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Phyllis Nagy and the long road to writing 'Carol'

Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of
Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of "Carol."
Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of
Rooney Mara (left) and Cate Blanchett (left) star in "Carol."
The Weinstein Company

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The film “Carol” centers on a love story between a young woman named Therése — played by Rooney Mara — and an older married woman named Carol, played by Cate Blanchett.

Carol Trailer

It’s set in New York in the 1950s and is based on the book “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, which also was written in the ‘50s.

The screenplay for the film took 18 years to finish and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy says the long process taught her everything she needed to know about screenwriting — and some things she never wanted to learn.

The Frame's John Horn talks with Phyllis Nagy about the good and bad things about writing a screenplay for that long, her personal relationship to author Patricia Highsmith, and how she responds to the criticisms of the film. 


What were some of the positive things you learned from writing a screenplay for 18 years?

Generally, if you're not a writer who just produces a draft that's all over the place just to get it out, your first draft is very close to what something should be. Those are the things that turn up oddly 18 years later.

You have said that this experience taught you some things you wish you never had to learn. What are those? 

Well, everybody who has kind of a tangential interest in the movie — no matter what the role is — has something to say, and I learned how to navigate all of that. And the best ways in which to do that are not to storm out of rooms or say, "You're an idiot," or any of those things that may or may not be true. What I did learn is that you have to do the work no matter what it is, and you have to waste time doing it and hope that people come to their senses, which generally people do. People aren't just morons. That's another nice thing I've learned.

"Carol" is based on the novel, "The Price of Salt," which was written by Patricia Highsmith. But the book was not published under her name. Could you tell us a little bit about the history of the book itself. 

From what I understand, this was a book that she wrote after "Strangers on a Train," but before "The Talented Mr. Ripley." She was already successful from "Strangers on a Train," and she wrote this book in a sort of fever dream, as she put it, after seeing a fetching blonde in a department store. She wrote this book fairly quickly and her publisher was very reluctant to. Of course, they didn't have the word brand back then, but basically it was about her brand as a mystery writer. 

They asked her if she would consider getting another publisher for this, which she did. I believe that publisher asked her to even publish it under a pseudonym, which was Claire Morgan. The book was actually a very nice success even at the time. It got good reviews and it surprised Patricia Highsmith over the years with how many lives it apparently changed. 

You were able to meet Patricia Highsmith many years ago. What were the circumstances and how did your friendship develop from there? 

I was working as a researcher for The New York Times magazine in the late '80s and the editors wanted to send a mystery writer to do a walking tour of Greenwood Cemetery where a lot of notorious gangsters and entertainment people are buried. I suggested Patricia Highsmith when their first choice wasn't available and she happened to be in New York on a book tour, and to our surprise she said yes. 

So they sent me to accompany her to the cemetery. To this day, I'm not sure if it was a reward or a punishment, but it was something. So we had a very weird car ride to an incredibly gruesome tour of the crematorium and all of these awful things. At the end of which, Patricia produced a hip flask out of her jacket — this was about 11 a.m. — and said, "Oh, I don't know about you, but I need a drink," and held it out to me like a challenge. I took it, and from that moment on we became rather good friends over the next decade. 

One thing that's notable about this film and screenplay is at no point do Carol and Therese say, This is a strange thing. What are we doing here? Which obviously is a very conscious decision on your part. Why did you make that choice? 

Well, for one thing, the screenplay describes the act of falling in love and so does the film. I find that it's really truthful in human relationship that people don't sit around obsessing about the nature of their feelings. In the case of Therese and Carol, there's a lot of outside obstacles that they have to overcome. The thing that is pure, and that I felt absolutely had to remain pure in the script, is the lack of banal psychologizing about the state of being gay or indeed the state of being in love. 

The book largely steers away from that, too. This is something that I chose to really honor. Although over the years, this is one of the areas where I was asked by several people, "Well, wouldn't there be some guilt?" And it was the one thing that I actually always refused to do. 

For what reason? 

This absolutely betrayed the intention of the source material. If we were to go off on a tangent, we might as well as write an original script. It's clear that this makes the material special. 

This movie is loved by a lot of people, but there are critics who say that film is too patient and modest, but that could be some of the highest praise they could give you in some ways. 

I get it. I don't think that all films have to be for everyone. I'm relieved when they're not because I do think that a general wash of acclaim means that you're really approaching mediocrity. I believe that. But what I would also say is that we've lost the ability to be patient with things and to value the kind of filmmaking that was once prized. 

The films of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder — all of those things are quite glacially paced in a lot of ways. I don't think that "Carol" is glacially paced, but it aims to be realistic in a way that's increasingly difficult to find. But I'm really glad that it was made in this way and I'll take the occasional group of people who militantly dislike it. 

Phyllis Nagy is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2016 Writers Guild of America awards. 


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