Carol: Todd Haynes on the Artistic Influences of his Film

Todd Haynes told a packed audience at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall that he was dedicating that evening’s New York Film Fest screening of his latest movie Carol to Chantal Akerman, the Belgian filmmaker who died just a few days earlier.

Speaking to an audience on Saturday afternoon, as part of the festival’s HBO Directors Dialogues, Haynes talked more about his affinity for and impressions of her work, including her best-known film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

“I think the weight of that loss is still being understood,” Haynes began, revealing he was still reeling from Akerman’s death. Specifically of Jeanne Dielman, Haynes called that “so inspiring as a filmmaker and as someone thinking about female subjects and how they’re depicted and what we come to expect is occupied onscreen when we’re dealt the story of women’s lives and what is important and what is not important.”

He went on to explain that when he watched the more-than-three-hour-long domestic drama for the first time as part of a college course, he remembers himself and the audience he was watching it with gasping when they noticed the titular character adding extra water while making coffee, a slip-up in her daily kitchen routine.

“You just fall into the incantation, the unbelievable spell of observing labor, of observing work in the kitchen, of observing routines,” he said, noting that that movie features a lot of what’s removed from films now, the sort of everyday events that people ascribe great meaning to in their own lives.

The wide-ranging discussion between Haynes and NYFF director Kent Jones featured Haynes reflecting on various film inspirations and his own work — not only Carol but also Far From Heaven, Safe, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There — as well as talking about the ideas behind those films, including identity and people who actively create and change that and differing points of view.

Haynes talked about the artistic influences on Carol, which stars Cate Blanchett as a housewife who meets and begins an affair with a shop clerk and aspiring photographer, played by Rooney Mara.

The movie’s opening, as a number of reviewers and film aficionados have noted, is an homage to Brief Encounter. Haynes elaborated: “I kind of lifted the opening right out of Brief Encounter and put it in our script.” He also described the earlier film in a way that will sound familiar to those who’ve seenCarol.

“It begins in that refreshment stand in the train station, and you’re kind of introduced to secondary characters in the story and in the background, you see two people having a conversation. … They look like extras in their own film. … And then a loudmouth gossip friend says ‘Laura’ and interrupts the conversation. You realize that an important conversation has been interrupted,” Haynes said. “What’s so interesting is you’re immediately questioning, ‘Whose story is this?’ And you start to get deeper into her story, her point of view, her narration that she conveys to her husband, when she goes back home, and this brief encounter, which is ending that day is retold in real time in the film…I thought, ‘That’s such a beautiful structuring device’ because you travel through the entirety of the narrative to explain what that conversation was about that we missed. And then you replay it at the end of the film and we know the importance of it and what that interruption meant.”

But with Carol, by the time viewers see that scene again as it occurs in the story, the relationship has changed.  “They’ve shifted their statuses … and Terez, who was this young vulnerable subject, very much in formation before our eyes, who fell in love with Carol, Cate Blanchett, and was hurt and developed defenses and protections and limits and has changed the way she looks and has grown up, and all of a sudden Carol has surrendered a lot, sacrificed a lot in her life, reevaluated the meaning and the value of this very special girl and has now come back,” Haynes said.

Haynes said that in preparing to shoot Carol, he looked at a lot of other films, specifically ones from the era when the film is set, and love stories told from a specific point of view. “I just started to think of great love stories on film, and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is something I haven’t particularly approached as a discipline as a filmmaker.’ And I always want to give myself some kind of an assignment, something I feel I can learn from each time,” he said. “The best love stories on film are rooted in the point-of-view of the more woundable, vulnerable party, the more amorous party. In this case, that’s mostly Terez (Mara) through the story.”

While the novel is “rooted in” Terez’s point of view, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy‘s script is more open.  “We all of a sudden had access to Carol very freely that we didn’t have in the book, and I just wanted to be very conscious of how we enter Carol’s world initially, what that means, but trying to really structure the whole film around point-of-view.”

Haynes talked about some of the technical aspects of filming Carol and how Sandy Powell‘s costume design influenced the characters played by Blanchett and Mara.

Speaking about his career as a whole, Haynes talked about how he’s explored identity and people taking an active role in creating and changing that, specifically with Velvet Goldmine and his Bob Dylan film I’m Not There.

“Identity is this imposed state that we’re supposed to fulfill and invention, change, mutability, instability, artifice and construction play no part. … We’re supposed to find an authentic and organic self, that is whole. We espouse those terms and elevate those ideas and values,” Haynes said. “At least of my feature films, the first terrain where I was trying to look at radically different strategies, practices around that was with…Velvet Goldmine and how weirdly rebellious and disquieting that moment was, that sort of bisexual androgynous rallying cry.”

He said: “That notion of radical instability in terms of sexual orientation and sexual identity is still uncomfortable today in our very advanced state of progress around issues of acceptance around gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender issues because it’s so much easier and so much more legislatively tidy to talk about sexual orientation as something that we’re born into, that’s biologically determined and stable, and then you could just say, ‘No, there’s no choice involved … a desire to actually change it up.’ … And what was so interesting about the glam moment was that it was addressing the inherent instability of adolescence, because it was aimed at young people and how much they don’t know who they are day to day and that fantasy or that metaphor of an androgynous space creature … was so liberating and so radical in so many ways and continues to be today.”

Dylan, Haynes explained, was also somewhat of a “shapeshifter” who “lash[ed] out against” social expectations that may have seemed too constraining, describing the musician as “a creative entity who has to be making things to survive life.”