Everday Icon: The Screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy

We were honored to chat with Phyllis Nagy, screenwriter for the new film Carol, about her creative life, acclaimed career and how she stumbled into her profession.
Phyllis Nagy_Headshot (Photo Credit Kristina Harrison).jpg

Meet Phyllis Nagy, accomplished playwright, director and screenwriter for the newly released beautiful film Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol is an absolutely gorgeous film about the the love affair between an alluring older woman and a younger department store clerk in New York in 1952. The film opened in theaters Nov. 20. 

 Phyllis took a few moments to share her thoughts on living a creative life, working in Hollywood and always making time to read. 

You have an impressive career as a writer in several mediums (theater, TV, film). What has your creative path looked like?

I am an accidental writer who wanted to be anything else— a criminal defense attorney, a forensics expert, a champion tennis player, a musicologist. I drifted into dramatic writing after trying poetry. A kindly poetry teacher suggested I might be better suited to drama. And that was it.

You moved to London at age 30 to become the Royal Court Theater's writer-in-residence. That sounds like an adventure—how did you make that decision and how did it affect your career?

It made my career. No question. I went on an exchange program to the Royal Court for two weeks, had a staged reading of an early (unproduced) play, and met a great many people who seemed to appreciate my work. One of those people was Stephen Daldry, who encouraged me to pack up and move to London. Six weeks later, I was there.

You were already an accomplished playwright when you wrote Carol. What inspired you to take on such a captivating project for your first screenplay? 

I said no to many film projects before saying yes to Carol. I’ve always been careful about the path through the film industry I’ve carved — for better or worse. I made a decision early on that I would only write adaptations for other people to direct, and I’ve stuck by that decision. With Carol, it was a combination of honoring my friend Pat Highsmith’s novel, and the challenge of figuring out a tricky adaptation.

Speaking of, you adapted Carol from Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt in 2000 — meaning it took 15 years for your first screenplay to get made. How did that experience make you feel about the filmmaking process? 

1997, actually! With hindsight, I am tempted to say that I wish for every script to take 18 years to reach the screen. The process is perpetually slow, even with the “fastest” films. It is typical for a film to take five years— an independent film, that is— to reach the shooting stage. How it reaches the screen has as much to do with the perseverance of producers and distributors as it does with the other creatives involved.

Carol received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and is on the short list of many Oscar lists. Any "Hollywood moments" with the film you'd like to share with us?

The highlight of these “Hollywood” moments has to be sitting next to Helen Mirren at the Governors Awards dinner. What a wonderful, gutsy, delightful dinner companion!

Carol is an absolutely beautiful film. How did you create spaces within the story to create the aesthetic of New York in 1952?

I think the look of the film owes everything to the gorgeous and incisive work done by Todd and his team— Ed Lachman, Judy Becker, Sandy Powell. It is far easier for me to write: “INT. THE OAK ROOM” or “INT. MCKINLEY MOTEL” than it is to frame a visual, aesthetic experience by my collaborators. My job was to ensure that the period was reflected but not mummified in the writing of the moments— and this includes the dialogue, the beats, major pauses— and to avoid a contemporary, judgmental take on the proceedings.

What are some common misconceptions about life as a playwright and screenwriter? Did you ever have a backup plan for your career?

The biggest misconception, in my experience, is the belief that there is a natural crossover between playwriting and screenwriting. There’s a far more natural crossover between playwriting and television writing— for any number of reasons, mainly structural. Second biggest misconception is that once success comes, it stays with you. Writers move in and out of fashion, even the great ones go through these cycles— especially the great ones. I never had a backup plan. Still don’t. But if it all goes bust, I am tempted to attend a casino dealer’s school in Las Vegas. I love cards.

Carol is a female-driven film about a forbidden love affair between two women in the 1950s. What did you learn about women and yourself through the process of writing this script?

I learned that patience is the greatest virtue. I’ve also learned that women have to carve out their own paths in the film industry.

Clementine Daily’s mission is to live a simplified, intentional and authentic lifestyle while celebrating the simpler pleasures of our days. How do you relate to this mission? 

I try to avoid work whenever possible in favor of reading— the simplest, purest, most relaxing activity in my life. Always has been. Of course, reading is now mostly for work, but still...

Do you have a mantra that gets you through your days? 

No matter how big an asshole you’re dealing with in the moment, he or she will disappear in few minutes. Stay calm, breathe, make a cup of coffee.

What does work/life balance look like for you?

Right now, it’s pretty hectic. Very little life, lots of work. But I do make time to workout, watch films and— above all— read. I tend to go for crime thrillers to take myself out of my own head.

p.s. Did you meet the inner-city teacher and author?