Born and raised in Los Angeles, Todd Haynes is a critically-acclaimed director and screenwriter notable for this year’s Carol, Far From Heaven (nominated for four 2002 Academy Awards), I’m Not There (2007) and Velvet Goldmine (1998). Many of his films are considered seminal works of New Queer Cinema, a movement beginning in the early 1990s marked by themes including LGBT protagonists and rejection of heteronormativity. Haynes is also founder of Apparatus Productions, a non-profit supporting independent film.

Gus Van Sant is an acclaimed producer and filmmaker known for his films Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008)—the latter two earning Best Picture and Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards. He has collected many accolades and is a prominent auteur in the New Queer Cinema movement, especially for My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Elephant and Milk.

A film by Todd Haynes, Carol is set in early 1950s New York where a love affair between a young store clerk/aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older, married woman (Cate Blanchett) is complicated by her husband’s dissent. The film is based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Premiering at Cannes, Carol was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won both the Queer Palm and Best Actress for Mara.

American novelist and short-story writer Patricia Highsmith is known for her psychological thrillers, which have been adapted into over 24 films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train, Anthony Minghella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, and this year’s Carol.

American photographer and painter Saul Leiter is famous for his color photography that captured the charm of New York City during the 1950s, often using the reflective surfaces of mirrors and windows. Also an established fashion photographer, Leiter was published in various magazines.

A series of violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community that began after a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. At a time when police raids on gay bars were commonplace, it was a spontaneous uprising that catalyzed a longer trend of activism. Stonewall remains a pivotal moment in the US gay liberation movement and modern fight for LGBT rights.

A world observed through doorways, mirrors and car windows frosted with rain and cold, Carol is a stunning display of hushed longing, conveyed not so much in words as by glances and gestures between two women—a young store clerk, Therese (played by Rooney Mara) and the wealthy married woman who pursues her, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Early 1950s New York is rendered through the expertise of renowned filmmaker Todd Haynes and bears the immense weight of the societal ties which hold the two women apart. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol premiered at Cannes, garnering Best Actress for Mara and the Queer Palm for portraying “a moment in history. The first time a love story between two women was treated with the respect and significance of any other mainstream cinematic romance.” And it does so without limiting its scope. Carol asserts love as something all at once urgent, beautiful and deeply melancholic, and sets the stakes high between a lovely, shy Therese and the elegant, cultivated Carol.

Todd Haynes is joined by acclaimed filmmaker and longtime friend Gus Van Sant to discuss his vision for Carol—from Highsmith’s novel to the photographs of Saul Leiter and its Cincinnati location.

Gus Van Sant: How did you find this story?

Todd Haynes: It was May of 2013, and I’d heard about this project because Cate Blanchett and [costume designer] Sandy Powell were already attached to it. Liz Karlsen is the producer, and I’ve known her forever. Carol had become Liz’s baby, even though it had a previous life trying to be financed before she came along. And so it came to me unlike a lot of my movies, sort of already underway in many ways. I read the first draft that [screenwriter] Phyllis Nagy had written from the novel. Did you know this novel? I had never heard of it before.

GVS: No, I didn’t know about it.

TH: All my lesbian friends were like, “What!? You’ve got to be kidding me!” But I read the novel right when I read the first draft and dug what Phyllis had done with it. I was floored by the novel because it’s about falling in love, but it’s completely from this interior perspective of the younger character Therese’s mind. When you’re venturing into that unknown world, trying to read every single sign and gesture of the other person, you are almost in a criminal mentality. You are cut off from the world and you are in this place of constant narrative production like, “What if this happened? And what if that happened? What does this mean?” Just reading every single detail for any information of how they feel in return. And that sense of being cut off is only made more dramatic by the fact that this is a completely incoherent kind of love to the characters. They don’t have any example of it. She barely has a syntax for describing it. It doesn’t fit into all of her life choices and expectations; it’s this totally unknown world. I love that about the book. It was like, wow, I can see why Patricia Highsmith could bring something really distinctive to that as a crime novelist.

“This is a completely incoherent kind
of love to the characters.
They don’t have any example of it.”

GVS: I know her works mostly through films that have been done from them. There seems to be this common theme where the characters come from different class structures. Rich and poor. Ripley [in The Talented Mr. Ripley] was always the poor kid hanging out with the rich people. And in Carol there seems to be this same difference between these two characters and classes.

TH: Yeah, and Strangers on a Train is the same with Bruno, the killer. Although it shifts which person is the criminal because Bruno’s the one from the rich family who has this alienated relationship with his father—wants to kill him or whatever. But in Ripley, it’s the rich guy who becomes the target, ultimately. I love the class stuff. And really this movie, as much as it is about lesbian love and this very early, pre-Stonewall time and place, is also about an older woman and a younger woman; the older woman coming from a different class and having all the complexities of a failing marriage, a child and custody issues at hand, and a prior relationship with a lifelong friend who was a woman. She comes with all the stuff, basically, the story. Meanwhile, Therese is this person in formation whose self-perception is coming into focus simultaneously with the world around her. I love how in the book you are on the side of that passive person, the person who has yet to manifest themselves. Some of that I put back into the script when I worked with Phyllis on it because I feel like this is the first time I’d really done what I consider first and foremost a love story. It made me want to watch love stories in movies, and what kept coming back to me was the point of view. In a lot of great love stories, you are aligned with the more vulnerable party—in this case Therese, the younger one—and that gives you a sense of the love being almost unattainable, beyond reach or something half-fantasized.