Todd Haynes on Mary Kay Letorneau’s Inspiration for ‘May December’

After making the beloved carol, the queer period romance starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, filmmaker Todd Haynes swerved. He tried his hand at a children’s film in Wonderstruck and a legal drama in dark waters. So he made a documentary, The Velvet Underground.

But with may december, which premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival, Haynes is back once again directing two actresses operating in their prime. This time, it’s Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, in a film that tackles the Mary Kay Letourneau case in ways that are alternately disturbing and funny.

may decemberwritten by Samy Burch, casts Portman as Elizabeth Berry, an actress set to play Gracie Atherton-Yoo, Moore’s Letourneau figure, in a film based on her story. Gracie is now married to Joe (Charles Melton), with whom she began a sexual relationship when he was in seventh grade, and they live in a seemingly pleasant suburb with their twins. Their other child, who Gracie gave birth to in prison, is in college. When Elizabeth enters Gracie’s life, the actress thinks she’s on a mission to uncover the truth of the saga, but she’s also feeding her own Juilliard-trained ego and wreaking havoc in her wake.

When I caught up with Haynes two days after the premiere on a rooftop overlooking the French Riviera, he was still reveling in the film’s reception here. (A day later, it was announced that Netflix picked up the film for $11 million.) He was also happy to dive into how he tackled the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect of the project, casting riverdale heartthrob Charles Melton, and how he found the right tone for this “uncomfortable” tale.

What was your path to this project?

It really was my great luck and really lucky to have Natalie think of me immediately when she read it. We were doing an interview yesterday and she just said, “Oh yeah, I read it and a week or two later I sent it to you.” I didn’t know it was so fast. Immediately, I read it and thought, “Wow, this is so interesting. It makes me so uncomfortable. But I’m so enjoying the discomfort, and I’m so enjoying navigating and feeling unsettled as I read and having to rethink this character against that character as things unfold. I thought it could be as fascinating as a movie.

It definitely is.

And so we started talking, and all those same things about it were apparently the things she dug about it. She was also just as slyly interested in playing around or playing with people’s expectations of her as an actress, thinking, “Oh, this really is the real Natalie Portman in the movie.” And she’s going to trip you up with those expectations, and she’s really going for it, right? Because you think she’s nice and nice, and she’s the one you can count on and initially trust as a narrator. And then it’s like, “No way.” It starts to really freak you out. And so, that was so brave and cool, and I just thought, “Wow, who does this remind me of? What actor? And then, the other character was this woman who was Julianne Moore’s age.

You’ve worked with Julianne before, but it must have been exciting to work with her on a film like this.

Completely. And that they had never worked together before. But this, speaking to Natalie, reminded me of Julianne: her humour, her unbelievable genius, but her instinct to really challenge conventional ways of reading characters and stories, and resist the kind of comforts we too often expect in characters.

I wanted to ask about that discomfort because the movie takes inspiration from tabloid stories, like Mary Kay Letourneau, but it also adds all these layers on top of that. How did you want to approach the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect, within the context of these games you’re playing with these actresses and their perceptions?

It was, again, so well conceived on the page because it was all in the past. So it was a digging process, and it was an actor-driven discovery process. [played by Portman] who had his ambitions to tell the truth and uncover the truth. You think, “Wow, okay. Right. Excellent. We are going to get to the truth here.” Through these webs of history, and also a history in confinement.

By necessity, the choices that were made by Gracie and Joe all those years ago, they were living in kind of bunker mode to defend themselves and avoid criticism and attacks from the culture, and boxes of shit being dumped on their front porch. So it’s a much more insanely extreme version of how resistant we all are to looking at ourselves and questioning our choices in our lives. It felt extreme and exotic, and also incredibly familiar and human.

Were you thinking about Mary Kay or any of those stories, or were you putting that aside and focusing primarily on the script?

I really started putting that aside and thinking, okay, let’s dwell on the specific choices and distinctions that Samy Burch’s script makes from Mary Kay Letourneau’s story. But there was no way not to. In some ways, there were moments where I thought, “Oh, I’ll think about that later,” how this relationship actually started, what Joe looked like, and who Joe was.

