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.