The genesis of this film is unusual for you as you came to an already existing project rather than instigating it. What was the point of connection for you with this material?
I was given the script and the novel, which I had not read before and didn't know, in the same moment in May of 2013, and there had already been a long history preceding this project. I had actually heard about it through Sandy Powell who was planning to do costumes and she told me that Cate was already attached to this and Liz Karlsen was producing it, so I knew it existed, but I kind of forgot about it and was working on other things before it came to me. I read the novel and I read Phyllis's draft at that point, and I loved that book. I just thought it was such a beautiful, indelible and acute look at early love, and so interesting in relation to Patricia Highsmith's larger oeuvre of the crime subject, because it made you feel like falling in love was like having committed a murder, and having to recount and examine and all of the evidence stacking up against you to see what your chances are of getting away with it.
They even become fugitives.
Exactly, and separated from society. Every detail and nuance, particularly if it's coming from your object of desire, is a sign to be decoded and you start to fixate on it to try and read what it means, so there's a kind of pathology to it. I thought that was so accurate and unsentimental, and I felt it was something I had never addressed as a filmmaker in a movie before, like really telling a love story. It really made me think about point of view, and how great love stories, or so many of them, are usually rooted in the point of view of the more vulnerable party, the lover. That was absolutely true in the novel, but Carol offered the opportunity to track that very carefully and to watch Therese's point of view ultimately yield to Carol's point of view by the end, when their stations and their relationship, in terms of who is in the more powerful position, changes. So all of that was the way I started to think about it and then watching love stories on film, some I'd loved in the past and others I hadn't seen before, made me think about ways of sharpening that and making that more clear in the writing.
Do you always look at films from the period as part of your preparation for a project like this? Do you give your cast and crew films to watch as homework?
I sometimes look at movies from the period if it's relevant to what we're trying to do with the film, and sometimes not from the period, and sometimes both. It's unique to the project itself, it's not really a rule. For Far From Heaven, which was based very rigidly on movies from a specific time and place, and a language that they had defined and epitomised, yes I shared those very specifically with my actors. In this case there weren't specific films I was saying they had to watch but I shared my image book and the visual references with my DP, designer, the other creative departments and also with my actors, and I think that really did inform them. And then we found this movie called Lovers and Lollipops, which is a docudrama – I guess that's the most accurate way of describing it – made by Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel. They were husband and wife and they are probably best-known for a film called Little Fugitive that was made in New York, and all of these are in black-and-white and were made in the '50s. Little Fugitive is about a boy who runs off to Coney Island for a day, but Lovers and Lollipops took place in many of the locations that are in Carol, oddly enough, so it was really relevant. It had a female character at the centre of the story and the way she moved, and her range of gestures, was quite different from the way actresses from movies in that time behaved, and yet it was still quite codified and very particular to the time. It just felt more like a documentary, like it wasn't filtered through Hollywood language, and that was very interesting. I felt like there were aspects of femininity that had gone away, and that I wanted to be really true to.
To follow on from that point about the film's look, I want to ask you about how you work with Ed Lachman. You've collaborated a number of times now and each of your collaborations has had a very different aesthetic. At what point do you bring him on board to start defining the film's visual style?
Early. We begin these conversations quite early in the process, but in the case of Carol it was less time than I usually have with movies that I'm writing and researching and developing myself. In each case it really is like starting from scratch with a blank canvas. Ed really approaches it like a visual artist and thinks a lot about artistic references, but he also responds to as much specificity as I can give him. I think it's true for most creative partnerships, that they want the director to make them feel that there is a solid foundation upon which we are all standing, we're all in the same space, and then they can bring the specificity of their relevant departments to manifesting that.
I love the fact that you shot this in super 16mm. That grain in the image really brings it to life and looks so beautiful. How did you arrive at that choice?
We shot in super 16mm on Mildred Pierce. We have only ever shot on film but as stocks and lenses get more and more sophisticated and fine-grained, it's not necessarily better, but that's how technology moves. It occurred to me watching stuff on HD TV that had been shot on 35 film, it looks just like digital, you can't really tell the difference, and the grain component goes away. On Mildred Pierce we really want to degrade it and go in the opposite direction, to fuck it up a bit, and I loved the result. I loved also working with the little spring camera. I mean, it's problematic, it's dirtier, it gets dust and hair in it more often than 35mm, and we had some technical problems with lens fittings and focus issues on Carol early on that unnerved Ed, but all of those things are kind of great.
You mentioned Mildred Pierce there, and I'm interested to know how it felt to be making a feature film again after telling a story in a longer format on TV.
