Interview: Director Todd Haynes Plays the Right Notes in ‘Carol’

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CHICAGO – One of the best films of 2015 is the atmospheric and kinetically performed “Carol.” The film, set in the early 1950s, depicts a love that dares not speak its name, and also showcases the breathtaking presence of actress Cate Blanchett as the title character. The director of the film is the veteran Todd Haynes, known for another set-in-the-1950s classic, “Far from Heaven,” as well as “Velvet Goldmine,” “I’m Not There” and the recent HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce.”

Haynes first got attention with a controversial short film way back in 1987, entitled “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” It was the life story of the famous singer, told entirely by having the characters represented by Barbie dolls (it was withdrawn from circulation by a copyright lawsuit in 1990, more on that below). His feature debut, “Poison” (1991), won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. He followed that up with “Safe,” a seminal film for both him and lead actress Julianne Moore. The director and Moore teamed up again in 2002 for “Far From Heaven,” which was nominated for four Academy Awards. The Bob Dylan biography meditation, “I’m Not There” (2007) teamed Haynes up with Cate Blanchett for the first time, and the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” garnered five Emmy wins. “Carol” is his sixth feature film.

Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Todd Haynes represented “Carol” at the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival, and sat down with for this comprehensive interview about the film and his distinctive career. You’ve now done two films set in similar times, with similar socio-economic characters. What is fascinating to you about the concept of a modern audience perception of 1950s morality, and how are you and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy attempting to take into another direction?

Todd Haynes: I came to this project and ‘Far from Heaven’ from completely different vantage points. ‘Heaven’ was of course about the Douglas Sirk films of that period, with the very specific cinematic language and style of melodrama. With ‘Carol,’ it was presented to me already packaged, with Cate Blanchett attached and Phyllis Nagy’s script complete – when it came to me it had a long history and pre-history.

It offered a set of social conventions and timeframe that didn’t feel close at all to ‘Far from Heaven’ or that type of world. Because it features Therese, a shopgirl who has almost a Stalin-istic existence as a temp in a department store, and she sees a version of herself that might end up in this lonely and isolated life. That is where I see the difference between the two films. I saw a recent poll, in association with ‘Back to the Future’ day, that the time that these poll takers most wanted to travel back to was the 1950s. What is it about these times that are so attractive to us, in your opinion, and how do you think that is either right or wrong? Or in the context of ‘Carol’?

Haynes: It’s like our go-to notion of innocent and secure mythology of American life. I was always amazed when people would come up to me and say that ‘Far from Heaven’ was exactly what it was like back then. [laughs] I was so disinterested in what it was ‘really like’ in the 1950s when I was putting the film together, I was only interested in what it was like in movies.

I always wondered what that meant, did it mean that their memories are filtered through popular culture rather than reality? It’s elusive, obviously, but for a certain sector of the population it becomes a denial of the progressive eras that were before that decade, and what came afterward. You have collaborated with Cate Blanchett before. What still leaves you in awe regarding her talent, and in what element of ‘Carol’ does she do something that you think no other actor could do?

Haynes: I would just say there are no two roles that are more demanding than Bob Dylan of 1966 [Blanchett’s role in ‘I’m Not There’] and Carol Aird of 1952. I challenge any director out there to come up with a wider divide. I had to convince her to take the Dylan role, and that took effort. But with ‘Carol,’ she was already attached.

Her interpretation of Carol is such a fascinating, multi-layered performance, and she also does something very tricky. She has to play the image of Carol through Therese’s eyes, while playing her also as real. She had to play to the camera from both points of view, from the inside and outside. Cate plays both, and has a knowledge of the whole language of the film, and can fulfill what is being asked of her. ‘Far from Heaven’ was a homage to 1950s director Douglas Sirk, as you mentioned. In what you know of Sirk, where do you think you and he are similar, either in biography or cinematic influences?

Haynes: I know a bit about his life, but it’s more about his style than biography. He was European and came out of a theater background, and could easily be defined as ‘Brechtian.’ He was expressionistic in his films, and was an example of those intensely intellectual artists who ended up working for American studios, and was handed the Ladies Home Journal and asked to adapt the stories for the screen. He found ways to use his artistry to make them interesting and nuanced, while critiquing American values in the process.

’Carol,’ Directed by Todd Haynes
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company The 1950s are represented as a closeted time, but even today with larger freedoms in society there is still a vocal minority that marginalizes gay life, and are given forums as if they are correct. In the evolution of “coming out” in your lifetime, what psychological issues are still – in your observation – dogging the gay community because of the attitudes of those who still marginalize that community?

Haynes: I don’t pay attention to the ‘marginalizers.’ They simply don’t have any impact anymore, on where we’re headed or what the law is. I’m not worried about gay people in America right now, as opposed to their status in other countries. The change here was remarkable and swift, which was awesome, and we’ve witnessed that change right before our eyes. How vigilant are you regarding anachronisms in your films like ‘Far from Heaven,’ ‘Mildred Pierce’ and ‘Carol.’ Is it impossible to catch everything, and how can you take care of it in the post production process?

Haynes: There are always things I have to remove. I might look at a shot for five months, when somebody new to the screening room will say, ‘hey, there’s a modern air conditioner in that window.’ [laughs] It’s a process. You began a fascination with film during the pre-digital era. How do you think your career might have been different if you would have access to what is available today to begin to make films?

Haynes: It’s hard to transport myself forward in time, and the scarcity of opportunity back then kind of fueled my ambition. But back in my day, every family I knew had a Super 8 camera, and that’s what I first picked up. We adapt to the technology we have available. But for the kids of today, they can really make something great with what is available. You have one of the most infamous films in pop culture history, ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.’ With the passage of time and your reputation, have you ever run into Richard Carpenter to talk out the issues of this early film?

Haynes: No I haven’t. I should do it, I always bring it up to my lawyer every now and then. [laughs]. And another reason we have to revisit it is because there is a restoration going on right now for the film through UCLA and Sundance.

I hope it’s water under the bridge, but Richard Carpenter is a complicated individual, and he’s also entitled to his own opinion on how his sister is depicted. The film has lived on and survived, and to me is ultimately is an affectionate celebration of Karen Carpenter. I hope that wins out in the end. We were born six months apart. What do you think our generation has contributed to society in general, and what do we have left to do?

Haynes: We’re the end of the baby boomers, and we participated in many social changes. Who would of thought, for example, when the AIDS epidemic came along that so many would die, because it was gay people dying. And what emerged was a grassroots movement that developed, and succeeded in getting things done. The pinpointing of that movement evolved into the changes that we have today.

CLICK HERE for the 10 Best Films of 2015 by Patrick McDonald of, which includes “Carol.”

“Carol” is in select theaters now. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Featuring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson and Jake Lacy. Screenplay adapted by Phyllis Nagy, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Directed by Todd Haynes. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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