Movies

Todd Haynes Talks About The “Troubling And Fascinating” Dynamics of His Awards Contender ‘May December’ And Touches On New Gay Love Story With Joaquin Phoenix

May December, the title of Todd Haynes’s latest drama, reflects the director’s dance card for the year: having opened in Cannes, the Netflix title has been a festival favorite ever since, and will likely hang in there until voting closes after Christmas. Its two star names, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, have been getting curious audiences through the doors, but what keeps the film playing in everyone’s minds is the moral maze of questions it poses.

Inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Seattle teacher who went to prison for molesting a pupil and then, on release, married him, it stars Portman as Elizabeth Berry, an actress gearing up to play the part of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), a cheerful suburban mother with a checkered past, in an upcoming biopic. But just as important as these two A-listers is newcomer Charles Melton, a young model-turned-actor who plays Joe, Gracie’s husband and the father of their three children. Though the film is ostensibly the story of two headstrong women with more in common they care to admit, Haynes’s film gradually pivots to Joe and the growing realization that his relationship with Gracie is built on a lie…

DEADLINE: May December seems so much like a classic Todd Haynes movie, it was a surprise to discover that you didn’t actually write it yourself…

TODD HAYNES: No, it came fully intact out of the mind of Samy Burch. There was a bit of a buzz about this script. I didn’t know any of this at the time, but at the height of COVID, when everything was shut down, a lot of stuff was being circulated, speculatively, for when we would all get back to work. I was reading a lot of stuff that was coming to me — interesting books, or ideas from actors, or this or that. I had my own plans about what I wanted to do once we got back to work, but no one knew when that was going to be. I had time to read, and so I read May December. It was a completely singular endeavor that really made an impression on me. I just thought it was really smart, so I was very happy to take it to the next step.

DEADLINE: How did it come to you?

HAYNES: It came through Natalie’s producing company, with me in mind as director. There was an interest in us finding something, someday, to do together, but we didn’t know what that would be, or when. Based on this script, we started to talk, and we talked about the script and what we liked about it. I found her to be so remarkable, and so bold and so risky in what interested her and what drove her. Like, pushing people — pushing viewers — into places that were not comfortable. She was very mischievous about the idea that people might project onto her aspects of Elizabeth Berry as an actress, and that this would be some insight into Natalie Portman herself. She relished playing around with that.

It was exciting. Our notes about where we thought the script could move to the next stage were very synchronous, so the whole experience was encouraging.

May December

DEADLINE: How did you move it along?

HAYNES: Basically, we talked to Samy, which was all, of course, done remotely. Natalie was still in Australia, working at the time [on Thor: Love and Thunder]. I loved talking to Samy. So bright, so excited about having it be in the hands of Natalie Portman and myself. She did another draft really quickly, based on our thoughts. Very quickly after that, I started to sort of court Julianne on the sly for the other role. Then, when I felt like I could count on that, I shared that idea with Natalie. She was completely exhilarated by it. So we had a really compelling package, but we didn’t know when we were going to do it. We were all busy, and nobody was working, so it just went on to the top of the shelf, basically.

DEADLINE: Did you know about the Mary Kay Letourneau story?

HAYNES: I did, but I was not that well versed on it. Unlike friends of mine, who were much more sort of tracking it at the time. I’m not quite sure why or when — I’m not a big tabloid consumer. But there are some things you can’t avoid and they’re just there, or they keep reproducing themselves in one way or another. But no, I didn’t know that much about it.

When I read May December, my initial instincts were a bit protective, in terms of the choices that Samy had taken away from the Mary Kay Letourneau story and the distinctions in her script from that case. My feeling was, “Let’s start with this as a fiction, and let’s really focus on that.” Yeah, I thought that was the best way to begin. Then when the time came, the Mary Kay Letourneau research was actually very informative.

DEADLINE: How did it help?

HAYNES: I think it was specifically through conversations that I started to have with Julianne about how this kind of a relationship could have begun, and what aspects there were in Gracie that may or may not have foretold this relationship, or been predictive of this kind of behavior, and how that was played out or supported by the Mary Kay Letourneau example. What was really great was how clearly Julianne saw Gracie. At the same time, she was the one who was like, “OK, I watched the A&E doc last night. You’ve got to watch this. You’re going to freak out.” I was like, “OK, I guess it’s time. Here we go.”

DEADLINE: It really fits into the lineage of Superstar, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, in that it’s an intelligent, meta take on a specific form of storytelling, which in this case could be a sensationalist ‘Movie of the Week’. Was that what attracted you?