It's really, really different. The more open dramatic form of the miniseries was already an exceptionally different and interesting challenge, but you have to shoot so many pages a day for TV and that was the biggest daily challenge, I would say. Everybody I brought to Mildred Pierce came from big screen cinema and nobody had done TV before, so we were all really naïve and cocky that we were making a movie that just happened to be a longform dramatic thing that would be broadcast on HBO. But I loved working with HBO, and once we all agreed on the budget and were greenlit I felt a kind of security under me that I hadn't felt before.
In the current cinema climate, do you see that becoming a more natural home for the kind of stories you want to tell?
There are probably more and more dramatic programmes with female characters. Showtime seemed to specialise in women-driven stories for a while and HBO is catching up a bit, but all of that is helping competition and broadens what we get to see, and that has not been the case in independent filmmaking. It has really narrowed because people just don't go to the theatres to see those movies as much, so financing has dried up, And DVD sales, that whole ancillary part that supplemented independent filmmaking for so long, has now gone away with streaming and the way we watch things today.
You have been making independent films for 25 years now. Is it much harder to get films like this made now than it might have been earlier in your career?
It's different each time and not necessarily easier at any given point. I feel like there are all kinds of internal and external changes that are hard to generalise on, because each of my films and my subjects are different enough that I could say 'Oh, it was the film that made it harder or easier'. Velvet Goldmine, because it had a music theme and a lot of young people in it, was a little bit easier to finance, but it was still a very modest budget and I've never felt that I've had any other than a modest budget for the ambitions of the project.
One of the things that struck me about Carol is that it feels like there isn't a frame wasted. What was the editing process like on this film?
There was a lot that we cut out of the movie that was in the script and we shot, great stuff, nothing that I didn't like per se, it was just more than it ultimately needed. My process in cutting is really determined by screenings that we have and the notes that I get, from colleagues, friends and people I don't know, they're not studio test screenings but screenings we set up ourselves. People give extensive notes on the various versions that they see, and it tells me everything. Of course, you hope to find consensus in the reactions and it made what needed to go, what needed to be pruned, and what needed to be balanced pretty clear.
The whole movie feels like it is constructed entirely from glances, gestures and small details of behaviour. It's such a quietly powerful film.
Yes, I think so. I didn't really think of it as so quiet when I was making it, but I think it's just my preference. I really love the disquiet that Therese would feel in the company of Carol, and that there was not a simple, easy or immediate rapport between the women. I mean, there was a conflict, there was interest and curiosity, but there are a lot of moments that were indecipherable to Therese. Carol came with a complex web of issues in her life and an ambivalence about this relationship that Therese has to keep navigating, so that silence and those moments of indecipherability were really important and loaded. They create anxiety but they also create desire, and I love the tension that produces.
When they first exchange glances in the toy store you can sense a spark and some kind of connection being made. Is the kind of chemistry that exists between Cate and Rooney something you can work on with the actors or is it something that you get lucky with?
It's a question that keeps coming up and one that is always impossible to answer. There is no way to create chemistry, and I don't even know if I believe in chemistry. I feel like it's actually the product of a lot of work and thought, and a balance between yielding to emotion and suppressing emotion, and the audience creates the chemistry. All you can do is provide a conscious series of decisions and specific choices showing who these people are and expressing it at different moments, and to use all the tools of the medium – the music, the visual language, the silences – to inform those things. Then it's up to the viewer, they bring the emotion and they bring what's alive to the film.
So what is your process for working with actors? Do like to rehearse with them?
It depends on the movie, it depends on the schedule. In this case we had two weeks of rehearsal built into the schedule, which I love, not all actors do but these actors did, and it meant a lot to everybody to protect that. People think of the term 'rehearsal' like you're blocking the scenes or moving around on a set and deciding where you're going, but really it's mostly just sitting around and talking, examining the backstory, asking questions, examining certain lines for what they mean and maybe stuff can go: “Let's lose that, we don't need it, it's reductive, it's redundant.” It's an editing process and a process of filling in the kind of history that actors rely on.
Finally, what is it that attracts you to female-driven stories?
I think it's because women bear a unique burden in society that men sometimes get to escape, having to represent and uphold institutions of family and raising children, as well as satisfying male needs. Their lives are intrinsically built into the constraints and trade-offs that we make in our daily lives, which are more about real life. I like movies that remind you of your real life and make you think about the fact that there are no heroes in real life, that we make tough choices, and those are the kind of characters that I'm particularly drawn to.
Carol is released in UK cinemas on November 27th