In 'Carol,' 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and director Todd Haynes discuss their new film based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel, The Price of Salt. Nagy says the story was "extremely forward thinking."
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In 'Carol,' 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair

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In 'Carol,' 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair

In 'Carol,' 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "Carol," about two women who fall in love in the early 1950s, swept the New York Film Critics Circle awards for 2015. It won best picture and best cinematographer. My guest, Todd Haynes, won for best director and my other guest, Phyllis Nagy, won for best screenplay. Haynes also directed "I'm Not There," "Far From Heaven," and the HBO adaptation of "Mildred Pierce." Nagy is an American-born playwright who's done most of most of her work in England. She adapted the screenplay for "Carol" from the novel "The Price Of Salt," by Patricia Highsmith, who's best known for her novels "Strangers On A Train," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." But unlike those books, "The Price Of Salt" was written under a pseudonym because it was about a lesbian love affair. The movie is set in New York, where a young woman, an aspiring photographer named Therese, is working in the toy section of a department store. She sells a train set to a beautiful, elegantly dressed affluent woman named Carol. After Carol leaves her gloves behind on the counter, Therese tracks her down to return the gloves, and they slowly begin an affair. Therese has never been with a woman, but Carol has and is divorcing her husband. This affair could jeopardize Carol's right to share custody of her young daughter. The affair could open a new world for Therese. Carol is played by Cate Blanchett, Therese by Rooney Mara. Here's a scene where the two women meet for lunch after the gloves have been returned. And they have their first real talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAROL")

ROONEY MARA: (As Therese Belivet) So I'm sure you thought it was a man who sent you back your gloves.

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) I did - thought it might've been a man in the ski department.

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) I'm sorry.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) No, I'm delighted. I doubt very much I would have gone to lunch with him.

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Your perfume.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Yes?

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) It's nice.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Thank you. Harge bought me a bottle years ago before we were married, and I've been wearing it ever since.

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Harge is your husband?

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Mhmm. Well, technically. We're divorcing.

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) I'm sorry.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Don't be. And you live alone, Therese Belivet?

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) I do. Well, there's Richard. He'd like to live with me. Oh, no, it's nothing like that. I mean, he'd like to marry me.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) I see. And would you like to marry him?

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Well, I barely even know what to order for lunch.

GROSS: That's Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett.

Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film. Phyllis, let me start with you since the story of this adaptation starts with you. What is the importance of the novel that "Carol's" adapted from? What's its importance in the history of gay and lesbian fiction? And it was written by Patricia Highsmith under a pseudonym and published in 1952.

PHYLLIS NAGY: Yes, and as far as I am aware, it was the first relatively mainstream lesbian novel to be published that included not only a relatively happy ending, but it did not include the death of one of its lesbian heroines or one of them going to an insane asylum or nunnery. And it fully embraced the notion that sexuality was a thing that did not in and of itself cause guilt to the people who were experiencing sexuality, as opposed to contemplating it, which a lot of prior lesbian fiction had done. So it was extremely forward-thinking in that way.

GROSS: So Phyllis, what is the essence of the novel that you most wanted to keep in the screen adaptation?

NAGY: Two things. One was the radical way in which Patricia Highsmith addressed the sexuality of the protagonists in the novel as natural as breathing. No particular thought given to what sexuality means to these women, but also an insistence on ignoring, more or less, the naysayers, which was another aspect of the novel that was profoundly radical. The second part of the thing that I think makes the novel really resonate even today is Highsmith's particular view of motherhood and what makes a good mother ultimately. In the case of Carol Aird, she has some decisions to make about what will be best for her life going forward and her child's, and her decision involves choosing her own mental health as a means to be a good mother. Which, frankly, I think is still quite a forward-thinking maneuver even today.

GROSS: And not denying her nature in order to...

NAGY: That's exactly right. You've got to be the best possible version of yourself before you're the best possible version of a mother.

