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    Interview with Todd Haynes, Director of the Stunning New Lesbian Drama Carol

    GaryCarol, opening November 27, is Todd Haynes’ stunning adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s classic lesbian novel “The Price of Salt.” The film portrays the relationship between two women, Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), who become romantically involved in the 1950s.

    In a recent meeting, Haynes talked about the appeal of working in past eras.

    “What I like about period films is that you are holding up a frame that you are asking the audience to look into. I get to live a little in each period when I make a film, and feel like I’ve actually been there even when every piece of it, like Far From Heaven, is a refusal of what ‘authentic history’ of that time is about,” he said. “We are solely in the artificial language of Hollywood backlot filmmaking in the moment of high melodrama. There is nothing more true than that false language. People would come out of Far From Heaven and say, ‘That’s exactly what life was really like!’ Wow, I refused every element of ‘really like.’”

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    Haynes then added, “How much do movies affect our memories and senses of what’s real anyway? What I think great movies do, is, whenever we feel something in a movie, it’s our emotions, it’s not something the movie is producing; we’re producing the emotions.”

    Haynes produces considerable emotions for both the audiences and the characters in Carol as this slow-burn relationship comes to various romantic and dramatic climaxes. Haynes creates tremendous suspense and desire as the women navigate their relationship, first getting to know one another over an awkward lunch, then taking a road trip together, before various situations threaten to tear their love apart.

    The director acknowledges creating the sexual tension, thusly. “The viewer is wondering: How is it going to happen? What’s going to happen? Every time they go to bed and we cut to the next morning, you think, did something happen? Did I miss it? The audience is in this state of pensive over-reading as well as Therese, and that’s exactly what Therese is experiencing.”

    When he first read a draft of the screenplay, Haynes said there was a congeniality between the two characters that wasn’t as pronounced in the book.

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    “I said to Phyllis [Nagy, the screenwriter], I loved the anxiety in the book, I want to put some of that back in. And she said, ‘Yes!’ In trying to get the movie made, we tried to soften the edges a bit and make it more palatable for financiers, and everyone’s a little more warm and fuzzy. She was so happy to let that go.”

    Moreover, the actresses worked with Haynes to shape their characters and create the relationship. The filmmaker recalls, “In our rehearsal period—two weeks, which is a lot of time for a low-budget film—we would read scenes and Rooney would say, ‘Does she need to say that?’ And we’d cut it out. And Cate would say, ‘We could simplify that.’ It was a process of reduction, and that continued, that distillation process.”

    The film benefits from the frisson between the two heroines. Haynes commended his actresses for “bringing incredible integrity and serious attention to detail to everything they do.”

    He explained the intricacies of Blanchett having to play Therese’s image of Carol and the person Carol at the same time because so much of the film is from Therese’s perspective. In contrast, because the film was shot out of order, Rooney had to go back and forth between playing the young Therese and the older Therese.

    Does Haynes, who elicits remarkable performances from his leading ladies consider himself a “woman’s director” in the George Cukor mold from classic Hollywood?

    “I don’t know that I would identify with Cukor as much as Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder,” he observed. “The women in Cukor’s films are these extraordinary women who own the frame, and they are outrageously unique. They are awe-inspiring, triumphant—there are exceptions, of course.

    I am more drawn to these stories of women who aren’t triumphant, and who aren’t awe-inspiring, and who aren’t exemplary, and who are actually, very ordinary. Smaller people by the end of the film than they were at the beginning.”

    Tellingly, Haynes, who is currently in a stable 10-year long relationship, identifies with characters like Therese. He admitted, “I was a Therese, and always bent out of shape over obsessive love and obsessive analysis of the outcomes and how much power the other held over me. In an earlier time in my life, after a certain bout of hardship and pain that was transformative—creatively, and in terms of life and where I am, and how I live in the world—I don’t find myself having returned to that space.”

    Then, after a beat, he added, “Maybe I will again.”

    © 2015 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @garykramer