Talking to Carol’s Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy

Phyllis Nagy is a patient writer. The playwright (Disappeared, The Strip, and Never Land) and screenwriter wrote her first draft for Carol, an adaptation of her friend Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt," back in 1997. Nagy adapted Highsmith's story of the burgeoning love affair between Therese, a New York City shopgirl,  and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an affluent married woman, in 1950s New York. Nearly 20 years later, after several close calls evaporated and interested parties backed away, Nagy's Carol finally bowed on the big screen, wowing audiences and critics alike. Her efforts were rewarded with the New York Film Critics award for Best Screenplay, and now, an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. 

Carol is the product of Nagy's brilliant script, Todd Haynes superb direction, the tireless efforts of the film's powerhouse producers, Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen, the costume and production design of Sandy Powell and Judy Becker, and countless other talented filmmakers. But Carol has also been, from the very start, Nagy's baby, which she nurtured through the circles and cylces of development hell, and her own exacting creative process, to ultimately arrive at the place her adaptation was meant to go. The right talent at the right time (just two decades later) and Nagy's work attracted the aforementioned crew and stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, both of whom were nominated for Oscars (in a bit of a shock, neither the film, nor Todd Haynes, were nominated). We spoke to Nagy about how she took Highsmith's most singular and touching novel and turned it into such a beautiful film.

Let's talk about your first steps towards tackling the adaptation for this book. Where do you begin?

After I read it, once, I made the mistake of thinking of it would be fairly easy to do, and it was on that basis that I said yes, I'd adapt it. And after I said yes, I did what I always do now, which is I read the book six, seven times, making notes, trying to see what there was in terms of thematics and tone. That was really important, or important to preserve. It’s tricky in this case because it’s sort of a Brokeback Mountain story, it’s almost two books in one, with not so much as a shifting point of view, but Therese at times is a first person unreliable narrator, in the throes of her passion and lust for Carol, which she can’t name or understand at the beginning. Then sometimes, she’s a third person narrator sitting on her own shoulder, and this is a tricky thing to reconcile and to ponder. I was asking myself, what it was the novel was trying to do with that? 

So you just keep poring over the text?

Reading, re-reading, making tons of notes, then setting aside all of those notes and never referring to them again.

Interesting. You're absorbing all your reading but letting it go?

I'm taking something in through osmosis, then taking six, seven weeks away from it and coming back and writing a draft from beginning to end while resisting the urge to go back an edit. Knowing where you begin, the first thing you see, and the last thing you see, that gives you an instant structure.

So when you're into the script, you're just moving forward until you've reached the end? You never go back, tweak a little here, move this bit up to a later scene?

On the rare occasions that I know I’ve done something horribly wrong, I’ll go back to the beginning. In a way, it’s like not being able to give up the old way of typing, like writing on typewriters, you can’t cut and paste on a Selectric typewriter, you have to keep going. I’ve preserved that way of working, and it ensures there’s an organic nature to the changes that are made. I know if I change something on page 10, everything before that has to be looked at, and everything after. It ensures there’s not any great clunkers, or logic lapses, or emotional lapses.

So no going back to your notes, no cutting and paste, and acting as if you're using a typewriter. This sounds very freeing.

Right.  I never revisited those early notes, and if I needed to, I’d just go and read the book again and make more notes, but I'd never refer to those first notes again. I think it’s because some people can live with lots of note cards and outlines and all of that, but having the detritus of that around is so anxiety producing for me that I don’t think I could do my work. It’s enough to know it’s there somewhere, you know, it’s like an actor learning lines, you know what those notes are. It’s having the focus to keep working, and resisting the thing that computers encourage, which is to cut and paste.

Wait, do you actually use a typewriter?

I work on a Mac desktop, and have for years. I can’t write on a laptop, I can revise on a laptop, but I can’t write a draft on it.

When you found out Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were going to be the leads, was it harder or easier to work with Todd Haynes during the script tweaking phase? Does their presence create any anxiety?

