Interview: Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy On Adapting CAROL

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Interview: Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy On Adapting CAROL
Two years before Patricia Highsmith would earn acclaim with the release of her 1950 suspense novel, Strangers on a Train, she was working as a shopgirl selling dolls at a department store. Legend goes that one day an elegant, beautiful blond came to the store in search of a doll, casting an enchanting spell on young Pat Highsmith. At the time, Pat happened to be in the throes of chicken pox. Her love at first sight afterglow fused well with her potent illness, resulting in a night of fevered inspiration, wherein The Price of Salt was wholly conceived as an outline. 

Three years later, after Highsmith finished her impassioned novel, she found her publishers less than enthused to follow up Strangers on a Train with a lesbian love story, forcing Highsmith to release The Price of Salt under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, for pulp consumption. Fortunately, as time passed, though Highsmith would evolve as a suspense writer, The Price of Salt gradually began transcending its initial reputation and garnering appreciation as the stroke of literary genius that it is.

Now, after over 60 years, the story has been turned into one of the finest films of 2015: Todd Haynes' Carol. Moving the story onto the screen was no small feat. Just ask screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who had been trying to get her script made for over 15 years. I, fortunately, had such an opportunity at The New York Film Festival, where Carol had its North American premiere. Given that it's extremely difficult to pen a satisfying adaptation of a beloved novel, I was dumbfounded by how Nagy was able to do just this so effectively.

The morning after the premiere, Phyllis walked me through her brilliant choices, detailing her methods of changing story details while still honouring the work's backbone. For any screenwriters trying their own hand at adaptation, look no further than Carol for a class in faithful revision. Despite whatever arbitrary choice made by the academy of motion pictures, this is the best adapted screenplay of 2015.


ScreenAnarchy: I'd love to hear a little bit more about the evolution of the project. In the first place, when were you approached? And how did it unfold from there?

Phyllis Nagy: God, it was, I don't know, fifteen ... More than fifteen years ago I'm sure, when I was approached. There was a producer on the film at that time who owned the rights to the novel. She's now an executive producer on the film. She didn't have anything to do with this film. That happens all the time.

She approached my agent in London and said "Who could do this?" At the time I was a playwright in London, and was pretty on the up. My agent just said, "There's no one but ... She should do it. She knows Pat." It was as simple as that. There was no auditioning for jobs.

Film4 has always been behind the film. Principally Tessa Ross, who's now not there. She's kept this alive throughout the years. We had a series of interesting people attached to it early on, including John Maybury.

Anyone that you got excited about?

I liked John very much. In the end it never seemed to be the right time for this kind of movie. The money was hard. All sorts of things. People having other movies. Some people who I did breathe a sigh of relief when things didn't work out.

Through it all the constants were Tessa and Film4. What happened was the original producer lost the rights to the novel. I thought "it's dead". Through a very interesting reversion clause no one actually could own the script except me, if I felt like paying back... There was no need. As long as no one owned the rights to the book.

Liz Carlson, with whom I had worked on my own movie for HBO, she had been tangentially involved. Through the whole process of Mrs. Harris, there was always something going on with Carol. She got the rights to the book after the other rights lapsed.

At that point she called me up and I said, "You know what? Get someone. I've had enough with this. False starts, having to have meetings with people. I'm tired of this. Good luck, you'll find a great adaptation." Tessa Ross wouldn't let it go. I think she said to her, "You have to use that script. You have to get it back."

Finally I just said to my agent, "Ask for whatever and that will go away." It didn't. Really it's down to Liz dragging me kicking and screaming into the whole process. I think people know that John Crowley was attached. Cate came on board around that time. He had to do some other movie. We didn't want to wait.

I wonder if it was BROOKLYN, which also just had its NYFF premiere?

No, it wasn't. It was the thriller, or the political movie for Focus. Eventually, because Christine and Liz are old friends, they sent it to Todd. Then it came together pretty much.

Going much further back, can you discuss your first impressions of THE PRICE OF SALT and the impact it had on you when you read it?

It was one of the last books by Pat Highsmith that I read. Primarily because she herself was not diffident about it, but it was an early book. It was autobiographical in certain ways. It was atypical. I just put it low on the list. I didn't actually read it until I was approached to do the adaptation.

I misunderstood. I thought last night at the premiere you'd said you read it when you were very young.

No. I've been on this so long that I was very young when I started it. I'm glad it got to be a film before I died, at this point.

Yeah. I came to the book very late. I was really surprised by how bizarrely experimental it was for a Highsmith novel, and how stream-of-consciousness point of view it was. Internal. My first thought was "How do you do that?" How do you do this really, without making it a terribly experimental film with lots of voice over, which I made an executive decision very early on not to have any; except for one moment in the film, where it's a letter that Carol writes.

No narration. No Therese saying "I saw her. She was beautiful." There's a lot of that kind of writing in the novel. My first impression, I suppose, was fear. There's no character of Carol. She's a ghost appropriately, as she should be, in the novel. You can't really do that and get anyone to play her. I guess I was overwhelmed by the task of trying to come up with the visual equivalent for it structurally.

