In Todd Haynes’ transfixing Carol, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play two women from different backgrounds in 1950s New York who fall in love. As the film progresses, they find themselves challenged by both their pasts and the conventional norms of the era. It’s a staggeringly beautiful, emotionally resonant film filled with magnificent performances. There has never quite been a film that so perfectly captures the motions of falling in love without having to rely on words. Because words aren’t important in Carol — movements are. Director Todd Haynes was gracious enough to sit down and discuss Carol with me when he was in Philadelphia for the film’s appearance at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Note: Some possible spoilers follow.
CUT PRINT FILM: So much of Carol involves observance — it’s almost voyeuristic in how it’s shot. There are scenes framed through windows, and reflected in mirrors and car windows and store windows, and I just was wondering if you could just talk about that just a little bit — how you came about that idea of just having it be framed literally in frames.
TODD HAYNES: It’s so much about the act of looking, the act of interpreting what you’re looking at, of investing so much need and want out of what you’re seeing. But I think when you set up frames, and obfuscation, and things in the way of what you’re seeing, it not only reveals the act of looking but it makes you crave seeing more, and possessing more [of] what’s on the other side. And that’s so true to the predicament of the characters, and particularly Therese through so much of the movie.
CUT PRINT FILM: And tying into that, so much of the movie seems about…earlier there’s that sort of meta scene where a character is in a projection booth, and he’s watching the movie, and he’s observing between what they’re saying and what they mean…so much of this movie is about things that you don’t really see: glances and touches. One of my favorite parts of the movie is the beginning, where you see Carol put her hand on Therese’s shoulder, and then at the end there’s a closer shot where you see her close her eyes and that moment lasts longer. And I just wanted to know if you could talk about developing things like that.
TODD HAYNES: It really starts with the book, which is just so acutely observed, almost like to a point of torture. [There are] really interesting moments, like when Carol puts her hand on Therese’s shoulder when she’s playing the piano in Carol’s house, and Therese describes the feeling of Carol’s fingers burning through her shoulder…but in the book, Carol adds a little quick kiss to the top of Therese’s head, and Therese can’t even remember the kiss because she’s so preoccupied with the touch. And it’s almost like the thing you most want to be present for, you miss it because you’re preoccupied with some other detail.
So it’s like this navigation of this minefield of signs that you’re trying to decode. And I think what’s funny is, the last time I watched it I was thinking, you’re always trying to put yourself into the head of the viewer and what they experience as they watch the movie. And I remember feeling this when I read the stuff, the script and the novel, for the first time, is that you’re aware of Therese’s feelings but you’re also reading it against our– as a contemporary reader. Like what are the permissible codes of the time, you know? You’re like wow, Carol invites Therese to lunch. How forward is that? And then you realize when she says, well I wouldn’t have invited the head of, the guy who runs the ski department — and then you realize, oh right, it’s way more socially acceptable for an older woman to invite a younger woman to lunch than it would be if for a woman to invite a man, you know? Or even when Carol invites Therese to live with her — the idea of an older woman and a younger woman living together is completely acceptable but if it was an unmarried heterosexual couple, it would have been scandalous. So you’re reading all these events but you’re also reading them against the time and sometimes you’re surprised by what the meaning is. Very much like what Therese is doing all the time. [pullquote cite=”Todd Haynes” type=”right”] It’s so much about the act of looking, the act of interpreting what you’re looking at, of investing so much need and want out of what you’re seeing.[/pullquote]
CUT PRINT FILM: Can you talk a little bit about the casting? Everyone here…Cate Blanchett is great, as always, and Rooney Mara is wonderful…
TODD HAYNES: I just had been admiring Rooney Mara’s performances one after the next, and the choices she made and her ability to understand of the sort of medium of film and how you can, how much power can be derived by playing something down, and her ability for nuance and understatement. Which is not always the case with a younger performer… and she seemed to know that right away, that was like her DNA. But, still I’d never seen her really play a role like this before, and I thought [Therese is] you know, very simple, very…almost a blank page, a girl who really is just setting out on her life, her independence, and figuring it out as she goes along — but with a really interesting change in the trajectory of the story — so I just thought she could do something really, really exceptional with that.
CUT PRINT FILM: Tying into the casting–I’m a huge Sleater-Kinney fan, so when I heard that Carrie Brownstein was involved, I was excited. And her character shows up briefly at the end [of the film], she’s sort of a little mysterious–
TODD HAYNES: She is. It was a bigger part. A bigger role. There was a little more of that in the party scene. And initially the way the script was structured, Therese lands at the party earlier in the story, and she recollects back on the story of Carol from there. So there was just more time spent in the party, and it just, it was the one thing in the cuts that we looked at — and that is a really essential process in any movie that I’ve ever made, and I think any director’s, where you show the cuts and you get reactions and you hear what’s working and what isn’t — and it was a real consensus point that it wasn’t supporting that much time, the party, and so yeah, that character unfortunately got reduced. And because it’s Carrie, it draws some attention to that, but… Also, what we didn’t want was to make too much of a causal relationship to a sort of incidental flirtation with somebody — with that being the motivating factor in her going back to Carol.
CUT PRINT FILM: In a way it almost works better this way because she’s such an, I would say, odd sort of character and it kind of makes you wonder what her deal is.
TODD HAYNES: Exactly, yeah.
