Todd Haynes On The Sophistication And Passion Of ‘Carol,’ And The Dreary Charm Of Cincinnati

On the one hand, Todd Haynes has come a long way since his 1987 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a biopic of the doomed pop star told entirely with Barbie dolls. On the other, he hasn’t. Haynes still makes films that create immersive worlds, one in which every detail contributes to the desired effect. And he still makes films about people who find themselves, by accident or design, on the fringes of what’s acceptable in society. From the AIDS-inspired fury of Poison‘s genre exercises to the ailing protagonist of Safe to the norm-challenging rock stars of Velvet Goldmine to the would-be lovers of Far From Heaven, Haynes makes films about those who disrupt or are oppressed by the norms of society.

Haynes’ latest, Carol, is no exception. It’s adapted from The Price of Salt, the second novel by Patricia Highsmith, the mystery writer famous for Strangers on a Train and the long-running series of novels featuring the sociopathic Tom Ripley, which have been adapted into films like Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. Highsmith’s might create the wrong set of expectations for Carol, however. A dime-store paperback published under a pseudonym in 1952, The Price of Salt is the story of Therese (played in Carol by Rooney Mara), a shopgirl and aspiring photographer who finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with Carol (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy, married, middle-aged woman whom she meets while Carol is Christmas shopping.

Haynes didn’t originate the project, but Carol is very much a Haynes film. Shot on 16mm in Cincinnati (subbing in for early-’50s New York) and featuring intense performances that move in time to a beautiful Carter Burwell score, it’s both elegantly crafted and intensely emotional — even though the world of the characters often prevents them from expressing their deepest feelings aloud. In style it’s closest to Mildred Pierce, the miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s Depression-set melodrama he made for HBO. But it’s also very much its own film, a work of passion, danger, and elegant costumes playing out against the backdrop of a world that doesn’t want to admit what’s happening between Therese and Carol is real.

Haynes spoke to Uproxx in Chicago about his inspirations, the dingy beauty of Cincinnati, and what it takes to get a smart drama made in 2015, among other things.

You’ve often made films set in the past, but they’ve often drawn from a particular style or director, like Douglas Sirk for Far From Heaven. This doesn’t. What’s the difference for you?

I feel like I wasn’t looking at a specific film or director, but I was looking at the love story and sort of how that works, or the ones that have really compelled me and hold my attention. They didn’t necessarily fit into this particular identical moment that Carol takes place, the ones I was looking at. Most of them, I found… A lot of them are driven by voiceover, classics, like Brief Encounter. That was the first thing I thought of when I read script and read the novel. Now, Voyager; Letter From an Unknown Woman; A Place in the Sun: They put you on the side of the vulnerable party in the relationship, the one who’s sort of in peril. This is definitely true for The Price of Salt, in which you’re entirely encased in Therese’s point of view, sort of like you are with her criminal subjects in all of [Highwood’s] other novels.

I just thought that’s so interesting to be on the side of the vulnerable. What happens in Carol is that that role ultimately shifts. Given what each woman undergoes and how it changes them. There’s this point where you find yourself coming around, using that structuring device that I sort of took from Brief Encounter where it repeats the same scene at the beginning and at the end of the movie, but that you understand what the scene is all about.

What’s so nice about the way it begins, is it keeps asking you, “Whose story is this?” It starts with these peripheral characters and then you see Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the background of the train station refreshment stand and you’re like, “Oh, aren’t they the stars of the movie?” That conversation is interrupted by another secondary character and then finally you realize something’s happened here and then you realize that it’s really going to be about the woman. We go home with her, settle down with her in her living room with her husband opposite her and then all the voiceover begins and the Rachmaninoff begins and the story starts to unfold and you realize, ‘Okay, it’s going to be her story.’

That’s sort of what I wanted to do with Carol, but then by the end, when we come back to the Ritz hotel lobby, it’s Carol whose looking across the room at Therese who has accepted her invitation to come back. It’s Carol who is now kind of coming to Therese somewhat stripped naked and with her heart on her sleeve, asking her to live with her and the poles have shifted.

Part of the challenge of this film must have been — and it probably helps to have Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett — conveying all the emotions of these characters that aren’t being spoken. Is there an approach you take with these sorts of stories?

This one, I think that was particularly true because … It was funny how much that made sense to everybody involved. A lot of what Phyllis [Nagy] and I did together with the script was sort of minimizing talk language. And then when I had two weeks of rehearsal with Cate and Rooney in Cincinnati before we started shooting, we sat around and read the scenes and talked about the characters and the backgrounds of the characters. A lot of it was, like, Do we need that line? No. Let’s… It felt somehow just liberating and right to all feel like it’s better without it.

All the way through to the score and Carter [Burwell], who begins by putting together several different themes and we’d start to try them out. We had a temp track that we’d been cutting to from a lot of different composer sources which he liked, which worked very well in this, which is always dangerous because you start to fall in love with your temp track. You try the different themes out and in almost every case, it was the simplest, most sort of understated theme that did the most, ultimately, that produced the most. It was kind of an ongoing process throughout to really let the visual language and the unspoken, the unarticulated convey the story.

This is unusual for you in that this is not a project you originated. What did you do to make it your own?

