The Masked Woman: Todd Haynes on Carol
A key movie to first understanding Todd Haynes is his Karen Carpenter “biopic” cast entirely with Barbie dolls, Superstar. This 1987 short that, due to Karen’s brother, Richard, and music rights problems will never be released, seems to define not only Haynes’s subsequent cinema, but also how much he understands the ways in which popular culture, music and memories interweave with the struggles of being a woman, the struggles of sexuality and the struggles of controlling ourselves in a world that won’t really allow it. Superstar goes beyond Karen Carpenter, digging into our own memories and insecurities. For those who first heard of it and were curious (Barbie dolls?), the defining moment is when you realize how the movie isn’t a joke, a gimmick, or a load of Gen X irony; it’s thoughtful and disarmingly moving. Watching this Barbie doll — her face being shaved down onscreen, her plastic limbs growing smaller and smaller, her sad little voice fading off as her angry brother yells at her (“People gasp when you walk on stage!”) — you’re completely rapt. Haynes casts such a spell that you’re not even thinking about these characters as Barbie dolls; you think of them as human beings shoved into Barbie dolls as a sort of mask of supposed perfection. It’s such a brilliant way to tell the story you can’t imagine it being told in any other manner.
Haynes is a filmmaker who always reveals his intelligence. His study at Brown University, where he received a degree in art and semiotics, and his ever-curious brain, evolutions, experimentation and empathy are all apparent in movies like Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There and his TV mini-series, Mildred Pierce. And yet, there is nothing showy about this intelligence; it’s not overly academic, it doesn’t present itself blatantly or in inaccessible ways. There’s joy there, too, and exuberance — watching Cate Blanchett’s skinny Dylan running around a Fellini-esque Pennebaker landscape in I’m Not There is mysterious, telling and exhilarating.
In his newest picture, Carol, Blanchett slinks into a department store wearing a creamy mink coat, all cool elegance like an early ’50s David Bowie, intimidatingly beautiful and furtive all at once. She’s a vision of near perfection but, like Karen Carpenter’s shaved face, she’s going to be unmasking the pain and fear she’s enduring through that thing that nearly always breaks us — falling in love. And falling in love with a woman.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, the film tells the story of wealthy housewife, Carol, who falls for a younger shop girl and budding photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara), as Carol’s marriage is falling apart and she’s trying, trying to live her life, keep her own child and find happiness as a lesbian in such a restrictive society. She can’t be open about it, but Carol wants to experience young Therese, and by all rights she should be allowed to, since she’s getting a divorce. The two embark on a road trip, on which her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has her tailed and recorded, evidence to be used against her in a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It’s a road movie, a look at lesbianism in the ’50s and, in some ways, a thriller, but it’s also just a beautifully rendered love story, a subdued slow burn that’s universal to anyone falling in love, and one marked by exquisite period detail, gorgeous, shadowy cinematography by Edward Lachman and a stirring score by Carter Burwell. And the excellent actresses share a chemistry that is so deeply felt that, when they finally consummate their gradual, somewhat timid courtship, the passion is not just typical overwhelming movie passion, it’s layered with a sadness that perhaps… this won’t work out. But perhaps it will?
I talked to Todd Haynes to discuss not just Carol but the themes in all of his movies, how Patricia Highsmith works so well within his study of human behavior and how things aren’t worth doing unless you’re “afraid.”
Let’s start with a rather simple question: This is your second adaptation from a novel, and your first for a feature after your miniseries, Mildred Pierce, from James M. Cain. What drew you to the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt? How did this start? This is probably the first film I’ve directed that I didn’t really initiate myself. It had a long history of trying to get financed and written before I came on board. A window opened up in my schedule, and I knew a lot of the key people who’d been involved with it for the last several years, namely Liz Karlsen, the producer. The costume designer Sandy Powell was attached, my dear friend who I’ve worked with twice before Carol. Cate [Blanchett] was attached. So I’d heard about it. And then, all of a sudden, I had a moment of availability, and Liz, who goes way back with [producer] Christine [Vachon], as do I with Liz, asked her, “Do you think Todd would be interested in this project?” They sent me Phyllis [Nagy’s] adaptation. At that point, I didn’t know the novel. I read it all — the script and the novel — in May of 2013. I have to say, that book floored me. I really found it to be one of the great accounts of first love. I think it took Highsmith’s acerbic, hard-bitten, unsentimental sensibility to bring all of the power of a criminal story to the panic and the uncertainty and the frailty of early love. But then, it [also was] entirely a story about the amorous experience. So, yeah, the whole thing was just too interesting. I couldn’t say no.
