May December, L to R: Charles Melton as Joe, Todd Haynes Director and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Cr. François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

Todd Haynes Talks May December and Why There’s No Such Thing As Responsible Storytelling in This Interview

When Todd Haynes’ May December premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, it was a major talking point along the Riviera. While immediately revered, it was a film that disturbed audiences as much as it enchanted them. The plot centres on a famous actor named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who begins to entangle herself in the life of a woman she is preparing to portray in a film. That woman is Gracie (Julianne Moore), who was imprisoned for sleeping with a 13-year-old boy when she was in her mid-30s. After re-entering society, she married and raised three children with the now-adult Joe (Charles Melton). And outside looking in, the couple appear happy and reasonably accepted by their community. But the presence of Elizabeth begins to disrupt their relationship, as Joe starts to reckon with the innocence he’s lost. 

Since Cannes, audiences have grappled with the film’s tone. With a story inspired by the infamous union of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, it is never bereft of discomfort. But also present is a wicked sense of humour and moments of melodrama. The discourse over these dual moods quickly became the film’s narrative in the context of its place in awards season. But much of that chatter has overshadowed just how masterfully Haynes is operating. Working within the framework of a true crime, he analyses the reality of a predatory relationship without ever slipping into needless provocation. And when he inserts comedy, it is done playfully, somehow never feeling inappropriate when it so easily could have. In the care of a lesser filmmaker, a blend like this would have been a calamity, but in the hands of Haynes — and three fearless performers — he makes a high-wire act look like a simple stroll. 

In this writer’s opinion, the film is another masterpiece from the illustrious director. And ahead of its much-anticipated Australian release this week, I had the honour of speaking with him about the nods he made to Letourneau and Fualaau, the motive behind Gracie’s lisp, and the ownership of truth. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

May December is in Australian cinemas from February 1, 2024.

I heard that Natalie Portman sent you the script for this film in the hope you would direct it, and it wasn’t the first time she had tried this with you. 

Todd Haynes: We’ve been trying to find something to do together. Her work and career has always been so impressive to me, and I just was like, ‘We have to figure this out someday.’ And then this script was really it, man. It just rose to the top, and I was reading a lot more stuff at the time because it was the middle of COVID. She was in Australia, working because of your amazing protocols, but I was not. So we were waiting for when things would resume [in the United States], but the script just made such a huge impression on me. I thought, ‘This is such rich and complicated material.’ And then there was this other lead role that just called out Julianne’s name. So I got to work with both of these amazing women.

The performances from your central trio are absolutely sublime. In discussing Natalie, she is an actor portraying an actor who starts to mimic the mannerisms of Julianne Moore’s character. It’s a role with so many layers, not to mention a meta quality. How did the two of you approach her character?

TH: It was an amusing series of discussions between Natalie and myself about how self-consciously Elizabeth would behave in public. Would she perform the role of the very timid, very kind of awkward woman who’s coming into this suburban community full of doubts? Would she play at that to inspire trust in the people around her, or would there be a little bit of judgement that would be evident, or at least the viewer would be able to discern? Obviously, she went more for the latter approach. And yet, it’s all done with such restraint and intelligent decision-making on her part. I think what’s so fascinating about the script is that nothing said between the characters really means anything — it’s everything that isn’t said. It’s all about subtext; it’s all about the lies that the surface language is concealing. So both actresses had such a remarkable opportunity, and I think they trusted each other. They also trusted that the audiences would be attentive to the neutral spaces so they could interpret what they were doing. 

This is your fifth time working with Julianne Moore, and something I’ve noticed is that she has a penchant for altering her voice in your collaborations. In Safe, she didn’t use her larynx, so there would be no vibrations in her speech. In Far From Heaven, she had a Doris Day-like inflection to invoke that film’s antecedents. For May December, she implemented a lisp. What was behind that choice?

TH: It came out of conversations that she and I had and a process that she led, which was about doing research into some of the tabloid antecedents to this story that, of course, hover. Initially, I was more like, ‘Okay, we’ll get to that eventually.’ I was really honouring the fact that [screenwriter] Samy [Burch] had created a fiction and meta-story, using all of that raw cultural material that we all carry within our bloodstreams and are kind of poisoned by and addicted to at the same time. But Julie was the one who was like, ‘No, I got to figure this out. I got to figure out how this relationship came to be and what kind of stories were created. What was the mythos that protected the two of them in this love affair and fortified the roles they were playing out in each other’s eyes?’

So a lot of the results of that are completely distinct from where they found some of their indicators from the research around Mary Kay Letourneau. The character of Gracie, Julianne and I found together. We brought in our hair and makeup department because we had to start figuring out what the colour and style of the hair was months before we were going to start shooting. And what would be the colour palette? What would the whole visual language convey about this woman? How would that reflect her setting and the house? And what would be the colour palette of the house itself? All of it started to collect around this idea of this child-woman: a sense that Gracie looked upon herself as a damsel in distress in a domestic tower that the young knight in shining armour, Joe, would rescue her from. This did all kinds of things that inverted the power dynamic, challenged the age difference between them, and gave him that sense of agency and power in the narrative. It made her feel forever someone who wasn’t abusing power but was actually a victim that he could protect and take care of. The lisp ultimately became a final manifestation of this sort of infantilised female persona that she had created to justify her choices. 