GROSS: That seems very radical for the time and would've been very radical in a movie of its time too. (Laughter).

NAGY: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: So before I bring Todd into the conversation, Phyllis, I'm going to ask you to describe the two main characters in "Carol."

NAGY: Well, the two main characters in "Carol" are Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer in the film, an aspiring theatrical set designer in the novel. She is at a stage in her life - early 20s - where she is searching for the keys to her future. She's a bit reticent. She's immensely curious, a bit like a sponge, and responds to everything with an alarming honesty, much like Pat Highsmith herself, whom I knew. So Therese is her alter ego. Carol Aird is older, married and she is a melancholy creature.

GROSS: Todd Haynes, let me bring you into the conversation. You directed the new film, "Carol." Cate Blanchett is Carol, the older, more affluent woman. Rooney Mara is the young woman who's, like, working-class. Carol dresses, like, elegantly. Rooney Mara's character, Therese, doesn't really care much about clothes and doesn't dress particularly fashionably at all. They also, it seems to me, have really different acting styles in the movie. The Cate Blanchett character of Carol, she has this really, like, modulated, breathy kind of voice and speaks in a way that actresses speak, especially in '50s movies. You know, in this, like, musical way. And Rooney Mara's character is much more, like, naturalistic, almost like Natalie Wood just stepped into the movie in the 1950s, (laughter), you know? And I'm wondering if you saw it that way at all as, like, two different acting styles representing two different types of women, two different types of actresses, two different types of styles.

TODD HAYNES: Well, yeah. Certainly there's, you know, sort of defining differences between these two women, which begins with their age differences and their class differences. And the fact that - and this begins in the novel the way Therese is so enthralled by what kind of woman, the kind of depiction and representation of femininity that Carol represents to a degree that she says I myself could probably never achieve. And there's something, as Phyllis so perfectly describes, in Carol the character. There's something unhappy, there's something mercurial about this woman. There's - she's sort of disinclined toward happiness or spontaneity. But I think, you know, what we have the opportunity to see in a character like Carol is the facade, the alluring surfaces of this woman that immediately draws and attracts Therese, and then the sort of layers begin to fall away and you start to see a very complicated and conflicted person underneath that. And you see her taking a curious leap - both of them, out of their worlds to the other, you know, almost against all logic. And I think there's something so lovely about that being the way love often begins - in the most irrational, inexplicable sort of circumstances where you put yourself out there and you keep going, what am I doing, where am I, why am I here? But you keep going back.

GROSS: Well, since, as you pointed out, there's this kind of, like, layer of artifice that surrounds Carol because of her clothes and her mink coat and her kind of affected style of speaking even though she's very vulnerable underneath that, whereas the Rooney Mara character of Therese is very honest but isn't very talkative. Like, Carol's always saying to her, what are you thinking? You've gone - you know, like, you've gone quiet. What are you thinking? I'm always asking you that.

So what advice did you give each of the actresses about how you wanted them to portray these characters?

HAYNES: Well, you know, this is largely seen through Therese's point of view. At least a good portion of the film, we're filtered through Therese's experience. And so I think both actresses had to sort of have as much awareness of sort of whose point of view was being favored at what time in the story. And I find that to be such a remarkable part of what Cate does in this performance because she's - there are times in the film where she can't give away too much. She still knows she's portraying sort of Therese's image of her, and she has to see sort of be very careful and thoughtful about how she reveals the Carol of different layers beneath that. And I just find that to be a phenomenal, nuanced part of that performance. So I think they both knew that. They understood that. That said, I think Carol's neuroses and disquiet as a woman is quite clear early in the film, where she's nervous about smoking in the department store, she's nervous about not finding her compact in her purse when she pulls up to the party and she's nervous about going to the party with - you know, there are - we see clues that this facade is not everything it seems to be.

