Todd Haynes has always had uncommon sensitivity toward women, right back to his celebrated short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, made in 1988 near the start of his filmmaking career.
He also had the divine inspiration to cast Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, his 2007 multi-actor actor approach to the rock icon. He recognized the Garboesque qualities of Dylan’s 1960s persona.
He reunites with Blanchett and adds Rooney Mara for the lesbian romance Carol, opening Friday. It’s his best film to date and arguably his most thoughtful exploration of female sensibilities — although he seeks to invite both genders to his work.
On Thursday, Carol received five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Drama and Best Director.
As he traverses the long awards circuit leading to the Feb. 28 Oscars, where Carol also is expected to be a major contender, Haynes took time out to talk to the Toronto Star about navigating the awards circuit, how he sees the film in the context of older classics, and how and his team managed to make it look so beautiful. Haynes, 54, was speaking from a very rainy Portland, Oregon:
This film feels like a classical Hollywood narrative, yet given its subject matter, the common notion of the “male gaze” — of female stories told with a male audience in mind — seems inapplicable here. Do you agree?
I’m not sure I would “sex” the gaze. The gaze in Carol has a lot to do with the gaze of desire. And in classic Hollywood movies, the gaze of desire is almost always traditionally depicted by the male gaze of the woman, and so the fact that it’s two women now doesn’t necessarily change the gaze because I think the desire is still driving it. What’s interesting in the case of Carol is that it’s the older woman who is really the object of desire, and in the traditional classic movies, it’s the male protagonist who usually holds the power in the world and maybe the female holds the power of his desires and allure and sexual attraction, but he really holds all the keys and power and also sort of driving the narrative forward. I was tracking how a lot of these classic films operate and trying to bring that into relevance with Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara).
Back in Cannes in May, where Carol had its world premiere, the Palme d’Or awards jury threw everybody for a loop by giving Rooney Mara its Best Actress prize, despite Cate Blanchett’s role being so prominent. How did that sit with you?
I would have given a tie prize, of course. But really, the awards thing was kind of an afterthought, and I’ve been on juries and I know juries have complicated and specific and political and kind of oppositional reasons for giving prizes. But all that is to say that I think Rooney’s performance in Carol is the glue for the film, and it’s a complete victory of understatement and subtlety and nuance and it just followed through in reminding me of that place I’ve been myself in life.
But at the Oscars this year, Cate is up for Best Actress, and Rooney is up for Best Supporting. You’re OK with that?
It’s never been a simple discussion, and marketing interests and ideas are the leading, driving factor in those kinds of discussions and I have to yield to that to some degree, because The Weinstein Company knows what they’re doing. You can make the argument they both are leads in the movie but I also think none of us ever want to put anybody in a position where you have to compare one performance to another because they both are so strong and distinct, and the two characters are so different. And so in that way if at least it separates that, that predicament, I get it.
This film is so beautifully shot, and the use of Super 16 mm film rather than digital tape really stands out. What is it about film grain you love so much?
To me grain is something beautiful to look at. Whenever you are lucky enough to see a print of an old movie in a theatre, even DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) of old films, especially if they’re done well, you will see grain. Sometimes you’ll see grain literally dancing on the surface of the screen, and that’s true for certain cinematographers who really push it. Vilmos Zsigmond who shot McCabe & Mrs. Miller really zooms into the foggy distance of his long lens shot, searching for information. You are really entering the satellite of grain in a big way in those movies. And I love that. That’s a beautiful thing.
There’s something extra about your production design, though. Carol seems warmer than other films depicting the period.
There was something lived-in about the reference visual images that we were finding from the time that you don’t really think of when you think of the ’50s in parentheses. And usually what we think of when we do think of that is the Eisenhower era and the suburban images of that time; the chrome-y surfaces of cars, and the brand new interiors of modern kitchens from that period. And this was really before all that. And Eisenhower hadn’t yet taken office and the highway plan had not begun the cleaning-up of America, the suburbanization of America hadn’t taken place. So you really saw distressed postwar culture much more so. And I love that, and the photography of the time really shows it. The colour palette and that sense of a kind of tired place that still is vulnerable. That’s something we wanted to bring to the look.
This interview has been condensed and edited.