Cannes: Todd Haynes Says Lesbian Breakout 'Carol' Is About "Love Itself as Something Criminal" (Q&A)

The 1952 novel had to be published under a pseudonym, but with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbian lovers, the director's adaptation is guaranteed visibility.

Seventeen years after his first Cannes competition entry, the glamrock movie Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes is back in the Palme d’Or hunt with Carol, set to premiere May 17. Based on the 1952 autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, by crime writer Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), the film, to be distributed stateside by The Weinstein Co., stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as women whose mutual attraction develops into a love affair.

Haynes, 54, spoke with THR about "frock films," why lovers are like criminals and how he found inspiration in The Sugarland Express.

Why a film of Patricia Highsmith’s novel?
It’s the only book Patricia Highsmith, who was extremely prolific, wrote outside of the crime milieu, yet it is locked into the same singular point of view as almost all of her criminal subjects. All of her books are inside the mind of a festering-criminal central character. In The Price of Salt, you are locked inside the mind of this young girl, Therese, but her only crime is that she's falling in love and doesn't even know she is because this kind of love has so little example in the world, and it conflicts with what she thinks about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend. It's experienced in all these shards of discontinuity and departmentalized conflicting emotions. The mind of a lover is overactive and overheated, completely conjuring scenarios and run-ins. The almost pathological paranoia that is usually defined as criminal is, in this case, romantic — and I love that. So even before it became a story about lesbian love — which was, of course, criminal, as defined by the world at that time — it was just about love itself as something criminal.
The project had been in development for a decade before you became involved. How did that happen?
My amazing costume designer, Sandy Powell, and I were talking about the dearth of what she calls “frock films” — films about women, particularly period films that let Sandy do what she does so well. She mentioned this one that was in the works with Cate attached to it, called Carol. Liz Karlsen had been developing it. I’ve known Liz forever — she’s a dear, old friend of my producer Christine Vachon. I was like: “Wow. I want in.” I read it in the middle of 2013, read the novel and I was really intrigued by its possibilities. I loved what Phyllis Nagy had done with the screenplay. And, of course, the opportunity to work with Cate and Sandy was too much to turn down.
Do you view it as a companion to Far From Heaven, which also explores social mores of the 1950s?
I did not, for so many reasons. One could easily say it’s another ’50s movie that deals with homosexuality, but the ’50s in this film are utterly different from 1957, the full-on Eisenhower era that we kind of stamp as the 1950s in our mind and codify through the films of that time, like Douglas Sirk’s amazing movies — which were my main inspiration for Far From Heaven. This 1950s [in Carol] is right on the cusp of the Eisenhower era, but it really speaks to that transitional period between World War?II and Eisenhower. McCarthyism was at its peak, and America was really, in a sense, in retreat from the advances of the Soviet Union and feeling particularly paranoid. There was a sort of deep freeze, and it felt really cold. In images of New York City from that time, it looks like a dirty Old World city that hasn’t been cleaned up yet. When you think of the later ’50s and Far From Heaven and Eisenhower and Sirk, you think of that Hollywood panache and gloss to American middle-class life. So this couldn’t be more different. The Sirkian thing isn’t really locked inside the subjectivity of any particular character. You’re kind of watching these people functioning from a neutral perspective and watching the forces of society bear down on their decisions and their choices. Carol is so distorted by point-of-view. I looked at photojournalism and art photography from this early period, a lot of which was lensed by female photographers: Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, Vivian Maier were all active. In our story, Therese is a photographer, not an aspiring stage designer [like in the novel]. So that felt relevant.

Did you look at period movies about homosexuality, like The Children’s Hour?
I didn’t look so much at movies about gay relationships or closeted gay characters as I looked at classic love stories. Brief Encounter, the David Lean-Noel Coward film, people who know that film might recognize a little structural homage to it in the way we restructured Carol. That’s a film where point of view is so fundamental and primary to this brief love affair. And A Place in the Sun was a movie that [cinematographer] Ed Lachman and I watched for its amazing visual language, the combination of whole scenes played in static shots — almost in the dark, trusting the viewer’s ability to read the silhouettes — combined with those mesmerizing, dreamy shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift dancing together. I even looked at The Sugarland Express because they go on a road trip in that movie, and the natural light was something we wanted to bring to this film — and the sort-of ’70s tendency to give films that flairy, raw, beautiful sense of light. I wanted to see how they covered all those car scenes in The Sugarland Express, which I think is a beautifully shot film.
What challenges did you face in creating a period film about a period not that far removed in time, just 60 years ago, even though attitudes toward homosexuality have changed dramatically since then?

This is the story of an older woman’s friendship with a younger woman that becomes romantic. There were many kinds of possible interactions between an older and a younger woman that were completely acceptable at that time — far more so than if it was a man and a woman who weren’t married or weren’t engaged. And so these two women could live together, and it would be far less suspicious than if a man a woman lived together. That would have been scandalous. So without having to give an instructional feeling, educating a contemporary audience to those contradictions, we had to assume people would understand some of the freedom these women would have in spending time together. It was not nearly as suspicious as it might look to audiences today. That was almost a reversal of what you might expect. Similarly, I found that in Far from Heaven, the husband, who was the closeted gay guy, could actually maneuver and get closer to satisfying his desires under cover than either the African-American character or the woman. He had a more freedom of movement as a white man in hiding than either of the other two characters. There were interesting ways that queerness could hide out and get played-out pre-Stonewall. It is part of a vast history that is getting forgotten quickly as we trumpet forward into gay marriage and gays in the military and a much different cultural attitude toward gay lives.
What was it like to reteam with Cate Blanchett, whom you directed in 2007’s I’m Not There?
She’s continually astounding to me — starting as a person, as a really fine human being, a really caring, considerate soul, somebody who [shows] such considerable kindness to the crew and her fellow actors. Cate and I would talk about ways of clarifying this conflict that ensues around the custody issues with her kid in the story. You have to help a modern audience understand the unbelievable constraints a mother at this particular time would be facing and balancing against her own needs as a woman. We went through some revisions that happened only as a result of her really close attention to how the story unfolds.

How did you come to cast Rooney Mara?
When I came into the project, that role still had to be cast. I’ve just been so impressed with Rooney in everything I’ve seen her do. I spoke with some directors who have worked with her, and they were bowled over by her abilities, her instincts, her intelligence. And I had that exact experience with her.  Carol is not like anything you’ve seen her in before, and I really love that about her. I think she’s a really transformative actor.
What do you recall of bringing Velvet Goldmine to? Cannes?
I had been to Cannes with my film Safe in Directors’ Fortnight. Cannes is a lot of work, since it’s a market festival and a serious festival, and they really work you, understandably. Velvet Goldmine had been a tough shoot, but it was a celebratory film and I wanted everybody who worked on it to have a good time at Cannes — and we did. We had a celebrated party that people still talk about. My mom and dad were there. At the black-tie premiere, Michael Stipe [one of the film’s executive producers] met Thomas [Dozol], who was then a boy, whom he’s been with ever since. It was just a really fantastic good time, and then we won a little special prize. It was all fantastic. I’ve always wanted to go back to Cannes. I’ve just never had a film that was ready in time in the season for Cannes consideration.