GROSS: My guests are Todd Haynes, the director of the new film, "Carol," and Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay. We'll be back after a break. This FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Todd Haynes, the director of the new film "Carol," and Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screen adaptation from the Patricia Highsmith novel. "Carol" was written under a pseudonym. Patricia Highsmith wrote it under the name Claire Morgan. Patricia Highsmith was not out when she wrote this novel in the early 1950s. Was Highsmith afraid that if she used her own name that she would be outed and that it would ruin her career? Phyllis, this one's for you.

NAGY: Yeah. No, she actually was about as out as anyone could be at that time. It was a well-known that she was a lesbian. In fact, she wouldn't have minded publishing it under her own name. But first her - the publisher of "Strangers on a Train," they asked her to consider getting another publisher for "The Price of Salt." Though they wouldn't have used this word then, it was not the brand. It was not the Highsmith brand. She agreed to do it. And then...

GROSS: The Highsmith brand was a crime novel at that point?

NAGY: Crime novel, which of course "Carol" is not a crime novel, but it does have elements of criminal in it. So it was still a Highsmith novel had they thought about it.

GROSS: There is a gun.

(LAUGHTER)

NAGY: There is a gun. There is an air of menace. There is paranoia - all of those things.

GROSS: So what impact did it have on her career to have this book published under a pseudonym? And I know from Marijane Meaker's book, who wrote a memoir about having had a two-year affair with Patricia Highsmith, you know, in the gay bar that they went to and the lesbian bar they went to, everybody knew that she had written "The Price of Salt" under the pseudonym. And that's what she was famous for in this bar, not for, you know, "Strangers on a Train" (laughter).

NAGY: Yeah (laughter). Well, I think that Highsmith was very surprised by the impact that "The Price of Salt" had on publication and even in the years - four or five years following its publication. She would receive the most amazing letters from people - of course they were addressed to Claire Morgan - but talking about how the book had touched them profoundly, changed their lives. She wasn't used to that. Certainly no one was going to say that "Strangers on a Train" changed their lives in quite that way - or even "The Talented Mr. Ripley." So she was quite gratified by that. But honestly she felt that "The Price of Salt" was such a personal novel to her that it was difficult for her to take ownership of it as a writer for many years. I don't think she would publicly say she didn't rate it as one of her better efforts, but I was never sure if that meant she just didn't like it or if she was so personally attached to the novel that she couldn't afford psychically or psychologically to claim ownership of it until the late-'80s.

GROSS: So when she finally did come out as the author of "The Price of Salt" - which also I think meant coming out in a more public way. People who knew her probably knew she was out. I'm not sure the reading public knew that she was out. I interviewed her in 1987. Judging from the questions I asked her, I didn't know she was out. Or maybe I knew that she was a lesbian but thought it was something that she wouldn't want to talk about at that time on the air. So what was the impact of claiming this novel as her own on her life?

NAGY: Well, by that time, she knew that she was ill. It was the beginnings of the illness that eventually claimed her life in the mid-'90s. So I don't think she felt she had anything left to hide, to lose. She had everything to gain. She was gaining more respect and recognition in the United States, which was something that had eluded her to a large degree until around the time you interviewed her. And that must have been for the publication of "Found in the Street."

GROSS: It was.

NAGY: Yes, and that was around the time that I met her and got to know her. And she was very happy to finally have what she felt were mainstream literary critics saying that she was actually a pretty good writer. And so crowning that at the end of the '80s was claiming "Carol" - "A Price of Salt" and renaming it "Carol." You know, it was the end of a very long road towards gaining respect, which was what I think she felt had happened.

GROSS: Phyllis, how did you get to know Patricia Highsmith?

