Perhaps the most well-received film at Cannes thus far, Todd Haynes’ Carol premiered over the weekend to strong praise and acclaim for almost every aspect of the period drama, including the acting, the cinematography and overall direction. Written by Phyllis Nagy based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, it stars Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, two New York women who form a relationship in the 1950’s.
We said in our review, “Over the course of their blossoming relationship, the balance doesn’t so much shift as grow more elaborate, and the nuances in their characters remain the film’s primary focus. In portraying a homosexual relationship in the 1950s, Haynes isn’t interested in overt commentary. The specificities of the era in this regard are incorporated but always as a means of fleshing out the protagonists.”
Gathering for the press conference at Cannes was director Haynes, Blanchett, Mara, Nagy, cinematographer Edward Lachman, and producer Elizabeth Karlsen, and we’ve parsed through some specific highlights. As one might expect, the questions were mostly directed towards Blanchett and Haynes. As with most press conferences, there were some awkward moments, some misunderstood questions and some bizarre exchanges, but there were also a fair amount of interesting observations on the making of Carol — specifically the aesthetic choices, sources of inspiration and the subject of homosexuality today compared to the 1950s. Below one can find the highlights of the press conference as well as the video of the whole thing. The quotes have been slightly edited for legibility reasons.
On the sources of inspiration for the film
Blanchett began by praising the director, saying, “In this instance working with Todd — and I really relished this on I’m Not There — Todd comes into the process and you don’t have long to rehearse — we certainly didn’t have much time to rehearse on this. He comes with these incredible mood boards. In the lead-up, the pre-production, he is so generous allowing the actors to completely immerse themselves in the way the film is going to be shot and the atmosphere that is going to be created on set.” She added, “So you have a sense of what you don’t have to do, what will be done around you and that is unbelievably helpful. Particularly being a theatre actor when you know what the mise-en-scene is, what the frame is, it’s much easier to know what energy to bring.” For a specific source of inspiration she said, “So the female photographers, many of whom I didn’t know there were, Vivian Maier, for instance, was one of them, her self becoming a reflection in her own photography or cinematography; obviously her work not being known in her own lifetime, that was a complete revelation to me. So the visual references Todd gave me were a huge source of inspiration in this particular instance.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman touched upon his aesthetic sources of inspiration for the film saying, “Todd didn’t want to do a Sirkian world, with heightened reality, of a world with artifice. He wanted to explore further what we had done in Mildred Pierce. There was a kind of soiled naturalistic look to the world, documenting the world not through cinema, but life. And so he gave me those touchstones too of mid-century photographers like Vivian Maier and also that he changed the part of the character where she was a set designer and now she became a photographer. What became a beautiful metaphor for me to explore her world as she develops as a person and through her love of a person. “
Haynes, added, “Cate and Ed have talked about the sources we were looking at and I did look at film. I always start by looking at other films or ideas and points of entry into how the story might be told — and in this piece I think it was more because of the Patricia Highsmith original novel and how Phyllis had opened it up, but how we began our conversations together talking about POV and how sometimes the most affecting experiences in film when you are talking about stories of love, are rooted in a character’s point of view.” He also began to expand one of the ideas he explored in the film involving point of view, saying, “The film begins rooted in Therese’s view but there is a movement that happens throughout the course of the story and you come full circle to the point of view of Carol. So you are always in the point-of-view of the more amorous party. And the one who sort of is disempowered on some level and the more powerful figure in every conceivable way is certainly Carol through the story. But because of the events that occur, and because of the battery life inflicts on all of us, Therese changes a lot and so the two women at the end of the film are very different from the women at the beginning. And so that POV shift, for those of you who know and love the film Brief Encounter, it was sort of an interesting way to mark that POV change from the beginning of the film to the end. “
On the difference between acting in blockbuster films versus smaller independent films
Blanchett and Mara both have some experience shooting bigger studio films, Blanchett with The Lord of the Rings and most recently, Cinderella, and Mara with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film. Both were asked if there approach to acting was any different from when they were shooting those films than when they are working on smaller budget independent films like Carol. The question asked to the actors specifically pertained to whether they enjoyed the quiet scenes that are not often found in larger films. Mara started by saying, “I don’t know if I can really make a distinction between the two. I feel like I always, in anything I do, try to look for the more quiet moments. I feel like that’s where a lot of the story is told…is when there is just silence or space between the words. I mean certainly this film had a lot more of that, but I try to find that in anything that I do. Blanchett, added “it’s a very complicated neuro-linguistic process to make someone else’s lines your own, so I am always very happy not to talk on film. But I think the challenge of playing a character that is derived from a Patricia Highsmith novel is that they are so mysterious and ambiguous.” Continuing on, she praised the writer of the film for her skill in wonderfully adapting the novel’s world. “What was wonderful about what Phyllis did about making this into a film is that Carol is almost a construct of Therese’s imagination. It’s all seen through the prism of Therese’s own personal turmoil. Phyllis has really invented a whole world for Carol, so that was a gift. I sort of had the elusive atmosphere of the novel and I had the beautifully chosen, almost haiku, that Phyllis had created.”
