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Phyllis Nagy: On Writing the Script for ‘Carol’ and Creating a Different Kind of Love Story

Phyllis Nagy: On Writing the Script for ‘Carol’ and Creating a Different Kind of Love Story

Author: Sara Jaffe

February 21, 2016

“People who finance films about lesbians are often straight white men, not always, but often, who in some way require a pat on the back, a nod to their own understanding of what the psychological process is for women who choose to love other women.”

After I saw Carol, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. “Thinking” isn’t entirely correct—I couldn’t stop feeling it. Defying my usual tendencies toward over-intellectualizing and hyper-criticism, something about the film had simply transported me. This was due, I’m sure, to a whole constellation of factors: the gorgeous cinematography, the actors’ nuanced performances, Todd Haynes’s amazing ability to equally value surface and depth. But as a fiction writer, I’m always ultimately most interested in narrative, and how a particular story gets told. Screenwriter and playwright Phyllis Nagy took Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel The Price of Salt and boiled down the romance at its core to a perfectly orchestrated micro-drama of nervous glances and brief exchanges loaded with subtext—a taut, subtle, heady mix.

Nagy began adapting Highsmith’s novel in 1997, and spent many years going through the wringer of rewrites and false starts. Throughout the long and often disheartening process, Nagy fought to tell a different kind of lesbian love story.

One of the few bright spots on the list of Academy Award contenders this year is Nagy’s deserved nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I spoke on the phone to Nagy about narrative possibility, queer vernacular, and the fantasy that fueled Carol.

One of the reasons that both Highsmith’s novel and your adaptation feel transgressive to me is because they tell the story of a young woman’s attraction to another woman without following the shape we’ve come to expect of a conventional coming-out story; the plot doesn’t follow that arc from secrecy to openness, shame to acceptance. Can you talk about what it was like to write with both an awareness of that conventional arc, and the liberty to ignore it?

One of the reasons I wanted to continue to push on and try to get the film made was because of that very first sense upon reading the novel that there’s an extraordinary forward-thinking about Highsmith’s position—on everything from the coming-out tale, to the lack of psychologizing about the state of one’s sexuality, to what makes a good mother. All of those things are what really make that novel astonishing, still today.

But of course there’s novel logic, there’s film logic, there’s emotional logic, and these things often don’t meet. It’s very easy to get lost in the rabbit-hole of film logic when you’re having to write something that will attract money, actors, directors, you name it. And so it’s very easy to give in to the film-logic notion that people have to suffer for any number of their “afflictions.” Suffer for their love, their art. And the single most important thing to me was the lack of banal psychologizing about any of it. And once you have a director like Todd who is equally committed to those things, it allows the whole thing to exist in the mainstream while being outside of it—it is, actually, outside of the mainstream, still, I think.

And what’s interesting to me is that it’s not as if the characters don’t suffer—it’s just that they don’t suffer in the expected ways or about the expected things. There’s room for different types of stories to get told.

That’s absolutely true. And they’re all happening, happily, at once. Another thing that often doesn’t make it into the screen—the coexisting narratives that do not join up in neat packages.

So when you’re speaking about film logic vs. novel logic, are you talking about an assumed need for that kind of simplification in film?

Yes. People who finance films about lesbians are often straight white men, not always, but often, who in some way require a pat on the back, a nod to their own understanding of what the psychological process is for women who choose to love other women. Many times I had to do a little song and dance about how what is extraordinary about this project is the lack of such logic—and would you ever expect that kind of logic now from a gay male film that you were producing? In some bizarre way we’ve moved beyond it to a certain extent in films about gay men, and gay men are allowed to be hatched from an egg, just gay. But lesbians require a very particular sort of self-reflection—which nobody I know has actually ever gone through.

But also the novel has such a different temporal structure than the film. People who read the novel are often convinced that they have read stuff like that in Therese’s sometimes Joycean passive-aggressive internal monologues about the way she feels—but it’s not in the book. It just isn’t there. And it’s such a bold choice not to do [that kind of psychologizing] in the book, as well.

Just recently rereading the novel, it’s so interesting to think about the ways in which the film both feels similar and different, both temporally and temperamentally—there’s so much anxiety in the book, which feels like a slightly different tone from the movie.

I think actually the film is full of anxiety. It’s a visceral anxiety. In the novel we get Carol, who is quite a depressive, melancholy, and anxious person—snappish, in the book—but because we have these long stretches of Therese’s love-fueled, lust-filled odes to Carol, we lose sight of that. And what the film allowed me to do is actually put that anxiety front and center in a way that Therese doesn’t understand. So the anxiety is of a different sort, but it’s there. The air of strange menace, strange Highsmithian menace, it’s in the film in terms of how people are looking at each other. The gaze, always. It’s difficult because it is, after all, Highsmith. But it is also a book that is about every permutation of love. And that was one of the things that I wanted to really hold on to, and not make it into a persecuted lesbian tale.

Thinking about your work as a playwright—in several of your plays, you’ve created queer characters who live in queer worlds, speak in a queer vernacular. How was it different to write characters who don’t have access to those worlds, that language?

