How Todd Haynes Navigated the Salacious Heart of May December

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore face off in the Mary Kay Letourneau-inspired melodrama.

by Patrick Sproull
Originally Published: 

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December

Todd Haynes is no stranger to melodrama, but with May December he may have outdone himself. Directing from an excruciatingly funny script by Samy Burch, it’s yet another successful entry into the Julianne-Moore-as-a-Fucked-Up-Housewife Cinematic Universe he has so masterfully innovated (the film marks the pair’s fifth film together since 1995’s Safe). Here, Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a former schoolteacher now living in suburban stagnation with her husband and ex-student Joe (Riverdale’s Charles Melton), whom she groomed when he was 13.

Once, Gracie’s abuse of Joe was the talk of the town (and tabloids), but now the couple is forgotten and floundering in a deeply twisted marriage. Enter Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a conceited TV actor researching her role as Gracie in a biopic of the Atherton-Yoos, whose presence holds up a mirror to the couple and their grim origins. Frankly, few films have so perfectly toed the line between queasy grotesquerie and thigh-slapping camp than May December.

Haynes has given us a modern melodrama of the highest order. It’s one that pays tribute to the genre to the point that during pre-production, Haynes listened to Michel Legrand’s arch, foreboding score for ’70s British period drama The Go-Between and was so compelled by it, he reused it as a leitmotif in May December. It helps that Moore and Portman are on career best form, ripping chunks out of one another as two intensely stubborn women slowly becoming one and the same. It’s like if Lifetime remade Persona.

Speaking over Zoom, Haynes spoke about the film’s tricky tonal balance, working with Moore and Portman to build their characters, and navigating the salaciousness of the story.

I’ve seen May December about three times now and each time I laugh harder. How did you find those specific notes of comedy?

The humor and the mordant sense of observation of this world, this family and these two women were all there in the script. But it had a coolness in its tone. It wasn’t telling you what to think. It put this space between the reader and the material, which was very unnerving. That made this script stand out and have a quiet, sly sophistication that you don’t see, particularly in someone as young as Samy Burch.

To me, it’s a film that demands an active, interpretive engagement, and that’s really not what movies do these days. That’s why people are finding different ways of responding to the movie—as you say, even as you’ve watched it a couple of times, your own reaction to it has changed. It’s all about you. The tonal things that I was able to bring to it made it an exciting, mischievous adventure for the viewer.

Portman and Moore face off in May December

Courtesy of Netflix

May December felt like your take on a Lifetime movie, in that you’ve put your intelligent lens on a topic that in another world would just be the frothiest thing. How did you approach the salaciousness of the material?

I really wasn’t thinking about anything like Lifetime when I made it. I went into European art cinema, I went into a cold, removed static frame, I went into seven minute long shots. Ultimately, I went whole hog into the music from that era of cinema, although the music doesn’t sound like scores from Bergman or Fassbinder or Chabrol films. It was nothing I’d really heard.

It was all a series of very different detours and ideas about having an austerity or a coldness to the style of the film. That excited me. I felt that with that music, with this content, with this script, that maybe there’d be elements of friction that could excite the viewer. I thought people would say, ‘Oh, dude, I love all those long shots and they kept me on edge, but I was a little bored, I was so aware of the static camera.’ But no one ever said that, and it was mostly due to the performances. You can put up a gorgeous frame and have Sven Nykvist light it or have dark, Christmas Nordic themes about the meaning of life, but it doesn’t work without great actors. Natalie and Julianne are navigating the tone of this movie, so it really is the sum total of all those elements.

Moore and Melton in May December

Courtesy of Netflix

Gracie and Joe’s relationship occurred in real life—in the case of Mary Kay Letourneau—and it’s been turned into sensationalist TV movies. What’s so good about this film is how removed it is from the tabloids.

Yeah, the TV films about Mary Kay Letourneau do that. They want to see how she meets this boy and how the seduction starts. But we had a distance that was put in from the very concept of the script.

You reference those types of films in May December. With the scene where Elizabeth can be seen watching a cheesy-looking TV movie about Gracie and Joe?

Sure, and then in the final movie [that Elizabeth stars in]. The whole movie is about the making of a movie, so what that ends up doing is multiplying all the elements in the storytelling. There’s not only Gracie but Elizabeth, because Elizabeth has come in to tell the story for us and find the “truth.” One is trying to become the other. You start seeing a lot of Gracie in Elizabeth as a person in ways that Elizabeth would never admit. She’s desperately trying to become Gracie. A lot of her willful prerogative as a woman and her carelessness with the men around her is very much like Gracie, but she’s not really using that as her source material. And there’s also doublings of Joe, and there’s doublings of the story, and the repetitions of these themes that keep crossing the lens, which I love about the whole concept.

Portman as Elizabeth

Photo by François Duhamel, courtesy of Netflix

There’s that amazing to-camera monologue Natalie delivers, where she evokes Gracie so scarily well. It was quite a swift production, so how did you, Natalie and Julianne quickly feel out the physicality of these characters and how they channel one another?

I did it with two geniuses in Natalie and Julianne, and with an incredibly, fiercely organized production team all around me, many of whom are people I’ve been working with for years. Really, it was just talking out these women with the two actors. There was a lot of discussion with Julianne about the backstory, about who Gracie is and was, how this relationship could have happened as well as how he understood it and she understood it at the time.

We talked about how Gracie would talk, but we had to just jump in on the first day of shooting. Julianne had to come up with that way of speech—the lisp—immediately, because Natalie needed to latch onto something incredibly concrete. She had to start modeling her character to [Gracie] and we were already committing everything to film with no room to spare. I had no alternate shots planned. Only the shots that you see in the movie are the shots that we shot. If the shot wasn’t going to work then you’d have to cut it out, there was no other way. But the burden was on Julianne, and Julianne was a triumph.

May December is in theaters November 17, and starts streaming on Netflix December 1.

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