- Category: Interviews
- Created: Tuesday, 24 November 2015 15:30
- Published: Tuesday, 24 November 2015 15:30
- Written by Justine Browning
1950s New York at Christmas time serves as the backdrop of Carol, a beautifully shot love story that leaves a lasting impression. Rooney Mara stars as Therese, a department store clerk who falls for a wealthy married woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett). Directed by Todd Haynes, the stylish drama paints a vivid portrait, featuring riveting performances.
At a recent press conference for the film, held at the Essex House in New York, Haynes, Cate Blachett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chander, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy and Phyllis Nagy the screenwriter spoke about working on the film.
Todd, I wanted to ask you about the emotion of the film. From the opening shot of a street grate to a final smile, how did you approach the film and bring it visually to the screen?
Todd Haynes: I really was taking it on as if for the first time looking at the love story, something that I felt I hadn’t really ever accomplished directly in my other films. That really began in reading The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s beautiful novel and the gorgeous adaptation of Phyllis’ script that first came to me with Cate attached. So, it was quite a bundle of incentives when it first landed with me in 2013. But love stories are unlike war, which is about conquering the object. Love stories are about conquering the subject. It’s always the subject who’s in a state of vulnerability and peril at some level. Through much of Carol, that is the character of Therese, who occupies a much less powerful position in the world than Carol, is younger, is more open. Experiencing this woman with the freshness that is different from Carol’s life and experience. What I loved about the story was how what happened to the two women really moves them through a series of events which change them both. Ultimately by the end of the film, they’ve shifted sides. Carol is the one who comes to Therese with her heart on her sleeve at the end of the film, so all of that made a lot of smaller elements – of looking, and who is being looked at, and who is doing the looking, and all of those questions – something that was very conducive to the cinematic language.
Cate, a lot of the character of Carol revolves around her vulnerability. What were some of the keys for you as you approached the character?
Cate Blanchett: I think it was questions that she hadn’t been asked and she hadn’t asked herself. Carol’s a deeply private person, whose sexuality in relationship to herself is not unsettled or ambiguous, but she lives in a quiet hell because she’s not able to fully express herself. I guess it was the way she was brought up. She has not been in a loveless marriage. People keep describing it as a loveless marriage. I guess that the complicated thing for Carol – and being confronted by Therese at the time in her life that it is – is that she’s got an enormous amount to lose. She’s found an unhappy balance… if you can find an unhappy balance with Kyle Chandler; that would be very difficult… with Harge because of her love for her daughter. She’s risking a lot. There was a beautiful line that Phyllis wrote describing Therese as being flung out of space. I also think Carol’s describing that situation of being in uncharted territory, free-floating, as you do when you fall in love with anyone for the first time. You feel like you’ve never been here before. You’re being confronted with questions, confronted with sides of yourself. It suggests a territory you’ve never been to before.
Rooney, Therese is often shown in frames; boxes, windows, even her camera lens. Like she has to break out. Was there anything you did to map out her journey?
Rooney Mara: Todd and I talked a lot about that. We had a few weeks of rehearsal in Cincinnati with everyone. That was pretty much what we were doing in rehearsal – not just mapping out Therese’s journey, but mapping out the entire script. Films obviously don’t film in order, so you have to do that with every element of the script.
Phyllis, you knew Patricia Highsmith at the end of her life. What was it like to translate the story’s 1952 world without looking at it through a modern sensibility?
Phyllis Nagy: That was one of the things that I was intent on doing – to not overlay a contemporary psychology onto any of the characters. When you overlay any kind of a psychology and overview, an ethos, you’re judging those characters immediately. It seemed very important for all the nuances of the relationships among the central quartet that you don’t do that. It’s very easy for me to forget about. The first draft was many years ago, but when I started working with Todd on this it was a pleasure to forget that we were living right now. We didn’t have to deal with any of the methods of communication that people might’ve had, or the attitudes or judgments of now. We all have to be very, very aware of what we’re doing. This is about instinct, not calculation, although the circumstances of their lives required some calculation.
