Todd Haynes hadn’t made a film since 2007’s I’m Not There, but his return to the big screen with Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel,
The Price of Salt, is reassurance that his tools are as sharp as ever. Set in the 1950s, the film—a tale of a taboo love affair between a young department store clerk, Therese (Rooney Mara), and her beautiful older customer Carol (Cate Blanchett)—debuted at Cannes to effusive reviews and made it the first of this season’s Oscar films to beat. Here, Haynes discusses his quest for truth, his fascination with the 50s, and the subtlety of cinema.

You worked with Cate Blanchett on I’m Not There, but wasn’t it costume designer Sandy Powell who brought Carol to your attention?

Well, she brought it to my attention, but just in passing. At the time there were other directors involved, though I can’t even think about that. But she said she was doing this “frock film” that she was looking forward to because she’d been doing a lot of amazing guy movies with Martin Scorsese back-to-back. I heard about it then, and it was the first I’d even heard that there was such a thing as a Patricia Highsmith lesbian novel. That was really as far as it went in my mind, because I was doing other things.

You hadn’t read the book at that point?

I had not. I didn’t read it until it came to me officially the following year, in 2013. I read Phyllis Nagy’s draft of the script at that point, which I thought was just beautiful. It was not at all a hard decision to make (the film). In addition to all the attractions, I felt it was something I hadn’t really tackled—a classic love story that functions in all the best ways love stories do.

It does treat the love story refreshingly honestly, as simple and undeniable as any straight love would be. That’s unusual for mainstream treatment of a homosexual relationship.

I think that’s true, and Phyllis Nagy speaks very eloquently about the sense that there isn’t a kind of psychological excavation of the characters, or a bit of handwringing or guilt that they undergo with regard to their feelings. Carol obviously has had more experience with women when we first meet her—so it’s already made an impact on her life and her marriage, although it hasn’t really been with the right woman or relationship. But even for Therese, she’s out of sorts in general, and she’s sifting through sensations and experiences as we all do when we’re younger. And she’s giving them equal weight, which I think is extraordinary, given the times.

The burden of the era certainly weighs on Therese. But she doesn’t hesitate in pursuing her relationship with Carol.

Yeah, the real determining question is not whether society will accept her feelings or not; it’s, will this person return her love or not? That’s what makes it universal. That is what transcends the class of love, or the period in which it’s occurring, and makes it something that just humbles us all and levels us all in the throes of those experiences that most of us have.

There’s a fantastic complexity to these characters, but was there any resistance from the notoriously unsubtle realities of putting a film together?

Yes. Phyllis had done a fantastic job of adapting (the book), but I had sensed the mark of time on the script. When I talked to Phyllis about it, she expressed tremendous relief that these were things I was seeing in it; some of the harder, colder, quieter edges that were in the book had been softened to appeal to potential financiers. She’d had such a long history with it that she was relieved to say, “Great, we can dispense with that kind of pandering.” We could get back to what the core of the story was, and what had drawn her to it in the first place. So we did go back to the novel for some choices, and there were some things I brought to it that had to do with that structuring device.

So much of Carol is in glances and moments of internal reflection. How much of that is just Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in these roles?

I remember being in rehearsal with Cate and Rooney, and every now and then they’d say, “Does she really need to say that?” We’d all look at each other and say, “No! Let’s cut it!” Not to say that Phyllis wasn’t involved in that plan from the start. But that was definitely the stylistic practice that we all took throughout the creative departments. I feel there was an understanding with them that words and dialogue were never carrying the weight of the story.

If there was ever an era that demanded reading between the lines, it was the American 1950s.

Exactly. It’s surface; it’s dressing. I do think the sense that you have to directly communicate the truth is something that I’ve had suspicions about. I find that film works in a way that is much more interesting than that. And the truth—which is essential to your experience watching movies—can never be directly handed to you by the filmmaker or the actor. There’s some circuitous route that we have to take to make the truth our own thing, and to make it something that we create as audiences. We have all kinds of ulterior motives going on in our words and moods and feelings, and film is this amazing way that can be literally visualized without language.