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Inhabiting the Role: Todd Haynes on May/December

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in Todd Haynes's May December (Photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of Netflix)Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December (Photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of Netflix)

Todd Haynes’s May December, which premiered this year at the Cannes Film Festival and was snatched up by Netflix almost immediately, marks a return to the kind of expressive women’s drama for which the director is arguably most beloved. Think Far from Heaven (2002) or Carol (2015), two films about forbidden romance whose lush, stylized aesthetics both encourage nostalgia and destabilize easy emotional identification. As the title suggests, May December, too, concerns a taboo love affair—one whose throwback elements are anchored to the tabloid frenzies and true-crime obsessions of the 1990s. 

Written by Samy Burch, a casting director making her feature screenwriting debut, May December draws inspiration from the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau. In 1997, the 34-year-old schoolteacher was indicted for having sex with her 12-year-old student, whom she later married and with whom she conceived two children. Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) are fictional reflections of this couple living with their teenage kids in a coastal enclave of Savannah, Georgia, more than 20 years after Gracie was put on trial. 

Trouble arrives in the form of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a popular actress preparing to play Gracie in her next film. Elizabeth works to establish a sympathetic rapport with Gracie and other folks in her small-town milieu—she attends family dinners, sets coffee dates with figures from Gracie’s pre-scandal life, visits the pet store where Joe and Gracie were caught having sex. Elizabeth’s friendliness belies the fact that she takes the role dead-seriously; to “become” Gracie requires the unpacking of emotions and the resurrection of buried truths that the older woman defensively keeps concealed. 

As Gracie and Elizabeth merge, echoes of Persona bounce off questions about femininity and performance, celebrity and spectatorship, trauma and the inadequacies of its representation. The details of Gracie and Joe’s original, pedophilic liaison are depicted indirectly and in retrospect, through snippets of a Lifetime-movie adaptation or in audition videos by prepubescent actors wanting to play Joe. These moments underscore the impossibility of Elizabeth’s dramatic objective, though her detective work teases out other dark realities; namely, those repressed by the stunted, now-36-year-old Joe, acted by Melton in a delicate, beautifully introspective turn that plays off the former Riverdale actor’s campy, teen-drama credentials. 

Haynes takes this intrigue in formally provocative directions, pivoting between juicy melodrama, kitchen-sink malaise and mercurial satire—all threaded together by Marcelo Zarvos’s vigorous, operatic score, a reorchestration of the music for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971) that can convey tragedy, passion or absurdity depending on the timing of its drop. Working for the first time with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Kelly Reichardt’s regular DP), Haynes conjures a shade of soapy Americana from a story whose thorny plot points are ripped from the headlines yet treated unassumingly and with great sensitivity. 

Following its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, May December will be released theatrically November 17th and begin streaming on Netflix December 1st. At the tail end of July, I spoke to Haynes about the film’s slippery pleasures.

Filmmaker: Before I saw May December in Cannes, I was in Paris at the same time as your retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. Those were some extremely hot tickets. 

Haynes: The repertory scene in Paris is such a vital part of that city’s life, which I of course love so much. What’s so funny about my movies—and I feel this play out in Paris and other big cities—is that each one enjoys very different and distinct audiences. In other words, there is a very strong and passionate following around the movie Carol, right? And the people who loved Carol aren’t necessarily that into Velvet Goldmine, a film that is better known and loved in France than a lot of other places. Then again, I can’t objectively gauge the response at the Pompidou because Cate Blanchett was with me watching Carol. That drew a certain additional level of excitement, and it made those tickets particularly hard to get. And she was there for I’m Not There, my Bob Dylan movie, which I’m not sure would draw the same kind of crowd elsewhere. 

Filmmaker: I only bring this up because I was talking to a French critic about the excitement around the Pompidou retrospective, and he was so matter-of-fact about your popularity. “Of course we love Todd Haynes,” he said. “He’s the kind of director who would make an age-gap romance. Obviously, we worship him.”

Haynes: [Laughs] Exactly, right. It is very French!

Filmmaker: So, with May December I read that Natalie Portman brought you the script by Samy Burch. How did the film take off from there?

