By Iain Blair
With his affection for period pieces and classic melodrama, along with his interest in gay sexuality, writer/director Todd Haynes — who was Oscar-nominated for his Far From Heaven ’50s drama — was probably the perfect choice to tackle the lesbian romance at the heart of his new film, Carol.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt,” Carol tells the story of two women from very different backgrounds — Therese, a store clerk (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage — who meet and then find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York.
The film is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz for its actors and for Haynes, whose credits also include the acclaimed Bob Dylan picture I’m Not There, as well as Velvet Goldmine, Safe and the miniseries Mildred Pierce.
I spoke with Haynes about making the film, from production through post, and the Oscars.
What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of making Carol?
It was all about the genre of the love story, which I felt I’d never tackled before. I saw it as this great opportunity to get into how love stories are these unique experiences — how much of it is about point of view and which party you’re with.
The film was shot by your regular DP Ed Lachman on Super 16mm. What look were you going for?
I looked at a lot of ’50s films, but they didn’t really give me a strong stylistic way into the material. They all felt a bit mannered and stylized for what this was about. So it was really the historical research we did that was so illuminating. The New York images we studied from the early ‘50s really told a different story from the high-gloss Eisenhower-era look, one about the country emerging from the war years and being in transition.
You could still feel that insecurity and shifting power dynamics of global politics, and the city looked dirty and tired. So the color palette of the photos was very beautiful and subdued, and the temperatures were hard to determine, almost a mixture really. Those all went into our look, along with shooting it all in Cincinnati because New York has changed so much since the 1950s.
Do you like the post process?
I love it because after the crazy, frantic Herculean task of production where you constantly feel the ticking clock, you’re back in a dark room, which is where I start as a writer. The shoot was quite stressful as we had a very tight schedule of just 35 days and a low budget for a period piece like this. But then in post, you’re down to the lowest overhead and the fewest number of people, so it feels very intimate, which I love.
Where did you post?
We did it all at Goldcrest Post in New York — the cutting, the sound, the VFX and the DI. They were partners in the film, so they were invested in the project and us being happy there. And we were. I ended up getting an apartment literally five doors down the street so I could be close to the editing room all the time. Post took about seven months, and I didn’t think we’d finish in time, but it went very smoothly.
The film was edited by Affonso Gonçaves (Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild), who you worked with on Mildred Pierce. Tell us about that relationship.
He’s just a great partner and very sensitive, smart and knowledgeable. He was so attentive to temp tracks and finding really useful music to cut to. Music was always going to be a key element in Carol, and he has a great ear for that. I’m very hands-on in the edit, and I can’t really look at cuts I haven’t started making myself. Affonso did do a cut while I shot, but I only looked at it after we had tried my cut first — to see how they had failed (laughs). When I began my career, I cut on film and I loved to edit myself, and Mildred was really the first project I never laid hands on. The Avid is amazing, but cutting on film was an amazing education for me, and I’d never trade it in.
Period films always have a lot of visual effects. Talk about them and working with VFX supervisor Chris Haney.
Yes, there was a lot of removal of contemporary elements, stuff you often don’t even see until you’re in post, plus cosmetic work. We also had about six key shots that needed extensive VFX. We did as much as possible in-camera and practically, but there were plenty of spots where the deep space down a street was filled in to give us New York — in particular the scene where Carol sees Therese crossing the street near the end. That was extremely complicated, like the others, as they were usually moving shots filtered through windows, rain, dust, distortion and so on. So the CGI elements had to fit exactly into the vernacular itself, with the grain element and level of distress.
You didn’t make it easy for yourself.
No, but Chris did a magnificent job and was so attentive to the film’s tone. Also, Goldcrest, The Mill and Lola did various shots. I actually love working with VFX, as you can add so much with even a handful of frames, and Chris’ work was like a series of paintings.
The score by Carter Burwell is quite haunting. How important is the score and sound in your films?
They’re both so important, it’s hard to overstate. This is the third collaboration with Carter; he was involved before I even began casting, so he’s a key component. My sound designer, Leslie Shatz, who I met through Gus van Sant, has done something like 200 films now and is so experienced. I’ve worked with him since we did Far From Heaven.
The film has a very realistic look with quite a muted palette. Was that all done in post in the DI, or was it a combination of post and in-camera?
We did a lot of work in the DI with Goldcrest colorist John Dowdell (working on the Quantel Pablo Rio), who is another real artist, to get that very specific, slightly spoiled palette. It’s a very different look from Far From Heaven.
I’m hoping to do Wonderstruck next, based on Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, so another period film but one carried by younger characters, which’ll be new for me.
Your HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce won five Emmys and a Golden Globe. Will you be doing more TV?
Yes, I’m developing a dramatic project with HBO, The Source, about a ‘70s cult in LA.
We’re heading into awards season. You’ve been nominated before for an Oscar. How important are they to you?
They’re in some ways inseparable from the marketing of a film, and for me any opportunity to get people in to see the film on a big screen is important.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe