Bringing Carol to the Big Screen

A Masterful Ode to Passion

Love is larger than life in Carol, Todd Haynes’ masterful poetic ode to passion, a sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel The Price of Salt, following two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York.


Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett

As conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change.

Carol poignantly reveals how dangerous it can be to love for real and break the moral code.

Love is splendid and beautiful and deserves to be celebrated with honour and dignity, no matter how impossible the quest.

Haynes’ lingering haunting images beautifully captures the essence of true love,  with Rooney Mara absolutely radiant in her heartfelt performance as the beguiling 20-year-old Therese Belivet, a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (a mesmerising Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, the innocence of their first encounter dims and their connection deepens.

While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband (Kyle Chandler) begins to question her competence as a mother as her involvement with Therese and close relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) come to light. Carol is directed by Todd Haynes and written by Phyllis Nagy with moving performances from Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy and Cory Michael Smith.

Carol vividly depicts the transitional period of the 1950s following the end of World War II. America is marked by feelings of both paranoia and optimism. As the post-war years ushered in many voices of change, 28-year-old crime author Patricia Highsmith wrote her second novel, The Price of Salt, about an unlikely attraction and love affair between two women living in New York City— Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Published in 1952, the sexual candor explored in Highsmith’s words made the book one of the seminal pieces of literature to come out of the era.

Emmy-nominated writer Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris) adapted the screenplay from Highsmith’s original novel as director Todd Haynes brought the story to life for audiences today. Haynes was driven to recount Therese and Carol’s controversial relationship with a film that captured the social climate of the 1950s.

Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes

Unexpected Love Affair between two Women of different ages

“Carol follows the unexpected love affair between two women of different ages and different social settings,” said Haynes. “A young woman in her early 20s, Therese, is embarking on life when she meets Carol Aird, an alluring older woman who has one daughter and is beginning to go through a divorce. As these two women become infatuated and entranced by each other, they begin to confront the conflicts their attraction provokes.” Haynes wanted to draw on the aspect of unforeseen love as both Therese and Carol struggle to understand the signs and signals guiding their emotions.

The film portrays a unique time in history where society “followed a prescribed path,” said Haynes. Carol realizes how unfulfilled she feels in her marriage to Harge, a wealthy investment banker. Layering into Carol’s uncertainty, Therese’s character emerges in a similar state of confusion with a devoted boyfriend named Richard by her side. A paradigm shift of prescriptive relationships quickly makes its way into the plot.

Phylis Nagi

Phylis Nagi

“Carol is a love story that depicts how truth is the ultimate tonic. If you’re emotionally truthful to who you are and what you believe in, good things may not happen, but you will become a better person,” said writer Phyllis Nagy. The emotional turmoil central to the characters in the film is rooted in the conventional worlds both Carol and Therese have built around them.


But Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay for Carol builds through a string of wordless exchanges. Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) talk. But alongside the dialogue, a private, shared language of look and touch evolves, a whole glossary of silences.

An immersive experience

Like Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt (later renamed Carol), on which the film is based, Nagy’s script is as much a story of the unsaid as the said. “Usually the first thing that is asked of you is to get rid of that stuff,” says Nagy. Storylines tend to be “overexplicated and expository”.

But Nagy wanted this film to be “an immersive experience. Carol the novel is about observation and gesture. And so I was allowed to write scenes that had nothing in them but behaviour … That peculiar sense of sitting next to someone for the first time, smelling their perfume.”

Perhaps that is why watching Carol is like stepping into a different world, and the difference simultaneously unnerves and excites. Carol and Therese’s relationship intensifies so incrementally, with such subtle signposting, that understanding it requires constant revision. Their love grows openly, though the film is set in New York in 1952. It seems at once improbable and unremarkable – and wilfully demanding of acceptance.

Nagy, who is also a director and playwright, says that Todd Haynes, Carol’s director, “was sensitive and brilliant enough to let it be”. By which she means that the characters’ lesbianism “is not an issue. It’s not talked about. And when it is, it’s talked about as the state of normal. All the women” – including Carol’s friend Abby (played by Sarah Paulson) – “are lesbians. And I think it’s very potent. You’re just looking at any relationship.”

