Todd Haynes’s Carol is simple, elegant, and devastating. It tells a story of pre-Stonewall gay love between two women, who become what they are using no specific societal blueprint (none existed for lesbians in the ‘50s), but through their love for each other. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a mother going through a divorce who happens upon Therese (Rooney Mara), a younger shopgirl in her 20s, and is immediately enchanted. What ensues is a love story that is told with tenderness, pacing, and melodrama that evokes the era depicted in the film. Sometimes it shouldn’t even work—like when during an emotional peak between Carol and Therese, it starts snowing out of nowhere—but it always does, thanks to the tremendous directing, writing, and performances of everyone involved. Carol is, simply, one of the year’s finest movies and its final shot is among the most indelible I’ve ever seen. This movie imprints itself on you, and what’s more, you want it to.
Carol is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, which was released in hardcover to good reviews but ended up selling a million copies as a paperback that was sold alongside the pulp of its day. Unlike its mass-marketed brethren, The Price of Salt offered a comparatively optimistic outlook on lesbian relationships that didn’t require its lovers to suffer as a result of their then-forbidden desire. That spirit carries over in Carol, which was adapted by playwright/screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who has been attached to the project (on and off) for 18 years. I spoke to her earlier this week about the differences between Highsmith’s writing and hers, compromise in filmmaking, and the politics of telling such a story.
Gawker: This is a big year for movies depicting female same-sex relationships, The Duke of Burgundy springs to mind, as does Freeheld. When people talk about gay culture, so much of the time it means “gay men’s culture.” The Price of Salt is a classic within lesbian culture. Does it mean anything to you to have contributed to gay women’s culture?
Phyllis Nagy: Well, sure. In a larger sense, of course. Yesterday in L.A., I was talking to one of the producers of the movie Freeheld, and he was saying, “Listen, what it means that all of these movies are coming out at once is that there are cycles. These movies take such a long time to get made that they all tend to be staggered at once.” We’re in that cycle now. I hope that Carol, in particular, because that’s the one I worked on, will contribute to not only making sure that more films about gay culture, particular kinds of film about gay culture, get made, but that films that are led by women get made. If Carol can allow for three more films with female leads that aren’t 22—it isn’t about college, it isn’t about any of the things that generally get financed, it isn’t a buddy comedy, it’s just a drama—then I would be very happy with that. Asking for much more? I don’t think we’ve come as far as all that.
Yeah, but all we can do is keep going, put stuff like Carol and other films out there into the culture. It’s pretty extraordinary that it’s allowed to exist in the culture and it’s a sort of—I use the word “mainstream” in a particular way—but we do need more examples, obviously.
It really struck me reading The Price of Salt, that because Highsmith was explaining this world in the early ‘50s that so many people either knew about and couldn’t talk about it or were just completely ignorant of, she could really get to the fundamentals of love. The book feels at once remedial and brilliant.
It does, doesn’t it? Part of this is Pat Highsmith’s own peculiar psyche, which was obsessional. All the great novels about love—Madame Bovary, all sorts of things like that—are really obsessional. I mean that in the largest sense possible. There are elements of The Price of Salt that are fairly stalker-esque, which fits in very nicely with Pat’s general body of work. If Pat had been an actress, she could have played Sister George. She did not think of herself as gay. She didn’t think of herself as not gay either. She was like some old-school stone butches I’ve met, although she wasn’t herself like that, who would say things like, “It’s time to go to the lesbian bar,” as if there were a third person narrative that she wasn’t a part of and yet was very much a part of. The Price of Salt has that element, with Therese not censoring things in the way Pat never censored things.
She’s extremely blunt. I wonder if you had to reel that in just for modern sensibilities. The part in the book when Therese tells Richard, “I don’t love you, but I like you,” would probably seem too harsh for 2015 moviegoing audiences, right?
Probably. There are a few lines of Highsmith’s that I used. “Flung out of space.” But very little else, because her dialogue is so novelistic. Works in a novel; read it aloud and it’s not right. To find that equivalent of that, cinematically would be, to have Richard, as Carol’s driving Therese away, say, “Love you.” And she just sort of [looks away] through the window. That’s the equivalent, I suppose. A lot of it was trying to find that, or inventing the custody scene. In a way Therese is almost annoyed that they have to deal with this stuff, which is interesting to me, but again, a different movie when you’re writing a love story and one character’s already largely melancholic—Carol [is] odd, touchy, smokes a lot. There’s a moodiness that you don’t need to double down on with Therese, who’s just an odd creature.
