By Emily Krawczyk
Carol has finally hit the big screen. We got a chance to have a quick chat with Academy Award nominated screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, and got a tiny glimpse into her journey of over fifteen years as she brought Carol, from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Price of Salt,” to the already award winning film. It has been such an honor to speak with Phyllis and to get an inside look at the transition of one masterpiece into another.
Photo by KL Harrison
You adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt into a screen play renamed Carol. Patricia was a friend of yours and you have adapted her work in the past for the theater. Adapting a novel is hard enough, but adapting a friend’s novel into a movie seems like a huge yet rewarding undertaking. Has there been anything Patricia said to you, in regards to her novel, that has stuck with you during the writing of the script and production of the film?
Pat and I talked about the possibilities of adapting several of her novels, but on the subject of CAROL she was diffident. She didn’t think it could be made into a satisfying film because of its intense, subjective point of view. So, oddly, perhaps, her lack of confidence in anyone being able to tackle an adaptation successfully became a comfort to me years later when I was asked to adapt the novel. Had it been a book she’d readily seen being transformed into a corker of a film, I would have felt more constrained.
You have said before in past interviews that the world wasn’t ready for Carol fifteen years ago; that the love story between two women just wasn’t something that people could or would accept. Now it is one of the most anticipated films this year. What do you think has changed? Is it our perception of lesbians in society? The ability for movies to be carried by a strong female actor rather than a male? Or something completely different?
It’s probably a combination of all those factors. Certainly, the recent Supreme Court cases concerning gay marriage and the general increasing visibility of LGTB issues, the slow crawl to acceptance, doesn’t hurt.
Do you think that this story would be as influential and successful had it been about a man and a woman? Is it the sexuality behind it that gives it its edge or is there something more?
Given the time in which the novel is set (I set the adaptation several years later— so that the dawn of the Eisenhower administration and the rise of HUAC could be front and center— the sexuality of its central characters and the obstacles they face are key. But beyond this, the nature of obsessional love, that first flush of realization of who one is, all of this is central to both the novel and the film. I don’t think any of this works with a man and a woman at its center— unless there was a powerful societal taboo present in that couple.
Carol got a ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. How was that experience for you both personally and professionally?
I had no idea, in the moment, how long that applause went on. We were all just standing there, looking around, undoubtedly dazed. I remember asking Cate if we were just supposed to stand there while this was going on, and we all laughed. I suppose the response at Cannes felt like a vindication, personally, for sticking with the project for what felt like a lifetime. I think it WAS a lifetime, in writing terms.
You worked along side some amazing people during the making of this film. Todd Haynes directed and Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Sarah Paulson star in the upcoming film. Your characters (and Patricia’s characters) were alive before they were ever cast with actors. Though you share Carol, Therese, and Abby with Patricia, did you have your own vision of who they were? And how has that vision changed since you have seen these women come alive in front of you, portrayed by actresses?
My task was made easier by what I think of as Pat’s slow zoom lens of an approach to building character in the novel: she fixes on aspects of character, insisting the reader’s gaze— or focus— remain on a single feature. It’s like believing you see a woman walk out of a room, but what you actually see is a hint of a hem from that woman’s dress disappearing out of the frame— if you close your eyes, the scent perfume lingers. That’s how those Highsmithian characters are drawn. In shadow, in fleeting gestures, and it’s part of what creates that mosiac of sexual tension and obsessional desire in the book. It’s a stroke of genius, that tactic, because we can all be Carol and/or Therese when reading. We are drawn into the writer’s subjective point of view fully. Transposing those elements to narrative film requires a different structural tactic— and a different approach to character. Carol’s world, her life, had to be entirely created— and her point of view (however colored by Therese’s gaze upon it) inserted into the narrative whole. Therese, as well, had to be made flesh and blood in a way that maintains her subjective POV but which also draws a viewer into the narrative. What I knew going in to the adaptation was that Pat’s lack of psychologizing about Carol and Therese’s sexual attraction and ultimately their love, had to be maintained. It could not be corrupted by an impulse to indulge in any number of dramatic narrative cliches about guilt concerning one’s sexuality or the like. And that never changed. If I’ve achieved anything with the screenplay of which I am most proud, it would be that while very little of Pat’s actual dialogue from the book is included in the script, many viewers thus far are convinced that they are hearing Highsmith and her words. That, to me, is the greatest compliment to a dramatic adaptation. Watching certain scenes being shot simply reinforced my long-ago, initial writerly impulse— those actors are so strong and so true to the word— in every aspect of its meaning.
This is not your first screenplay. In 2005 you adapted and directed Shana Alexander’s book Mrs. Harris into a film. In the span of ten years, what changed for you as far as developing a movie script and what has stayed the same?
It was my first screenplay— or, I should say, it was the first screenplay I was paid to write. It was that long ago. Of course the script has changed over the years, depending on the dramaturgical input of various producers, financiers, collaborators. In that way, I can say that nothing has changed about the process of writing other scripts over the subsequent years. MRS HARRIS wasn’t an adaptation of the Alexander book— it was one of the sources I used, along with 10,000 pages of trial transcript, public commentary by Jean Harris herself and reportage from the time of Herman Tarnower’s death— to construct a narrative of the same kind of obsessional desire we explore in CAROL, oddly enough. So some things never change!
I read in a past article that Highsmith hated all of her adaptations. As a personal friend, how do you feel she would have felt about Carol?
Pat liked aspects of some of the adaptations— for instance, she loved Alain Delon playing Ripley in PLEIN SOLEIL. And she thought Robert Walker was the embodiment of Bruno in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. But I think, at heart, she felt most of material was stubbornly not adaptable to another medium. Pat admired high style and beauty (in the sense of lines of architecture, or a painting or a dress… or a beautiful person), so I like to think she would look approvingly upon many aspects of CAROL. I know she would have adored its restraint, its lack of interest in sensationalism, the aesthetic purity and focus of its direction, and I will risk a guess that she would have been over the moon about the cast. As for the script, I think she would have liked some of the changes, perhaps not others— like any novelist, though Pat was often sanguine about those things— and I think she would have appreciated my attempt to preserve the tone of her novel, that delicate balance between plot and character development, and her particular sense of humor. Pat could be wonderfully funny— so I hope she’s somewhere knocking back a shot of her favorite Scotch and replaying scenes between Carol and Therese on some celestial projector….!