A screenplay that took 15 years to write

It was in 2000 that Nagy first began work on the screenplay. Her commitment to it has outlasted numerous, temporarily interested, directors including Stephen Frears and Kenneth Branagh. But maybe Carol is a better film for having been made to wait. “Fifteen years ago, we might have come across people who insisted on the gay speech or the guilt speech,” she says, an eyebrow lifting in horror. “It would have been the lesser for it.”

Nagy likes “tricky books” – she is currently working on a Holocaust revenge thriller set in the world of chess – which is lucky, because Carol presents many challenges to adaptation. It is written in a close third-person. The narrator sits on the shoulder of Therese and makes regular advances into (and retreats from) her head. On paper, this creates a creepy sense of intrusion; Carol remains largely the property of Therese’s obsessive imagination. But how to translate this to film?

Nagy’s first decision was to split the point of view: the film begins with Therese and shifts to Carol. Crucially: “The point of view is always with the more vulnerable party.” She decided to make Therese a photographer rather than a set designer. This allowed Therese to be seen moving from objects to people. “Which is a bit like Pat herself,” Nagy says, referring to the author. “I mean, I knew her. And Therese is a clear stand-in for Pat Highsmith. It was very helpful in creating Therese, and the way that she might speak. Even the odd syntax Pat would use.”

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Nagy and Highsmith met in New York when Nagy was 22. She had been asked to accompany Highsmith to a cemetery for an article for the New York Times. “We had a largely silent limousine ride, and it was quite a long journey. I think she spoke to me three times out of the blue to interrogate me about certain American dramatists.” Nagy has this story off almost like a mini-screenplay. “So: ‘What do you think of O’Neill?’ I said: ‘No, not much.’ Nods. ‘Good.’ Silence, silence. ‘What do you think of Tennessee Williams?’ ‘Yes, I like him.’ ‘Good!’”

At the cemetery, they didn’t speak at all. Highsmith poked her stick at a few gravestones; then came “a gruesome tour” of the crematorium where they were invited to place their hands in the still-warm oven.

“We got outside. It was about 11am. Highsmith pulled a hip flask out of her trenchcoat and said: ‘I don’t know about you, but I need a drink.’” Then she invited Nagy back to her hotel for lunch, which, says Nagy: “Actually consisted of a minibar of beer.”

This was not, apparently, an attempt at seduction. Rather, Highsmith “used to collect – her word – young girls who were needing a mentor,” Nagy says. The two met up in London soon after and subsequently Highsmith wrote to Nagy “every single week. We had this huge correspondence. She was very sweet and encouraging to me as a young writer.”

Maybe the depth of their friendship helps to explain why Nagy stuck with the screenplay over 15 long years of non-production. Was it the presence of two gay female leads that made the film so hard to bring to screen?

“My feeling, having talked to and tried to put it together with so many people over the years, is not so much it being gay women; it’s about it being women. In film-financing terms, that’s very tricky. It’s very sad that I have to say this. But even Thelma & Louise was a generation ago. The 1930s and 40s were nothing but celebrations of fantastically complex female leads. We’ve lost that.” She mentions Bette Davis’s work with William Wyler, Sunset Boulevard … “You would never have that happen in a movie today, where a heroine inscribes a cigarette case ‘Mad about the boy’. She’d be called a bitch on Twitter.”

All too often, the central dramas or compulsions of female characters depend on men, Nagy says. “Women who are obsessed with getting pregnant, or jealous of another woman … This is the last acceptable punching bag, the woman. I think anyone in the industry would be surprised if we said there’s a fair amount of homophobia, because it’s the same subtle, or not so subtle, [prejudice] as with misogyny.

“If we’re talking specifically about gay women, about who they’re allowed to be, who gets to make the movies, it’s generally men.” She says she has noticed a swing back to “vampy” screen lesbians, “like Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve à la The Hunger. You turn on the TV and there’s hot young dykes or bisexuals.”

But perhaps the strongest argument for bringing more complicated – and more gay – women to the screen is Carol itself. “If this movie does well,” says Nagy, “maybe three other movies like it can be made. And then if those movies do well …” Briefly, she allows herself to imagine a world in which the “state of normality” of lesbianism sells at the cinema in infinite variety and richness. Maybe it will happen. As a brilliant piece of art, Carol works. To change the world a little bit, it just needs to make money.