NAGY: Well, I was working as a fact checker, researcher at the New York Times at the end of the '80s for what were then the Part Two magazines - World of New York, Sophisticated Traveler. And the editors of World of New York wanted to commission a crime writer or a mystery writer to do a walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery. And one of the names that I suggested was Pat Highsmith, who happened to be in New York on that tour for "Found in the Street," I guess. And she agreed to go. So the editors sent me to accompany Pat Highsmith to the cemetery, which was quite a strange trip through, you know, the rain and Pat being reticent and very Therese-like, poking sticks at graves and only exclaiming when she saw the grave of Lola Montez. I guess that was one of her faves. And this trip culminated in a gruesome tour of the crematorium at Green-Wood, where we were repeatedly asked to put our hands in warm ovens and look at blenders full of bones. And at the end of this horrible tour - it was about 11 a.m. And we went outside, and Pat produced a hip flask from her trenchcoat and said, I don't know about you but I need a drink. And she held this flask out to me like a challenge. And I thought, well, what the hell, and I took it, and it was scotch at 11 a.m., which led to an invitation to lunch which also consisted mostly of alcohol. And from then on in, we became first incredible correspondents - no email then, and so we wrote letters. Later, when I moved to Europe, I saw her much more frequently. But that's how it all came about.

GROSS: So did Patricia Highsmith know that you were a lesbian? And you were about 22 at this time. Did you know?

NAGY: You know, Pat seemed to know an awful lot about me when I picked her up in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel, so I'm sure that was one of the things that she did know. She was very good at research herself. And I knew from - probably from the cradle, so it was not a secret. So, yes, she did know and I knew fairly early myself.

GROSS: My guests are Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay for the new film "Carol," and Todd Haynes, who directed it. After a break, we'll talk more about the film and about Nagy's friendship with Patricia Highsmith. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview about the new movie "Carol." My guests are the film's director, Todd Haynes and the screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy. "Carol" is about an affair between a young working-class woman played by Rooney Mara and an older, affluent suburban woman played by Cate Blanchett. The movie is adapted from the 1952 novel "The Price Of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith. When we left off, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy was talking about how she met Highsmith in 1987 under a writing assignment. They remained friends for the last 10 years of Highsmith's life.

Were there things you were able to learn during your ten-year friendship with Patricia Highsmith about what it was like to be gay in the early 1950s, which is when "Carol" is set, things that you could later use in your adaptation of the novel?

NAGY: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think what I learned from Pat about being gay in the '50s - and from friends of hers that she introduced me to - it was a window on a very particular subset of lesbians. Pat herself, I always like to say, was like the studio boss of lesbians...

(LAUGHTER)

NAGY: ...In that she was right there chasing women around couches and throwing them down onto beds and four-posters and gauzy things. And I thought at first that she was probably just, you know, pumping up her own reputation as a lesbian stud. But in fact, her peers, the women that she chased, many of whom actually did remain friendly with her, confirmed those stories. These women were vaguely of the Carol Aird set. So I felt as if I knew exactly who Carol Aird was in "The Price Of Salt."

GROSS: Well, let me stop you there. So you're saying the women that she chased were, like, affluent, suburban, married women with fur coats? Tell me where I'm going wrong here.

NAGY: Yes, many married women, in fact, because I think the married women suited Patricia Highsmith, who famously did not like to live with people or have that kind of attachment that most reasonable people, after a time, expect that there will be this form of commitment. With married women, that was rarely possible. So they were the - I'd say the euro equivalence of wealthy, suburban, mostly married and secretive women who, probably in 1952, were on prototypes of antidepressants and drank a lot and smoked a lot, like Highsmith herself.

GROSS: You've said that Highsmith liked to collect young women and be their mentor. Did she want to cast you in that role? You were 22 when you met.

NAGY: Yeah, it's a funny thing. She - there was a moment when we were out in a restaurant together and she took out this billfold - like an old-fashioned wallet billfold full of plastic pictures that kind of flipped down accordion-style - and she said, look at this. And I did, and they were pictures of women - young women dressed sort of like Charlotte Rampling in "The Night Porter," in sort of S&M leathers and studs and peaked caps and gloves and posing on chairs ala Dietrich and "The Blue Angel." And so I said to Pat, oh, who are these? Are these your relatives or...

