Director Todd Haynes on Carol, His Cinematic Love Letter

Filmmaker Todd Haynes has been on the cutting edge of queer cinema for years, transporting viewers through a gay fantasia of unique periods, from Velvet Goldmine’s glam-rock glitter to Far From Heaven’s Technicolor-soaked yearnings, with plenty of dramatic time travel in between. Now, just in time for Christmas, comes Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s beloved lesbian novel The Price of Salt, which weaves us into a sweeping sapphic romance in the 1950s.

The film stars Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There, Notes on a Scandal) as the titular Carol, the beautiful, well-off New Jersey housewife who catches the eye of lowly Manhattan shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara of The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), desperately trying to find the beauty in life. The two women connect innocently enough but it quickly becomes apparent that Carol sees something in Therese, and she’s willing to risk everything for love.
Imagine if a classic lesbian love story had made in 1952, but with Carole Lombard and Audrey Hepburn in the main roles — that dream merely touches on the graceful aesthetic of Carol. Haynes, who has a visual flair for the dramatic, also forgoes the artificial Douglas Sirk touches that he knows so well for the period, and infuses it instead with broad strokes of realism from photographers like Vivian Maier, Esther Bubley and Ruth Orkin.

The film marks a career high for Haynes, and also celebrates twenty years with his producing partners at Killer Films, whose relationship with the director gave him free rein to do his controversial and seminal first feature film, Poison, in 1991, prior to the 1995 formation of the legendary company. That freedom gave Haynes near auteur status as a filmmaker, allowing him to do what he fancied for his projects. The team has been by his side ever since, and you can’t talk about either Killer Films or Todd Haynes without mentioning the other. Carol marks a grand trajectory for the filmmaker, who's hopefully on his way to greater heights.

I caught up with Haynes at his home in Portland on a “drizzly” afternoon, while I sat on a cold, snowy Colorado stoop. If only we had both been on rotary phones, our scene could have made the cut of one of his films.
Westword: Merry Christmas, Todd. How have your holidays been so far?

Todd Haynes: Oh great! I’m going to Hawaii on Saturday for some much needed R&R which I could definitely use.

Sounds perfect! Speaking of the season, Carol is set during the holidays. What is it about that seasonal setting that seems to work for the film?

Well, I think what’s interesting about the Christmas setting is that of course it started because it came from the real-life experience of Patricia Highsmith herself, who was temping at Bloomingdale’s for a Christmas season, I think in ‘49, on the doll floor. She encountered this very handsome and elegant woman who wanted help buying a doll for her daughter and set the whole concept, the whole idea of Carol, in motion. But it wasn’t an idyllic Christmas season that Highsmith describes in the novel or one that we’re trying to overly-romanticize in this stint at Frankenberg’s department store in the movie, if anything, it’s kind of a captivity that you find Therese in that she doesn’t...well, in the book in particular there are moments where she wonders if she’ll ever get free from it, she sees examples of other people who have been there for their entire lives and wonders if that’s a shadow of her future. And one senses that might have something to do with the fact that she may not be the perfect specimen for marriage and family, but she doesn’t really know that yet and Carol comes as this sort of package or this thrilling Christmas enticement as something to break her out of this life and this place. And ultimately when they get out on the road, they actually depart on Christmas day in the movie, so there is a sense of liberation that comes when they finally break out but I think the Christmas season itself feels somewhat oppressive.
What inspires you on a daily basis, and what aspects of that inspiration led you to want to adapt this classic novel?

On a daily basis, I’m not sure if there’s something every day that inspires me — but I think it depends on the projects I’m working on and I think what inspires me most are the films I already know I love that I continue to revisit, and films that I continue to discover. From the history of film to new films to world films, when I get a chance to get caught up on them — and with Carol that got played out — and it’s hugely true for most of the films I do, as trying to learn about the particular genre I’m exploring at the time on a project and really become more fluent in the language of that genre. In this case that was a love story, so I looked at a lot of great love stories on film and considered the ways that I thought they worked and worked best and wanted to bring that to the movie. It’s a constant learning process, i think, and you never really know enough; there’s always more to learn and more films to discovered. I mean, thank god for Turner Classic Movies, this reservoir of films that are still being discovered and aired for the first time. What a remarkable gift.

I got to interview Illeana Douglas (actor and TCM host) a few weeks ago and I definitely made sure to gush over how great that channel is!

Oh, my god, it’s such a great thing.

Nostalgia seems to be a driving force in your films. What is it about certain periods that seem to fascinate you? What is it about the early-to- mid-period of the last century seen in your Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven and now Carol that seems to have you in its spell?