 A beautiful adaptation

Producer Elizabeth Karlsen saw a beautiful adaptation in Nagy’s script as she felt, “it was just such a fine piece of work.” When coupled with Haynes’ direction, the brave and fearless roles of Carol and Therese underscore the sentiment of the film’s themes. The many faces of love evolve out of pain as the characters find courage to be who they want to be, despite  unchartered territory.

Todd Haynes first got wind of the fact that someone was hoping to make a film of Carol, Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian love story of 1952, from his friend and long-term collaborator, the “insatiably brilliant” Oscar-winning costume designer, Sandy Powell. It was 2012, and the two of them were appearing at a 10th anniversary screening of Far from Heaven – Haynes’s lush homage to the 50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk – at a New York museum. “She told me she’d been doing all these guy movies,” he recalls. “Then she said: ‘But there is a frock film coming up: it’s an adaptation of The Price of Salt [the original title of Highsmith’s novel] and Cate [Blanchett] is attached.’ It sounded right up my alley.”

Haynes, busy with other things, thought no more about it until 2013 when Christine Vachon, his long-time producer, had a conversation with Elizabeth Karlsen, the producer of Carol. The film was, as they say, in transition, which on this occasion meant that it was in need of a new director; by happy coincidence, Haynes was in a similar state of interregnum. Soon after this conversation, he read both Phyllis Nagy’s script and Highsmith’s novel and, as predicted, he was sold: “truly taken with all of it”.

Carol is, he says, irrefutably a love story: in its day, its controversial reputation had as much to do with the fact that Highsmith, who published it first under a pseudonym, allows her protagonists a measure of happiness as with their sexuality. But he saw immediately that it is also a thriller, and this had a deep appeal. “The suspense lies in the audience’s anticipation of how these women will find intimacy. Whose territory is going to offer the other the most freedom? When, if ever, are they going to consummate their relationship? Everything is filtered through the eyes of Therese [the younger, less sophisticated of the two lovers], and this is the key. While she is an open book, unformed, we don’t always have access to Carol’s world, and so there are these inexplicable moments of silence and drifting, maybe even, on our part, impatience with Therese. I love that tension. That is so much what falling in love is like.”

It’s for others to review Carol. All I can tell you is that I watched it in a kind of swoon. It seems to me to be a masterpiece. Its woozy, saturated colours and clanky, echoing sound-mix; its sets, so casually precise, and its costumes, all brooches and gloves and fiddly fastenings: these things lend it such authenticity, you struggle to believe it’s ersatz, not a product of the 50s at all. And then there are the immaculate performances: Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett (loyally attached right till the end) as Carol. Blanchett, in particular, seems to have been lit from within.

The script, faithful to the spirit of Highsmith, is minimalist, almost terse, and yet the audience experiences Carol’s emotions, her unexpectedly masculine rapaciousness shading eventually into something more undefended, with a force that is almost physical. Even the extras are perfect, as if the film’s director had torn a page from an old Life magazine and somehow brought it to, well, life.

How did he do it?

“Well, I do a look book,” he says. “As all directors do. But what’s interesting about this one is that it really looks like the movie, or at least, the movie looks like it.” Placing it on the table between us, he turns its pages. “The settings, the mood, the temperature… There are references here to other films, but what I found myself looking at more was photography from the time.”

One name in particular drew his eye: Saul Leiter (1923-2013), a contemporary of Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, and a founder the New York School. “He’s known for shooting through windows, for using reflection. His work is impressionistic: these exquisite frames, and then that blown colour palette, muted overall with flashes of colour. I’m so proud that people look at this and think: wow, that’s the film. It means that we got it.”

Haynes paints a beautiful picture of a particularly radical time in history as society’s openness to homosexual emotions and desires began to shift in the 1950s. The film gives audiences a realistic glimpse into the challenges and hardships of a love not lead by example. The contemporary relevance of the film offers a foreshadowing perspective of what it means to have true happiness in life.