Kyle, Harge is complicated, feeling he has been cheated of the life he expected. How did you humanize him with the anger that he shows?
Kyle Chandler: Good direction. No, just listening to what you just said, one of the really interesting aspects about playing this character is he is what he is on the screen. But, the way you just spoke about how he has put it together, you left everything open for Harge to actually do as he will and to find those spaces. That was interesting. As I was playing it, at some point, I realized that it could be a stereotypical character very easily. Portray what you would imagine of a guy from the 50’s under these circumstances. What happened was, at some point, the worst possible moment in a man’s life, or a woman: They’re in love is when they realize they’re not in love anymore. This character never realized he wasn’t in love anymore. He was always in love, and he was intensely in love. He also had this little child – not just his wife, not just his child, but his family unit was so important to him and so important, to say nothing of his social status and what he was. He refused to give that up. What you said about the character allowed me as a character to stay in that and never lose love or respect, but still be very confused. What’s going on? Which goes back to that one direction [Haynes] gave me: When I’m walking in the room and I look across and I go “Who are you?!” basically. Todd gave me a specific direction there. It really turned me. I was like: Oh, yeah! Okay. Anyway, for me this whole thing was so much fun. It was really refreshing, because of what the material is and just the way it was presented. Then seeing it is wonderful.
Sarah, Abby’s friendship with Carol is so moving, because they were exes, but Abby was helping with the new girlfriend. What were you looking at as their relationship?
Sarah Paulson: I really just tried to think about friendship. And selflessness. And unwavering loyalty. I think Abby still has feelings for Carol. It’s a challenging thing. I wonder what I personally would do if somebody I loved and still had feelings for, if I was called upon to come in and rescue the person that she currently loves. I don’t know. It was, to me, a testament to her friendship and her love, and I think the desire to be around Carol and Carol’s orbit no matter what. Abby’s sense of society – I don’t mean literal society, but her community, her friendships – they were probably quite narrow at that time. So, to lose something like that, the consequences of that would be too enormous. I just thought about things like that.
Jake, if Harge is one type of guy, Richard is another. As you were working on the character, were you finding the levels of subtlety? It feels like Richard understands something about Therese, but he can’t seem to figure out why she is dragging her feet to marry him.
Jake Lacy: It was definitely in the script. That subtlety was not thanks to me, for sure. Todd spoke with me when we first met about the idea that for Richard the world is there to take. He’s young. He’s in New York. He’s first generation American. He’s smart. He’s handsome. He has a job. He’s got a girl. The world is his for the taking, and yet, it slips away from him, without knowing it. Thank God that it does, because otherwise he’s 15 years or ten years earlier than Carol and Harge and that world, if he and Therese created a life that then wasn’t a life anymore. I don’t know if I can speak to the subtlety, I think that maybe that you were experiencing that more than my attempt to create something. I do think, to me, for Richard it’s the idea of a dream that then falls apart, where someone is not willing to be a part of that dream. Trying to wrangle them in when they are not meant to be there.
Even though this is some 50 years ago, it is a period film. With regard to the physicality, I loved specifically how you moved. The body language of that time versus today is quite different, even the way a cigarette is held or you place a coffee cup. How did you achieve that?
Cate Blanchett: For me personally, it felt less about the period and more about what Todd was referring to before as about “the gaze.” If the cigarette was held in a certain way and perceived by the camera in a certain way, it was because it was viewed through the prism of someone’s desire, rather than the prism of the period. One of the most revelatory things that Todd showed all of us, that I found really useful was a film called Lovers and Lollipops. In fact, it completely subverted everything I’d seen of the 50s represented before. It was so fresh and immediate. I felt like everything was happening right then and there in front of me. It was people in clothes, not in costumes, existing and behaving with one another as we do now.
When you experience a love story, whether it is back in the 1400s in China, or it’s in 1952 in New York, it feels as if it is this timeless connection. So the period is an important impediment in all the dramas, details to be drawn with, but it became secondary. Although the girdles… Those things were hard. There was a scene where Rooney was playing the piano. I’d found this position on the floor. I thought I have to be graceful, so I had to rehearse a lot so I would be able to get up in one movement, which was difficult.
