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Talking with Director Todd Haynes about 'Carol,' Lesbian Love, and the Impossibility of Indie Films

We met up with the filmmaker to discuss his new film, an exploration of lesbian love in the homophobic 1950s.

by Hugh Ryan
Nov 20 2015, 6:45pm

All photos courtesy of Dimension Films

On Friday, Todd Haynes's latest film—the period love story Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—opens in theaters nationwide. Based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, which she published under the name Claire Morgan because of its controversial lesbian content, Carol is the story of a yearning that does not even have a name to call itself.

Therese (played by a wide-eyed yet steely Mara) is a young photographer working as a holiday clerk in the doll department of a large New York City department store, where she meets the mysterious Carol (Blanchett, impressively capturing the weary glamour of the postwar period). Their connection is instantaneous but fraught. Carol, we quickly learn, is in the throws of a messy divorce, and although she's previously had a relationship with another woman, at the start of the film, neither she nor Therese seem to think themselves as queer. Discovering their love for one another, therefore, is also a process of discovering something vast about themselves—and the homophobic world they live in.

Visually, the film is stunning, with Haynes having drawn inspiration from street photographers like Vivian Maier and Saul Leiter. Like the character of Therese herself, the camera is always looking at Carol from a distance, framing her in beautiful moments.

Carol offers a curious bookend to Far from Heaven, Haynes's 2002 film about the wife of a closeted gay man. Both explore sexuality and desire in the 1950s, but Carol offers more hope—more possibility—for its characters than does Far from Heaven, an inversion of our standard thinking that progress is an inevitable line through history.

VICE sat down with Haynes in the swank lobby of New York City's Bowery Hotel to discuss Carol, his career, and what it even means to make queer indie films today.

VICE: Were you very familiar with The Price of Salt before making Carol?
Todd Haynes: I had read Patricia Highsmith, but I didn't know The Price of Salt when it came to me. But now I love that book. And the script was a beautiful adaptation of it, and for me it was a challenge too. It was all about the love story, something I felt I never really focused on in and of itself, as a traditional film.

The book is very closely told through Therese's point of view, but in Carol, we get much more of Carol. Why? And does that change the story?
I don't think there was any way to keep it completely locked inside Therese's point of view exclusively, but that's still where the camera is. Carol is really the impenetrable object of desire, the person who we don't really understand. Therese is the one looking, and Therese is the one assuming the lens, and holding it up and learning how to frame this person in her camera. When we enter Carol's life, it's because of the package Therese sends her, that's how we gain access. It's all because of Therese's agency in some way that we get into Carol's life.

"Really great love stories are blinded by subjective experience, and distorted by it, and by desire and yearning that doesn't get fulfilled."

But we see scenes with Carol and her husband, for instance, in a way we never do in the book.
I still think Carol remains at a distance, somebody who is hard to know and hard to understand. I think that's part of what excites Therese. It's a balance between the two. If we were too close to Carol, if she was too colloquial with the viewer, none of that sense of her being looked at, desired, or almost spied upon by Therese would have the same impact. Carol is not generating the story.

There are some obvious parallels between Carol and Far From Heaven. What attracts you to these kinds of stories?
What attracted me to Carol was how different it was from Far from Heaven, that even though both films take place in the 50s and have gay themes, they could be completely unique experiences. The 1950s were not just one thing by any stretch.

What differences do you see between the two?
Far from Heaven is a homage to the texts and subtexts of Sirkian melodrama at one of its apex moments in the history of movies. The melodrama is this sort of claustrophobic and powerfully artificial language that forces something authentic to happen in the viewer, almost because of how strenuous and expressionistic the artifice is. There's nothing natural about the way those movies look, the way they're written, the way the characters behave or speak. But that over-determination of style is contrasted by how simple the stories are, and how simple the people are, how unheroic they are, and how easily crushable they are by the forces of society and social mores.

The love story, to me, is a different beast because it is so much about point of view and subjectivity, and melodrama isn't. You're outside the melodramatic world looking in at all these forces crushing all these people. But really great love stories are blinded by subjective experience, and distorted by it, and by desire and yearning that doesn't get fulfilled. There's also a similar lack of fulfillment in melodrama, but this one gives the audience tremendous yearning for characters to come together. It uses point of view in ways the melodrama doesn't do.

And they're just really different ends of the 1950s. Far from Heaven is the full-on Eisenhower era, with its polished, enameled surfaces of that time, and this is this much murkier period: the end of the war years, more the postwar era before Eisenhower took office. With all the exposed needs that made people want a strong leader and a lot of answers addressed and solutions to problems posed.

"I'm interested in the condition of people who don't have as much direct access to power and agency as men usually have."