The Law of Attraction

CarolFor the role of the main character, Carol Aird, actress Cate Blanchett was struck by the emotional power of the story and how bold it was for the period it was written in. When the script and project came to Haynes, Blanchett was already attached to star in the role. Having worked with Blanchett before in his Bob Dylan-inspired film, I’m Not There, Haynes was able to imagine the actress playing a matured woman in a vulnerable state, on the verge of divorce and a major change in life.

Driven to play complex characters wrestling with secrets, Blanchett admits it is a “delicious thing to do” as an actress. “I think the gift of working on something based on a Patricia Highsmith novel is that the interior life of the characters is so rich— she’s masterful at dealing with characters who acknowledge, in a way, that every adult has a secret.” Having starred in a Highsmith adaptation before in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Blanchett was familiar with the depth of character she needed to fill in this new role. She worked with Haynes to bring Carol to life, as the director’s exquisite direction and photographic references helped visually narrate the story.

In portraying Carol in the film, Blanchett said, “Carol is someone who perhaps appears very remote and self-contained and self-possessed, but in a way I think she’s crumbling. She doesn’t fit— neither Carol nor Therese— fit neatly into a social circle or in that time, an underground movement. So I think they’re both ambushed by the intensity of the connection they share with each other. It’s specifically about that other person rather than fitting into a larger group.” As Carol recognizes her feelings for Therese in the film, Blanchett points out the universal heartbreak that often comes with falling in love— “You risk being out of control and that is all part of the intoxicating thrill.”

Bringing emotion to the screen

To bring this emotion to the screen, Blanchett draws on the age difference between the two female characters and the greater threat Carol faces as the older woman. “If I fall headlong into this, I’m going to be falling in a different way than a girl who is much younger than me,” said Blanchett. “Therese is simply the product of her age and her own environment. There’s kind of a melancholy, wistfulness— a sense of a different apprehension that Therese just doesn’t have or understand.”

Carol’s husband Harge, played by Kyle Chandler, represents what is at stake as he challenges her in a custody battle over her daughter. The reality of losing her daughter over following her heart gives weight to the situation between Carol and Therese, which Chandler describes is just like any affair in a relationship. “Carol is in love with someone else and we’ve got a child— our family is about to be destroyed in this lesbian relationship. But my character still wants to keep his dreams of that ideal little world alive.”

Sarah Paulson says of her character Abby, “she is part of the problem in Harge’s mind because he knows that Abby and Carol had a relationship once before. So partly, Harge is able to use that against Carol before he even knows what is actually going on between his wife and Therese.” Paulson continues, “While Abby still has strong feelings for Carol, she does not reciprocate them. Carol loves Abby as her golden confidant and best friend, but is not romantically consumed with her as well. As Carol falls in love with Therese, Abby just has to sit back and watch it happen as it’s the only thing she can do.”


Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett

Carol and Therese’s relationship evolves to reveal a compelling love affair of the 50s, at a time when being lesbian was not culturally accepted. This interested Mara as she related, “When you’re falling in love, your mind kind of works the way a criminal’s mind would. You are constantly thinking about different scenarios and different things that could go wrong or different.”

In contrast to Carol, Mara brings Therese to audiences in a way that suggests her loneliness in the world. “Therese is not that grounded— she doesn’t have a home base and is in the middle  of figuring out who she wants to be and what she wants her life to look like,” said Mara. “Carol really opens her world and her mind to what her life could be like, which helps Therese understand the kind of relationships she wants to have.”

A sense of solitude pervades Therese’s life as even her devoted boyfriend, Richard Semco, played by Jake Lacy, does not fill the void. Lacy was attracted to the fact that the story itself was actually written in 1952. Through the character of Richard, Lacy reveals a lovely young man, who on paper, seems like the ideal partner for Therese.

“Richard is a first generation American living in New York in the 1950s so in a way, he has the opportunity to truly have the American Dream— to make enough money, to buy a house, and have kids— all things he imagines doing with Therese one day. And that’s what is so wonderful about Richard’s character. He’s this guy who sees hope in the future.” Richard soon learns that the fulfillment he finds in Therese is not reciprocated, and that void in her life is filled through Carol— the woman she can’t imagine a world without.

