplay came to me together, and I read them back-to-back the same weekend.
CS: Did you read the screenplay first?
Haynes: I think I read the book first.
CS: That must have been a strange experience because when you read the book, I’m sure you started having these ideas about how it might look as a movie, but then you already have a screenplay.
Haynes: I did, but Cate Blanchett was also attached to it, so it was already Cate as Carol, and there’s just no way to break that. I probably would have started thinking of Cate as Carol even if Cate wasn’t attached, but she was, so in some ways, the film was already beginning to unspool in my mind when I read the book the first time.
CS: I remember reading “Wolf of Wall Street” already knowing that Leo DiCaprio was going to play Jordan Belfort, so it’s interesting to read a book with the voice of an actor that you already know.
Haynes: You really can’t shake it, it’s very hard.
CS: How hard was it to find someone to play Therese and getting Rooney Mara to play that role? I think her character has more layers and more of an arc because she’s younger and more impressionable.
Haynes: Yeah, it’s a very different character at a very different place in the world and place in her life than Carol. It excited me because I like the fact that all the action, all the big events, are in Carol’s world, and in the book, it’s all filtered through the passive character who is getting everything third-hand. I like it when stories do that, when they take a detour through what seems to be the less overtly dramatic side of things and you find so much more nuance and subtlety than you’d expect in the less dramatic side of things. That was true with Therese.
CS: The characters that Rooney has played before are not very passive, and some are quite aggressive.
Haynes: No, absolutely, but she always does it with such an interesting take on those aggressive characters. There’s always something introspective and understated about her approach to whatever she does, which I always loved. And I just thought that I’ve never really seen her do something that seems so built for her in a way, to her basic temperament.
CS: It’s probably closer to what she’s really like than some of her characters.
Haynes: Yeah, exactly.
CS: Did you want her to read with Cate or see them together before casting her?
Haynes: It’s not really very possible these days. I didn’t feel the need to and I didn’t feel the need to put Rooney in that position to audition, because of how much esteem I had for her work, and also for what I’d been hearing about what it’s like to work with her from other directors. I just didn’t feel the need to do it.
CS: You’ve worked with Cate before and I don’t know if you’ve seen “Truth” yet…
Haynes: I haven’t. I haven’t seen anything.
CS: She’s absolutely amazing in that movie, too, and I feel she’s become one of these actresses that you can just cast her, they show up and they’re amazing and it’s effortless. Is that what she’s like as an actress?
Haynes: No, it’s not effortless, because she’s too conscientious, she cares too much about what she does. She’s too aware that anything of value means that you’ve gone somewhere to achieve it, and you’ve risked something to achieve it. I really believe that, and I really think that when actors say they’re really scared the first day of shooting or at the beginning of a process, they are. The best ones are for a really good reason, because they let themselves feel like little stripped-down people again.
CS: When I spoke to Eddie Redmayne recently, one of the things I got out of our conversation was how empathy is one of the most important characteristics for an actor, having that empathy for their character and shed themselves away to understand. Do you agree with that?
Haynes: I do, but I think empathy sometimes gets too close to sympathy or likeability and those things can actually get in the way of how you approach a character. So I think you have to have empathy but not necessarily sympathy.
CS: There have been parallels drawn to your earlier film “Far from Heaven” and one thing I noticed about both movies, and maybe it’s the era in which they take place, is that the men are not as sympathetic. Even with Dennis Quaid, I felt he was more of an antagonist to the female lead. I was curious how you felt about that.
Haynes: Well, Dennis Quaid plays the most maybe unsympathetic character in “Far from Heaven” of the three leads, but that said, it’s only because is duplicitous and doesn’t know any other way to be about what he’s trying to balance with what’s going on inside him with the constraints of his life and the options that are affordable to him in the world. But I still think there’s some sympathy to be had for what he does. He just ends up, almost because he can hide, he can operate in hiding, getting closer to fulfilling his desires than either of the other two characters can in that film. But in this one, and I think all you have to do is read the novel to see it, is the men in the film are given a great deal of sensitive treatment and a real context for what they’re going through. I don’t think it would have been easy and I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil about either of these male characters. They’re just completely and totally at a loss, and I think there’s moments where the Harge character becomes humiliated and people’s pride and people’s sense of reaction to events like that—and maybe men more than women, arguably—there can be some retribution or some cost that’s implicated and that’s the case with Harge, but he really is between a rock and a hard place and doesn’t really have an example.
