When Patricia Highsmith published her second novel, The Price of Salt, in 1952 she used the pseudonym Claire Morgan. She did not want readers to associate the lesbian love story with her, much less to put together that she had plumbed some of its content from her life. Carol, the new film adaptation by Todd Haynes, is set in that same year. It tells the story of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young aspiring photographer newly arrived in New York, who falls for Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy housewife in the process of separating from her rather bull-headed husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, perfectly cast). He knows that his wife has had at least one female lover before, and when he picks up on the intrigue between her and Belivet, he threatens her with an injunction that will keep Carol from seeing their daughter again.
Carol takes place in a world whose forms of repression feel as remote – thank god – as they are stylishly rendered. You could do worse than to call it a film about divided spaces. It constantly sets its characters in frames within frames, crowds them in windows, mirrors, doorways, hallways. Rain trembles on the dashboard of a car inside which the two women sit, yearning to speak, and then turn on the radio instead. It conveys a lush kind of ’50s claustrophobia that film fans will recognize from the mid-century melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Men storm around in their fedoras, with the raw look of pink cheeks slightly agleam with aftershave. (“I asked you to marry me, for Chrissake!” Mara’s boyfriend shouts at some point, as if incredulous that that does not settle it.) Carol gives away her deep distress only by the clatter of her teacup in its saucer (shaking hands).
Todayit is difficult to imagine it being this dangerous for a wealthy woman in New York to declare her attraction to another woman. The fact that it is un-shocking to see the consummation we finally do see between Blanchett and Mara owes a lot to the decades-long collaboration between Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon.
Vachon has produced all of Haynes films since the early 1990s, and has used the production company, Killer Films to bring a wide range of LGBT characters to screen. Vachon’s filmography reads like a greatest hits list of American independent cinema, particularly of what scholars dubbed the “New Queer Cinema.” Poison, Swoon, Go Fish, Safe, Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol, Happiness, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Boys Don’t Cry… The list goes on. Now, at a time when it has become more or less commonplace to see queer characters on screen, Vachon is excited about the new possibilities for storytelling that are being created by television and online streaming.
Women in the World spoke with Vachon in advance the retrospective “Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams” that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting until November 29.
Women in the World: Tell me a little bit about your early life. What drew you to filmmaking?
Christine Vachon: I grew up in New York City in the ’70s. I could walk to the movies, and our main entertainment on weekends was to go to these dollar theaters. My theater was the Olympia on 106th Street and Broadway. Your feet stuck to the floor and if the movie was rated R you would wait on the corner for a sympathetic adult to walk by and you would get him to buy you tickets. Sometimes me and my best friend would wander around Times Square and go in and see movies in these theaters that were just insanely disgusting. Other times they surprised you. When I was twelve, my best friend and I would wander around Times Square and go in and see whatever movies were playing. I remember one day we saw Cries and Whispers on the marquee and thought that it was going to be some great horror movie.
WITW: It kind of is, though, right?
CV: It was! Just not the kind I had thought.
WITW: So it was New York film culture that shaped you.
CV: Yes. When I got to Brown [University] in the 1980s, they had a strong film criticism program in the semiotics department. I learned more about criticism there. But then when I got back to New York in the mid-’80s, there was this amazing confluence of film and music and fashion and art. A bunch of amazing people were starting to work there — like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. We all just called ourselves artists and jumped right in.
WITW: Was that when you connected with Todd Haynes?
CV: Todd and I went to Brown together; we knew each other but we didn’t know each other well. We first started working together with another friend at a small production company called Apparatus in the late 1980s. When I saw Superstar [the film Haynes made about the life and death of Karen Carpenter] I had an epiphany. I thought that it was exactly the kind of film I wanted to make: provocative, exciting, original. That was when I realized that I wanted to make movies and more importantly that I wanted to make movies with him.
WITW: Can you say more about that? On the surface the movies you made together are less experimental than Superstar.
CV: Well… Superstar may look experimental but it’s really highly narrative. It plays with your identification in terrific ways. When the movie begins you think, Oh how perfect to use Barbie Dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter. [The singer died of heart failure caused by her anorexia nervosa in the early 1980s.] Then by the end those dolls have become real characters. It’s very dramatic. You realize they are doing something completely different than you expected.
WITW: When did you start Killer Films?
CV: It’s funny, I went to the MoMA celebration for Cate Blanchett [on November 17] and saw [the photographer] Cindy Sherman. She was one of the hostesses. And in 1995, we produced her film Office Killer and it was the first film that Pam Koffler and I produced together. To that point, we had done movies where we worked together but I was the producer and she was the line producer — like Kids and I Shot Andy Warhol. Then we decided to become partners and we decided to make Office Killer with Cindy Sherman. We named our company after the film, and then we kept that name. Last night Cindy was like “Killer Films! The name comes from my movie.” And she was so proud, and I was so glad she was.
WITW: You seem so rooted in the New York scene. Were you ever tempted to go to Los Angeles?
CV: I don’t know how to drive, so L.A. was kind of ruled out for that reason! [Laughs.] When I first started, it was an incredible time in New York to be an artist. L.A. didn’t have any art scene whatsoever. So I have no regrets whatsoever. Now, New York has become so prohibitively expensive I think for a lot of people who want to do something in the arts L.A. is probably a more interesting town.
WITW: When you first started in the 1990s it was such a great time for American indie cinema. The filmmakers you work with, especially Todd Haynes, feel like such cinematic filmmakers. How has it been to switch to working for TV and other media?
CV: We’re excited about working on different platforms. We take different opportunities to tell different kinds of stories so we are really using it as an opportunity to explore different ways of storytelling. For some of the filmmakers I have worked with, especially the ones who are on the older side, it’s a transition. But a lot of the younger filmmakers who come in and talk to me these days say let’s stop saying “filmmaker,” let’s say “storyteller,” let’s say “content maker.” They come in and they have a web idea, they have an episodic idea, they have a long form television idea. We just finished a pilot for Amazon with Christina Ricci.
WITW: You played such an important role in bringing queer characters on screen. Do you feel like these more diverse genres, and platforms for storytelling are creating opportunities to tell more diverse stories?
CV: There’s definitely more space for talking about different kinds of characters. I look at movies like Tangerine, which I thought was really beautifully done. We have movies coming out this year — White Girl, by Liz Wood — which is amazing film, and Goat, by Andrew Neil, and the new Todd Solondz movie. We’re making more movie-movies than ever.
WITW: What advice would you have for someone starting out now?
CV: It’s so much easier to make content than it was when I started out. We only had film; that was it. Now people can make something credible on their iPhones; films like Tangerine prove it. So there’s no excuse now not to make something terrific. That’s my advice. Really keep making stuff! That’s it.