“I like feeling uncertain, displaced and unnerved”: Todd Haynes on May December

Haynes’s May December is – thanks to the compellingly repellent women at its heart – a piquant departure for the director. He talks about fictionalising the fallout from a seamy tabloid tale.

4 December 2023

By Amy Taubin

May December (2023)
Sight and Sound

Todd Haynes’s heady, disorienting, deliriously constructed May December opens at a moment of crisis in a family surviving against reasonable expectations.

Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) are about to attend the high-school graduation of their youngest children. Soon the nest will be empty and the couple will be alone for the first time since they began an affair when Joe was 13 years old and Gracie was 36. Pregnant with their first child, Gracie was sent to prison. When she was released, she and Joe married and continued to live in the middle-class town they had scandalised.

This backstory is revealed through the investigations of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actor who has been cast as Gracie in a TV movie based on the scandal. Elizabeth wants to portray the real Gracie as opposed to the tabloid version. (The film is very loosely based on a mid-1990s affair between a 34-year-old woman teacher and a 12-year-old boy student that made newspaper headlines, probably more than it would have if the genders had been reversed.) But Elizabeth is hardly a neutral observer and she is as much in denial of the dynamics of this family as Gracie is.

At first, the film seems to be a power struggle between these two wilfully blind, manipulative and quite scary women, with Joe merely the pawn in their game. But Haynes, a master of destabilisation who has never found a truth that can’t be undermined, reveals the awakening of agency in Joe, making him both our point of identification and object of desire. There’s a bit of Tennessee Williams in May December, although Haynes doesn’t overtly reference Williams as he does Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), or, most of all, Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), blanketing the film with the memorably percussive, piano-dominated score that Michel Legrand composed for Losey’s depiction of an upper-class English family defined by lies and sexual repression. Like that film, May December is a melodrama: a very modern one in which freedom is the lie that people – specifically women – tell themselves in order to ignore the desires of others.

Todd Haynes
Mark Sommerfeld/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

 
Amy Taubin: I remember asking you some time in 2022 about what you were going to do next. Maybe it was just after your Peggy Lee biopic project was squashed and you said, “We’re going to have to do something much smaller, maybe shoot it in digital.”

Todd Haynes: We were so close with Peggy Lee. It was brutal on all of us, on Michelle Williams [who had been lined up to play the singer] and everybody. But I had this script that had come to me from Natalie Portman during Covid in 2020 and I was really interested in it. I had great conversations with her about it at the time. She was so interested in the grey areas and the uncertainty the script circulated, and in the ways audiences might project on to her character. There was a dangerous pleasure that she dug about the script. And I was like, “Hmm. This woman reminds me of somebody. And there’s a role of a woman who’s 59 or 60 that we have to cast.” It didn’t take too much calculation to go to Julie [Julianne Moore] to see if she’d be interested. When she heard that I wanted to direct it, she was very excited.

How much rewriting did you do?

The integrity, tone and attitude of Samy Burch’s script were all there, with the interesting structure of looking at this tabloid story 20 years later, and watching the hardening that goes on around a family to survive something like that, the barriers that they have to erect. It was set originally in Camden, Maine. I don’t think Samy had ever been there, but Camden, Maine is the phantom location for Peyton Place, [the 1956] book and [the 1957] movie. So Samy brought all these interesting choices to it that were specific, but then there were notes from Natalie and me right away, and then from Julianne, and further notes from me, all helping to leave the script more uncertain and unsettled.

The tabloid story on which the film is very loosely based came out in 1996, and in relation to that story, the aftermath moment that the film depicts would have taken place around 2020. But you moved it back to 2015, pre-Trump.

I didn’t want that noise, particularly when we chose Georgia as the location. I just wanted to show how cut off these people are from the world. I didn’t want those questions to start to intervene.

Do you remember the tabloid story that kicked off the script?

