8 Things We Learned from Carol Director Todd Haynes at NYFF

By  · Published on October 13th, 2015

Every year is another chance to talk at length about what or whom the Academy should have nominated, yet personally speaking, the 75th Academy Awards in 2003 will always have a substantial stain within the Oscars’ recent history. That was the year Todd Haynes ‐ who has been proving until then and ever since to be a singular storyteller and an immensely talented American auteur of risky, original pictures ‐ didn’t crack the Best Director list with his Sirk-ian melodrama Far From Heaven. The film itself did fairly well with 4 nominations in major categories (Haynes for Best Adapted Screenplay, Julianne Moore for Best Actress, Ed Lachman for Best Cinematography and Elmer Bernstein for Best Original Score), yet Haynes’ absence in the list of directors was glaring.

Thankfully, a wrong can be righted this year; as the Safe, I’m not There and Velvet Goldmine director’s Carol has been picking up steam steadily since its tremendous Cannes reception in May, confidently marching into the season as a substantial contender, with Haynes, the cast (Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, the young department store clerk) and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt.” Screened at Telluride and recently, the prestigious New York Film Festival, Carol tells the achingly romantic love story between two women in 1950s America. Directly the day after Carol’s NYFF screening –which Todd Haynes dedicated to Chantal Akerman in the wake of her tragic death- Haynes gave a Kent Jones-moderated talk at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monre Film Center to a packed house.

Here are 8 highlights from the hour-long talk.

1. David Lean’s Brief Encounter was a major influence in Carol’s basic structure.

“For people who know Brief Encounter, it begins in that refreshment stand in the train station. You’re introduced to secondary characters and then in the background, you see two people having a conversation. Then a loud mouth gossip friend say “Laura!” ‐ you realize an important conversation has been interrupted. What’s interesting is you’re immediately questioning whose story this is, and you start to get deeper into her point of view. And this brief encounter is retold in sort of real time. I thought that’s such a beautiful structuring device, because then you travel through the entirety of the narrative to explain what that conversation was about, and then you replay it at the end of the film. In Carol, by the time we come back [to the conversation in the beginning], their statuses in the relationship [have shifted]. Therese (Rooney Mara) -this young, vulnerable subject who fell in love with Carol (Cate Blanchett)- was hurt and developed defenses, protections and limits and has changed the way she looked and was grown up.”

2. Political and societal landscape of the 1950s informed the visual language of Carol.

“We were doing the historical research: what New York City looked like in the early 1950s, how incredibly different of a world it was than what we think of as the ’50s -the Eisenhower ‘50s- which we fully explored in Far From Heaven. [Carol] really looks like a post-war New York City. It looks distressed, dirty. Also the color of photography adds a unique kind of patina to the soil pallet, where even the temperature is hard to determine and there’s a warm and cool kind of interplay. We were made to feel newly vulnerable by the arms race with Russia and that incredible frustration with the Truman administration. Eisenhower had been elected but there was a much longer time before he took office. There was a great deal of indeterminacy, insecurity and vulnerability and that felt like a really poignant, gorgeous terrain to watch these little unexpected sprouts of a love emerging there at this time.”

3. Several photographers’ and artists’ work were an inspiration in finding the look of Carol.

“In addition to Saul Leiter’s beautiful work -which features windows, the reflection, filtering of images that you’ll see in Carol– there was also a great deal of beautiful color photography and it’s all by women photographers, photojournalists: Esther Bubley, and Ruth Orkin (who was the partner of Morris Engels who made the Little Fugitives). And there was one that they did together called Lovers and Lollipops. It’s more set in locations that were relevant to Carol, so we just kept watching it over and over. [Helen Levitt also] does fantastic work, and then Vivian Maier who is a more recent discovery but whose work is amazing as well. She would indiscriminately capture her own reflection in her work as a documentarian of cities, related to the role Therese plays in the story.”

4. Patricia Highsmith understands and conveys that a lover’s mind works like a criminal.

“What I loved about [The Price of Salt] is that it describes love so much from that kind of tunnel that you’re in when you’re first falling in love. You think no one’s ever been there before you. You are so impressed by the specificity of your desire finding its exact object in this person. Your life [becomes] a minefield of signs and things to be decoded. Every gesture, every phone call, every little pause in their breath means something that’s going to tell you whether you live or die, basically. That is so gorgeously conveyed by Patricia Highsmith, because it is like the criminal mind. It’s exactly like the criminal mind that’s in all her other novels, which is weaving these intricate webs of possibilities. How you will get caught or how you will avoid being found out? That was just brilliant.”

5. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman was a crucial film for Haynes in relation to Safe.

“The weight of [Akerman’s] loss is still being understood if it can be. But everyone who knows her work and has seen Jeanne Dielman [can remember] what that first experience was. It was profound and really exhilarating and so inspiring, thinking about female subjects and how they’re depicted and what we come to expect is occupied on screen when we tell the story of women’s lives. And just the sheer power of understatement and negation of action and how much we make those events meaningful and how much when they are just slammed at us in traditional films. We’re kind of numb to what those things convey and signify. Certainly, when it came to Safe, it was a seminal film I couldn’t not think about. I was also interested in setting up different kinds of obstacles to the way we normally identify with central characters in movies. It’s really interesting to set up those obstacles, to pair down what we normally just throw out at spectators in films. As in Jeanne Dielman, it astounds me still that Julianne Moore in [Safe] made something absolutely recognizable and flesh and blood about who this woman is.”

6. Carol was shot in 16-millimeter to have the grainy look of films.

“When we were doing Mildred Pierce ‐ about the decade of the depression era, 1930s- we knew it was going to be broadcast on TV. It was made as a long form dramatic thing, and just having seen it shot on 35mm and blown up to HDTV, it looks like digital because of the sophistication of lenses. You just lose the grain element. It was like: “No, we want to see the grain and have [Carol] be a movie.” So we did and the results were really great and it was fun to downgrade to a small 16-millimeter camera.”

7. Sandy Powell’s costumes played a role in the actors’ process of finding their characters.

“It’s a deeper, more formative process for actors than people often may know. Even the girdles and the underpinnings and the stockings and the heels affect the way you move, the way your body feels in space. The way the gestures that become possible within those constraints help inform the actor’s process of finding the characters. All that stuff matters a great deal to me and I’m very interested in it and the silhouettes that were available, the new look, the ’50s versus I guess the more Chanel silhouettes. These were aesthetic choices and choices of shape that Sandy and I talked about a lot. There’s a reference in the film to the fact that Therese is a photographer but she’s uncomfortable taking pictures of people and then she starts to take pictures of Carol. Then you start to see that she can start taking pictures of people in general. I think in a way it’s a way for her to start seeing herself in the world as a subject and how she looks and how she participates in life. I think the clothes play a foundational role in that process.”

8. Carol was Todd Haynes’ tribute to the important lesbian people in his life.

“[Carol] was about love between two women, which I’d never explored in my films before. It was really a tribute to the lesbian people in my life, my dear friends, who are seminal in my life. [They were] like “You never read “The Price for Salt?” I think it’s what happened with Brokeback Mountain when it came out. It’s like love stories always need obstacles between the lovers, things that keep the lovers apart, and increasingly, as we move forward in life, progressively, at least maybe more so in the west than in other parts of the world, that becomes harder and harder to imagine why two people couldn’t get together. That’s what made Brokeback Mountain imbue the genre with a fresh sense of “Wow, this really works as a love story, because it’s in the most unexpected place and the most unexpected kind of love”, and I think Carol has that in it.”

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.