Carol Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Talks Awards Season and The State of LGBT Cinema

By  · Published on January 6th, 2016

It’s hard to grasp that a gorgeous and critically acclaimed awards season contender like Carol can take almost two decades to bring to screen. But such was the case for the script penned in the late 90s by the accomplished playwright Phyllis Nagy, which she adapted from her late friend Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (originally published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”.) After 4 main drafts, several minor re-writes in between and various names being attached to and detached from the project, Carol ‐ a quiet, deeply-affecting lesbian love story set in early 50s ‐ found its eventual form on its 5th draft when Nagy incorporated final touches to the script, as collaboratively envisioned by Todd Haynes.

Circulating various film festivals since the 2015 Cannes Film Festival of last May and proving to be a strong presence in the awards season, Carol has picked up numerous awards to-date from notable Critics Circles across the country, in addition to earning 5 major Golden Globes nominations (Best Picture, Director, Score and Best Actress for both of its co-leads), with awards to be handed out on Sunday. Nagy’s script has also been praised and awarded widely by Critics Groups. She is currently considered to be one of the near-locks to make the cut in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, when Oscar nominations are announced on Thursday, January 14th.

Joining me on the phone this past Monday, only hours before accepting her Best Screenplay award from the New York Film Critics Circle at their annual gala dinner, Nagy reflected on the previous two decades, talked about the various stages the script went through, her experiences in the “exhausting but gratifying” awards season as well as the state of female-driven and LGBT cinema today.

Below is edited from our brief chat, and includes some spoilers about Carol.

Tomris Laffly: Congratulations on Carol’s and your ongoing success in the awards season. What has your experience been so far, while we’re still in the thick of it?

Phyllis Nagy: It’s a bit dizzying. I tend to cope with it by thinking about it like a circus. There are three rings, and in each ring, there’s a different part of you doing a different act. It’s just a matter of keeping it going for one week at a time, and seeing what happens. It’s great that the film is receiving this sort of attention. Awards recognition is extremely gratifying; it means good work is being recognized and I think it’s great what’s going on. On a personal level, it’s absolutely exhausting.

Did Patricia Highsmith come to you specifically to adapt “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” at one point, or was there something in particular that attracted you to this book?

Our friendship wasn’t really about her work at that point in my budding career as a dramatist. She was so disappointed in all of the adaptations she had seen of her work, even great work, like Strangers on a Train. There was wistfulness about, “Gee, maybe when you grow up, and you’re able to do something, maybe you could see about doing a good one.” It was vague and she would direct me to, actually, four or five of her other books which she was very keen on seeing done well. “The Price of Salt”, or “Carol”, as it had been re-titled by then, wasn’t on the list.

What was on that list?

“The Talented Mr. Ripley”, which of course Minghella did. “Deep Water”, “Edith’s Diary”, “The Tremor of Forgery”, which has also been done now. And “People Who Knock on the Door”. Those are the ones that she was really keen on directing me to in some way. I tried to engage her in a conversation about “Carol” on the publication of it in the UK. She was quite reticent on the subject. I was never sure if it was because it was so deeply personal to her or if it’s because she just thought, like many writers do, “Listen, I wrote this quickly. I’m surprised how many people respond to it, but why aren’t they responding to the book that took me years to write?” Who knows what she would have made out of our film? I’d like to think she wouldn’t reject it out of hand.

One of the many things I love about Carol is, how it progresses as a love story with a happy ending. Therese and Carol fall in love without apologizing for it or for who they are.

It’s one of the things that made me want to stick with the project, after so many years, to preserve that. In the novel, there are scenes that the film picks up on and amplifies. There’s no frustration attached to the whole Carol experience, but, if there’s a small one, it is being out on the road with it and talking to a bunch of people [that say] “Oh, this is a simple love story, faithful to the book, blah blah.” Yes, and, profoundly, no. It’s a “Brokeback” novel (no pun intended). It’s very problematic structurally, and it hides behind the scene that you have just hit upon I took great pains in the script, to highlight. Todd and company have absolutely run with and expanded upon it. In the book, there is not a moment of banal psychology about the guilt of one’s sexual identity. There’s a fine line between the guilt that is felt as a result of people like [Carol’s husband] sending to Texas after her or the mess that’s left. What the characters in the book never do is, look at each other and feel guilt.

