A conversation with out “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy

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Up until now, mystery writer Patricia Highsmith was best known for her thrilling male-led thrillers like The Talented Mister Ripley and Strangers on a Train, both of which have been turned into films. Interestingly, one of her earliest works (her second published book following the 1950 publication of Strangers on a Train) was a lesbian-themed novel, 1952’s The Price of Salt. Published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, the book was the first to have a positive ending where the women at the center don’t end up killing each other or themselves or being punished in some horrific way for daring to engage in forbidden love.

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Often described as a difficult person (biographies and memoirs written by ex-lovers attest), Pat was loathe to disclose or discuss her homosexuality, although her work had a lot of subtext and homoerotic currents throughout. It wasn’t until 1990, close to 40 years later, that Patricia would take credit for the book, which was re-released as Carol and putting her real name on the cover. She died five years later at age 74.

Out playwright and director Phyllis Nagy had the good fortune of having met Pat and continuing correspondence with her until her death. Five years after Pat’s passing, Phyllis began to adapt The Price of Salt into a screenplay, and because so much of the story’s protagonist, Terese, is based on Pat herself, it was helpful to have had the real life friendship to draw from.

“Pat’s all over Terese. She is in the novel and it was my particular advantage to have known her, listening to the way Terese speaks or navigating the spaces she inhabits is pure Pat Highsmith,” Phyllis said. “And so I felt I immediately knew that character, even though she was presented to me in a sort of mosaic of shards, little broken glass pieces in the novel, not all of them completely reliable, much like their author. So that was my point of entry into the first draft of the adaptation and it’s a quality that never left it, I think.”

US-ENTERTAINMENT-AFI FESTIVALphoto via Getty

Phyllis credits Patricia with her very particular writing style, and that she wasn’t writing “a lesbian novel,” but a story of first love and obsession.

“I never had this kind of in-depth conversation with her about this novel because she didn’t really like to talk about it too much, but just from reading the book and what it seems to be about at its core, she wasn’t writing a lesbian novel. It seems counter-intuitive to say that but I think she took it outside of that world in order to highlight that world in profound ways, in was that were complacent, in ways that isolated the three lesbians in the novel; it’s not just those two, ” Phyllis said referring to the character of Carol’s ex-lover and now best friend, Abby. “In ways, that enabled her to explore the notion of female bonding, not just female sexual attraction, relationships. The core friendship of that novel is really kind of stunning. And the thing that allows Terese and Carol to, perhaps, have an optimistic, hopeful ending, rather than the same-old ‘I’m going to hang myself, slit my wrists in the bathtub.'”

Pat also wrote from an outsider perspective because that’s how she saw the world.

“I know she really wasn’t a hanger-outer, that Highsmith,” Phyllis said. “She’s’ really like a lurker; an observer in any kind of group gay situation. So I don’t think she was well-placed to psychologically even to write that novel. But what she was brilliant at was writing the novel of first obsessional love, really. What that’s like—what it’s like to meet the person you’re pretty much  meant to be with, whether or not you end up with them.”

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Like many other films that star two women leads and follow them in a romantic relationship, Carol took several years to get made. Different directors and actors were attached at certain points, but it inevitably came together under the directorship of Todd Haynes. But even before the Oscar-winning out filmmaker signed on, the production already had its Carol in Cate Blanchett.

“I just couldn’t believe that she would do it, and she did, and she committed to it and stayed attached to it, which was extraordinary then,” Phyllis said, referring to a time not so long ago when lesbian-themed films were considered unthinkable. “When Todd came, we went back to Rooney Mara [to play Terese]. Actually, Mia Wasikowska had been attached at some point when there was  previous director and then she had to drop because of Crimson Peak, I think. And we went to Rooney, who had been exhausted when it was offered to her the first time, and she immediately said yes, she was in a very different place, and I always thought she was the perfect Terese, of all the people who you could actually to be in this in this place and time.” 

Cate and Rooney inhabit their respective roles so completely that even when they aren’t speaking, it’s rich with dialogue. Watching the way they look at one another with desire and curiosity, and at the world cautiously tells viewers just enough to be enthralled, even those who have read the book and have a sense of the story’s direction. But there is also so much room for wonder and mystery, which is something that Patricia Highsmith created but Phyllis Nagy capitalized on for the film.

“Anybody with a facility can write a line of dialogue. It may not be a good line of dialogue but you know, we all talk and we all use our mouths and so that’s fine, but it’s really the least important element of good script writing,” Phyllis said. “What’s really important is the ability to be oblique and elliptical in order to allow subtext to flow. So when there is dialogue to have it be not on point in order to make a point. But describing behavior is my favorite thing to do. I love those stretches where you’re allowed to say, ‘Interior: Car. They drive in silence. Therese eats an apple.’ It gives such a range of freedom, really, to your collaborators. And if they’re good and smart and right for the piece, of course they’re not to take that and turn it into a joke. They’re going to find ways to enhance and enrich it, and make it more than you ever thought it could be. I feel quite lucky that actually happened, because it doesn’t all the time.”

Phyllis with Christine Vachon, Elizabeth Karlsen, Rooney Mara, Todd Haynes and Cate Blanchett492052856photo via Getty

Phyllis allowed for the slow burn of Terese’s and Carol’s courtship to be perfectly paced so that their inevitable physical connection is a satisfying release of tension, though it’s only the beginning of the difficulties they will face in attempts to be together. But even the smaller moments of the film have large impact on things like Terese’s quiet exploration of her new identity and attractions. In a short scene close to mid-way through the film, Terese goes to a record shop to buy Carol a Christmas gift. While there, she spots two women, one wearing men’s clothing and sporting a short hair-cut, and they are noticing her in a way that lesbians often acknowledge each other. 

“[They’re saying] We recognize you and she also recognizes them and is allowed to consider what it means to be of the same tribe, in all its multiplicity,” Phyllis said. “She might not actually be one of them but she is one of them. So here’s Terese making all sorts of micro decisions about what kind of women she’s attracted to. She does it again at the end at the party where there’s a mutual recognition with the other brief encounter [with Genevieve, played by Carrie Brownstein]. So it’s about recognition on all levels.”

For these ideas to be presented in a major film is incredible. Even if the majority of moviegoers won’t pick up on some of those nuances, perhaps it’s all the better that they stay our little secret, just like Patricia Highsmith intended.

Carol opens in theaters on November 20th. Follow Phyllis on Twitter.

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