There seems to be slightly more hope for your characters' nontraditional love interests in Carol, surprisingly.
Yeah, and historically that's going backward—and that often happens. The war years opened up all these strange inversions where men were away and women were home, running the factories and munitions, and building weapons and airplanes and stuff. So there were homosocial realms that created all kinds of interesting and surprising results. Everything was upside-down, and then of course the 50s happen. Women get put in the home, men get put in the workplace, and everybody got put very rigidly back into their places. So some of that sense of possibility or uncertainty or improvisation or something went away for a while.

One of the things I've always loved about your work is your commitment to showing the emotional lives of women. So many gay male artists don't seem able (or perhaps interested) in doing so. Why are you?
I'm interested in the condition of people who don't have as much direct access to power and agency as men usually have. Even in Far from Heaven, we have some scenes where we see Frank, the husband, in the world, but they're very limited. Because that's where are all the action is, because he's a free agent and he can go out in the world. He works every day and comes home and we don't know what happens on the train or in the car, and so when and where we do see that has to be extremely curtailed and limited. Otherwise, the fact that all the big action and big stuff is happening in his world would completely tip the movie. Instead, the weight of concentration is on the wife, and she's the passive character. She's in the precarious position of having to maintain the family and the home, the things that keep her boxed up and cut off, while he in some ways enjoys way more freedoms than either she or the Dennis Haysbert character.

Similarly, Therese is the more passive character in Carol. It would be so easy to shift it all into Carol's domain, because all the big stuff is going on in Carol's life. But then every time you came to Therese's scenes you'd be like, "Who's this little squeaky mousy girl in the corner of the room waiting for Carol to walk up to her?" Where you are predominantly anchored has a big impact in tilting the shifts of power.

"There have been unbelievable legislative triumphs that are essential and correct and humane, but there's been all kinds of losses along the way. Really, I think what it's about is capitalism has won."

You've been making queer indie films for basically your whole career. How has the process and reception changed over time?
Every one is its own unique struggle. I always resist this notion of progressive momentum in terms of attitude or openness in society or interest in gay queer themes or whatever. Even though, clearly, acceptance of the AIDS epidemic has completely turned around, and gay marriage and rights and freedoms are acknowledged in a whole different way today than they were just ten years ago—almost to an unimaginable degree with a speed that's unique. But Velvet Goldmine was probably an easier film to put together than Carol. Carol took so long and it was this impenetrable script, bizarre, completely crazy script.

How so?
It's so layered and referential and camp in some ways. It doesn't really have a lot of precedence. You can't really say, "Oh, it's going to be just like that movie we've seen before, with a little bit of this thrown in." The way it was written was very ornate and impenetrable as well, same with I'm Not There. But I think because it had young pretty people in it and music, it was a little easier to finance Velvet Goldmine. Safe was a very difficult film to finance for all the obvious reasons.

Just the fact that Carol took this long to get off the ground, way before I came on board is remarkable to me. I don't think that it was just that it was about lesbians. I think the lesbian thing is something that distinguished it, made it unique, a selling point. Contradictorily, the fact that there are no big male leads in it put people off. So it's like, "How can we have a lesbian movie with male leads?"

You showed early work at venues like MIX, the queer experimental film festival. Is that still a viable path for young filmmakers?
Even the words experimental and queer—I don't even know what they mean to people right now, you know? Maybe I'm just a little out of it—I'm not as plugged into what's happening right now in terms of experimental work, and what kind of queer work is coming out that feels genuinely queer.

So much of the momentum has been going toward a kind of assimilation of all media and identity. There have been unbelievable legislative triumphs that are essential and correct and humane, but there's been all kinds of losses along the way. Really, I think what it's about is capitalism has won, and there's not even a language for standing outside the market and being critical of the market and seeing it as something one can stand outside of and speak coherently about from the margins.

Instead, our entire value system, our digital culture, our social media—all of it is one more cunning way that corporate culture wins out over all of us. Especially young people. They have a very hard time even knowing what those traditions of alternative thinking were, and why, where they came from, and what their political histories meant, and what their aesthetic histories reflect.

But there's always a pushback. I'm hoping right now we're still in this thrall over new technology and the pushback is coming. Kindle apparently is failing, and people want to read books in their hands. Bookstores are opening up, and that's so awesome. People are fetishizing vinyl—great! Fetishize vinyl. Have Rough Trade outlets all over with a hundred name-brand vinyl reissues, I don't care. Whatever. I think that's great. Have Tarantino make his movies on 70mm and have theaters show them on the screen. Any way to keep these languages that have real history and meaning alive.

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Carol opens today in theaters nationwide.