Screenwriter and playwright Phyllis Nagy wrote the original screenplay for Carol back in 1997, adapting her friend Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price Of Salt at the prolific author’s encouragement. Nagy then ran into anyone’s idea of “development hell,” waiting almost 20 years for the film to get made. And now Carol has become one of the most talked about awards contenders of the year across a range of categories.To see an exclusive featurette about Nagy , who recently won the New York Film Critics award for Best Screenplay , just click on the video link above. And here, Nagy discusses her decades-long journey with Carol, her early conversations with director Todd Haynes, her skepticism of LGBT trends and her upcoming work on Tristar’s The Trap.
When did Patricia Highsmith’s novel come to your attention and why were you interested in adapting it?
The novel came to me in 1997, which was a couple of years after Highsmith had died. It was good that it came to me then because I’m not sure I would’ve taken it on had she been alive. Let’s just say she was formidable and, as a young writer, the last thing I wanted was to fear the wrath of the older, very successful writer.
But she encouraged you to try your hand at adapting her work?
She did. But it’s a different thing when it’s a hypothetical and then some producer comes to you and says, “Would you do this?” You know very well—actually more than the author of the novel—what that could ultimately mean. It could’ve meant the producer wanted Carol set on Mars or in a caravan, which could be interesting in a sequel. But it came to me and I had no idea what I was getting myself into because it was the first script I was really hired to write. So I think I took about six months to write the first draft, which is something that you can do in the U.K. as opposed to here, especially nowadays. After the first draft we had about 13 years of false starts and people coming and going. By that I mean producing partners, potential financiers, directors. Because it was so difficult to get financed people went on to other things. It was a little bit like “Can’t Carol,” and the constant, I must say, was Film4’s support of the project, primarily (former Film4 head) Tessa Ross, who was the great champion of it throughout her time there. She just wouldn’t let us quit, but eventually the the original producer lost the rights to the novel, and that was that.
I thought Carol was dead and I was ready to move on by that time, and then (producer) Liz Karlsen called about a year later and said, “Guess what? I have the rights to the novel. Let’s go make a movie.” I said, “Great. No, thank you. I’ve had enough. Go find yourself another writer who will have a perfectly good take.” The truth is that I had a concern I was no longer the same writer. It’s a long time in terms of maturity. During the development phase, or the lack of development phase I should say, I had the luxury of being able to look at it whenever I wanted and obsessively tweak this or that. But when it came right down to it, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to replicate that first genuine flush of youthful electricity, which a story like this really does need. So it took them a year to convince me to jump back in with the promise that they would indeed this time get the film made. And they did, and I shouldn’t have worried so much.
What was happening in your career between 1997 and today and why do you think now is finally the right moment for Carol?
Between the writing of Carol and now, I lived in the U.K. for a long time. I wrote quite a few screenplays for people whilst also having a career as a playwright, and so that kept me going. What I learned through that is to not take jobs that you’re not good for. People want whoever wrote the last script that they’ve heard of, but that doesn’t mean you should take those jobs. That’s what I learned. I could’ve written the best things I’ve ever written in my life, and yet the contexts were wrong, and I was never going to do what was required. Liz Karlsen kept asking me to write something for her and out of exasperation I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to do this.” I gave her a book about (American jazz pianist) Gene Harris, and that took up quite a long time. After that, though, I wrote and developed a couple of films in the U.K. that I was going to direct, but which were impacted by the last serious SAG strike threat. And for both of those projects we were under a gun to get them principally cast by a certain date. When that happens, things just die. They just don’t come back. So that was also instructive, but since Carol came back, in 2010 or 2011, I’ve been writing pretty steadily. As is typical, all sorts of things will go into production at once. It will look like I’ve been extremely busy, although it’s been rather at a more leisurely pace than that would suggest.
What made Todd Haynes the right director for Carol? Were you a fan of his films prior to working together?
Absolutely, a big fan. I didn’t know that he would do the film because it’s the first thing he hasn’t written, and I know what that’s like. You might think you can’t, or you don’t want to, or you want to take it in a completely different direction. So I think we were all thrilled, no one more than me, when we spoke and realized that we were simpatico in very important ways. Todd encouraged me to take things that I had always thought were good for it but which had been changed over the years in various polishes for various people.
We went back to something approaching the early draft, which was smarter for having 18 years of experience. So that was great. Todd spoke to me about his love of framing devices and, in particular, Brief Encounter, and so I added that. We talked about a few other things. It was a very good, fruitful, easy process and I think probably easier than he thought it might be from some of his prior experiences.
Are you happy with the way the LGBT narrative, and now the transgender narrative, is advancing in the mainstream with films like Carol and The Danish Girl? These films have been in development for over 10 years each, but to the untrained eye it must seem like an overnight phenomenon.
Once it’s not a trend I’ll be much less suspicious of the claims of this kind of material advancing into the mainstream. Maybe every 10 years, there’s little blips of films, but I think it’s as you say—because they’re all in development for such a long time they all hit at a certain moment in the zeitgeist. If they don’t go away or if a particular kind of of film that isn’t solely gender-based happens to keep being made, then I’ll be the happiest political activist on earth. Until that happens I’ll reserve judgment about what it means that there are so many things out and about in the culture at the moment, because I’m not sure how many of them will be making an impact.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for these sorts of stories to be told in this medium, when The Price Of Salt was published in 1952?
I don’t know… I think gay content films featuring men have a slightly different trajectory, especially if two actors of some magnitude attach themselves to it. I honestly feel as if we had a harder time because the picture was driven by women in leads and in the third supporting role, rather than the lesbian content. It’s not a genre film. It would’ve been easy if it had been, you know, “Carol and Therese go on the road, and hijinks ensue,” or, “Carol and Therese kill themselves.” That might’ve been easier. It’s just a love story that doesn’t make the sexuality of its protagonists a particular issue. So, really, I think that caused a difficulty, and probably we started at a time when there wasn’t an appropriate Carol (actress) as well—the way that finance is driven and who can get a film financed. I can’t recall who was around then, but I bet a lot of it over the years has had to do with that, too.
What was the most challenging scene to write in this script?
The single most challenging scene was surely the lawyer’s office/custody scene because it could so easily be a horribly melodramatic or sentimental scene, on the one hand with lots of speechifying, and it could demonize various people around that table. What it had to do was convey empathy for both the position of Carol and Harge and, in doing so, allow the audience to go with it as if her choice was as natural as breath. It’s a very tricky thing to pull off, and I think that I worried about that scene more so than many other scenes because I knew that in America, in particular, that would be a problem—not so much that she decides to go off with some “shop girl,” as Harge calls her, but because of the choice she makes about being a good mother. That is an incredibly complex series of arguments that’s put forth and in a brief amount of time, and thank God there’s Cate (Blanchett) delivering the goods.
What can you tell us about The Trap, which you’ve been tapped to write for Tristar?
The Trap is a German novel by a first-time novelist. It was a bestseller in Germany. It’s being published here in the summer and, essentially, it’s a psychological thriller about a successful writer who hasn’t left her house in 12 years, which is immediately appealing to me. I would like to stay in my house for 12 years. She is watching TV one night and sees this sort of Brian Williams-type and identifies him as the fellow who murdered her sister 12 years ago, which was, of course, the last time she left her house. And she lays out an elaborate trap to elicit a confession. But things do not proceed as planned.
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