HAYNES: No, I didn’t have ambitions in that regard. I didn’t necessarily plug it into established themes, or other films of mine, and find immediate correlations. It came to me as its own strange concoction. The thing that excited me is that I felt like it presented problems and challenges that I hadn’t undertaken before. It was very much specific to its own time and place. In this way,  it was distinct from other films of mine about female characters. It was really about these women whose desires and convictions and wills were driving the train in their lives. This is certainly true for Gracie and her backstory, but as more is revealed about Elizabeth through the course of the film, you find similarities in her that are troubling and fascinating, and you feel that she sort of met her match in the character of Gracie. In all those ways, it really felt different, and how much female desire was really calling the shots. That’s not necessarily the case in films of mine about women.

May December

DEADLINE: Well, that’s certainly shown visually: There are rhymes, echoes and visual duplications. Was any of that spontaneous?

HAYNES: No, no, no. Nothing about this was spontaneous. We shot the movie in 23 days, so there was no room for spontaneity of any kind whatsoever, except in what the actors themselves did once I said, “Action”. Where the camera was and how many setups there would be per day and what the visual language of the movie was, and how we were going to tell the story… It was all planned. To a degree that is still incomparable to anything I’ve done before.

For example, the music itself was absolutely and totally decided upon before we ever started to shoot the film. I say “decided upon” meaning I wanted to use the Michel Legrand score [from Joseph Losey’s 1971 film The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates] as an example of how strongly music might play in the film, in the finished film, in the film as an experience. The Go-Between was a recent discovery, or a rediscovery for me, and the music just floored me. I just was astonished by it. Fell madly in love with it. I said, “OK, guys, this is something like what we’re going to need for this movie. It’ll change the way every scene is read. The way every moment of the film is perceived will be in the contradistinction of this music.”

I saw that actually occur from the very first shot we shot on our schedule, which was Natalie driving up in the car, then parking outside the community center to go into the flower arrangement course and meet Gracie. That was the first shot we did. I pointed to Ben, my assistant, I said, “Hit it.” He punched his phone and started that first music cue. The whole crew was like, “What the f*ck? What is this? What are we doing?” And then three takes later, everyone’s humming it and singing melodies. We had an entire live chorus of vocalizing.

Everything was very, very planned and very considered. Then I just had to say, “OK, let’s do it,” because we had no other way to shoot it. We didn’t cover the movie in any other way. If the long single takes of a whole scene shot in one shot wasn’t going to work, I had no plan Bs. So we just went for it.

DEADLINE: The music is striking from the very start, because it lets you know that there’s something going on beneath the surface, but you don’t know what it is.

HAYNES: The Go-Between is an interesting movie. It was highly regarded, critically. I think it won the Palme d’Or in 1971. But, in the United States, it has basically fallen out of distribution, or circulation. It fell between studio ownership or whatever. You can barely find it. You can’t get it on streaming, you can’t buy a version on a DVD. It doesn’t exist in the American market. It just happened to show up on Turner Classic Movies last year when I was watching a lot of stuff for the film. I’m almost positive I saw The Go-Between when I was a kid. I would’ve been about 10 or 11 years old when it came out. My parents took me to interesting movies, but it had been so long, I couldn’t say when for sure. But, seeing it again, I just was astonished by it. It entered into the collection of references for one reason or another that I was putting together as I was doing my prep for this film.

DEADLINE: The script really goes into Natalie’s character as an actress, and the nuts and bolts of acting. Was that always there or was that something you embellished?

HAYNES: No, that was always there. This was a beautifully conceived, thorough idea of Samy’s. I think the most productive element of the concept is that it’s all set 20-plus years in the past, this tabloid story. You find this family right on the cusp of change: The kids are graduating from high school and leaving the parents alone for the first time since having kids. The whole family has basically hunkered down and built up quite a barrier to the rest of the world, in order to survive what was a traumatic cataclysmic experience when this story first broke — the kind of attention that it received, the age of Joe at the time, and then the court and trials and arrests of Gracie and so forth, which the film doesn’t really go into.

You get it by suggestion, through the tabloid materials that Elizabeth has gathered, but that meant that there was this huge barrier to break through. So the idea of bringing an actress into that process opened up the possibilities. You have these two fierce poles of female power that are dueling with each other throughout the course of the film, and that sense of this ‘doubling’ of them, the sort of sheer multiplication of terms that Samy elicits through the film is another example of its coherence, I think, as a concept. We see it in the mirroring of the two women, and also in succession of Joes that keep populating the film, from Joe today to the images of Joe when he was 13 in the tabloids, to his son, Charlie, who’s kind of a strange mirroring image of Joe as well, but somebody who’s on his way out, hopefully to a healthier place in his own independent life. Then all the boys that are being auditioned to play the Joes. There’s just a very smart way of multiplying themes in the film.