(LAUGHTER)

NAGY: And she said, no, they're the young women I send books to. I said, oh, that must be nice for them, or some idiotic thing like that. And she looked at me and she said, I don't suppose you're one of these, are you? And I said, no, I don't suppose I am. And that was the end of that. I think - I think she knew that I was not somebody who was looking for her - to be showered with gifts or to make a bargain that included - not sex. I think, by this time in her life, she was not sexual anymore, nor was she sexual with these other young women. But I think the bargain struck was respect me, respect me, and in turn I will provide you with my reading list of essential material. She knew that I already respected her, that there was no need to buy that in any way, shape or form. And plus, I would've - it was just all too ridiculous to contemplate me dressed up as...

HAYNES: But that was not an audition for some sort of provocation? I mean, that is an amazing story. I never heard this before.

NAGY: (Laughter). Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: I mean, it sounds like a very coded way of saying, like, I might be too old to actually engage in sex with you, but I wouldn't mind gazing at you, so are you the kind of woman who would dress this way for my gazing pleasure or not - without having to directly ask you about that.

NAGY: Yeah, absolutely. But I think we both knew that, you know, I would've looked like Darla from "The Little Rascals..."

(LAUGHTER)

NAGY: ...In high heels and a fur coat.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Todd, you came onto this project after the ball was rolling. The screen adaptation was written. Kate Blanchett was already cast. Another director had signed up initially, but then took another project instead. Did you have any reservations when you became attached to the film about being a man directing a movie about a relationship between two women? And I ask that because we're living in an era where people take offense so easily that if you're - you know, if you're not the right gender or race or ethnic group to tell a joke or tell a story, then you don't have the right to own it. Do you know what I'm saying?

HAYNES: Yeah, yes. No, I did not. Or at least what I felt was this was a tremendous, beautiful opportunity for me to explore this story as a gay man and as somebody who's been in love and who's been in Therese's shoes in life and in ways that I wanted to make available to many other people who could go see this film because I felt like I had that common and universal and poignant experience in my own history, you know, in my own memory. And that's what's so, you know, unsentimentally and beautifully described in the novel to begin with and which Phyllis went running with in her adaptation. And I have to say, like, so many of my dearest, closest friends in the world are gay women.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Phyllis Nagy. She wrote the screen adaptation for the new movie "Carol," which is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Also with us is Todd Haynes, who directed the film. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about the new movie "Carol" which is about a lesbian relationship in the early 1950s. It's adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. My guest, Phyllis Nagy, wrote the screen adaptation, and Todd Haynes is also with us. He directed the film. He also directed several other films, including, "Far From Heaven," "I'm Not There" and "Poison."

There's a very beautiful love scene in the film. It's, like, very, very tender and exploratory 'cause it's something so new for Therese. And before we talk about that scene, I want to play a clip from my 1987 interview with Patricia Highsmith. And she has explained in this that she's also been writing not only novels but she's been doing some work with comic books. And she ends up talking a little bit about writing about love affairs. So here's that excerpt of my 1987 interview with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote "The Price Of Salt," the novel that "Carol" is adapted from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH: I'm terribly shy about writing about love affairs and I can't take it all that seriously. And then the prudishness, when I was in my early 20s, it was just too much. I think I had two sales of short stories to the slicks which paid about $800 - a fortune in those days. But you've got to clean it up. I mean, they've got to be married before they possibly jump into bed together. And all this is just - it's so phony. It didn't interest me to do that. It's better to work with the comics than to do that, I think.

GROSS: OK so she's talking about how the standards were so phony for writing love scenes. Phyllis, can you talk about the love scene in the novel and how it compares to how you wrote it for the story?