I remember it, but I wasn’t following it. When I moved to Portland in 2000, Kelly Reichardt came to visit. And that began a new creative life for Kelly, because after she made River of Grass [1994], an incredible first feature, she was really down on the male-dominated independent filmmaking world. She decided to give up trying to make any more features and to only make experimental shorts. She was filming in my backyard and around Portland, and one element of this film [Reichardt’s 14-minute Then a Year, 2001] was recordings of interviews with [the teacher at the centre of the scandal] Mary Kay Letourneau. So I was aware she was a complex, fascinating subject but I was resistant to focusing on her story. I wanted to just begin with the fictional instincts that Samy had, how she distinguished her script from [the story of] Mary Kay Letourneau – [in the script] it wasn’t a teacher-student relationship, it wasn’t set in the Pacific Northwest.

And I was resistant to thinking deeply about certain things like the beginnings of that relationship, maybe the sexual aspect. I was just like, “I’ll get to it.” It was Julianne who prompted a closer look. She started to watch the documentaries and she was like, “Todd, you have to check this out.”

Could we talk about the production itself?

When the Peggy Lee project went away in 2022, we started asking ourselves if we could do May December before the end of the year. We looked at Natalie and Julianne’s schedules and my own, and we saw a narrow and tenuous opening. Then we brought it to some world sales companies. We got a good offer from one and they went to some foreign sales, some pre-sales. The amount of money they could generate with this script, with those two actresses and with me was pretty small. The only reason I can give is that it’s about two women.

May December (2023)

It’s about two horrible women.

Fascinatingly horrible women. The movie’s nothing if not a little juicy in how these women operate. It isn’t Persona. I, of course, thought of all these other kinds of movies as strategies for how to ignite that critical distance, that narrative distance that I loved in the script. But on the page, you didn’t really know how it would be shot, or if it would feel like a TV movie. We had very little money. We had a very narrow schedule. We shot it in 23 days.

Which is amazing. And you poached Reichardt’s cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt.

I did, because Ed [Lachman, who has been the cinematographer for all of Haynes’s films since Far from Heaven in 2002] broke his femur two weeks before we started full pre-production. So, it was all these new relationships: Chris; production designer Sam Lisenco, who had been working with me on the Peggy Lee project; the costume designer April Napier; and Jonathan Montepare, a wonderful line producer. Something about the speed we had to work at, the adrenaline, and all of these new relationships created a spirit on the set of this movie that is hard for me to find a parallel to in its level of pleasure. Because I just thought, “You know what? I’m going to share everything with everybody, because we don’t have time to beat around the bush. Let’s get right to it.”

I had seen Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between on Turner Classic Movies a few months before; hadn’t seen it maybe since I was a kid. I heard the Michel Legrand score and it pricked up my ears, as it’s meant to for that film. And I said, “That’s what we need for a movie like this.” So when I sent everybody the image book that I’d created for the film, I said, “Play the music from The Go-Between as you look at the pages.” And on the flight to Savannah to start production, I laid in all the cues of the music from The Go-Between into the script of May December. And then we played the music while making the movie. Every single scene. The first scene we shot, “Der-dum, der-dum.” And all the crew was like, “What the fuck? What is this movie we’re doing?” We played it through the entire shooting of the film when there wasn’t dialogue being recorded. Everything is timed to it. The camera moves, the actors’ movements. When there’s a scene that has a pause at the beginning before the dialogue comes in, we started shooting with the music and then turned it down. So everyone was humming it, breathing it.

At one point, April said, “I hear there’s a film list.” And I said, “I always have lists of films that I’m thinking about and they’re all in the image book. But I didn’t want to give it to you like homework.” And she’s like, “But I want to watch all the films.” So, everybody was watching the films. And then we’d just go out drinking at night, because we were all just having such a good time.

I loathed the two women characters, Gracie [Moore] and Elizabeth [Portman]. You’ve said that they are different from women characters in your other films, or the characters Julianne played in Far from Heaven and Safe [1995]. And yet it is very much a Todd Haynes family, with parents and children.