May December

DEADLINE: How aware were you of constructing a film that would eventually leave people’s minds reeling, in terms of what to make of all this? How do you balance that? Because it’s such a dark story, and yet the emotional impact comes right at the end.

HAYNES: Again, all of these decisions were made in advance. They really were, by hook or by crook, the decisions that the film was either going to rest or fail upon. I felt that a couple of very strong decisions needed to be made at the outset, and then it was just time to facilitate and realize it, and bring in all of the creative partnerships that I always need to make a film. In this case, it was just all done in a much tighter and more accelerated schedule. I wanted to have the visual language be spare, slightly removed, austere. We were going to be using zooms, but we were going to be very selective about when and how. There was going to be a minimum of cutting in the film, so when a cut does happen, it wakes you up, it pricks you in the face, so that the terms of the film, the cinematic sort of language, were going to have meaning, and that’s why the music was going to have extra meaning, and extra volume and extra presence, but the restraint was also going to reveal things by holding back. It means that when you do cut, it matters. You notice it.

I noticed this in films that I was looking at for the time as well. The Graduate is a classic American comedy, expertly performed and conceived, but if it didn’t have its visual language, which is very restrained, where a lot of scenes are also covered in single shots, or very minimal coverage, the humor of that film wouldn’t work the way it does. When you finally cut, it’s like a percussion. It’s the punctuation of a scene. The cinematic language works in the vernacular of the dialogue in every scene of that film. Similarly, [take] a movie like Manhattan, which is also a comedy that’s very sophisticated, understated, and restrained, and held back. It allows something to happen on the screen that comes alive.

DEADLINE: It’s rare to see a film like this that critiques what you’re viewing, but it doesn’t critique the viewer. It invites you to ask questions about what you’re watching, but not in an accusatory way.

HAYNES: I think it respects the audience. I felt that as a reader of the script, and I wanted that to come through in the film. I think it trusts that you’re going to be OK not knowing what you think, and grappling a bit, and that there might even be a quotient of pleasure involved in that vacillation around your sort of moral certitude around these kinds of themes. I think that’s where the humor gets paid off, because it’s humor that’s situational. It’s not like jokes or gags. You’re observing life and you’re observing these people who don’t have a very keen sense of self-regard. They don’t really know how to examine themselves. We are there to examine them because they can’t. They are ill-equipped to do so. Even though it’s about an actress who’s coming to see the truth and find the truth and penetrate what really happened, you suspect that she has as hard a time really looking at herself as Gracie does.

That’s the one thing that neither of them see. They each see that in the other, but not in themselves. Yet they’re kind of these mirror images. I think that’s something we all share, the inability or the disinclination to self-examine, to question our choices. This is a kind of extreme case, but I think that’s where the film sort of says, “We all understand this. Even if we’re not exactly these people and haven’t made exactly these choices, this is part of a kind of aspect of human nature.”

Awardsline

DEADLINE: Now that the strike is over, are you looking forward to having your actors back to help you out with this? Because you’ve been doing the promotion all by yourself.

HAYNES: I cannot tell you… [Laughs] It’s been a lot of work to do, but by myself. I’ve had Samy with me, which has been such a pleasure, since the New York Film Festival. But I know how Julianne and Natalie feel, how proud they are of their work in the film. There’s also something very moving about what’s happening with Charles Melton. Charles hasn’t had the same experience that Natalie and Julianne have had in movies, but he holds his own in this movie to such a degree that I think it’s really become a sort of discovery for audiences.

DEADLINE: Final question, what’s next for you? Are you still consumed with May December for the near future?

HAYNES: No, no. I have a project I’m very excited about next, which is a very different film in style and tone and setting. It’s a love story set in the 1930s between two men, an interracial relationship, a very unlikely pair. It stars Joaquin Phoenix. The earliest ideas around the story and the setting were things he came to me with a couple of years ago. We started to talk and share these conversations. I brought in my partner, Jon Raymond. He’s a writer who lives in Portland, where I live when I’m home. John and I adapted Mildred Pierce together. John has written most of Kelly Reichardt’s films with her over the last, god, six features. Me and Joaquin and Jon just basically created this thing, so we’ll all be sharing story credit on it together. It feels very fresh and new and exciting.

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