A few weeks ago Todd Haynes, the director of Safe, Far From Heaven, I'm Not There and the widely acclaimed Carol, came to Chicago. Over coffee, he opened up his Carol image book – a homemade wonder stuffed with curated copies of photographs, screen grabs from period movies, photojournalism spreads, fashion spreads, all remnants of the time and place Carol inhabits, specifically 1952 New York City.
Photographs by Ruth Orkin share the reference book with mouthwatering color photographs by Saul Leiter, many of Leiter's images placing human subjects behind rain-spattered windows. In "Carol" we often see Rooney Mara or Cate Blanchett looking out such windows, sometimes in taxis, gazing into their own futures, longingly.
The image book, Haynes says, is "organized by color and tone and levels of abstraction. Look. Look at this one!" He points to a shot of Manhattan's Onyx Club. "We all paid close attention to all of this research. That way, we all ended up making the same movie."
In Carol, an adaptation on Patricia Highsmith's lesbian romance The Price of Salt that is currently playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Blanchett portrays Carol Aird, a well-to-do and extremely put-together sort. Her husband (Kyle Chandler) knows of his wife's bisexual past, and does not like the shadow it casts. Carol's life, and her relationship to their preteen daughter, is threatened by true love in the form of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a sphinxlike younger woman whom Carol meets one day behind a department store counter. In the novel Therese was an aspiring theatrical set designer; in screenwriter Phyllis Nagy's adaptation, she's a talented photographer discovering her eye as her heart discovers its true course.
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Comparisons between Carol and Haynes' 1950s-set Far From Heaven have been made. But they're misleading. Far From Heaven, the director says, was "very consciously filtered through the Hollywood studio language of the time, the high melodramatic style of Douglas Sirk's films. With Carol we're seeing a very different world. Looking at photographs of New York in 1952, you find a powerfully pre-Eisenhower era – sagging, tired, distressed and the palette is slightly dissonant. We kept calling it a soiled color palette, Ed and I." Master cinematographer Ed Lachman photographed Carol on super 16 millimeter film stock, and it looks like a dream.
Carol has landed on dozens of top 10 lists this year, and the word was good from the start, at the film's Cannes Film Festival premiere in May. Mara won the best actress award there. "It's a quiet film," Haynes says. He's glad people respond to its meticulous, moving evocation of Highsmith's story.
Plush, the production budget wasn't. Haynes and company brought Carol in for a little under $12 million, remarkable for a period film of serious visual quality. He had considerably more to spend on the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. After that experience, he says, "we were back to indie filmmaking without a studio behind us. We were on our own. The (completion) bond company came in three weeks before we finished shooting, because we burned through our contingency. It was touch and go, actually. The bond company comes in if you exceed your costs; they're the insurers of the film. In the worst-case scenario they take over the production." That didn't happen, Haynes says, but "they were there every day, questioning every expense, and it's not pretty. Our line producer got fired; she sort of fell on the sword for the sake of the movie."
Haynes smiles a pained smile at the memory. Then he brightens. "The results of everyone's work are in the film. Every shot. We spent what money we had very wisely." Filming entirely in and around Cincinnati, Haynes first rehearsed for two weeks there with the principals, including Blanchett, Mara, Chandler and Sarah Paulson (who plays Carol's ex-lover and confidante). Blanchett's association with Carol predated Haynes' involvement by several years.
"Every actor prepares differently," Haynes says, "and to different degrees of privacy. Some want to talk everything out. Others really don't want to talk anything out, or rehearse much. All actors are protecting something, in their own way, that happens in front of a camera. But Kate and Rooney are weirdly similar in how they prepare. They love rehearsal. We read the scenes, we talked about the characters." And rather than fighting for more dialogue, the actors suggested trims where a glance might be more effective.
For a long time Haynes made his home in New York City. Then in 2000 he relocated to Portland, Ore., where his sister, Wendy, resides. Haynes is in a long-term relationship there with Bryan O'Keefe, who aided Haynes with various aspects of the Carol research, both visual and musical. Next up is Wonderstruck, based on Brian Selznick's young adult story, to star Julianne Moore in her third collaboration with Haynes.
The director likens filmmaking to assembling an old-school mixtape of 90 or 100 minutes. "When you made mixtapes," he says, "it's all about making the best narrative and emotional experience. I find myself thinking about that, because they're pretty close to the length of a feature film." Assembling a reference collection of music suited to the period, and the feelings, required by Carol was a key part of what Haynes calls his "psychic preparatory process." The prep did the trick; the film is one of the best of 2015.