The history of the book is interesting, too. It was written under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, and became a popular book. Also interesting is that, like your movie, you can read it as maybe having a happy ending, unlike a lot of the more salacious lesbian novels of the time. Absolutely. All true from everything I know about it. In the various Patricia Highsmith biographies, I read a little more about the [book’s] evolution. She didn’t always have this ending in mind, and there was a publisher or editor who encouraged her in this [happier] direction. And she didn’t write it under a pseudonym; she wrote it assuming that it might be her second novel published with Harper’s. But all of the mainstream publishing houses at the time were too scared by it, and her own professional advisors told her she should do it under a pseudonym. She was off to a very strong start as a novelist of the crime genre, and this might derail it. It did get published in her lifetime in the ’80s under her name, and, I think, the title Carol.
Did you find any parallels, when you researched Highsmith, with your own work? She writes a lot about identity, gender and sexuality, about psychological masks, hiding one’s own true self and how we create ourselves, via a character like Ripley. And I see that in I’m Not There or Velvet Goldmine or adapting your own body in Superstar. She also writes about the social constraints of trying to be yourself in a restrictive society, which you deal with in Far From Heaven. I don’t know if I necessarily saw direct, personal affiliations with it, but when you say that, yeah, I think there are interesting lines of thinking to be developed there. I think no one could have brought [Highsmith’s work] to the cinema in a more compelling way than Hitchcock — and this is not just true with Strangers on a Train, this is true for many of her novels — but I do love that strange sort of linking of the homoerotic and the criminal in her work. Almost always male homosexuals are the subjects of that kind of alliance, and I do find that to be really fascinating. It doesn’t paint this positivist portrait of homosexuality, at least among men. There’s an unmistakable sort of fixation on it, and a way in which covert desire has to be transformed into something else. The two themes are always running in parallel with each other and unspoken about — or almost nearly unspoken, because it’s so prevalent in the work. It bristles through the Ripley stories and, obviously, Strangers on a Train and many [others] I’ve read. That desire, that instinct to tell a story about desire always having to be disguised, a desire that at some level is antisocial — I think, in that way, even The Price of Salt has to be included in that taste or tradition of hers.
I think it’s interesting that in this adaptation you changed the career path of Therese. In the novel, she wanted to be a theater set designer, but in the picture, she wants to be a photographer. That seems intriguingly intentional on a filmmaker’s part. That was all in Phyllis’s adaptation, and I really liked it. I really liked the little small steps [that] moved the characters outside of the bohemian world. In the novel, Richard, [Therese’s] boyfriend, had intentions of being a painter, and that’s why he wants to go to Paris. Therese sees through it; she [thinks] that he may not have the goods to deliver on those ambitions. In general, I liked that these characters were more innocent of the feelings they were about to explore because they just weren’t exposed to anything countercultural. Even young Therese, who is forming herself — [she] is younger, and maybe less fixed, in some ways, than Carol. I thought that made the love and feelings they experience completely without any model.
I liked that as she became closer to Carol, she became more serious with her photography. Exactly, yes. We’re saying the same thing. Therese starts to not just see people in her frame, but ultimately see herself in her frame. She gains fluency over who she is, how she looks and how she will appear in the world. A lot of that also comes from her exposure to Carol: Carol’s iconography of her femininity, beauty, class and elegance, all the things that I don’t think Therese has ever [comprehended], even in the novel. All of these men in the book keep getting crushes on her and making passes at her, so she’s obviously an attractive girl, and clearly, with Rooney Mara, that’s doubled. But she doesn’t see it or feel it herself, and that’s a process that she goes through. And yes, I love that the story ends with this suggestion that this relationship might have a future, but after the obstacles they face and the conflicts they face, invariably they’re not the same people they were at the beginning. That “open Therese,” the one who really couldn’t see herself in the frame of her own life, is the one who Carol reevaluates; [she] realizes there’s something incredibly rare about that openness. That openness might have irritated her initially, but later it becomes the thing that she realizes the value of. But of course, when she comes back around, Therese has grown up, and she’s developed boundaries and has become this image of herself. I love that there’s still a question mark — we don’t really know what’s going to happen with the couple. The end of the film is really just the beginning.