In this case it was actually quite freeing. There was no way that the scenes could be anything—at least in my version—other than just full of subtext. The drama comes from the observing rituals, and small gestures, and learning to read a code. I like to think of it as the queer vernacular of the time—for example, to say “Bon appétit” to someone who you really want to take to bed [as Carol says to Therese at their first lunch]. And of course it can’t play like that, otherwise it’s Bette Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte or something. But there is a way in which I imagine these women—especially Abby, Abby is the one who I think gets this much more strongly—she knows what she’s listening to. And Therese doesn’t know what she’s listening to.

I really like how you put it, that Therese doesn’t know what she’s listening to. And that adds another layer of tension for viewers who do think they know what they’re listening to.

Yeah. That’s hopefully the way it works, when it filters down.

This may sound counter-intuitive or self-defeating, but I never thought of Therese and Carol as being queer. Therefore, it was easy to write a flirtation scene or a love scene or whatever it happens to be, a scene in which people are in a situation where they’re being monitored, or feel like they’re being watched. To forget that they’re queer actually allows you to explore it much more deeply in terms of the moment-to-moment dialogue. So I’m not carrying around on my shoulder constantly, “Oh, but they’re gay, they have to be careful.”

As I understand it, The Price of Salt was, in a sense, the spinning out of a fantasy of Highsmith’s about Kathleen Senn, a woman she encountered when she herself was working in a department store. While certainly there are complications to the plot, the novel and the film are so seductive to me in part because that sense of a fantasy remains—that the beautiful woman glimpsed across the department-store counter would be into women, into you. Did you think about this as a fantasy at all?

Yes, of course there’s that level of fantasy. And it’s a clever one at that. I know that Pat saw Kathleen Senn across a crowded floor and she wrote the book in a fever dream, and then added the details of other friends who went through custody battles. But at its heart, it is a fantasy. Of course it is. We’re inundated in fiction, and movies, with romances that are all fantasy. But we take them much more seriously when they’re heterosexual fantasies. The film Love Story, which is one of my favorite guilty pleasure films, is a fantasy that’s clothed in tragedy. But it’s taken very seriously because that whole fantasy of a poor girl who goes to Radcliffe, meets the richest man on campus–it’s exactly Carol, in a funny way. But the way that people view it and think about it is very different.

One of the things the book does that frees the screenwriter is that there is no Carol there—she’s not a character so much as an apparition, glimpsed in shards, by Therese. And I was very conscious when writing that character—in my mind she was actually a fictional character. She was Grace Kelly in Rear Window, very specifically. Right down to the sort of dirty-mindedness cloaked by an icy wit. The fact that the film works on that level is due to several things—everybody behind the camera understanding that that’s what’s going on. And then Cate Blanchett who is very aware, I think, that she is performing a dual task, in that she is playing a character who is real, and yet she is also very aware of Therese’s idea of her. And those two things are different. And I think that in this case it’s in the script, and also in the actress giving the writer and director a huge assist. I think it’s very difficult to pull off, but she does.

I saw the film twice, and the first time I couldn’t take my eyes off Cate Blanchett—but it was so interesting to see it the second time and be able to shift my attention to Therese, and think about how the film allows the fantasy to go both ways.

Yes, absolutely. People now would probably say that Therese is “on the spectrum,” because she’s actually unable to lie, about little things, big things. And we’re not used to seeing characters who actually tell the truth, basically, with no sense of self-ironizing. You just don’t know how to take it. So she is an odd creature, definitely. And that’s certainly true of the character in the book. Though I think I’ve taken many more liberties, actually, with the character of Therese in the film. Because the book is problematic in what it saddles her with—she picks an isolationist profession [set design], which seems collaborative, but it’s not. It’s a little dull. And then we’ve got her on the road, again, getting over Carol with a series of odd jobs in odd places. So I felt completely emboldened–and privileged–to be able to differently adapt the character for film. I can’t think of anyone who could have done the film better than Rooney.

This may be a stretch, but I was struck by the moment in your play Weldon Rising when Natty says of the Boy, “I never looked like that.” It’s the same thing Carol says to Therese the first time she sees her naked. Is there something of particular interest to you about the queer experience of aging/youth—especially as it’s played out on the body?

Yes. This did not used to be true of lesbian culture, but it’s always been true of gay male culture. You’re not allowed to age, not at all. There’s an elevation of physical beauty that—and I understand, it becomes a weapon in fighting oppression, and that’s fine, but there are so many people who will never talk about it, will never put themselves in the position of saying “Wow, I know I’m supposed to look like that, maybe I don’t want to.” So little things like that have a resonance for me that are useful sometimes.

And in Carol’s case, it was funny, I had to actually beg Todd to keep that line in, and have them actually talk to each other in bed. I said, “I don’t know about you guys, but women talk to each other, it’s just part of the thing.” It’s also debunking the mythology of love scenes in general, of what makes a good sex scene. And it certainly isn’t the setting, or the four-poster bed, or whatever people generally pull out of a hat.


Photo credit: Kristina Harrison


Sara Jaffe photo

About: Sara Jaffe

Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Dryland, was published by Tin House Books in September 2015. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She co-edited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.

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