You also looked at a lot of 50s photography, right, like Ruth Orkin?
Todd Haynes: We did. Ruth Orkin is one of the color photographers we looked at, who was photographing New York City in color at the time. Ruth Orkin was the partner of Morris Engel. These are all New York-based artists and photojournalists. They did psycho-dramas, not documentaries. The Little Fugitive is the best known of their films, their collaborations. They would use unknown actors, put them in real locations and use real light. The Little Fugitive is the story of a little kid who runs away to Coney Island during the day. Lovers and Lollipops they made a few years later. It was set in locations more relevant to our film, but it had a woman at the center of the story. It was the story of a single mother trying to ingratiate her daughter to a new boyfriend. She was just a woman. She was not a wealthy woman like Carol. But she was a woman with this tremendous poise and this gait and this manner of speech. It was an example of this femininity that we just do not see anymore. You might glimpse it in your grandmother, but it is something that is not produced anymore culturally. Yet
it’s not something you would see by actresses from Hollywood films from the period. It gave an insight to something quite specific and sort of lost. That was very useful to Cate and Rooney.
The love story did not necessarily feel homosexual, it just felt like any relationship.
Cate Blanchett: It’s normal.
Was that something you were trying for?
Rooney Mara: To me there is no difference, so it is kind of a difficult question to answer. One of the great things about the film is that it’s not a political film. It’s not a film with an agenda. We’re not preaching to the audience. So people are allowed to just watch it for what it is. It’s a love story between two humans.
You mentioned that Carol is risking so much, her marriage and her child. Was that in the text of the novel?
Phyllis Nagy: It’s interesting that you mention her marriage, because I think her marriage is over. She’s not risking her marriage. That is in Patricia Highsmith’s novel. She is risking the ability to have her child with her in the moment after this divorce happens. I don’t think she ever risks… in her heart she is not giving up her child. She is allowing her child to grow up, for the moment, in the environment that’s best for her. Carol is being a good mother in allowing the child to be with Harge. Carol must be who she is. She is not yet who she is. In order to be good for her child and not screw her up later on, she’s got to do this. It’s actually quite selfless. I don’t think it has to do with being with Therese. I think those two things are separate.
Todd Haynes: I would add that she is also serving an authority over the situation, in a veiled threat to Harge. Basically saying: I want to see Rindy on my terms. If not this may come to court and this may get ugly. One could only imagine how ugly this could get for someone like Harge and his family if this really did get played out in the courts. She ends up actually holding the reins in her hands about how and when she gets to see her daughter. That had not been the case up until that point in the story.
Phyllis Nagy: Highsmith allows us a great freedom in the novel with the character of Carol, whose own narrative was relayed almost exclusively through Therese’s eyes. You get these shards, these mosaic pieces of Carol’s life. Now Carol’s doing this. Now I hear she is having a custody battle. It gave us great freedom, because there is no big moment with Carol and Harge like that in the book, to actually explore some of these things and the power dynamic, so that it’s less about will I lose my child? I personally don’t think she’s ever in danger of losing Rindy in a real sense.
Cate Blanchett: But it is interesting, because what your question points to is the fact that if a mother makes a choice based on her survival she risks losing the audience’s sympathy. If it was a gay man, somehow I don’t think the question of sympathy would arise. When anyone plays a mother onscreen there’s always a sense that there’s a right way to parent. That you lose your identity and you become a mother first and foremost. What I loved about Todd is that he didn’t ever talk about sympathy. Personally as an actor, I find the idea of playing for an audience’s sympathy a kind of repulsive endeavor. It’s like saying: Like me, like me! It’s a terrible, terrible position, a tragic position that Carol has been placed in. And Harge has been placed in, frankly. When she says in the lawyer’s office, “We’re not ugly people, Harge,” I think that’s when the threat goes out of it. That is the truth. You are not like this at your heart, if you take away all the trappings of society. I’m not like this. I think that’s the issue. One thing about working with Todd is we never discussed the sympathy. The S word!