The movie’s so beautifully shot. The production design by Judy Becker and the cinematography by Edward Lachman were gorgeous and evocative. How much are you involved in this? I know you’re very much involved in how you frame your shots. I just really let those guys go and do their thing. No, I’m kidding. [Laughs]
Even the simple shot of Carol’s gloves at the department store counter takes on this sort of sensuous significance. Oh, I know. I mean, I get really into all of that stuff, and I surround myself with great creative partners. I think my interest in every little detail means a lot to them, and it re-echoes in their work. We have a lot of discussions in advance, and I usually have a very well-researched image book that we draw from, and that was definitely true with Carol. One of the most exciting things about any new project is feeling like it’s a territory or a place that I haven’t explored before. And although it was the 1950s, and I’d done Far From Heaven several years ago, this was, to me, such a different corner of the ’50s than [that film’s] Sirkian small town, [with its] idyllic suburban claustrophobia of those interiors and all-too-perfect settings that dwarf their subjects. Maybe it was a more romantic [period then] because it was a less rigid and less organized world. It was still a time of transition for the country, [which was] coming out of the post-war era [with] a tremendous frustration and disillusionment with the Truman administration, a feeling of being dwarfed by the Soviet Republic, and the susceptibility to the paranoia of the McCarthy era and all of that. The images that we saw in the research of New York in particular were of this really distressed, dirty, sagging city. Obviously, we had not fought the war on our home front, but it felt like a post-war city. It felt tired and soiled. And the color of photography from this exact time, this sort of soiled palette, was what Ed and I were really attracted to. It made for a sense that you didn’t know what the temperature was. Was it cold? Was it warm? It felt like you were figuring out how you felt as you went along. And so, the rules were a little up in the air, and I think that created an interesting territory for this kind of love to start to sprout.
It’s interesting you bring up McCarthy because Carol and Therese are being followed and recorded… Yeah, right?
When Carol, in that incredibly moving scene, essentially gives up her daughter to just visit Therese, it’s heartbreaking. It feels like a moment you could read today, as something universal, timeless. It brought me back to a lot of the films that you’ve made about women, where they often feel trapped, whether it be Safe, where Carol White is literally trapped underneath her illness, or in her domesticity, or Karen Carpenter in Superstar, who is trapped by her body image. You discuss these themes in such a beautiful, artistic way, and it’s so layered, never simplistic. And with men too… There’s different emphasis on these themes in different films for sure. But, of course, I’m really more interested in how, particularly, women’s lives bear burdens that are different from the burdens men sometimes harbor. It’s often the institution of the family or motherhood, as Mildred Pierce explores. Or the sense of maintaining the institution of the home, that you feel Carol White [experience]. The same [goes] for Cathy Whitaker in Far From Heaven. There’s also a really interesting thing about how class designation is often almost always defined by mothers and women, who lead the household. It’s often women who are adhering to an idea of who they think they are in the class system, and they are there to uphold what that’s about. Carol has particular and unique burdens for the world that she has entered into and the child that she chose to raise with her husband, Harge. On the one hand, it might mean that she has to sacrifice; she’s learning about her basic desires as a person, and the world, and how she has to sacrifice the full [possession] of her relationship with her daughter. In that scene [she tells Harge], “Watch out, because if you do not give me full access to Rindy under my terms, then we will go to court and it will get ugly” — in other words, “your status and everything that you hold so dear is also vulnerable to this potential scandal.” So there’s an interesting double sword there that she has as a character. It’s traumatizing. There’s no way to not feel it as a sacrifice and tradeoff, an impossible Sophie’s Choice, or whatever you want to call it, that a person has to make and should never have to make. But it touches all of these lives, and everybody is made vulnerable by the situation. I love how Carol feels like a very simple story from the outset, but by the end of the film, it’s a very complicated story. Maybe that’s why it feels modern and not just something we can allot to the past, something that we have progressed [past] and completely resolved as a society.