CUT PRINT FILM: Through the whole film, Therese is taking photographs. Who took those photographs for the film; were they modeled on any photographer from that era or was it just this photographer’s style?
TODD HAYNES: No, it’s really cool. Most of the photographs that you see when Carol comes to visit Therese at her… well, the stills of Cate that Therese takes were shot by our stills photographer, who did beautiful work. But the other photographs– [cinematographer] Ed Lochman went to — I’m going to get all these names wrong ’cause I just do, but — he went to college for like one year and then left or got kicked out or something in the early ’70s in Ohio. And he had a friend who actually was a photographer then, and I think a bit of a mentor to Ed, and encouraged him to take photographs. And Ed tracked him down, I think in Aurora…? I’m sorry, I’m going to fuck it up — but we tracked down this old friend of Ed’s and he came on set, came to visit us in Cincinnati, and he had all of these photographs, some of which he’d never even printed, from the ’60s, and they were amazing. And they were like, it was almost like Vivian Maier, you know, like some discovery of this treasure trove of actual historical photography that was pretty close… it was from New York City, stuff he shot in New York City in the ’60s — it wasn’t exactly 1953, but it was definitely out of the past and rare photography, and so we used all his stuff for those photographs.
CUT PRINT FILM: The look of this film is so striking, and I’m wondering, for this film in particular, is there a certain look you’re just going for generally? To me, at times I get an Edward Hopper vibe — and Mad Men, which was set, at first at least, in the same era as Carol, seemed to pull from Edward Hopper a lot also. But I don’t know if that’s just because that’s so burned into my mind about stories from this particular era. Were there certain things you were referencing, a particular style you were looking to invoke?
TODD HAYNES: It was — I mean, there was some Edward Hopper in my image book. I mean, really, Edward Hopper, people might maybe kind of apply generally to the past or… because most of his stuff was painted I think in the ’20s and ’30s… [but] yeah, there’s definitely some frames we were looking at from Edward Hopper.
But I would say the main point, the main thing that I hadn’t done really in films set in this period before — it certainly was not the case for Far From Heaven — is I was looking at photojournalism of the time, color photography from the time, documenting New York City, and finding it to be this really… — I mean really part of it’s also just the color process that’s from the early ’50s is a different color process, and it’s not like technicolor Hollywood, and it’s a muted kind of more monochromatic kind of palette. Where you can’t really tell if it’s a warm or cool temperature… and it just conveyed something about the period, too, and New York — it made it just look like a dirty distressed city, a city feeling new insecurities after winning the war, and what would be called the Cold War period was really taking hold at that point. So I think the look of it just felt distressed and soiled in that way that was really interesting, so we really went for it, and Cincinnati offered a lot of those colors…. [Production Designer] Judy Becker and I were picking really kind of ugly, strange greens that have some warmth in them and putting them against warm cool colors with cool tones in them for the decor, you know, and similar choices being made in costume. So it was something we were all kind of dealing with as a team.
CUT PRINT FILM: With a lot of your films, like Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, even I’m Not There, and now Carol, they’re all set in the past — is that something that you’re just naturally interested in, stories in any era but this one?
TODD HAYNES: I do think I have that interest. I don’t know if it’s the first agenda of mine. It just ends up being maybe a recurrent — obviously recurrent — facet of my films. And I think, you know, at a very basic level, I feel like I get to learn so much about these periods of time, and in many ways I almost feel like I live a little bit in those times, as a result, ’cause you get so immersed in the details and the movies and the pop culture and the language and the politics and the history and the customs and the…all of those elements, and they vary from film to film how much you’re dealing with one versus the other. So there’s that part of my own edification in time traveling as a creative person. But I also think I just really like, and it sort of brings back to your question about these frames of looking through things, that you’re kind of holding up a frame for the viewer when you set it in another time, and then it’s sort of up to them to find themselves inside the picture, and find the relevance of the way they connect. And when it’s your era, it’s almost like the frame is taken away, but there’s always a frame — directors, writer, creators are always making one choice or another, so in a way it just sort of reveals that right off the bat. [pullquote cite=”Todd Haynes” type=”left”]You’re kind of holding up a frame for the viewer when you set [a film] in another time, and then it’s sort of up to them to find themselves inside the picture, and find the relevance of the way they connect.[/pullquote]
CUT PRINT FILM: Therese gets emotionally hurt in the film, and in the book [The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith], Carol hurts Therese just a bit more than she does in the movie, but the book was also notable for having a happy ending for a story like this, for that era. I’m wondering, in the context of the film, what the future looks like for Carol and Therese — even though the way the film ends, silently, without fully answering that question, is perfect.
TODD HAYNES: I think what’s great is that there’s a level of uncertainty, that the optimism is there simply because they take a stand on their own behalf in terms of their feeling for each other, against all odds. But they’ve both been knocked around by life, you know, and Therese has certainly been knocked around by this experience with Carol, and it’s changed her, and Carol has had to reevaluate the value of Therese in her life. So when they come back together at the end, you’re like, oh great! And then you’re like, yeah but neither of them are the same people. And that’s, to me that’s really like real life, you know? And so that gives it a dose of gravity, I guess, and not just like, this lofty fairy tale. But I like that about it, so I think they have a shot, and that’s what counts.
Carol opens November 20.