Todd Haynes Collects Images to Guide the Feel of His Films - The New York Times


Cate Blanchett in “Carol.”

The first shot of the drama “Carol” begins on a subway grate and tilts up to reveal the bustling streets of 1950s New York. That shot and the many that follow show art deco hotels, crowded and meticulously designed department stores, beautiful suburban homes, and smart fashions, and they sometimes feel as if they were taken from the pages of magazines or photography books that depicted the period. And in a way, they were.

The director of “Carol,” Todd Haynes, has made a habit of creating image books as a guide to the visual feel of his films, going back to his 1995 drama “Safe.” The compendiums are culled from photographs, film stills, paintings, periodicals and other sources to generate ideas for the film’s style. They are meant initially for the cinematographer, in this case Edward Lachman, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film. The books are not to be confused with storyboards, the shot-by-shot breakdowns he has made since his first feature, “Poison” (1991).

“I’ve always had an active, hands-on, arts-and-crafts process as part of the preparation,” Mr. Haynes said in an interview at The Times. The image books are “a way of communicating beyond words that gets to the crux of what the mood, temperature and stylistic references would be.”

For Mr. Haynes’s films that have had more direct historical subject matter, like “Velvet Goldmine,” his take on glam rockers in the 1970s, and “I’m Not There,” his unconventional biopic about Bob Dylan, the image books have also helped organize the visual history of those artists.

At the beginning of the process for “Carol,” Mr. Haynes wrote a note to Mr. Lachman, describing his take on the visuals and arguing for a degree of fluidity.

“The visual language of the film is not about rigidity,” he wrote. “It can pull back and observe, it can creep along and resettle with characters, it can crane. And at times it should simply float, or hover, even quiver.”

Though the image book was intended for Mr. Lachman, it also was of interest to the film’s leads, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as a housewife and a shopgirl who fall in love in 1950s New York.

In “Carol,” the visuals have a lot to do with point of view, with audiences frequently anchored to the subjective perspective of Ms. Mara’s character, Therese, while her gaze is often focused on Ms. Blanchett’s Carol. Mr. Haynes said his image book helped inform decisions the actors made in their performances.

“But then on a very practical level,” he said, “it becomes great reference for clothes, hair, makeup, the way women carry themselves in the period and the specificity of how they’re being created from the outside in.”

The image book includes a number of references to other films, like “Brief Encounter” and thrillers like “Vertigo,” for their sense of period, and the 1974 Steven Spielberg drama “Sugarland Express,” for its innovative cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, particularly a scene shot in a car with natural light.

Another inspiration was “Lovers and Lollipops,” the Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin feature in which a widow, her new suitor and her daughter go on an excursion around New York City.

“That became a really amazing document for locations, because it was all shot in real places with natural light in New York close enough to when ‘Carol’ takes place,” Mr. Haynes said. A scene in “Lovers and Lollipops” set in the Macy’s toy section inspired the department-store scenes in “Carol.”

Mr. Haynes assembled his image book almost as if it were a visual mixtape, pulling photos and movie screen grabs of his inspirations and laying them out in pages of collages that would help to synthesize his thoughts and create a kind of virtual movie.

“It’s all creative problem solving and thematic decision making,” he said. “When you put one image next to another, it says more than the two separately.”

Another page in the book was tied to scenes about Carol’s domestic life. He included paintings of home life from covers of The Saturday Evening Post as well as interior photography by William Eggleston. He was also inspired by interiors in the 1964 Jack Clayton drama “The Pumpkin Eater,” with Anne Bancroft.

The contemplative, painterly work of the photographer Saul Leiter was a source of inspiration for the film’s New York streetscapes.

“Saul Leiter finds abstraction in the real,” Mr. Haynes said. “And yet there’s a more urgent sense of time and place, because he focuses on detail.”

From Mr. Leiter, his interests expanded to other photographers evoking similar feels, like Ernst Haas, whose style fell between photojournalism and art. Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier, photographers who captured urban moments, were also sparks.

All told, Mr. Haynes created more than 80 pages of photo collages that served as a road map through the feature. It took him two months.

“You learn about building a long-form sustained narrative experience through this process,” he said. “When I’m nerding out over the layout on the page, all of this stuff is contributing to the nebulous process of what a film is.”