And in that scene, when she’s laying down what could happen to him and she says, “This could get ugly,” she also says, “And we’re not ugly people,” which is a beautiful thing to say. In any era, anyone who’s going through strife like that, in a relationship or a marriage, understands that scene. Right, exactly.
And you give Harge a moment there, too. You allow us to feel empathy for him, which you did also for Dennis Quaid in Far From Heaven. Yes. I think that Highsmith’s a little harder on the men in the novel, and I liked that. I felt that was already evident as well in the first draft that I read of the script. I felt there was an understanding of the limitations of men — who they are, where they come from and what they know of the world. There’s only so much you can expect of them. Harge is reevaluating Carol for the first time in his life. When the movie begins, one presumes there’s a prior taking-for-granted of Carol, that the newly fraught issues surrounding this troubled marriage — custody issues and the ongoing presence of Abby, Carol’s friend — has put him in a new place where all of a sudden he’s more overtly seeking her out or reevaluating her value in his life. That was interesting for Kyle to play, because you really didn’t see the Harge that preceded that in the story. You had to just make that assumption.
This could be called a “woman’s picture,” a term not used as much anymore, that’s very much a William Wyler, George Cukor, Douglas Sirk term. I saw an interview with you at Cannes where you were discussing movies about women, and that they don’t make enough films about women. Why not? Did this film initially have any resistance from financiers? I think it’s always harder to get films cast when there aren’t obvious male leads in them. It shouldn’t be, and I think that may very well have been part of the back story of Carol, but Liz would speak better to the machinations of that whole journey. If anything, I think that it might have been harder that it was not [just] all women, [but] that it was about lesbians. That might have [led to] a little curiosity or [served as] an attraction or a titillation to possibly find financiers — I’m [not certain]. Film4 was already a major supporter of the project and nurtured it into being. There was a lot of interest, particularly with Cate Blanchett’s attachment. I think when I came onboard, it was a complete package; they had a director and a star. And then, all of a sudden, the really great distributors across Europe and The Weinstein Co. in the states showed immediate interest. So it’s not like it was a big budget, but I think once all the pieces were put together, we were in good shape. Unfortunately, it accrued a lot of turnaround costs because it had been in production for so long. That weighted the production down a little bit — that’s money not going onto the screen that you are burdened by. No director likes that. But we figured it out. We went to Cincinnati, where the new Ohio tax rebates were a huge incentive. We loved Cincinnati. We felt like it was our own back lot and we were creating our own weird, sagging, New York City of the early ’50s. The city was so excited to have us there. So that was really a fun surprise.
The acting in Carol is so spectacular. The actors are so quiet, at times, and then one is jolted with intensity. You work so well with them while balancing these often very meticulously composed frames. What is your process working with actors, generally? Oh, you know, I start by picking great actors. [Laughs] It’s so much about —
Casting? It is all about the casting, it really is. I have a great casting director, Laura Rosenthal, [who] I’ve worked with on a lot of movies now. I can’t overstate that enough, I guess: you’re not just casting their talent and their looks — you’re casting their mind and their curiosity. Not all actors want to do my kind of movies, but there are a lot of really good actors who are bankable and can facilitate the financing process of a film, and who do want to take risks and don’t see them enough in bigger-budget projects. So I’ve been really blessed by finding actors who have curiosity. I felt that so much with I’m Not There, for instance, which I had to develop. I had to cast a whole gang of actors for lead roles that they all shared. And yet, the script — and this is true for Velvet Goldmine, too — was virtually impenetrable, because I included all the details, all the music and lyrics and camera angles and references to whatever films we were quoting. And so the sheer rhythm of a film that’s, in both cases, driven by music, the sheer velocity of that experience does not happen on the page. You’re just burdened by all of the description. It took a real leap of faith on the part of so many of these actors, and they really gave that to me. So it’s a shared relationship, where they’re giving me a great deal of trust. And of course, I’m giving them an adventure as well, and something they’ve never really done before and something I haven’t done before. We’re the blind leading the blind with a lot of tight hand-clasping, and, at least in the case of things like Velvet Goldmine or I’m Not There, amazing research and resources to trumpet the experience and to just really excite you physically. That stuff goes right into the bloodstream and reinvigorates, because everyone’s afraid. It’s all about managing fear, and you have to be afraid, or it’s not worth doing it, you know?