NAGY: Well, I have to admit that I now am hazy on every detail of that scene in the novel, but what I took away from it is what I endeavored to put into the script, which was this is an ordinary place, ordinary women in an extraordinary situation in which their love finally finds a physical consummation so that the very mundane details of that motel room - not a great, grand hotel room - and the fact that there's - they're surrounded by really the detritus of their lives. That was what was important to me, and that they talked to each other, which is something that women do. And I remember when I was writing a much later draft of it, my agent in London, who is also a gay woman, said to me, I'm so glad they speak to each other. I'm so tired of these male gaze, say, love scenes, in which all women do are part curtains and bathe and bask in blue light. So it was rooting it in some sort of reality of a moment for me and life on the run, basically, by this point, on the road, that was the important thing.

GROSS: Phyllis, Patricia Highsmith's novel, "The Price Of Salt," which you adapted into the film "Carol," has some autobiographical aspects for her. In the story, Therese is a young woman working in a department store when Carol, the older, more affluent woman, walks in, buys a toy from her for her young daughter and leaves her gloves - Carol leaves her gloves on the counter. And Therese has Carol's address because she needed to write it down to have the train set that she was buying shipped to her home. Therese sends the gloves back to Carol. Carol calls Therese to thank her for sending the gloves and invites her out to lunch, and that's how they really get to know each other. A similar thing happened to Patricia Highsmith in a department store. Phyllis, what was the similar incident?

NAGY: Pat was working at Bloomingdale's, I think, as a temp over Christmas holiday and she...

HAYNES: In order to pay for her therapy.

NAGY: Right.

HAYNES: A psychiatrist...

NAGY: (Laughter). Yes.

HAYNES: ...Because of a heterosexual relationship she was in.

NAGY: Yeah, she had dabbled.

HAYNES: Yeah.

NAGY: Yeah, and the dabbling was really not going very well, hence the therapist. Anyway this blonde woman, as Pat once described her to me and made her sound like a Hitchcock blonde with a heart of ice and a dirtiness about her - and I thought, wow, you just saw that across the department store floor. They did not in fact meet for lunch or have any real human interaction following that meeting except that Pat did research her, as she did research many people. And I suppose you could even say that she stalked her a little bit without this woman knowing it, and that was that.

GROSS: So Patricia Highsmith was in therapy at about this time. Was this an attempt to convert herself to heterosexuality or to just understand why she had briefly gotten into a heterosexual relationship?

NAGY: Well, I don't think we can know that, but having known Pat I bit, I could - I think she was quite logical. Again a bit like Therese, trying to fully understand why her nature warred within herself. The unwholesome truth about Pat is that she was a lesbian who did not very much enjoy being around other women. So the attempt to dabble with one man seriously and perhaps a few others along the way was to just see if she could be into men in that way because she so much more preferred their company. Pat would've been a great member of Sterling Cooper - "Mad Men."

(LAUGHTER)

NAGY: And really, I think that was the formative psychological trait, and she carried this with her throughout her life, that she really didn't like women. She liked to have sex with them and she liked them to go home and shut up, but she much preferred the company of males.

GROSS: It sounds like some men of the period. (Laughter).

NAGY: Yeah, absolutely.

HAYNES: And so interestingly too, I mean, her - so much of what she really is known for, better known for, are these male criminal subjects in "Ripley," Bruno in "Strangers On A Train," where homoeroticism is sort of the unspoken engine that the criminal act is the manifestation of. And so there's this real questionable, fascinating sort of pathology of around gay male homosexuality as the sort of underpinning of criminal activity, and it drives so many of these stories. It's almost - you know, almost in every one I've read you feel that. And so this is the only book she wrote, "Price Of Salt," that's about homosexuality from a non - that it's not a pathological depiction and it's between women.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

HAYNES: Thank you, Terry, it was such a pleasure.

NAGY: Thank you, Terry, very much.

GROSS: Todd Haynes directed the new film "Carol." Phyllis Nagy wrote the screenplay. The conductor and composer Pierre Boulez died yesterday. We'll hear an excerpt of my 2005 interview with him after we take short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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