The True Love Story Behind the Making of ‘Carol’

20 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A slow burn of a beautiful love story.

The estate sued – for one thing Haynes, still an MFA student at Bard, didn’t have the music rights – and the film’s been in bootleg limbo ever since. The contrast between the surface and what lies beneath is made all the clearer by just how shiny the surface looked to begin with. “Carol” works on a similar premise, but has a very different feel. The women have nothing in common until they fall in love, bending all social mores to bridge the gap between their worlds and that of the conservative society around them.

But I didn’t know how enraptured I’d become until director Todd Haynes’s camera caught just the slightest flicker of movement across a woman’s face, her lips curling into the faintest hint of a smile. Here the tale of two New York women falling in love against the constraints of Eisenhower conservatism (based on Patricia Highsmith’s cult novel “The Price of Salt”) is displayed with a more grounded sumptuousness than Mr Haynes’s previous work. His latest, “Carol,” is also set in the ’50s, and tells another story of high-drama – the sudden love of a young shopgirl, played by Rooney Mara, for an elegant New Jersey matron, played by Cate Blanchett. But while “Heaven” featured a Technicolor palette of bronzed autumn leaves and surreally rosy cheeks, “Carol” is both visually and narratively subdued, though this doesn’t diminish its beauty. The title character is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey housewife whose bewildered husband knows of her relationships with women but thinks he can still make her love him by endlessly reminding her of propriety and her duties as a wife and mother.

Blanchett, dressed in a silky cream-colored pants suit and red stilettos, filled the room with her presence as she engaged on multiple levels about the subversive love story in the film. The director took a few minutes out recently to talk to me about “Carol,” first loves, happy endings and what makes some movies hard to make in Hollywood. Q: We tend to be even more reductive about movies than we are with people – so early on, “Carol” became known as “the lesbian movie.” And yes, it’s a love story between two women, and the problems they face because they are women is part of it.

Therese (Rooney Mara), a young, wide-eyed shop assistant with vague dreams of becoming a photographer, clocks the older “Carol”, an unthinkably glamorous WASP in fur coat and fashionably rouged lips, from across the room in the department store where Therese is selling Christmas gifts. Her affinity for Highsmith’s books comes in part because Nagy and Highsmith were friends throughout the final decade or so of the novelist’s life. Their courtship plays out as a kind of extended ritual, circling closer and closer to actual physical contact, like an approximation of the coded same-sex relationships and desires that existed in films of the era Carol depicts. Equal to both actors, however, was the challenge of conveying the risk of a same-sex love affair to audiences who live in an age of marriage-equality legislation and transgender TV stars. “There’s so many secrets, codes and forbidden topics and taboos that exist between the women of ‘Carol,’ which is fantastic stuff to play with as actors,” said Blanchett. “But here’s more to it than that.

What Haynes — who previously visited the 1950s in Far From Heaven and a slightly earlier era in HBO’s Mildred Pierce miniseries — does so well is frame images so that we can see how both Carol and Therese have become the only thing the other cares about, even if they’re not quite aware of it yet. But he also illustrates how possible it is for those in LGBTQ relationships to feel isolated, alone on an island that’s separate from even the one that honeymooning couples tend to discover themselves upon. It wasn’t until five years before her death in 1995 that the author, who was a lesbian, put her own name on the book. “The interesting thing about a Highsmith character is that they’re quintessential outsiders,” said Blanchett, who also costarred in 1999’s “The Talented Mr.

After Highsmith returned to her home in Switzerland, the two exchanged weekly letters, and later phone calls and visits, in which they “discussed most everything.” Nagy told me she particularly loved Highsmith’s sense of humor, which was “quite dark, and the slightest bit broad.” Highsmith was famous for her prickly, taciturn manner—she was “perpetually on guard with people she did not trust, like, or made some negative judgment about.” However, Nagy also found that she could be sensitive, vulnerable, and kind. The pair meet for lunch in smoky bars with leather banquettes and cool martinis—”I’ll just have the same,” says the unschooled Therese after Carol, clearly a regular, orders without glancing at the menu. The book, which was a massive success, became famous as the one novel of its time to feature lesbians who weren’t afflicted with a psychiatric disorder. Blanchett co-produced the film with British Number 9 Films, Film4 Productions and the New York-based Killer Films, and it is being distributed in the U.S. by the Weinstein Co.

The lesbian romance, spun off from experiences in Highsmith’s own life, was originally published under a pseudonym, “Claire Morgan,” and for 40 years, Highsmith refused to claim credit. He knows about a previous lesbian affair with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), but still wants to give their marriage another go. “You’re always the most beautiful woman in the room,” he says, holding her close like a prized possession as they dance at a party, as she looks with loneliness and longing across his shoulder into the distance.

She did meet an older blond married woman who intrigued her, but the rest of the story — the flirting, the relationship – was part of Highsmith’s imagination about the fleeting encounter. “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy met the author in the last decade of her life. Returning early to their castle-like mansion (turrets and all) to pick up their daughter Rindy for Christmas, he meets Carol’s nubile companion for the first time. “How do you know my wife?” he sneers, before the exchange becomes more violent. Highsmith was living out her last years in Switzerland, and the two eventually began writing each other regularly. “I’d get these fascinating letters from her about life and politics,” said Nagy. “She’d tell me which of her books to read and should not read. You feel like you’ve been chosen, like you have a special knowledge of this person — everything feels laden with meaning and implication, just for you.