Well, when Kyle is looking in the room at Abby, it’s interesting, there is a world going on that he is not privy to, he’s not allowed into, and he’s confused by it. So his heart may want something else, but there is this whole other situation that these other two hearts have going on that he just does not understand. He’s not able to unlock it. Is that a fair assessment of that scene?
Todd Haynes: Yes, clearly. You see the two satellites, the key power brokers on either side of Carol’s life, coming in direct conflict of each other in that scene. It’s the only scene that neither Carol or Therese witness in the film, but they are there as an extra kind of force. It is an essential scene. It’s a showdown. About people who love Carol in different ways, disavowing the other person’s side. But they are strong people, too.
The interesting thing about Kyle’s character, Harge, is that we are introduced to Harge at an uncustomary period in his life as a character. One presumes that Harge has always pretty much taken Carol for granted most of their life. But when the film begins, he’s already reevaluated her value in his life. The way he’s inviting her out and wanting to spend time with her and share time with her seems to be a new project, a new regimen.
Smoking plays a big part in this world, almost an addiction. Was that intended?
Todd Haynes: Smoking is the perfect conductor of desire, because it’s a way in which you seek desire and you never fulfill it. I know this from being an ex-smoker. It’s a practiced cycle where you seek being satisfied, you crave that moment, but you’re always chasing an original moment that you’ll never get back to in that cigarette. Of course it’s played a key symbolic role in the history of Hollywood’s golden age cinema, the history of films about women, and the ways that anxieties and desires are displaced into other practices. I don’t see it as much more than that in itself.
Kyle Chandler: That was a great description.
Another signifier of Hollywood’s golden age was how it was shot– in 16mm. Could you talk about that process?
Todd Haynes: Ed Lachman, the director of photography, and I had worked in super 16 on our previous project, Mildred Pierce, which was going ultimately to be broadcast on HDTV on HBO. We wanted to really downgrade the sophistication of lenses and stocks today, where the grain element continually goes away. If you shot on film, you shot on 35mm sometimes, and it blows up to HD. We loved it. We had a really great time on that project.
The research for Carol kept revealing the city in a very early stage. It was the transition out of the war years. The early 1950s were something quite different from the Eisenhower war years that we mostly attribute to that shiny, glossy decade. I was quite interested and curious about how different this world looked than the world perhaps of my film Far From Heaven. We wanted to bring some of that sootiness, some of that monochromatic color palette to the look of the film. The 16mm was one of the ways that we did that. We also found a beautiful city that had architectural integrity, and was really preserved in its past in many blocks and many of the interiors that we found. We found that in Cincinnati, Ohio. We just loved what Cincinnati brought to the film.
Obviously the two women were in very different life stages, Carol being more established and having a child and being married…
Cate Blanchett: Older…..
Older. She is helping Therese find herself. But because they are women, do you think the age difference is of lesser importance than it would be with a man, who may be considered a little predatory?
Rooney Mara: I don’t know if it would ever feel predatory. It’s not like I’m 17 years old. Therese is younger than Carol. They are at different stages in their lives, but I don’t think that she is so young. The story never felt predatory to me. I don’t think it ever really would have, man or woman.
Cate Blanchett: The interesting thing is the obsession. Actually, perhaps more so in the book. There’s this obsessive pursuit that Therese has of Carol. Because of Carol’s sense of consequence and the difference of their ages and experiences, and also their different socio-economic backgrounds, there is a sense of we have to quiet the horses here and not go too quickly with this, because I know this is not necessarily going to end well. That’s delicious stuff to play with, because that’s what loads up all those silences. Every word is, not only chosen by the beautiful screenplay, but by the women. Can I say this? This might have two meanings. I’m not sure that was taken the right way. Did I hear what I think you were saying behind what you just said? It’s wonderful stuff to play with this, because there is so much stuff between them and keeping them apart.