Haynes: Yeah, that’s accurate. This was during the 2020 height of COVID. Everything was shut down, and nobody was working except for Natalie, who was in Australia. Relative to other places, life in Australia felt more normal given their rigid protocols from the beginning. She and I had been in touch over the years about a couple of projects—not that many, but she had reached out to me before with scripts. During COVID, I got a lot of stuff sent to me, and I was trying to figure out what might make the most sense to do once we got back on our feet. I was immediately taken by Samy’s script. It stirred up the kind of ambiguous, searching feelings and ideas that I felt belonged to a different period of filmmaking, like European art cinema or films from the 1970s—the kinds of films that set up expectations about the story and then interrupt them. They keep you on your toes as a viewer and foreground the experience of thinking and questioning. I didn’t know Samy at all—I think this is an early script of hers—but I was so impressed by her instincts and the defiance of not wanting to sum everything up and resolve the uncertainty and disquiet. 

Filmmaker: Was Natalie set to play the actress from the get-go? 

Haynes: It was very clear to us that she would play Elizabeth Berry as soon as we started talking about her playing a part. We liked this idea that Natalie Portman, as an image and figure in people’s minds, would create a web of expectations, projections, and assumptions around the character. And Natalie was so excited—devilishly so—to take that on and subvert the ease with which we apply moral judgments on characters and stories. 

Filmmaker: This is your first time working with Natalie, but this is your fifth collaboration with Julianne Moore.

Haynes: My talks with Natalie immediately reminded me of working with Julie—both of them have an incredible curiosity about filmmaking and are brilliant, fascinating people who like talking through the process. 

Filmmaker: That makes sense. Your Safe audio commentary with her and Christine Vachon is an all-timer. 

Haynes: It was hard not to think of her as Gracie, and she was on board pretty early on. 

Filmmaker: Let’s rewind a bit. I’m struck by words you use like “searching” and “questioning” as descriptions of the film’s tone and structure. I remember reading an interview in which you talk about Mildred Pierce as a noir without any real crime. That idea, I think, speaks to a lot of your work. There’s something of the detective thriller in May December, too, because Elizabeth is going around interviewing people as if trying to “solve” Gracie. 

Haynes: It was fairly evident to me that this could be a smart way of revisiting a scandal many years after the fact. By that, I mean having an actor in the position of the investigator coming to town and peeling back the layers of these characters. Starting here, we assume she’s going to be the viewer’s proxy for the movie, but it’s actually one of the film’s first misdirects. The best detective figures in noir and otherwise—well, you realize they’re not reliable, that their blind spots alter the course of their work. Traditionally, we’re supposed to feel secure in the hands of the detective character. We’re supposed to learn what’s happening and find firm ground through their investigative process. But Elizabeth, as the film unfolds, becomes less and less of a secure place for us to deposit our faith. She’s not an objective player. 

Filmmaker: There’s a clear artifice to Natalie’s performance, too, that plays well with this idea that her perspective denies us an objective reality. Did she intuitively take her performance in that direction or was that something built out from your conversations?

Haynes: Well, tell me a little bit more about what you mean by “artifice.” 

Filmmaker: She’s cunning and sexy, and there’s a calculated, performative front to everything she does. Everything is in the service of her acting goals.

Haynes: Yeah, we talked about it in terms of what her strategies as an actor would be if she were doing what her character is doing—on top of the fact that the entire enterprise is a performance. And, as we often wonder with characters who are actors: When are they not performing? Who are they when they’re not performing? Is it possible for them not to be performing? Are they even aware of the difference? These questions were central to how we wanted Elizabeth to be played. We talked about it a lot and asked ourselves, how much should she impose her real opinions? How deeply will she try to seduce and charm and cajole the people she’s meeting?

Of course, everything is rooted in how she interacts with Gracie and what kind of trust could be established with Gracie. So, we tried to have some variation. Sometimes, her judgments and opinions come out—slightly, in a grimace or frown as she listens to someone talk. For the most part, she’s professional and conscientious, though the scene in the pet store is the big exception. Here, she’s alone and tries to conjure the lurid, sexual potential of the setting.

Filmmaker: The literal scene of the crime! 

Haynes: Right. But she has to be on her best behavior when she’s around other people. She needs to ingratiate herself to the community while trying to navigate the powers and limits of her charm. Then we start to see this same [performance] reflected, curiously, in Gracie.

Filmmaker: Her charm doesn’t seem to work on Joe. At least at first. 

Haynes: With him, it’s an interesting process. She tries to elicit confidence in him through flirtation, and he doesn’t really react. She’s not accustomed to that not working even when she really applies herself to the task. 

Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about casting Charles Melton? He’s such a revelation in the film, and frankly—given his past credits—I didn’t realize he had it in him. 

Haynes: It’s been such a source of pride and pleasure to see him evolve into this role, which is a real departure for him. My casting director, Laura Rosenthal, and I started to look around for Korean-American actors who might be in the right age group for Joe. He needed to be attractive, though I never imagined anyone quite as hunky as Charles, who had to add around 35 pounds to his girth to make him look a bit more like a suburban guy. He interpreted his character completely on his own without my direction or input, which stunned me and Laura. He ended up teaching me about parts of the script that I hadn’t thought about. His take on Joe brought out the reality of this man who is dutiful and loyal yet also deeply stunted; someone who is locked into a choice that he thinks is his. He then realizes these choices have been made on his behalf. He’s the only character that you feel is truly capable of change. 

Filmmaker: Unlike Gracie and Elizabeth. 

Haynes: Both Gracie and Elizabeth are complex and contradictory examples of willful women who have demands and goals in their lives that they’re intent on achieving. With all the differences between them in terms of upbringing and culture we find out that there’s much more in common between them than either of them are prepared to acknowledge.

Filmmaker: There’s an echo with Persona, particularly the scenes in which they’re both looking at each other in the mirror. 

Haynes: Those were economic means of watching Elizabeth watch Gracie; of watching Elizabeth watch herself pivoting back and forth between identities. It also allowed Gracie to do the same, to speak to Elizabeth through the mirror while being confronted with herself next to her. Within the frame of the mirror, this relay between them becomes like a little closed circuit, though we see shades of this early on, particularly in the dress scene, which also brings in issues about womanhood and self-presentation. 

Filmmaker: You’re talking about the scene in which Elizabeth and Gracie go shopping with Gracie’s teenage daughter. Gracie makes a passive aggressive comment about the dress her daughter picks out.

Haynes: Yeah, here we’re watching the close-up mirror scene in a slightly expanded, public version. Because we’re in a dressing room, mirrors abound, and we’re able to see the two women watch each other and how Elizabeth is already physically engaged in modeling herself after Gracie—the way she sits and whatnot. 

Filmmaker: So, the goal was to show them merge into mirroring ideas of Gracie. What was the process of building out those performances like for Julianne and Natalie? 

Haynes: The film was done very, very quickly and with very few resources, rehearsal time and time on set. So, there was an urgency about making a lot of creative choices, which unfairly affected Julianne. She had almost no time to establish who Gracie is—in all senses, but especially from a physical standpoint. We had to create the look and sound and diction and cadence of Gracie right away because we tried to shoot in chronological order as much as possible per location, though that was pretty much impossible because we’re constantly going back and forth to the house. Julianne had to work fast because every other narrative element of the film revolves around who Gracie is and how she comes off. Then, Natalie needed the specificity of those decisions right away to start trying to model herself accordingly. We didn’t really have enough time to go beyond that and start looking at these characters as people themselves who are playing these roles to begin with. 

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?

Haynes: It was 23 days.

Filmmaker: When you talk about Julianne needing to find an anchor for her character, obviously Mary Kay Letourneau comes to mind. 

Haynes: Absolutely. 

Filmmaker: Historically, you seem to be drawn to tabloid dramas and society scandals—I’m thinking everything from Poison and your short film about Karen Carpenter to your explorations of celebrity in Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. Was Mary Kay’s story one you’ve always been interested in?

Haynes: Weirdly, no! It’s such a clear and obvious question. I was aware of Mary Kay Letourneau, but for some reason or other, I wasn’t fixated on it like my other friends. I remember Kelly Reichardt
being really preoccupied with it when it exploded in the ’90s. She even made an experimental short film [Then a Year, 2001] featuring bits of audio clips drawn from the Letourneau scandal. I was aware that Samy’s script was inspired by Letourneau, but I felt that, well, it’s also not that exactly that story. I wanted to lean into that difference and make as concrete as possible the specifics of the setting. 

Filmmaker: The setting was originally supposed to be Camden, Maine. Why the move to Savannah?

Haynes: Part of the reason was logistical. We had to shoot some parts in May for the graduation storyline, and then we had to find a window of availability that would suit Julianne, Natalie and myself, which ended up being the fall of 2022. I’d somewhat recently been to Savannah for the Savannah Film Festival, which I’d gone to a few times before, and I started to think this place would allow us to nicely flesh out the different worlds that Gracie and Elizabeth occupy. Sam Lisenco, the production designer, and I identified the Tybee Island beach community on a map, and we went to check it out. That was crucial because I couldn’t see Gracie living in historic, downtown Savannah. On the other hand, I could absolutely see Elizabeth staying at a downtown inn. 