When the two paramours embark on a road trip across nameless motels and diners of midwestern America, Harge turns angrily from being a man in unrequited love to a man scorned and vengeful. What makes “Carol” unique is not just its examination of the love that dare not speak its name in an era so opposed to it, but also its carefully-paced story of desire in general. But what’s really beautiful is that these characters change positions and standing over time; Therese develops boundaries and defenses she didn’t have, and Carol has to re-evaluate and adjust.

It had somewhat of a happy ending.” Nagy, who’d become an accomplished playwright, was approached a couple of years after Highsmith’s death to do her first film adaptation with “Carol.” Though it was all but completed by 2000, it underwent a decade-plus of revision under various directors (including Stephen Frears and Kenneth Branagh) and investors until the project finally went cold. It often feels that their desire will never be consummated, perhaps merely becoming something Therese looks back on years later from a comfortable but bored marriage, with wistful regret or surprise. “Carol” is an extraordinarily beautiful film.

Nagy says the painful slog was a combination of the usual Hollywood shuffle of funding, rights and jitters over the accessibility of a film with two female leads. At all times, the camera follows these moments in close-up, reading a hand’s touch like it might otherwise read a minute shift in facial expression in a more traditional shot. From the flawless cut of Carol’s expensive suits (Sandy Powell, the costume designer, is to be much admired) to Therese’s amateur photographs to the camera’s lingering close-ups of a hand caressing a shoulder or a finger unhappily hanging up the phone, it is heavily invested in how things look.

The story was inspired by a chance encounter a 27-year-old Highsmith, still a struggling writer, had while working at the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s near Christmas of 1948. But one of the things about the film – and which I think made Patricia Highsmith’s novel so controversial at the time – is that there is no “well of loneliness.” I don’t want to give too much away, but unlike a lot of gay stories in the past – unlike a lot of gay stories right now – it doesn’t end tragically. I would talk about that with financiers, and I could see them glaze over.” When Blanchett is reminded of how long ago the initial adaptation was written for “Carol,” she was taken aback. “Oh, my God, were you even born yet?” she asked Mara. Blanchett continued: “Normally when a screenplay sits around that long, by the time it hits the screen it feels a bit bruised and battered, compromised,” she said. “I’m thrilled it doesn’t feel like there were those creative compromises made in the process.

She’s perhaps the finest living actor of the moment, able to transform any role, no matter how rotten the movie, into something living and breathing and vital. Blanchett constructs a woman so accustomed to living in these kinds of codes that she’s become a statue that emotes only when she has no other choice.

Mara’s work is no less revelatory, and she’s constantly revealing new ways that Therese’s seeming naiveté is a false front she uses to distract from her true aims. In the ’30s and ’40s there were so many female-driven movies with Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and even to describe them as “strong” female characters does them a disservice – they were real female characters. Sarah Paulson only appears in a few key scenes as a former lover of Carol’s who has now become her closest friend, but she presents a brittle strength of her own. Highsmith later remembered she’d felt “near to fainting and yet uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.” That night, Highsmith sketched out a story that later developed into her second novel. “I see her the same instant she sees me,” she wrote in her journal, “and instantly, I love her.” Highsmith soon broke off her engagement and started an affair with Kathryn Cohen.

And then years later you had the New Queer Cinema fueled by AIDS and activism; filmmakers felt an urgency and made very complex films, and found audiences for them, too. She was renowned as a difficult personality. “Terse,” “rude” and “abrupt” were all used to describe the late author, a public persona that was perhaps a result of the impossible road she had to walk. “Being a writer at any period in history is an uncomfortable relationship with the world, but she had a particularly difficult one,” said Blanchett. “The obsession and projection that she wrote about, the unspoken, the unshared psychology of her characters — it’s often dastardly the things we think in our heads.”

I think back to when I made “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) – looking back, you realize we were in this incredibly progressive moment of androgyny and gender. It is, instead, a movie about a revolution of the self, a story about a young woman who starts the film unable to say who she is and ends it able to say that she is many things — a friend, a photographer, and someone who loved deeply another woman named Carol.

In late 1996, Nagy, who was then the writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre in London, got a call from film producer Dorothy Berwin, who’d bought the film rights to the novel. Carol, as written by Highsmith, was “a ghost, the object of desire.” Nagy invented a more complex character, finding inspiration from Grace Kelly in Rear Window: outwardly cool, but smoldering underneath. Even when the ideas were terrible, I had to figure out how to take those changes and somehow make it work.” Her final script, she said, contains “residue from all those drafts.” Despite her flexibility, Nagy held fast to certain principles. It was important to her that the script remained authentic to the early 1950s. “There was a different protocol then, a different etiquette, a different way people related to each other physically,” she said. “It does you no service to spoon-feed a contemporary audience their own emotional codes and value systems.” Also, she rejected frequent suggestions that Carol or Therese should feel guilty about being gay and suffer some kind of breakdown scene about it. “Have you ever had a breakdown about being straight?” she would reply.

Carol was finally set to start filming in early 2013 when Crowley left the project because of a scheduling conflict. “That was a real low point,” remembered Karlsen. “Suddenly, the energy starts to dissipate. And obviously, it takes a certain kind of director for Cate to want to do the film.” Karlsen called her friend Christine Vachon to vent about losing Crowley.

Vachon commiserated that it looked as though Todd Haynes’ next film, which she was producing, wasn’t going to happen because the star had dropped out. We both have an interest in restraint.” Haynes often draws inspiration from classic films—his most significant change to the script was the addition of a framing device that mirrored the one used in David Lean’s 1945 romance Brief Encounter.

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