As the relationship between Carol and Therese develops, a clear perspective on romance and true love validates their relationship. Meanwhile, Therese’s honesty with Richard evokes a certain theme in the film— the power of connection. While Richard experiences the loss of love in CAROL, Lacy relates the significance of the laws of attraction in guiding the story.

“CAROL is about these two people who, without searching for each other, find each other, both at very different places in their lives,” said Lacy. “They have this connection that can’t be denied and then eventually can’t be sustained in a way.” The chaos that grows from that connection makes its way through the plot as Carol and Therese embark on a road trip together. The ripple effect of pain permeates each character as a result, driving them to desperate measures.

When Harge discovers his wife has gone away with Therese, he hires a private investigator to document the couples’ “immoral” behavior. Carol’s suspicions grow as the private investigator weaves his way into their journey on the road, exploiting Carol and Therese’s first romantic encounter together. Outraged, Carol knows Harge has plotted against her to build his case in court and win custody of their daughter.

Producers Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley and Christine Vachon were confident in Patricia Highsmith’s universal message on love when they came together for the making of CAROL. “I’ve always been interested in seeing films that feature strong female characters in dramatic storylines,” said producer Karlsen. “Highsmith’s book was very daring when it was published, and in a way the story doesn’t feel as though it’s dated. Many aspects of what Carol and Therese endure are still relevant today.” Highsmith, however, was aware of her personal boldness as the writer of The Price of Salt when it was first published in 1952. Now considered  a masterpiece, Highsmith’s novel was initially released under the alias author of Claire Morgan— one of 40 pseudonyms invented by Highsmith throughout her career— due to its homosexual subject matter.

Capturing Highsmith’s 1950s New York

To capture Highsmith’s 1950s New York, Carol was shot in Cincinnati, OHIO over the course of 35 days. The pre-war buildings and apartments in Cincinnati mirrored New York in the 1950s and created a realistic time and place for the story to be recreated.

In completing production on the film, producer Stephen Woolley said, “CAROL is very close to Patricia Highsmith’s novel and I think that’s an art in itself. It’s very difficult to take a book and write the script of that book in a way that comes to life on film for audiences. CAROL enables audiences to experience The Price of Salt. And that’s an art— an invisible art that audiences can appreciate in our film.”

To shoot the film, Ed Lachman joined Haynes as the Director of Photography. The film was shot on Super 16 millimeter which made it look like it was 35 millimeter in that time period. Having worked with Haynes before on Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There, Lachman said, “Todd and I have a wonderful kind of yin-yang relationship that so many great ideas and perspectives come from. We discovered the language in this film which I like to call a ‘poetic realism.’ We reference certain mid-century photographers then branched out to look at what women photographers of the 1950s were doing at that time.”

In their research, Lachman and Haynes explored how images of the era had a certain poetic look at things and a subjective viewpoint they wanted to model in the film. “Cinematography or telling stories in images is what will tell a psychological truth in a film,” said Lachman. “That’s what Todd and I are always trying to do— find the visual context of the story. And so to do  that, we implement psychology in the way the camera moves, the lighting, and the set and costume design.”

Sandy Powell helped create Haynes’ and Lachman’s vision as the Costume Designer of CAROL. She took a naturalistic approach to dressing them as she said, “My job was to help create the characters and make them believable to each other and audiences. I wanted Carol to be fashionable, but understated— somebody a character like Therese would look up to and be impressed by as well.” In collaboration with Powell, Makeup Artist Patricia Regan and Hair Stylist Jerry Decarlo further evolved the physical identity of each character.

Production Designer, Judy Becker, chose to work with a very specific color palette that was based on the colors used in the early 1950s. The film really emphasized, especially in the interiors, the sour greens, yellows, and dirty pinks of the era— slightly soiled colors that give the viewer the feeling of the post-war city before the brightness of the Eisenhower administration had taken over. To bring the final touches to the interior spaces, Set Director Heather Loeffler, added the elements that make a place feel lived in by a particular character. For example, with Carol, she left magazines and books around the house, implicating the idea that she was bored or was looking for things to do.

Every element of the story was re imagined for the screen, painting a visually honest picture of society in the midst of change. CAROL is a beautifully realized and impeccably acted piece of filmmaking.