In a conversation with The Envelope,
Scene 1: Carol drives Therese to her New Jersey home for the first time. In the novel, Patricia Highsmith writes: "They roared into the Lincoln Tunnel. A wild, inexplicable excitement mounted in Therese as she stared through the windshield. She wished the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that their bodies might be dragged out together."
Haynes: I read that and I thought, "Yes! That is … love!" It's what you do in your mind when you fall in love. You're so close to those moments that a trifle will set off a fantasy of suicide or some dramatic idea of dying with your loved one, just so you're witnessed together for posterity. [Laughs]
This scene has such an emotional potency in the story and also it has such a stylistic distinction from anything else in the film with those slow dissolves and the music mix and a state of almost intoxication that evokes what it's like to fall in love.
It's also a scene that created real practical problems shooting in Cincinnati because the length of the tunnel we used is about 200 yards. So we had to keep scheduling a drive through this tunnel over and over and over again. The tunnel was so short that daylight would start coming through almost immediately. So we shot it at like 4 in the morning after an already incredibly long day, using a police escort that took about 45 minutes just to do a circle and go back around again for what's literally 30 seconds of shooting.
Mara: They just played that scene [at the AFI Awards luncheon]. It's fresh in our minds.
Blanchett: Yeah, but we also shot that in so many pieces. The whole thing seems like a dream to me. I can't remember a lot of it.
Mara: You were driving and it was freezing. It was really late at night.
Blanchett: Yes. It was tacked on to the end of a night shoot. We spent a lot of time in the car in this movie with Todd and [cinematographer] Ed [Lachman]. They were like the two old men from "The Muppets." Always talking. [Laughs] But that one in the tunnel, they couldn't be in the back seat and it felt a little lonely without them.
Mara: It's one of the scenes that stood out to me when I saw the film for the first time. It was different from how I imagined it. That scene, more than anything, gives you the feeling of falling in love.
Blanchett: On a prosaic level, it's quite a functional journey. But what Todd's done with it, you're crossing over a threshold. I didn't realize he was going to shoot it in so many sections. He obviously realized that the characters are moving through a membrane of some kind. People talk about the chemistry and say it's something Rooney and I manufactured, but in that instance, that was all Todd. It's the way the sound has been mixed. You hear what the person's saying, but it's utterly irrelevant.
Mara: Which is exactly what it's like when you're falling in love. You feel like everything the other person is doing is magic. They can do no wrong.
Scene 2: Shortly after being caught by a private investigator hired by Carol's husband, Therese and Carol return to the Drake Hotel. Therese feels like everything between them has been destroyed. Carol calls Therese to her bed where they embrace, but there's a new element of tragedy in the lovemaking. We then learn the next morning that Carol has left.
Haynes: In production, this was the first time they did kiss. We shot it before the sex scene. And both actresses will make note of the fact that I didn't say "cut" for a long time. [Laughs] And they kept going. I was sort of enthralled watching. It was the first time Cate and Rooney made out in front of me. And I couldn't say "cut." I didn't want to put them in an awkward position. I think I ultimately did.
Blanchett: We just called out: "Is that enough? Can we go now?"
Mara: Perv! [Laughing] It was one of the first scenes we shot together. We didn't know each other very well. It was our first real interaction. It wasn't awkward, but it was kind of embarrassing because we had to make out and we were giggly and he wouldn't yell cut because, I think, everything was still new and exciting.
Blanchett: There was something slightly voyeuristic about it, but in a beautiful way. I imagine the first time you get your actors together as a director, you're seeing what that is. It's like your brother peeping through the door, watching you undress. It's like: "I know you're there!"
Haynes: What the two actresses were doing in the scene, because it had such a tragic dimension, was so moving to me that I had a hard time ending. That scene kills me every time I see it. There's a pained expression in Rooney's face where you see the weight of implication in where they are in their lives.
Blanchett: I remember the dialogue that preceded the lovemaking and Todd wanted to extend the moment into that moment of exposure for the women. I remember asking him: "Do we need this? Are you sure?" That's an actor's reticence. Todd is so musical. He knew it needed that counterpoint, that release. And he was absolutely right.
Finally, the scene that bookends the film: Carol and Therese's meeting at the Ritz. As it opens the film, we don't understand the significance of their conversation's abrupt ending, though we do know by the way Carol touches Therese's shoulder as she leaves, that there is something between these two women. When the movie circles back to the scene at the end, we see that Carol is now the vulnerable one, asking Therese for a second chance.
Haynes: This double scene and the pivot that it plays in the story — though I think in "Carol," this pivoting in status in the relationship is given a further dimension than it is in the source we lifted it from — comes from the movie "Brief Encounter." That movie opens with a succession of little moments where you're wondering whose story it is and when are we going to land and find our route. I love that. The whole question of whose story this is and whose emotions are we really inside was, in my mind, definitive for the love story.
Blanchett: "Brief Encounter" is one of my favorite films, one that I constantly revisit. The performances are so extraordinary. I will never forget when they're about to consummate their relationship and they have to go out from the kitchen to the fire escape and suddenly what was so beautiful has turned sordid and dirty. It's when the world pollutes what seemed so pure and perfect. It's very hard to keep romance alive in the modern world.
Mara: What's striking is how the roles have really flipped when you return to the scene in "Carol."
Blanchett: I still think it's surprising when Carol asks, "So, would you like to move in with me?" and Therese says, "No. I don't think so." You go, "Okaaay. I guess that's it then. There's not a lot of wiggle room."
Mara: She's just a straight shooter. I love that about her. Probably because I'm much more indecisive.
Blanchett: I don't know. Maybe when it comes to love, a bit of caution isn't such a bad thing.