What would you say was your first revelation that this is how you can make it work? This is how you can tell the story.

The first revelation was when I realized that I could... There's a hugely problematic section after the road trip, where Therese takes lumberjack jobs. She's on the road.

I think she becomes a typist.

She's a typist, she goes to bizarre places. I thought no, just get rid of that. It slows everything down to a halt. It was a story about the folly of falling in love.

You pass time in a different way.

Pass time in a very different way. That was the revelation. You could get rid of all sorts of things that really, for a screenplay, aren't really necessary. I had great freedom in doing it because it was developed in England. There's no director attached, there's just you and the producer. You can just write what you want. There's no studio saying, "You've got to have this and that. More love scenes or whatever it is."I didn't know any better. I thought it was always like that. It's not - of course it's not.

It was actually a pleasure to write it. I think even though it's taken all these many years, I think there were five proper drafts of it. That's all.

How many of those drafts was Todd Haynes involved for?

He came on at the end. There were several other people over the years. One day I will be in a position to write a little pamphlet about it. The amusing people involved in Carol over the years, and how you become ... Your job is to be a diplomat and say "I'm not sure that will work, but I'll give it a try."

When Todd came on board we had discussions about what became the framing device. Todd was very interested in films like Brief Encounter and suggested that we try a framing device - Which I then ran with in a certain way. Little things as there always are.

He was great because he understands, having written himself obviously, what the process is. He was interested in the same things, tonally, that the script was interested in - which isn't always the case. We were able to keep that restraint going.

There's such a great line in the screenplay. I'm not positive if it's an in-joke or not. When they're all in the projection room watching the film and he's tracking the correlation between what's on their face and what's coming out of their mouths essentially.

That's nowhere in the book of course. My favorite film is Sunset Boulevard and I always try to get it in somehow in everything I write. That's where that came from. I think that was pretty early in the process.

You already mentioned how in the book Carol is much more of a ghost figure because it's very subjectively Therese's story. Can you elaborate a little more on expanding the Carol character and just having her be an equal part in the story? And also softening her up a little bit?

Yeah. She's quite severe in the book, isn't she? Again there's a great freedom in inventing a life for a character for whom, basically, we knew the outline of what was going on. She was divorcing, she was in a custody battle. That's pretty much it.

The thing that I was obsessed with was you've got this women, she's wealthy. She's got this husband she's in the process of ditching. She's got this little girl. What in the world would possess her to walk into a shop? In the book Therese is 19. What about this woman, this girl, would possess Carol?

Once I attacked that and thought "I get it", why, then Carol's character became very easy to write. Therese, that's a whole different thing. While she's ever-present in the novel, she's a bit of a cipher as well. What's she interested in? Once I ditched the whole theater designer thing. I just kept seeing horrible things in a movie of someone sitting in the back of a theater, sketching.

I also like the point you made last night about how you made the Therese character much more naive. I think she's a virgin in the film, or at least she hasn't slept with Richard. These feelings, gender-aside, are just so alien to her. Out of nowhere. You were saying that if Therese was a theatre designer, instead of the painter you changed her into, Therese would be more familiar in scenarios of the heart. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite discussions in the book, which is halfway through. Therese tells Carol that her boyfriend, Richard, "couldn't compete". Carol gets bent out of shape at the cliché of 'can't compete'. Carol's basically saying there's a line for everything; every situation has a line. She says, "What do they say about what makes a classic? A classic is something with a basic human situation."

Yeah, that's right. Once you cut through all of that stuff that's exactly what that book is about. That became easy, once you focus only on that journey, it's fine. In the script there's the character of Ruby Robichek, who's the ghost of Christmas future. There's slightly more detail about Therese's peculiar sex life with Richard.

In the end, I thought the job of the writer is to provide enough material, enough of a backbone, so that when you get to the inevitable things that have to go in editing, that it can survive that and thrive. As long as that central relationship is fine you can afford to strip away, strip away. If it's not fine then we're screwed.

In speaking of the love story, one of the most fascinating things about it, to me, is that I think what's more relevant than the gender issue is maybe the age difference; It's the initiation of heartbreak and falling in love with somebody who's already had that initiation. One thing I find curious is apparently the novel, THE PRICE OF SALT, inspired LOLITA, which is kind of a reverse situation.

Jesus. I find that really hard to believe.

Yeah, the reversing of the age makes it a whole different story.

I cannot even imagine Nabokov reading The Price of Salt. It was a little mass market pulp paperback that got decent reviews, but was really just (considered trashy). So that would be an astonishing thing to me. It is a road trip. There is no equivalent to the Clare Quilty character really. Though, that would be a great thing if that were true.

Maybe he came upon it because of its exploitative reputation... not that it's an exploitative text.

The cover of The Price of Salt... I have a first edition, and it's a pretty hot blonde.

Right, tawdry.

Maybe. He was interested in that stuff. That's great ... Lolita as a version of the Price of Salt.
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CarolClaire MorganNYFFPatricia HighsmithPhyllis NagyStrangers on a TrainThe Price of SaltTodd HaynesCate BlanchettRooney MaraKyle ChandlerSarah PaulsonDramaRomance

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