Phyllis Nagy expounds on the difficulties of adapting her friend Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt into the new acclaimed period piece Carol and how to portray characters falling in love without words or melodrama.
Written by Rob Feld
(November 20, 2015)
Taking the job of adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt into the acclaimed new period drama Carol was a no-brainer for Phyllis Nagy. At the time, she was a playwright living in London at the urging of Stephen Daldry after he took over the Royal Court Theatre. It would be her first screenwriting job, and she had even been friends with Highsmith, who had suggested she adapt one of her novels. It wouldn’t even require pitching. The rub, however, would be adapting an entirely subjective story representing the internal thoughts of only one of its characters.
Therese (Rooney Mara) is a clerk in a New York department store who meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), a sophisticated, older, wealthy woman in the midst of a divorce from her husband (Kyle Chandler). Their attraction is immediate and a slow courtship begins. Carol has had a previous affair with a woman and her husband moves to restrict her access to their daughter, going so far as to have Therese and Carol spied upon when they take a trip together. The event forces the women apart until Carol makes a choice for the life she wants to lead.
The novel is told from Therese’s almost stream of consciousness point of view, who becomes instantly obsessed with Carol. “There is no real character of Carol in the book, necessarily and rightly,” Says Nagy. “Carol becomes all of our objects of desire. We can project onto her anything we want.” But this of course presented a problem for adaptation, as did all of the internal elements. “Therese feels quite a lot during the novel, and there’s no dramatic equivalent or shortcut for the adapter,” Nagy explains, so her challenge became finding a way to maintain the tone; the sense of restraint and subtext of the novel while building up the characters and world outside Therese’s mind.
Photo: © 2015 The Weinstein Company
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol.
What was the key for you to translate this internal, objectifying view into something that was going to be cinematic?
The key for me was knowing I had the freedom from all involved to focus on the gaze, to actually make it more of a European movie than a talky American movie. I could leave room for scenes that were nothing but people riding in cars checking each other out. But it was quite freeing because usually in those situations you are asked over-explicate, do a lot of explanatory writing or come up with a line that sums up what someone feels about falling in love, and it’s impossible. Then it was to not go down the path movies sometimes do of contemporizing the psychology of what's going on between those characters; to apply a late 20th century, early 21st-century psychological analysis of the situation.
Tell me more about that.
Well, to actually create characters who lived in 1952 is more difficult than it would appear. I watched a great many period movies that were made, say, in the last 15 years and some of them, apart from the costumes or sets, do not sound or act or, more importantly, behave as people did.
And how did you identify that actual psychology?
An absolute restraint. An inability to express yourself in the way that everyone seems to spout out their emotions now. Now people talk about things constantly to the point where it makes me want to tell people, “Shut up, I don't really want to hear about your childhood.” I read magazine articles from the period to get a feel for how women in say Carol’s or Therese’s situation would behave; it's quite decorous. It’s not, “Oh God, I have a terrible marriage, and I need to get out,” and “God, you’re beautiful.” It had to be handled with a degree of tact and subtlety until it could no longer be contained. There’s a way in which you could look at something like this, especially on the page, and say that by today’s writing standards, “Oh, I don't get it. Why are they together?” But when was the last time you fell in love with someone and played a three-week game of 20 questions with them? It doesn't happen.
So I was allowed to pretend I was writing in 1952; the codes and what you can achieve through the power of the subtext by just letting it flow. Not letting people have conversations that were on point all the time. That’s why I think if it’s successful, that’s why it’s successful: because it’s not a potboiler when it could have been a real melodrama. But the book is not. It’s something odder and darker, and there’s lot of writing about frustration and longing, so it was to find that equivalent on screen. How do you do that without having people talk about it all the time? The way to do that is to have them observed in situations where they cannot act out. Restaurants, public places, even in a car, in front of Carol’s husband. You can't quite be sure if the object of your desire is desiring you because there's no conversation about it. It's around it. And if you don't fundamentally get the characters’ situation, no amount of writing is going to convince you otherwise. So that was tremendously freeing and pretty rare.
On that point, there’s the scene in the car after Carol picks up Therese. It’s largely over music with muted small talk about nothing, and I was interested in the tension and how you put on the page the dynamic between these two people falling in love.
That’s interesting because in the script there is no dialogue and I think Todd just told them to talk about what they might. But there it's all about things like Therese focusing on the sleeve of Carol’s coat. The richness of the fur, the textures in the opulent car she’s never seen the likes of before. The way Carol's finger is on the radio button. That’s all it is, just describe behavior through Therese’s experience of Carol. In many different hands it would have been many different things, but in the movie it’s the right thing because Todd and I share a similar sensibility; appreciation of tone. But it could have been ghastly.
I am fascinated by portraying people falling in love on screen and how one makes it understandable, or the depth to which it needs to be made understandable, especially where everything is unsaid.