[Charles] it wasn’t how I envisioned Joe when I first read him, but the way he read the character to me was so locked in and contained and contained. He really couldn’t speak or move. It was so completely believable. He helped me to imagine the past and even imagine how that sexual relationship might have started and that he took those steps to help me fill in the choices you make.

I thought the casting of Charles was so interesting as well because people know him as the CW heartthrob, and in that you can see the man that Joe could have become if all this hadn’t happened. How did you work on Joe’s look with Charles?

I mean, again, it started on its own instincts so completely. And Laura Rosenthal, the casting director, and I were like, “What?” We kept going back to his auditions and watching them again, and then we introduced him to Julianne, and Julianne was like, “This guy is amazing.” He played this character that way and he drew on, I think, things from his own knowledge and experience and family life, but he also created a totally unique physicality for Joe. He was like a child and an old man together, the way he moves. And he’s like someone who’s been in a cage, basically.

I saw a photo of Charles on the beach on Google or something, and he had a little more weight in the photo. And I was like, “Oh, awesome. That is great. Let’s go in that direction.” And I said, “Charles, would you consider gaining weight for Joe?” And he said, “Yes.” So he put on 35 pounds for the character. He had little love handles, and he just put on weight, and he looked more like a suburban body. Those physical things really help an actor.

Can you talk about the tone you wanted to create? There are some lines that are so funny, but you mix them in with the disturbing reality of what these people lived through.

It really came together a lot because I wanted to find a visual language for that observant, slightly detached, observational tone that the script conveyed. And so, I knew I wanted to be a little bit outside of it and have the audience watching. But I wanted it to somehow be fun, a little forced but exciting reading against the grain of the story as you watch it unfold.

Did you also think about the trashiest pop culture language? There’s a shot of Natalie watching the shitty TV movie version of Gracie’s story. You also see the tabloids she clipped.

It wasn’t our actual visual style of the film, which is actually quite austere and not outrageous, and not sleazy. It’s actually pretty cool and classy, ​​and owes more to Bergman and Godard than the tabloids in almost every way. And I thought, “Okay, if the movie ends up being a little smart and cold, but I have all these amazing actors in this crazy content to deal with, that’s fine.” What was remarkable when we started showing cuts of the film is that no one even mentioned how long we were holding a shot. You need impeccable performances, as Bergman did, in that austerity, to absolutely keep you on the edge of your seat. And I had that with these actors.

How did you and Julianne arrive at some of your character choices for Gracie, including her little lisp?

Mary Kay Letourneau has this fascinating kind of lazy tongue. This is the lisp source. So there were things that were really helpful about the specificity of Mary Kay Letourneau, who was a very different character than Gracie.

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How did you think about the meta aspects of the story? It’s about an artist trying to make art based on a true story, while also being art based on a true story.

I mean, it was played in the literal sense, where it’s not just mirroring and duplicating women and in curious ways. So that’s it, but there’s also all these crazy additions of Joes throughout the movie. There’s Charles now. There is Charles as a teenager in tabloid images. There’s the boy from the TV movie. There’s the kid who ends up being cast in the Natalie version of the movie. There’s Charlie the Younger who is a version of Joe. But we had to cast all these roles, navigate these really uncomfortable places that were just part of this movie’s perversity about the act of acting.

What are you looking forward to for the film’s release and the conversation that might unfold once it reaches a wider audience?

What’s really been great is that so far, here at Cannes, the conversation has really been about the film as a film, and actors within a film, playing actors and the layers of all of that. Moral questions are formulated within the film. They’re also part of the past, and you have to hold them against the fact that this relationship lasted 20 years, and they got married, and they produced these three really special children, and you really have hope for the children’s future.

What’s most satisfying to me, and kind of surprising, is that people are enjoying it. It is funny. It’s invigorating. It’s a two hour movie that really hooks you. And you’re kind of in a state of uncertainty throughout that. But it’s nice.

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