Todd Haynes: There are also things that a modern audience has to keep reminding themselves were different at this time. An older woman could invite a younger woman to lunch and it was absolutely totally appropriate, where she would have never invited the head of the department to lunch. Or they could check into a hotel together as two women, but if they were heterosexual unmarried women, the couple checking into a hotel, at this time that wouldn’t have been a scandal. There are ways in which the mores and the codes of the time are also things that were learning and reading against their actions and justice.
Cate, you had done another Patricia Highsmith film with The Talented Mr. Ripley. Did you learn about The Price of Salt back then? Did your perception of the story change having portrayed Carol?
Cate Blanchett: Yes, it’s a different thing entirely reading a novel and then reading it again when you are coming to play a character in that book. I read anything I could of hers at the time that I was making Ripley. It was actually, much to my shame, the first time I had encountered her work. I was also interested in all of the filmic incarnations of her work as well, and went back and revisited it. There are some wonderful observations in parts of internal monologue. One internal monologue that Therese has and wonderful observations about Carol that are in the novel that were really, really useful to read that I just read at the time, the first time I read the book as a reader. Today to make that stuff manifest was really exciting.
Did Patricia want the book to be made into a film? Did she see your original script when you knew her years ago, and if so what did she think about it?
Phyllis Nagy: Well, she was dead by the time it came to me, so we didn’t have that conversation. I’ll have it with her later tonight. She didn’t like many of the film adaptations of her work.
Cate Blanchett: Didn’t she?
Phyllis Nagy: Oh, no, she couldn’t stand them! Especially Strangers on a Train.
Cate Blanchett: Oh! What does she know?
Phyllis Nagy: From her perspective, the guys trade murders in that book, and the film, of course they don’t. It was one of the first arguments we had, when I said: Oooh, I love Strangers on a Train. She said, “Hmmm… really?” With disgust! But she liked aspects of the films. Robert Walker she loved. She thought Alain Delon was extremely attractive, of course. I hope that she would find this entire enterprise extremely attractive. I think she would. We are all of us not betraying the intent and the tone of her work, which really is the only thing that you can do – to be reverent to a source material. Everything else is up for grabs.
Todd, could you comment on Kyle’s performance and the qualities in him as an actor that caused you to cast him in this role?
Kyle Chandler: What did I do? I loved Strangers on a Train.
Todd Haynes: What can I say? I just so lucked out. I’ve been watching Kyle’s work, and have been amazed by it, as I’m sure most of you have, in Friday Night Lights and films he has been in. Casting a man to play opposite Cate Blanchett is not an obvious task. A lot of actors today are just grown-up boys, wearing baseball caps still. You need to have a real grown up opposite Cate.
Cate Blanchett: You need to find an animal.
Todd Haynes: We found an animal in Kyle. No, but it’s true. You get what I mean. Just the way he enters that era with such a believability. I saw him in the clothes the first time and it was like: Oh! I think you said you had an early dramatic TV show set in the 50s?
Kyle Chandler: Homefront. The 40s.
Todd Haynes: Homefront. The 40s. But it just suited him so well. It was just so utterly believable. But this started with the writing, the way Harge is handled as a character, and Richard. Highsmith was quite hard on these men in the book, so Phyllis brought a very different complexity and ambiguity to the characters. You felt you understood that they were in a place without any examples around them for what they were going through. They were struggling and not being their very best. They were lashing out at times and being defensive, but they were human. I think just Kyle brings that completely to the film.
Kyle and Cate, did you have a favorite scene you did together?
Cate Blanchett: The dancing scene.
Kyle Chandler: I pained her feet in the dancing scene.
Cate Blanchett: Yeah, you know we had dancing classes together, which was interesting.
Kyle Chandler: You’ve never done any film where you looked so frightened as when dancing with me. My favorite scene was the one where I fell down 18 times. That was fun.
Richard is much more angry in the book as the book goes on. We see less of that in the film. Why did you decide on that?
