Phyllis Nagy Q&A: ‘Carol’ writer
Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy knew Patricia Highsmith, the author of such classic mystery tales as “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” during the last years of her life. Yet, as she reveals in a recent interview, adapting her 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” — based in part on a real life event from the author’s past — into the movie “Carol” proved more challenging than Nagy first expected. "Carol," directed by Todd Haynes, tells the story of two women — one an aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara), the other a restless housewife (Cate Blanchett) — who fall in love in postwar New York City.
Nagy’s friendship with Highsmith added insight into her adaptation, although she admits, “I didn’t read the book while she was alive. The way that she spoke to me about it, there was something that I thought, ‘I shouldn’t read this in case I don’t like it or I say the wrong thing,’ because it was clearly very personal to her.”
The book draws upon many of Highsmith’s personal experiences for inspiration, yet despite its closeness to her heart, Nagy claims, “she didn’t really have very good things to say about the book. It wasn’t one of her personal favorites, and I’m not sure if that was willful on her part, just to sort of distance me from wanting to engage with the book or if she really thought it wasn’t up to what her best work was. I don’t know, and I never will.”
Upon finally reading the book a few years after Highsmith’s death, Nagy admits, “I thought, ‘Well, she’s wrong in significant ways about this, but I get why it’s not something that she was confident enough to claim as her own for all those years.”
As for adapting the book into a screenplay, she reveals, “This came to me in the way that any movie, or most movies, will come to a writer: when the writer doesn’t generate it themselves." As she explains, "a producer says, ‘Will you write this?’ And little did I know then how long this would take, and what would happen along the way. But actually, given the results, I kinda feel I want everything to take 18 years to reach the screen.”
Nagy says of the arduous writing process, “It was baptism by fire, really, the first couple of years, but also great because I had the time to work out the basic, fundamental structure of the film, and also its tone and the way that it handles exposition, none of which has changed in the 18 years.”
She previously contended at the Primetime Emmys for writing and directing “Mrs. Harris” (2005) and recently won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for her "Carol" script. She is nominated at the Independent Spirits for Best Screenplay and is currently ranked third by our Experts in the Adapted Screenplay race at the Oscars. Check out our full interview below for more about her work on “Carol.”