On shooting the sex scene
One of the last questions asked was about Blanchett’s feeling towards nudity in films and whether she was comfortable or experienced any discomfort. Blanchett started by saying with a laugh, “Certainly since giving birth. I mean a lot of strangers see you naked in that experience.” And with regards to the lesbian sex scene required for this film and whether there was discomfort she added, “No more so than it was a love scene with a man. I mean I have such respect and admiration for Rooney and it was quite hilarious in a lot of ways.” In explaining her attitude towards these scenes in general she expanded, “I think it’s always great when it’s not for titillating reasons. [It’s] a really really importance scene in the structure of the film and the telling of the story. Todd was fantastic. He really explained how it was going to be shot. It was going to be a scene like any other scene. But, yes, there was some apprehension going in but not because it was between two women.” Mara quickly, and humorously, added, “I’m nude quite often so it wasn’t a big deal or anything. It was nice….I don’t know.”
On the aesthetic of the film
Haynes was asked about the specific aesthetic choices he made for the film. He began by reiterating; “As Ed already started to discuss there was really a great challenge, that was exciting for us, was a very specific part of the 1950s, the very beginning of the 1950s.” He specified the mood and thematic tone they went for by adding, “Which is almost more about the 40s and the post-war after effect of a distressed nation, of a dirty city, of a whole culture starting to clench under the forces of the cold war, in a deep freeze — what we just kept seeing in the photo journalism and documentation we were talking about by Vivian Maier, by Ruth Orkin, by Esther Bubley, by Helen Levitt as well as Saul Leiter, who is now mentioned by every other director on every other film.” He finally compares the aesthetic to what he did in Mildred Pierce and the nature of looking he explores in the film, saying, “We started to look at his work on Mildred Pierce, as evidence of a murky and maybe morally murky time and place. I think that started to breathe all kinds of ideas about how it would look, what it would look like, how shooting through windows and glass and reflections made you think about the act of looking and being looked at because it’s sort of revealing the original glass, the lens in ways that were not supposed to notice but you feel the texture of it, you feel the finger prints on it, you feel the choice of the optical experience and one that is about positioning yourself on the other side of that optical experience. “
Cinematographer Lachman expanded on the importance of using film stock by stating, “We chose to still work in film, we chose to shoot on Super 16 mm just on a budgetary level, but that we reference the grain structure the way film looks and feels and the emotional quality you can get from it, so for me that was another aspect. The way colors are rendered in a negative is different from the way they are digitally. So it’s even harder to find a loader — that’s a position on a film crew — and it’s hard to find someone who can load film magazines because we’re in a digital world. So trying to hold on to film and maybe Todd will do another project that he doesn’t want to do on film, but I think referenced that world very well.
The minimal advances in gender inequality and optimism on the future
Blanchett was asked about what she thinks about the current situation for women in Hollywood both in front and behind the camera. She began by saying, “I think it certainly has to be front and center in the conversation. There was an article in the international New York Times saying it was the year of ‘la femme’.” She semi-jokingly added “ And you hope it’s not the year, some sort of fashionable moment…” and continued on by saying, “The more rich and diverse stories are the better it serves audiences both male and female. The wonderful thing about this book and Patricia Highsmith’s writing generally, is that you have both male and female perspectives melded and meshed. And so, yes, it’s these two women at the center of it but it’s not a niche experience. So, yeah, I think it is important to keep talking about it. I think it fell off the agenda and I think we lost a lot of ground, but it’s wonderful to be working with female producers who want to make great, intelligent entertaining films. I think that’s what everyone wants to make.”
On Blanchett’s personal experiences and why she’s an actress
One such awkward moment was when was asked about her personal life and whether she has ever loved a woman, citing an interview previously conducted with her in which a journalist asked her if she had experiences with homosexuality and the importance of promoting the specific homosexual nature of the film’s romance. Blanchett began by saying “From memory, the conversation ran ‘Have you had relationships with women?’ and I said, ‘Yes, many times.’ If you mean sexual relationships with women, my answer is no. But that obviously didn’t make it to print.” She went on to add that “in 2015 the point should be ‘who cares?’ I thought that one’s job as an actor was not present one’s boring, small microscopic universe but to expand your sense of the world and make a psychological and empathetic connection to another character’s experience. So you can present something other than your own world to an audience.” Speaking specifically about her personal life she said, “My own life is of no interest to anyone else. But I’m not interested in putting my own thoughts and opinions out there. Why I want to be an actor and why I love being an actor is what you referred to before, the research, other people’s experience and to make that beautiful and tangible to an audience. “
Blanchett on whether or not she wishes to potentially direct a film
Blanchett was asked whether she would be interested in potentially directing a film in the future and her answer was pretty encouraging. She said, “I think when you work with Todd Haynes, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, you have to be really clear about the steps you would take if you were to move into directing. I directed on stage several times, and I wonder whether that sense of perspective or attraction to the whole project is how I approach acting, rather than necessarily because I am a director. If the right thing came along, with the right people,” she admits, adding, “because it’s a collaborative medium, and [with Carol] it was very much Todd’s vision but it was uber uber [collaborative]. “
Carol premiered at Cannes Film Festival and will be released on December 18th, 2015. Watch the full press conference above and our complete coverage below.