I would say it’s not like most of my domestic stories, with the exception of [2011 HBO miniseries] Mildred Pierce, because the women in most of my stories don’t have access to their desires or their will the way these women do. The women in the earlier films are much more subjugated in different kinds of ways from film to film. That part of it was crazy and exceptional. The only thing that gives you any sympathy for either woman is in relief against the other. The power of each is relative and embedded in larger systems. So you keep shifting back and forth between trusting and mistrusting one or the other. It’s not like a Todd Haynes film because the women are so difficult to like and care about. It’s the children you care about. And you feel that despite all this stuff with their parents, they are going to figure it out and be all right. So there’s hope. And you care about the man, Gracie’s husband Joe – there’s hope that he’ll figure it out too.

May December (2023)

I already mentioned how I was not ready to think about certain aspects of the Mary Kay Letourneau story. But Julianne had a very strong idea that this woman wasn’t a paedophile, that she had a princess syndrome, an intense need to be rescued by a young, virile man. It’s like the myth of the young knight, who, with his sheer virility and stunning youth, will save you, the damsel in distress. This enabled both parties to deny the age difference, because the power could shift back into his sure hands or whatever. And I did want those lines in the final bedroom scene – “Who’s the boss?” and “Who was in charge? Who was in charge? Who was in charge?” – to suggest the myth that they live under. This movie was just so full of extremes and exceptions and tabloid excess. It’s also about people who refuse to look at themselves and the choices they make, which we all do, and I knew I also was doing.

Also, it’s a potentially explosive or disturbing [film] for today’s identity politics culture, which wants to know who’s good and who’s bad. There’s volatility, impenetrability and moral ambiguity here. And we had to do it quickly and with great economy. The simplicity of the coverage was the only way we could get this done. Letting the blank spaces, the non-speech moments between the dialogue, speak as loudly as, or more loudly than, anything said. As is almost always the case with the films I’ve made, it was an experiment. You just throw these things together and you go, “OK. This is it.” There was no net. There was no other way to cut it. We have no other coverage. So if it didn’t work… But because it was so much fun to make, I kept going, “It’s probably not going to hold together, but I really don’t care. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”

You make a big choice halfway through the movie: you hand everything over to Joe, making him our only point of identification and our object of desire. Melton is a wonderful actor. How did you find him?

We saw some great Korean American actors for the role. I saw a picture of Charles and I thought, “No, he’s too glamorous.” And then I watched his reading. He got no direction from me, he just read a couple of scenes, and I kept looking at it again and again. [Casting director Laura Rosenthal and I] were like, “He’s so pent up and clenched – what’s breaking through the cracks is so small.” Even though other actors were more what I pictured when I read the script, I could see the character’s past and present in Charles. It was a major miracle that we found him for Joe.

After the Cannes premiere, there was a lot of chatter about the movie being camp. I don’t find it camp at all.

Me neither. What I think everyone is hinging it on is the sting of music with the zoom into Julianne at the refrigerator [when she says she’s worried about not having enough hot dogs], which I’m so sick of reading about as an example of the overall style of the movie. The music starts at the very beginning when there are butterflies laying eggs on milkweed plants, a potentially treacherous kind of metaphor, which needed to be undermined, so that we knew the audience knew we were ahead of this. And that they were being asked to be ahead of the movie, as they watched it. That’s what that music does to you in The Go-Between right away. A warning bell is sounded, and you’re on alert, you’re reading everything in the frame.

I would’ve been thrilled if people were like, “Oh, wow! The movie really kept me at an interesting distance and I love those extended fixed shots and that distance that you imposed. And the direct address, the actors looking into the lens as themselves.” Instead, people don’t even notice it. But they do notice how uncomfortable they’re made to feel watching the movie, and how impossible it is to hold on to the kind of moral grounding that we like to bring to movies, and that these days in particular, we want movies to absolutely, totally affirm for us. I wanted to make this movie, because I liked feeling uncertain and displaced and unnerved. It’s the way movies are supposed to make you feel.

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