I guess all of these things … What I did was, I guess, take it as a challenge to do a love story, something that also I had not done before, per se, in my films. There’s been elements of love and desire in my films, but not really following that genre exactly. The Sirkian melodrama doesn’t organize around point of view, at all. It’s not about identification, it’s about observing these very prescribed social systems from a slightly uncomfortable distance and watching people kind of maneuver under the stress of very limited options. What do they do? You’re left to kind of think, ah, society’s to blame, or whatever it is.

This was very different. It’s really about point of view. The whole way the camera is so much about who’s looking at who, all these shots through windows and glass and precipitation and dirt on the surface so that even the act of looking is kind of frustrated so you feel more hungry to do so. All of that helped to further that idea.

You had to recreate ’50s New York in Cincinnati. Why Cincinnati? And then what kind of steps do you take to ensure that the period feels right?

We started, and again, this was what was so different about Carol and Far From Heaven because the early ’50s … 1952 to 1953, December to April basically, was built into the story. In the book, it describes this dingy existence of this girl temping at Frankenberg’s, which is like Bloomingdale’s. So it feels nothing like the shiny Eisenhower Era. It already felt like a very different New York. When we started to see the research and the images from the time, it completely confirmed all that. New York looked like a very distressed, post-war city: dirty, tired, sagging. We didn’t know… Where are we going to shoot it? There were some budgets that had been drawn up to try to do a U.K. production. That seemed problematic to me. Ohio had just introduced a far more generous tax rebate for film production at the time. We were like…. let’s see. Could this possibly work?

We went to Cleveland first and sniffed around. On that same trip, we went to Cincinnati. We were like, “Shit.” I had been to Cincinnati in the early 1990s and remembered these awesome, stinky, not just thrift stores, just like department stores that were still selling stock from the 1960s. We were like, “Oh my God, this is like a treasure trove of all this crap.” Cat piss and all this, it was like a dirty, interesting city. That store had closed by the time we’d come back.

I think you’re thinking of Trivet’s.

Trivet’s! [Haynes is thinking of Trivet Antiques, a downtown Cincinnati store that sold new bellbottoms and other ’60s and ’70s items deep into the 1980s and ’90s, sometimes servicing famous, retro-loving customers like Lenny Kravitz. It closed in 2000. – Ed.]

You know the city?

Yeah, I’m from Dayton. That was a great store.

That was an amazing fucking store. I still have things that I bought from Trivet’s on that first trip that I just couldn’t ever give up. That’s it. It was Trivet’s. You know exactly what I’m talking about.

Bellbottoms that had never been sold.

With the original label, and stationary, hippie stationary in the cellophane. A Rage in Harlem was shot in Cincinnati in the very early ’90s if not late ’80s, I can’t remember. That was one of the last, truly one of the last period films that was shot in Cincinnati, which is inconceivable to me because it’s just sitting there. The train station? We couldn’t find a use for the train station, but you’ve seem that train station. It’s just a stunning piece of deco design and beautifully restored. It offered that beautiful, intact, historical city that we needed for Carol and we literally shot some exterior shots with existing signage on the streets of Cincinnati today. Just like: That’s perfect! It hasn’t changed! We’ve got to capture it. We spent zillions of cents we didn’t have to remove all the horrible, modern, sort of steel stoplight systems on some of those blocks just to be able to shoot what was behind them, and we did.

This novel’s not the first novel people think of with Patricia Highsmith.


Were you aware of it before?

I was not aware of it and my lesbian friends were like, “What?” It is very well known within lesbian circles, for sure. It’s so beautifully written. What I loved about it is it makes you think about how similar the mind of Ripley, the criminal mind is, as the mind of Therese, the amorous mind. They’re both in this heated state of hypothesis and postulating narratives and outcomes and what if this happens, and what if that happens? The criminal to maintain their innocence and evade capture and the lover to try to figure out if their object of desire feels anything like they do. In this case, what do you even call this love because it’s so unknown? That was just such a beautiful, smart, unsentimental way of depicting love.

When you were doing interviews for Mildred Pierce, you were not optimistic about film and about getting your projects made in the world of film. Has this changed your feelings toward that?

That’s not why we did Mildred Pierce on HBO.

I don’t think it would have worked as well as a film.

It’s already been condensed into a film version that should not try to be repeated because it’s its own unique and beautiful thing. We were doing something very different and the long form suited it, I thought. Also, the fact that it was about the Depression at the height of America’s recession. I wanted it to be in people’s homes, coming out of their furniture, you know? I think anybody who looks around at the vitality of the theatrical, cinema experience today for dramatic films, has to be worried. It’s just the facts, unfortunately. They don’t seem to change or improve. People go to spectacle movies or blockbusters in the theaters, but mostly they turn to cable or streaming options and home theaters for the rest. I want everyone to go see Carol in the theaters because it’s a real film shot on filmy film and I think when it’s bigger and louder, I think its impact is even stronger and any director would say that about their movie. It’s a quiet movie and I think it’s nice to hear it loud and see it big.

What are you working on now?

We’re hoping to get, I think it’s going to happen, this adaptation of a book called Wonderstruck, which is Brian Selznick’s book. He wrote Hugo, Scorsese’s film, the book that it’s based on. This was the novel that he wrote after that, the graphic novel, again, for younger readers. It’s the first time I’ve ever really done anything for a younger audience, kind of carried by three 12-year-old kids. It has similar interest in history and it’s kind of a love letter to, in this case, New York, as opposed to Paris. It would be really fun. I’m excited.