Sam, one of our producers, Mason Plotts, and I flew ourselves out there and spent a week in August sussing Tybee out. It had this level of specificity, and it also felt like a society cut off from the rest of the town—and there are reasons Gracie would want to retreat from the epicenter of Savannah. In general, though, Savannah feels like a place people pass through. With Tybee in particular, we fell in love with the quality of the light—it’s marshy, humid and kind of milky. Then, we found [Gracie’s] house. Like, we literally just found it. So many of the locations are real tourist attractions and actual restaurants and crab shacks and coffee shops that people go to. The high school Gracie’s kids go to—Islands High School—is exactly the high school that local kids on the island attend. All of this was incredibly gratifying because the setting was no longer just this beautiful antebellum town with open-container tourism that seems to pervade the climate year-round. 

Filmmaker: I’d like to talk about the score, which I read was a reorchestrated version of Michel Legrand’s score for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between. It has such a beautiful, pounding sense of drama to it, which works so well with the film’s tonal shifts. 

Haynes: It was a fascinating creative process for me, and one that very much fueled my interpretation of this really provocative and complicated script. The score tracks the feeling I had reading it—this feeling of indeterminacy and ambivalence that’s also pleasurable. The score creates an invitation for a heightened level of reading against the grain of the story, or a kind of reading between the lines. 

The connection to The Go-Between was almost happenstance. I watched it when it turned up on TCM years ago and thought it was fantastic. Despite it winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and being nominated for Best Picture, it’s not a film that’s in regular circulation. It seems like it fell between the cracks of companies. I was stunned by the way the music functions in that film, and arguably it’s used in a way that feels even more discordant than in May December. The Go-Between is a sort of bucolic coming-of-age memory film set at the turn of the century. The music in May December just feels like an overstatement or a sort of warning bell. Basically, it’s telling you to watch out because some things headed your way are not what they seem. We started using the Legrand score as an example for the kind of tone I was interested in, and I initially thought we’d have an original score. I literally marked the cues where the music would fall throughout the film on my copy of the script as I was on a plane to Savannah. Then, we used it while shooting the film and played it whenever there wasn’t any dialogue. 

Filmmaker: It’s also used quite playfully. I’m thinking of the scene in which Gracie realizes she needs to buy more hot dogs, and then the score comes down like an anchor. 

Haynes: The script had this elegant metaphor with the monarch butterflies being raised by Joe. I appreciated it, but I was a little worried about it, too. Treating it too over-seriously, with too much reverence, could be problematic. So, I wanted the music to create a certain distance that would be thrilling for the viewer. It also made everyone on set aware of the tonal framing, and it put us all in the same slightly mischievous place. 

Filmmaker: In the hot dog scene, there’s also a very funny zoom that underscores the absurdity of Gracie’s domestic fixations. 

Haynes: I use zooms in almost every movie I make. I love the zoom and what it can convey. It’s a very complicated and subtle device. We definitely foreground the zoom in that refrigerator scene you’re talking about, but you’ll see zooms throughout the whole film. Usually, devices like these actually pull you out of the movie and make you hyperconscious. But all together with the performances and the music, I found that people haven’t been overly aware that we’re actually using the language of modernist cinema, which is usually geared at creating a certain mode of alienation. In fact, you don’t feel alienated by the story—it kind of has the reverse effect. 

Filmmaker: Kind of like the tremendous direct-address scene in which Natalie/Elizabeth performs a monologue in front of a mirror. It’s hyperstylized, but we’re totally immersed in the moment. 

Haynes: I tell you, when I first read the script, if there was one reason I knew I had to make the film it was that monologue. It immediately brought to mind Bergman’s Winter Light, when Ingrid Thulin recites a letter to the camera in a medium shot with a blank background. I was so moved by that when I first saw it as a teenager. In many ways, the use of mirrors as a running motif originated from that desire to have the letter performed directly to the camera and to the viewer. It made me think, how can we justify this narratively? Because, at first, it felt a little discordant. We do a lot of things in the movie connected to the tropes of European art cinema. The visual references to Bergman. The direct address is Godard, who had just passed away when we were in pre-production. Bergman, however, was the centerpiece. 

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