Phyllis Nagy: I suppose my intention was just… I’m not a psychopath, I can’t really enter into the heads of imaginary characters, but insofar as one can, that’s what I try to do. I am those people. How would I feel? How would I behave on a basic level? Certainly I empathize, I suppose, with these men. And with the other young man in the film, who is also after Therese, at least momentarily. It becomes easy once you do that. You just have people behave in a way that you imagine they would. If I were Harge, I’d be pissed off, too. Similarly with Richard, he’s given no clue really, and perhaps he’s not so great at picking up on them, but still Therese is quite reticent and internal. It’s hard to please someone like that. That’s really all it is, I think.
Cate Blanchett: I think you do reach a greater point of understanding about the men’s dilemma in the screenplay than you do in the novel, because it is from Therese’s perspective. Honestly with Harge, all Therese has seen from afar is the damage she perceives as being done to Carol by Harge. What’s stopping her is this constant pulling on her from behind by Richard. There is this constant annoyance with those two men. That is part of her youth, but also part of her thwarted desire.
What is clear now is that what Todd did with the filmmaking is myou don’t start off with that perspective. The first argument that Therese witnesses Harge and Carol having is seen through doors, a bit like watching your parents argue. There comes a point where there is a greater understanding of the two men’s positions.
Richard also made you feel something almost brotherly with Therese in the film, he seems more like a brother or a best friend than a boyfriend, at least to her.
Jake Lacy: For Richard, I think he feels that this is a great love. It’s probably his first, so maybe there’s more down the road for him which will shed light as to what this really was. But for him then, it feels like this is the one that is getting away. I think for all these characters, for Richard in particular, there’s a complete lack of vocabulary, a complete loss for how to describe this or experience it. He’s searching for someone to put a label on what this problem is, and even Therese is unable to define it for him as she’s going through it. That speaks to Richard, and to the time that they’re living in.
There’s an element in this discussion where we are walking and Therese asks if I know people like that and Richard says he does, but it’s usually something in their past, like a psychiatric condition that someone would be homosexual. That is the most definition he has for what’s going on. Rather than being aggressive about it, he’s just at a complete loss as to how to make heads or tails of this situation.
Do you feel that the nakedness of the erotic desire is affected by the privilege of Carol’s background?
Todd Haynes: I guess I don’t particularly isolate the privilege of desire with Carol, who has the class privilege. I think the intense state of desire that we understand Carol through, that we keep filtering Carol through, is of course being cast by Therese’s desire for her. In a way, that is the machine that is moving the narrative forward through a good part of the film, Therese’s desire. With Carol, there are moments that you wonder how she feels about Therese. There are moments where it feels like a detour from her life. It feels like a sidebar. An outlier to the issues that she has to confront. That she probably at times probably wonders or really feels embarrassed about: Am I really spending all this time with this girl who is just taking form in front of me?
I think that all gets reevaluated later in the film. It’s most articulated in that scene towards the end of the movie, where they are both kind of stripped down and you see a side of Carol we haven’t seen before. I find that even though Rooney is literally the one being explored physically, or sexually revealed more in that sex scene, it feels like that is something that Therese is conducting as much as Carol.
There is a sense, too, that Therese has opportunities that Carol never had. Different stages of life and different places.
Todd Haynes: Yeah. That line that Carol gives, that people have brought up to me and was even a point of question when we were making the film, when Carol looks at Therese’s body and says “I never looked like that.” A kind of expression of intimacy that is hard to find the parallel to among gay men, and certainly not heterosexual couples. It’s something pretty unique to what two women might be able to say to each other. Even though you look at Cate and go, yeah, right! (Everyone laughs.)
Cate Blanchett: I never did look like that.
What can you take with you from this film to inspire you in your next projects?
Kyle Chandler: The last scene in the film. The last scene in the film. The strength and the power and the conviction and the heroism of Cate’s character in all the moments that happen in that room. In allowing the other character to look at this woman as someone that is not his wife anymore alone, but someone that he has respect for and looks up to, created a whole new type of love, if you will, for the characters to go on, as they do into the 60s and the 70s and everything. It still gives me chills. They worked up to that. It’s a really beautiful, strengthful – oh, strengthful,
I’m from Texas, sorry. It was very powerful. It’s a reflection of what that is today. The confluence of what is happening in the present. It’s that love. That was really powerful.