I suppose I didn’t have the anxiety because I was always involved. I started this project as a kid who was hired to do an adaptation. But after 18-years, you’re one of the heart and souls of the piece, and you’re accorded a different role in the whole thing. Because I was there from the start, and also, Todd and I have such a good relationship. The thing that I suppose might have caused some people anxiety is that Todd himself is a writer/director, so a natural thing is, 'Oh god, is he going to re-write my script?' But after one conversation it was very clear that it was his sensitivity as a writer/director that was going to ensure that did not happen.

You were on set a bit during production. What role did you fill on set, aside from being the writer?

I got to see all the audition tapes, all the actors that Todd was seriously considering for the major supporting roles. That was terrific to be included in that. Not that if I had said, 'I don’t think you should cast Sarah Paulson (Laughs),' that would happen. Not that I’d ever say that about her. I was on set for a few weeks, I got to choose the weeks I wanted to be there, so I chose the weeks when I thought I might be needed if I was going to be needed at all. That involved all the scenes with Carol, Therese, Abby, Harge, the central core group, the last sequence, the lawyers, all those big beats that might have required some attention. In the end, it was basically Cate, the hardest working genius you’ll ever meet, always wanting to make sure everything is right.

How did you make sure everything was right?

Basically we'd huddle together about certain things, a word choice here, why can’t we restore that there. So we did some of that work. But mostly I was glad to be there because, for a movie on this budget, locations drop, things happen, you lose a local actor, etcetera, so I was able to step in and say, 'You know what, you don’t need that subway platform or that train station, you can do this instead.' Because Todd was in the middle of it, he became the protector of everything, he didn’t want to lose anything, so it was good that I was there because I could say those things. I wrote it, if I’m saying, 'You don’t need that,' it became a good position to be in. I’m not precious about anything because I know there are ten other things that are more important or just as good, and everybody’s doing a great job, so chances are whatever’s left will be fine.

You can naturally see what's not totally necessary.

Novelists do this because they’re always expecting to be edited. As a screenwriter, you want to be savvy enough to have material in a script that you can point to and say, if things are going to be cut, and there’s always 10-15 minutes that will, either in the editing or in production, what would those be? Can we put those moments in? Can we offer temptation? It’s such a sensible thing to do, it’s not to say that the stuff is crap, it’s just stuff that you get a feel for what might be considered superfluous in a particular way, so the more of that stuff that can be left, the better.

I want to go back to your point about knowing what you're starting with and ending with that creates an instant structure. You started on the script with a specific image that you'd opened and close with? Was it straight from the novel?

There are always visual images in my head, and it’s surprising, if you say to someone that the first thing you see in a script is someone lighting a match, and the last thing you see is a building in flames, that person can almost instantly visualize a narrative. It’ll be different for everyone, but you can see there’s something to work towards. In the case of Carol, that ending was there (spoiler alert), they almost reach each other across that crowded restaurant, but the implication being, I think, at least, that it’s a rather hopeful evening, at least, if not a hopeful life. At least they find each other. I always knew what I was working towards. It made it much easier to think less of an three-act structure, my response to a three act structure is, tell me how many acts you think something should have, and I’ll tell you how they end or begin. But to approach it with, you have to this three act structure? That has always felt very wrong to me. The scripts I admire have always felt more like pieces of music, one long arc that teases out the narrative. Musical notation makes much morse sense to me.

That last shot was truly lovely. (Again, spoiler alert)

On the very last page of the book they almost touch, they're almost there, and obviously the implication in the book airs on the side of a slightly longer future. It’s less ambiguous than the script ending and film ending. I think the reason for that is the script and the film are always in the present, in the moment, and it was very important to me in the writing and very important to Todd in the direction, to replicate that experience—what is it like to fall in love? And what is it like to bridge a vast ocean in that last scene where you’re coming together in a moment, in order to have that kind of resonance? And the key was to keep everything in the present tense. That ending, the way it’s done, is the most optimistic and romantic of endings. And the most realistic. It’s not sentimental, it’s not saying that this is happily ever after. What it’s saying is, 'This is happily ever after in this moment.' But I can see there might be some people who would prefer the coda of Therese and Carol stripping furniture, or Abby making brunch for them. But I think it’s thrilling and why when it hits people hard, that’s why. It’s there, and then it’s gone. And that cut to black is almost as necessary as the last shot.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.