That was something I had not seen in mainstream cinema [about] two women. There’s always the obligatory scene which one person questions their sexuality. Believe me, I have been asked over the years to make at least the role of Carol more full of guilt because, of course, she’s also a mother. She’s a lesbian and a mother, and therefore, there must be a choice made and that choice has to carry a burden with it. I will always perceive that there is no choice except the inevitable choice which is, “I must preserve my identity or at least find it in order to be good for my kid and for everyone else around me,” which also is, in some way, hidden there in the novel.

That was extraordinary. The book was actually published in 1952. At the time, having someone make those choices be effortless in a novel was pretty radical, and I think probably still radical today. I became the lapdog of that aspect of it restored.

Sounds like you have written several drafts during the development, for almost two decades. What was different about working with Todd Haynes [on the script]?

There were only five major drafts of Carol over eighteen years. There was a handful over that time of what you call polishes. All of those are always noted. Cate [Blanchett] signed on to do the fourth full draft. Later, Todd signed on to it. The script was actually in pretty good shape when Todd came to us. Thankfully, it was Todd and not someone else. I’m not sure I would have been able to go through that process again with someone who was not simpatico.

All directors ‐ whether they’re directors who don’t normally write their own scripts, or whether they are ordinarily writer/directors, like Todd ‐ approach someone else’s scripts from a particular point of entry. This happened over time with Carol, too. There is always an interest in seeing the lens widen up one particular aspect of a narrative, or one aspect of the mosaic over the other, and finding that way with your director/collaborator. Finding the way to do that is what became the last major draft of Carol. Todd was reading the novel, getting enthusiastic about things in the novel that were, let’s just say, tried at various points along the way. I became the repository of all information, all things Carol-related. I could say, “No, we tried that two times.” In the end, the work of that last major draft was about finding a way to honor Todd’s vision. He’s very fond of framing devices. In this case, he was watching classic love stories from the 30’s and 40’s and in particular, Brief Encounter. He wondered whether we could do something like that with Carol, which now, you see at the end of the film be the structural backbone.

I took the scene between Therese and Carol at the hotel bar which had already largely been written and found a way to do that framing device with that. “Where should that idiot interrupt them?” Basically, I think the framing device that’s mixed in really does work.

Since you have a successful career as a playwright, I’m wondering how that side of you informs the way you write for screen.

The thing that I think a lot of playwrights don’t know is ‐ they’re not related to each other at all, playwriting and screenwriting. And they shouldn’t be. I see a lot of plays now that I would term fairly televisual but other people might term cinematic. I think what they mean is, there’s episodic short scenes, multiple locations, etc. A great stage structure should evoke the narrative backbone metaphorically and imagistically, whereas the cinema becomes exactly the opposite. It’s creating the space, or at least, I think so, for actors and directors to not risk so much. I’m not suggesting improvisation or anything like that, but, to write in a way that will support the complex choices that your collaborators may or may not make.

Screenplays are really all about structure, and, to my mind, much less about showing off in terms of the beautiful dialogue you could write. Yes, I think dialogue is hard, but what’s really hard is cinematic structure and making it possible for people to make a challenging transition, making sure the boat is strong enough with the holes being poked into the hull. I think that’s frankly an under-appreciated thing about screenwriting in general. The best screenplays, like Kieslowski’s Three Colors Red -which is almost a perfect screenplay- [have that]. Not that there’s no place for [verbal gymnastics], but it’s not my thing.

2015 has seen a surge of female-driven films as well as LGBT-themed films. I’m wondering what you make of that. Since you’ve written Carol in the 90’s, what have you seen change in American cinema that might have led to this?

I’m not sure if I’ve seen anything change. As always, every few years, there’s a glut of Q-based LGBT cinema. If there’s got to be a hook, there’s got to be like somebody’s fighting against the Supreme Court or what have you. What I don’t see are a lot of character-based films in which people are just allowed to be, and there’s not a big deal made about them being gay. I think we won’t see them until those films start making some money.

Next: 8 Things We Learned from Carol Director Todd Haynes

It’s true about the surprising rise in films that are female-driven, and Carol is certainly one. Comedies make money of course, but the dramas have to make money too in order for the studios and the other kinds of people in finance fields to be convinced they can make money. Because it is a business, as much as I would like to deny that. I’m really rooting for Carol and for whatever else is out there that’s adult and female-driven to make some bucks, and then we’ll see what happens.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.