There are slight changes that you made that are nonetheless pointed. In the book, it’s Carol who pronounces Therese’s name “Terez,” but in the movie, it is Therese who tells her that she pronounces it that way. In the movie, instead of sending a Christmas card to Carol, Therese returns the gloves she left behind in the store. Was there a guiding philosophy for those changes?
Novels inhabit one temporal world, and dramatic writing inhabits another entirely. With Therese, who is so much a passive observer who internalizes everything in the book, and inhabits a bohemian world, which seemed a mistake to me, just instinctively. As a dramatist, you set up certain sorts of obstacles really, in reducing a tale to be told over a couple of hours, whereas you have a couple of days or weeks or however long you take to read a novel. Making her the aspirational artist, rather than someone who is quite decided about it already [as she is in the novel], and having her friends and [boyfriend] Richard and everyone be of that world, in the novel that was one of the things that struck me as not convincing. They weren’t. They didn’t act like how those Greenwich Village phony types would act. Giving her the aspiration, giving Richard the solid life just allowed us a latitude to explore many different possibilities. If Carol is ultimately a story about which door you’ll choose, by setting as many examples as you can from the life Richard leads to Danny to Abby—it just seemed a much more interesting thing to explore.
You really finessed the end in a big way. The resolution now is much less abrupt.
There’s that odd section of the book, that double road trip, where Therese lives on her own and that’s where the largely less convincing visual metaphors occur, with the portrait and this and that. One of the things I was reluctant about is this is a book with a cult following. It’s not like Twilight or anything, but the fans know the book far better than I, even at this point. The portrait the way she looks at it...I thought, “I can’t even think about that.” This is just not gonna play in a movie. It wouldn’t have played in a movie in 1952. So getting rid of that and having her come into her own, getting over Carol whilst also taking care of her life, seemed a much more economical way of doing it.
And then the story becomes about how you can find yourself through other people.
That’s right, not reclusive somewhere in...Wisconsin? Some odd place.
I like the movie better than the book.
I’m very fond of the book. I love that it refuses to psychologize about them. I love the way Pat goes after the notion of what is a good mother. What’s extraordinary to me is we’re getting no pushback on that. This woman basically leaves her child in the care of her husband for a time, but I think it’s understood that it’s for a time, and it’s so that she can actually give her daughter a good example of how to live, rather than what many people grew up with, which is a terrible environment of secrets, codes, and lies. She does a quite brave thing in that.
There’s a part of the book where Carol details her tortured past with her sexuality. Was that too obvious for 2015 sensibilities to include in a movie?
No. I read that again and again, and thought, “What she’s saying is it’s not being said very well.” It’s not so much that she questioned what her sexuality was. She questioned if she had the strength to deal with it, which is a very different thing. In most of the preceding fiction, especially when written by lesbians—the Radclyffe Halls, etc.—people went to nunneries, hanged themselves, or at the very least, went into mental institutions. At least this was not that, quite profoundly. I think that Pat had that obligatory moment where you questioned something, but it is so out of character with the rest of the book that I knew it felt like a thing that development executives might as for, you know what I mean? So no.
So you would reject something that development execs would ask for?
If they asked for that, yeah!
Is this screenplay, as is, uncompromised?
Yeah, I think it is. Over 18 years, obviously, a lot of people come and go, there’s a lot of water under that bridge. There’s a difference between writing a screenplay and writing a screenplay that will be produced. This is a very important distinction that I think a lot of writers don’t consider and I certainly had to a lot. But the easiest way to make sure it’s not compromised is not to say to someone, “That’s a really terrible idea, you’re an idiot.” It’s to say, “That’s fascinating, of course I’ll do it,” and then do it to the best of your ability. Most reasonable people look at what they’ve asked for and see that it doesn’t work. Yes, it costs you time, but then people come up with some interesting things. And so the [current] script is like a little document, a hierogphic of traces of lots of different suggestions. It’s not been cobbled together from the notes of various development executives, no, and there wasn’t really development executives, but when Todd came on, he encouraged me to go with whatever darkness and humor and every elliptical impulse that I ever had, which of course runs counter to what usually happens. It was a perfect way to make sure that the fifth and final draft of the script was what we both wanted to do.
Is it a political act to put this out there?
Sure. For me, the most political thing you can do is put something like this out there that does not have an obvious agenda. It is just describing behavior and not making a comment on it, really. It’ll be interesting to see how politically it is dealt with in the community and elsewhere. I think that’s the most dangerous thing anyone could have done and Todd has run with it and enhanced it. I’m very excited about the potential reactions.
Carol is in select theaters Friday, Nov. 20.