Well, to me they’re all different periods. Mildred Pierce was the Depression-era in the ‘30s to 1940, and Far From Heaven was the late ‘50s, ‘57 the full-on Eisenhower years, and Carol was the very beginning of that decade. The first thing one learns is how unique and specific each time really is, and how much one can learn from that and how that informs why the story is taking place at that specific time and with, of course, in the case of Mildred Pierce, it had everything to do with the economic crisis that the country was facing at the time. There's a reason why I wanted to do that film at that time for our contemporary life, because the recession was the mirror that the film was holding up to our own lives today. And so there is something I like about that, the way that these times can tell us things about our contemporary life that maybe looking straight into our lives you don’t always see, that you may need to go through a conduit or a reflection or a metaphoric kind of frame to make discoveries about where we actually are and things that we’ve actually learned about our past.
To you, what is great — or even perfect — about the casting of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese in your film?

I’ll start by saying, yes It’s perfect, the casting is perfect. Well, because it is truly hard to imagine any other living actor playing Carol and just absolutely encompassing the mysteries and complexities behind the surfaces of Carol. There are times in the movie that you’re really seeing Carol through Therese’s point of view and you’re seeing the kind of surfaces and the glamor and the external Carol, but throughout the course of the film and the story we penetrate those surfaces and we see that they’re not always as confident and content as they seem from the outside. There’s a very troubled and complicated person behind those surfaces, and Cate Blanchett just manages to fulfill just all of those layers in the performance. And then Rooney Mara is such an incredibly confident actor, who just seems to understand the scale of the medium so well. She knows how you can convey so much with so little, and how that’s really giving the audience some confidence in what she manages to evoke without overdoing it, and that shows a trust in oneself but also a trust in the viewer that they will get it. And I think that’s just so unique for someone so relatively young who hasn’t made that many films but who seems to have that innate sense of the scale of film.

I read somewhere that she even pointedly altered the tone of her voice to really find Therese?

She did! She worked with a vocal coach and it was a process of finding a different place where the voice comes from in the diaphragm that she was hearing, and the coach was giving her examples of voices from the period. There is just something about every single line that she reads that, at least for me, while I was cutting the film with Affonso (Gonçalves) my editor, would immediately transport me to another time and place just simply in where the voice comes out of the body — really interesting things like that that actors of this caliber seem to really pay acute attention to.
How do you feel about comparisons, in a good way, of your film to another modern gay classic, Brokeback Mountain, especially given that this is the tenth anniversary of the film and how far we’ve come in those years from Brokeback to Carol?

Well, it’s nice to feel that that’s true, and it is in so much unmistakable legislative progress that we’ve made as a culture, and more learning that’s going on and catching up to people realizing that they have so many gay and lesbian friends and family members in their lives and that we’re all here to stay. That anniversary marker is really meaningful in that way, but Brokeback Mountain was a film that really moved me, as it did so many people, and I think everyone involved did such a beautiful job with that film and it made you think about the love story genre the way that I was trying to think about it with Carol. Because you realize that in great love stories there has to be a social condition that keeps the lovers apart or some viable reason why the lovers can’t be together, or else there’s nothing to yearn for or no conflict if they can just get together, happily ever after. And that was true for Brokeback in very startling ways and I think it made everybody realize that there aren’t very many modern love stories that make you feel that way. Carol obviously has that as well, since it’s set in a very specific place. I love that movie, I had the extraordinary privilege of working with Heath Ledger in I’m Not There — the first time I worked with Cate Blanchett as well — on that film before he passed away, and he was really a deeply inspirational, gifted artist and friend. I’ll always look to that movie, and the fact that I got to work with him, with such fondness.
Before we go, congratulations on being part of the twentieth anniversary of Killer Films. How do you feel on this anniversary about your creative process and working with your partner Christine Vachon over there, in really changing the face of cinema?

Well, I feel like the luckiest guy on the totem pole when it comes to working with Christine, who has of course worked with so many other directors. Part of the continuity and success of Killer Films has been that they continue to really work with so many directors and make stories that aren’t being told in other places as their mandate, but I enjoy a very special originaryrelationship with Christine, because we both really started at the same place and time together, and it’s a relationship that’s impossible to separate from my career and the fact that I’ve been able to make the movies that I’ve made without compromise and with such amazing support. So I can look at the outside and be so impressed at what she and (co-founder) Pam Koffler have done, but I also have a very subjective experience at what we’ve done together over these years, and with great pride and joy.

Well, here’s to twenty more years of making amazing films with great people!

Sounds good to me!

Carol opens in Denver this Friday, December 25 at multiple theaters in town. For locations, tickets and showtimes go to fandango.com.