I don't think the character understands it. I suppose the film really is told from Therese’s point of view so, if we’re put in her lap seeing the things she sees, I suppose it’s a simulation of us falling in love with [Carol] too. It seems to work in some way, but that's alchemy, isn’t it? You put all the separate things together, and it works. Or it doesn’t work. But Cate and Rooney were a very lucky combination of people with a chemistry that immediately bumps up the emotional stakes. I don't know. I watch the final scene where Therese returns to Carol, and I wonder why it still gets me after all this time? I understand how it works technically, on a craft level and how carefully constructed the mise en scène is, but why does that pack a wallop? Because it ends where it has to end. That’s ultimately why you are left wanting more. That is key to movies like this. You can overstuff them with detail or you can trust that many of the people who are watching it are not sociopaths and will have some understanding. I find it tremendously moving and I would even if I came to it having had nothing to do with it, because I am asked to provide the emotional response to the act of falling in love myself. I am trusted by the filmmakers and actors. A fair number of people who watch movies today have the opposite experience, which is that they are just fed emotions; I call them emotions but I’m not sure that's what they are. A child dying on a bike: we cry. But I don't unless no one else is. And that was a simple guiding premise in the writing and making of Carol. We’re not overegging the pudding and there are a lot of situations in that script which could have wound up unbearable for me to watch. But it throws it to us to feel something rather than to have a response to a lot of feelings that are generated falsely on the screen; single tear drop some abused person, blah blah blah.
Your couple is together with a professed love but you delay the consummation for quite some time. How did you think about maintaining tension while delaying that event?
Of course in this instance the writer is greatly helped by the period. And by the fact that Carol is divorcing but is married, has a kid, and there are other external forces battling them both. It’s pretty easy to maintain tension if you don't actually make the act of consummation a big deal. These characters are pretty extraordinary in that the sexuality is not problematic, which is the thing that you would expect from women at this time. Indeed over the years, having a series of conversations with actors who might have been circling the project, I heard “Why doesn't Carol feel guilty about being gay?” And I would say, “Do you feel guilty about being straight?” The novel is radical in that aspect, and it was the one thing that I knew would make it work, and give it some attraction even for its least likely demographic (what, 18 to 24-year-old straight men?). That it could make it possible for the other to identify with it. With some exceptions, nobody grows up thinking, I'm a freak. This novel gives voice to that in a way that was radical for the time and from what I can see is still radical. Most gay movies focus on gayness as a thing that has to be either overcome in some way by the community or on accepting oneself in a particular way. In the annals of the literature this is almost unique. You don't ask the question of heterosexual tension or attraction so in many ways I just replicated that, which is why the tension is maintained. They don't ever say, “Why do I have these feelings?” It's completely lateral that we understand that Carol has had a previous affair with a woman who is still in her life, and no one’s committed suicide, etc. When you can dispense with that, it’s a classical story.
Am I wrong or is that a more contemporary point of view? Isn’t that the classic 1950s thing? What is wrong with me, I don't fit in?
It depends. The book was published in 1952 and set a little earlier than the film set. You’re right, it brings a contemporary questioning to the forefront in what is a healthy way, which is to say you hopefully sit through something like this and say, “Wait a minute, nobody in that movie ever talked about being gay.” Well, fine. That’s the right way to contemporize it even though the book is like that. But it’s very hard for people to resist. There were people through the years who desperately wanted there to be a teary scene about that. These women fall headfirst, and you don't ever question that when you're in the middle of it. That's how we make a comment on the political side of it, by de-politicizing it.
You decided to open with a moment of crisis for your characters, ahead in time before flashing back, as opposed to starting with everyday life before disruption. Then, at the end, the movie catches up.
The framing device came out of discussions with Todd once he came on board. He is very fond of Brief Encounter. So he said, “Wouldn't it be great if we could do a framing device?” We decided the best place to do this would be the final scene, just as in Brief Encounter. I do think seeing their scene in the end, where you think maybe that’s it, then seeing it in its entirety and realizing where it was interrupted in the beginning, does have a larger resonance or greater emotional power.
What jumps out at you as the greatest challenge in the writing of it? It’s usually something I don’t expect the writer to identify.
I suppose to make sure in the writing and also throughout the stages of development, to be like a watchdog to make sure that the men were fairly treated in the script, because that’s another easy thing. One of my favorite moments in the film is the scene when the husband comes in on Christmas Eve. He’s making a plumbing repair and having an argument with Carol, with Therese in the next room. He comes out and says to Therese, “How do you know my wife?” He breaks your heart. Because that’s right, he’s not a monster. He’s a guy in a certain place and time. Those are the kinds of scenes that I love because you can constantly pull the rug out. You think you know this character, but you don't. You think you know what Carol’s response might be to this but instead she shuts the door in Therese’s face. It all seemed real in a particular way and those were the challenges, to keep that level of humanity. There are no villains. I’m not writing a vampire story. But people like villains and heroes so the challenge was to make sure they could like this too, even though there wasn’t that kind of catharsis. Hopefully there’s another kind.