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Why Todd Haynes is compelled to make movies with female leads

Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950s lesbian romance film
Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950s lesbian romance film "Carol," directed by Todd Haynes.
Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company
Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950s lesbian romance film
Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young woman finding her queer identity in the 1950s in the film, "Carol"
Wilson Webb
Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950s lesbian romance film
Director Todd Haynes (left) and The Frame's John Horn before the North American premiere of "Carol" at the Telluride Film Festival 2015
James Kim/KPCC
Actress Cate Blanchett stars in the 1950s lesbian romance film
Cate Blanchett, left, and Rooney Mara at a gala screening of the movie, "Carol."

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Cate Blanchett plays Carol and Rooney Mara plays Therese in "Carol," a 1950s lesbian love story directed by Todd Haynes. He's the filmmaker behind movies like “Far From Heaven” and “Velvet Goldmine,” and the HBO miniseries, “Mildred Pierce.”

The screenplay for “Carol” was written by Phyllis Nage, who adapted it from the 1950’s book, “The Price of Salt.” Patricia Highsmith had written the novel under a pseudonym. Her only prior book was “Strangers On a Train,” which Alfred Hitchcock made into a movie. In the ‘50s, “The Price of Salt” was a notable novel in that it depicted a story rarely told at the time — a romance between two women. Here’s The Frame’s John Horn in conversation with Todd Haynes.


Did this movie come to you as a screenplay or were you familiar with the book?

To the shock and dismay of all of my dearest lesbian friends, I didn’t know this novel. So I received Phyllis’s adaptation, and read the novel in the same couple of days.

This is Phyllis Nage, who wrote the adaptation.

Yeah. And I heard about it, funnily enough, from Sandy Powell, the costume designer . . . and [my friend] Liz Carlson was producing it . . . Liz is like family. And I was like, hmm.

Right around the time "Carol" had its premiere [at the Cannes Film Festival], the Supreme Court came out with its marriage equality ruling — an issue that is really not completely settled. Do you think the film becomes more topical with every month that goes by, even though it’s set in the 1950s?

There’s no way contemporary audiences could watch a film like “Carol” and not think about where we are today. The radical change in public opinion, it’s like those rare times — and I think the civil rights movement was another one — where you watch a society learning. You watch society changing its opinions and its innate prejudices through a kind of pressure, a discourse that surrounds everyone . . . That said, [“Carol”] is about a very specific time that we can’t forget about.

How, as a filmmaker working in an era where there’s marriage equality, do you put yourself in a mindset where there’s not only no such thing, but you can lose your children if you are a gay person?

I lived through and was active in the era of AIDS activism in New York in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, so there have been many permutations to what’s been at stake in the struggles of gay people [during] my life. That was looming over this film and contextualizing it.

But there’s also a discussion that’s not always had, which is about elements of a culture that also get lost as it gets accepted in the mainstream. The ways in which gays and lesbians survived and existed for centuries is through all of these coded means of behavior and communication and creative expression. And that’s a really rich, gorgeous, complicated history. 

“Carol” obviously has political appeal. Does it have narrative appeal too? It’s about a female lead, and it’s about people operating outside of what’s considered to be “acceptable behavior,” where they don’t really fit into society at that time. Is that consistent with other things you’re drawn to?

Absolutely. I was interested in it for all of the reasons you just stated. But I was also drawn to it in the purest and simplest sense — of it being an incredibly powerful account of love. And reading that novel, where you’re locked inside the subjectivity of Therese, the Rooney Mara character, and you watch the machinations of the amorous mind . . . It makes it a universal story beyond the sexual orientation of the characters. It was really about that fragile, paranoid, fraught early love that’s rooted in the subjective experience of the lover — usually the one who’s more liable to be hurt if things don’t go well.

There are not a lot of movies made right now that have women in leading roles. You’ve been very aggressive and reliable about doing that. Why do you think the former is true, and are the choices you make in some way a reaction to that void?

It’s always a head-scratcher to me, especially when you look back at incredibly rich periods of Hollywood filmmaking, where films designed around leading, amazing actors who are women were a mainstay. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were making five-to-ten features a year. And it generated a robust audience. Women have always been a part of the mainstream audience, the global market. So when something like "Bridesmaids" does well in the box office, people feel like they’ve learned something new this time around. I never quite understand that perpetual return to the model of the young, male filmgoer as our only audience. It says a great deal about how our culture continues to work around the notion of male identity.

I’ve always been attracted to stories about women. The conditions that women experience in their lives are often stories about domestic constraints. And really, the realities of life that I think we all struggle with. They’re not, by definition, as much about escapism.

You still live and work in Portland, right? Do you think that gives you a different perspective on storytelling and the TV business than if you lived in Los Angeles and were closer to it?

I guess I’ve always felt the need to hide out a bit. I grew up in L.A. That introduced me to all the interests I still carry today. But I needed to leave that place to begin my film career, and go to New York. It happened to be a very rich and fertile time for independent film. For activists and political culture, brought on by things that nobody wished for or asked for, but it ignited the community of gay people, but also of artists. I’m talking about the AIDS crisis. But what’s interesting about the epidemic and the activism is that it followed a lot of criticisms or questions about public financing for the arts in general.

But that motivated and poised a certain community. It was no accident that most of the performance artists whose grants were rescinded by the National Endowment for the Arts [in the early 1990s], were often engaged with gay content in their work. It was a trigger, clearly. And it ignited a newly robust, conservative administration and culture, which we still are experiencing today. That was a time and place that I think was informed by all those things.

"Carol" premieres in theaters on Nov. 20.

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