Fifteen years ago, playwright Phyllis Nagy adapted her first screenplay Carol from Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel The Price Of Salt about the love affair between an alluring older woman and a twentysomething department store clerk. But the world wasn’t quite ready for it.
“I would hate to think, but it’s possible that the love story could have stalled the project,” says Nagy. But, really, that wasn’t all.
“Think about the climate 15 years ago for female-driven films that weren’t comedies. If the film was a buddy comedy, we’d have a much easier time. There wasn’t even the mini-glut of female-driven projects we see now. We had two female leads and our third biggest supporting role was female. There were nice roles for men, but they weren’t leads,” Nagy says about some of the elements that kept Carol in picture purgatory.
The end of the road for Carol couldn’t be sweeter. The Weinstein Co./Film4/Number 9 Films production received a lengthy standing ovation at its Grand Theatre Lumiere premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last Sunday, promptly triggering awards-season buzz for the title, which bows stateside on December 18. That’s the same day Star Wars: The Force Awakens swallows up the box office, but similar to Weinstein’s The Imitation Game last holiday season, look for Carol to serve as prime art house counterprogramming to the sci-fi titan.
Carol‘s path to the big screen began when Film4 approached Nagy with Highsmith’s book, which in its 1990 reprint had been retitled Carol. For Nagy, a New York native, who made her mark in the London theater scene throughout the years with such titles as Weldon Rising, The Strip, Never Land and Disappeared among others, it was more than a job. Highsmith was a close acquaintance, and Nagy had to make sure she did right in adapting the author’s tome.
Carol follows the passionate romance between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an older married woman, and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a precocious twentysomething. Therese, who has a gift for photography, yearns for more in life, despite having her fair share of gentleman suitors approach her in a restaurant. Carol is trapped in a loveless marriage. But when her husband (Kyle Chandler) learns of her deep friendship with Therese, he questions Carol’s competence as a mother and seeks a divorce. It’s not the first time Carol has gone astray; she’s also been involved with Abby (Sarah Paulson), her best friend and the godmother to her child.
Says Carol star Cate Blanchett: “These are two women whose love was criminal; their same-sex love was illegal. There’s a lot of roadblocks in their relationships: It’s the age gap — their wealth of experience versus Therese’s relative innocence at the beginning.”
When it was first published in 1952, The Price Of Salt was Highsmith’s second novel following her 1950 bestseller Strangers On A Train, which was fast tracked to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Highsmith’s publisher at the time released The Price Of Salt under the author pseudonym Clare Morgan. “But it wasn’t because of the gay issue,” says Nagy; rather, “Her publishers didn’t know what to do with the book. Patricia was branding herself as a mystery writer. This was a romance novel, and it was bound to throw a wrench in her budding career.”
Highsmith, like Therese in the book, worked at Bloomingdale’s to make ends meet. “Patricia saw an ice-blonde woman who she sold a toy to and then she went home and wrote the book in two weeks,” recalls Nagy.
Like the roadblocks that Carol and Therese face in their relationship, so did the screenplay. A number of directors including Stephen Frears, John Maybury, Kenneth Branagh and John Crowley put their fingers through the pages — each with their own suggested angles on the story — but Carol never sang its way into production.
U.K.-based producer Elizabeth Karlsen met Nagy at the suggestion of agent Jenne Casarotto. Nagy pitched two projects, one of which was her adaptation of the Shana Alexander’s book Very Much A Lady, which the duo made for HBO as the TV movie Mrs. Harris. The other project was Carol. When the script landed at Karlsen and Stephen Woolley’s Number 9 Films, momentum picked up. At one point, the rights to the Highsmith novel lapsed, but Karlsen got them back. Four years ago, Blanchett became so enthralled with the script that she committed before there was a director attached. Woolley and Karlsen thought their director buddy of 25 years, Todd Haynes, would be the perfect fit along with his producer Christine Vachon. Haynes at the Carol press day credited three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell for bringing Carol to his attention. “Once Todd came aboard, the film moved fairly quickly into production,” says Nagy, “He was an excellent collaborator. We could discuss elements openly, and neither of us would be precious about them.” Throughout the ups and downs of Carol, Nagy also gives a shout-out to former Film4 topper Tessa Ross as being the staunchest supporter of the project throughout the years. Goldcrest Films also financed Carol with Film4.
During the past three Cannes Film Festivals there always has been a bit of news about Carol. In May 2012, it was announced that Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska were attached to star with HanWay handling foreign and Number 9 and Film4 producing. At that point, Crowley was set to direct. A year later, Weinstein Co. took U.S. rights with Haynes directing. By August 2013, Wasikowska dropped out due to scheduling conflicts with Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and Mara officially stepped into the role of Therese. In January 2014, Chandler was added to the cast as Carol’s husband. Production lasted 35 days during April 2014 with Cincinnati doubling as 1950s NYC.
Mara told Deadline that she read Carol after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: “I was really exhausted and felt I couldn’t act anymore. I read it and loved it and obviously wanted to work with Cate but felt I couldn’t be any good in that. I felt like I gave so much in (Dragon Tattoo) that I didn’t have any more to give. Luckily, a year later when Todd came on board, the script came back to me and I was in a much different head space and it was a no-brainer at that point.”
Praising Nagy’s adaptation, Blanchett told Deadline: “Carol is very objectified in the book. She’s seen through Therese’s obsession for her. What Phyllis did with the screenplay, that Todd also did in his pass, was to shift perspectives and to get you to see what’s behind this ambiguous, mysterious, alluring mask that is Carol.”
Expounds Nagy on how she fleshed out the character of Carol: “The novel is like a fever dream. It’s Therese’s point of view, her interior monologue. Carol has no character per se in the novel. She’s the alter ego of the author. Carol isn’t dramatized in the novel, except when she’s with Therese.”
One would think that an iconoclastic love story about two women against the button-down, conservative 1950s is bound to end in tragedy. However, that was never Highsmith’s intention. Instead, she decided to go out with an authentic existence message. Talking about the film’s rather upbeat, open-ended possibility resolution to Carol and Therese’s romance, Nagy observes: “It’s the way life goes. We make connections which remain large. The only freedom we have is honesty. You can’t possibly live a free life unless you live a truthful life. The people I spoke with at the afterparty came away from the film as though they were hit in the solar plexus: They started bawling. When was the last time you saw an optimistic ending where peopled bawled for the possibility?”