CS: Because I didn’t live in those times, so it’s hard for me to relate to because I grew up in more liberal times…
Haynes: Right, but I think any man who discovers his life is a lesbian and runs off with another woman… I think anybody period who loses a relationship feels all kinds of bitterness, resentment, insecurity. “What did I do wrong? Am I not a good enough lover? Am I not good enough this or that?” That’s a human thing, but for it to be furthered by it being… maybe for some men it’s easier if it’s a woman because then they’re not competing as directly with the rival. But I think that’s just so universal and only made moreso in this time and place where it’s something you can’t really speak of in proper society.
CS: Absolutely, and I feel like in that time there was more demand on men to be manly. Nowadays, men are allowed to be sensitive or be the house husband.
Haynes: A little more, you are. But men as we know are suffering uniquely these days from those recent statistics about white men particularly, maybe lesser educated men than Harge, but you read that stuff about the suicide and death rates going off the charts. For men, who are mostly without college degrees today in this country with the amount of deaths to suicide, drug addiction and alcoholism have just skyrocketed like nothing we’ve seen since the AIDS epidemic. It’s quite dramatic.
CS: You talked a little about photography during the press conference earlier, and the film is visually stunning and so good at capturing the authentic look for those movies, but who actually took the photos of Cate in that style?
Haynes: Our stills photographer Wilson Webb, he did the actual shots of Cate that were beautiful, but then there was an old colleague of (DP) Ed Lachman’s from Aurora College in Iowa. Ed spent a year a year at a small college in Ohio in the ‘70s and moved on, never really completed, but he met this photographer who was a little older than that who turned him onto photography, and that guy we tracked down and found all of this unexposed film from—not literally the ‘50s but stuff that was very early ‘60s. It had never even been printed before and we drew from his caché of photography to show the other photographs that describes Therese’s career, so it really was like a Vivian Maier discovery in a way. It was really finding this untapped archive.
CS: I love those photos, because they add to the authenticity of her character. And you shot the film Super 16, so is it harder these days to shoot on film and find the stock and the lenses you need to capture that look?
Haynes: It can be found. It’s harder to find labs to develop it. That’s what slows down the process.
CS: I also want to talk about the music, because I love the films you’ve done dealing with music, and this movie has a lovely score, but you found some great tunes from the era to use. Can you talk about how you approached the music for this one in a different way from “Far from Heaven”?
Haynes: Well, “Far from Heaven” there was no world where source music would play in a (Douglas) Sirk film, they never do. Like the score plays this much more upfront and present voice in classic melodrama, and we honored that. Elmer Bernstein’s amazing final score that he wrote for his career was for “Far from Heaven,” and it remains one of the greatest gifts I’ve received from a creative partner in any movie I’ve done, because he was such an amazing guy and a master. But in “Carol,” it was a mix of score and source and the source is almost part of this background muddle of sounds, and songs are rarely played up front. There’s a couple moments in the car where we really let “One Mint Tulip” play loud for the excitement of them being liberated finally on the road. And the Billie Holiday song is actually foregrounded in the story of the film. But otherwise, the source material is almost part of the background in the sense of being in real places and sometimes even hard to identify what the songs are that you’re hearing, but the score was something that is developed over time. We use temp tracks when we’re cutting the movie, but Carter (Burwell) got a script from the film at the very beginning so he had a lot of time to think about the world.
CS: And Carter had worked with (music supervisor) Randall Poster before…
Haynes: He and Randall had worked on things before. I had worked with Carter, he did “Mildred Pierce’s” score and won an Emmy for it and he also did additional music for “Velvet Goldmine,” so this was the third time I’ve worked with Carter. He heard our mix CDs of period music from the time to get him in the period and hear what the arrangements sounded like and then there was a point where he starts to compose different themes, and we try them out in the cut and see which ones work the best. It was always the simplest of his themes that carried the most emotional impact, and those were usually the ones we ended up with.
CS: You have this three year period between projects and “Mildred Pierce” took over for the feature film you would have done in that period. Do you always have other things in development or that you’re writing, you want to get back to?
Haynes: A little more of a cluster these days. I have something that we’re hoping to shoot next year in New York called “Wonderstruck,” which is based on Brian Selznick’s graphic novel. He wrote “Hugo Cabret” which “Hugo” was based on, so this was the novel that followed “Hugo” and it was really cool, and it’s sort of a film that’s geared towards younger audiences but another love poem to a city, in this case New York City. It should be really fun, I’m excited.
CS: Is that also a period film?
CS: Have you even done a contemporary film?
Haynes: Not really.
CS: So you just like staying in those different periods?
Haynes: Completely. Well, someone’s gotta do it!
CS: I feel like period stories tell us more about today…
Haynes: I think that’s it. I really feel that’s true, I agree.
Carol opens in select cities on Friday, November 20. Look for video interviews with Todd Haynes’ cast later this week.