The production of this film was only 23 days. I’ve heard your actors say they felt at ease with that amount of time because of how precise you are. But how did you feel about that time span? Did it alter your process at all?

TH: At a certain point, I had to take the lead and create the example that my creative team, partners, and actors would hopefully trust me in following. That was like, ‘Okay, this is the box. This is the aspect ratio. This is the frame. Let’s figure out how to make the elements within that frame work.’ In some cases, that required risky stylistic choices about how restrained the camera would be and how many scenes would be played out in mirrors in single shots. This was motivated by practical concerns, but, of course, it meant to me in the other sense of the thematics of the storytelling, the kind of relationship that I wanted to find a visual example for, and how the viewer would watch these subjects almost like specimens in a cage. You know, like Joe’s butterflies in the netted cages. We’re watching them in frames; we’re watching them in mirrors; we’re watching them through a conscious distance of observation and analysis. I hoped that could be something pleasurable to the viewer — that there would be an element of not trusting the ground they’re standing on as the moral questions continue to shift as the film unfolds. I wanted that to be a source of spectator excitement when watching the movie because I felt that when I read the script.

Although this is an original story, you do make a couple of allusions to the people who inspired it. There are flashback photos that are certainly styled like the ones of Letourneau seen in tabloids. Moreover, there is a sequence in the film where Gracie is pressuring Joe to say he is the boss, which is taken almost directly from an interview the real-life counterparts conducted with an Australian broadcaster. Could you tell me what the rationale was for those inclusions?

TH: Well, we needed to hang our hat on something specific while knowing that it was ultimately going to manifest in its own way. All the ways that Julianne looked back at the research around Mary Kay Letourneau helped to formulate this idea of the princess syndrome, as we refer to her. Yet, the version of Gracie that resulted is quite different from Mary Kay Letourneau.Mary Kay Letourneau didn’t dress in a girly, frilly way with a lot of pastel colours. She usually wore a big, oversized white sweatshirt. She was very sportswear casual in her manner and didn’t dress up the house around her with the frills and doilies and those aspects that Gracie did. So it became something to look to for specific ideas about styling.

All that tabloid material we had to create, we had to do in one day. We shot all those stills, then turned them around and generated them for the materials that would be used as props in the scene. So, yes, we drew from some of the past hairdos of Mary Kay Letourneau, less so from the present. But when I saw that interview, that did inspire me to make some changes in that scene that you described because I just found that to be so startling. The division of power in the myth that the two share was so beautifully contained in that moment between them, and it was so unnerving. I felt like it really helped describe and help us understand a little bit the delusions that supported this relationship. 

Recently, Vili Fualaau stated that he was offended by the film and wished he could have been involved as a consultant. His comments started a debate online as to whether the subject or inspiration of a film needs to be involved in its production. Some deem it a necessity, but others believe it creates too narrow of a perspective artistically. Considering you’ve made not only this film but also unconventional pieces on Bob Dylan and Karen Carpenter, is there a side you lean on in that conversation?

TH: Absolutely, I’ve made films that are biographical in nature. Even Velvet Goldmine draws almost line by line. There was nothing in that film that didn’t have an antecedent in the actual stories of glam rock artists and the era. But I feel like, yes, I definitely fall on the side of the fact that there is no such thing as responsible storytelling. Storytelling by nature is subjective, and at times regressive, and at times corrosive, and always singularly indebted to the subjectivity and creative instincts of the people behind the storytelling. This film takes some shots at these easily received notions about truth-telling and getting to the truth, as if the truth is an object of some kind of reliable form that’s reducible, that’s consistent, and agreed upon by different people. Who owns the truth? That brings up so many questions about power dynamics and about who reports on history and who gets the final say in recording of storytelling and histories. I think these are questions that are really thrilling to ask, but to presume the answers are stable is to miss so many points and to fall back into the hands of power that basically wants to tell you there is one truth and that it’s in control of telling it. So this film, if anything, is a story about storytelling. It’s a story about the impossibility of ever finding the truth. 

That said, I have sympathy for Vili Fualaau. I had wanted to reach out to him, as did Charles. But we were told by our legal people, both during production and then afterwards, to refrain from doing so and not to give him any false impressions about the fealty of this film to their story. I understand all of that, but it still made me sad to hear his reactions to the movie because they weren’t in line with my instincts. 

Mr. Haynes, thank you so much for fitting me into your schedule. Far From Heaven is one of my favourite films of all time, and I think May December is a masterpiece, so talking with you today has been an absolute thrill. It will be very hard for me to go back to my desk job for the rest of the day. 

TH: Oh, Connor! (laughs) Really appreciate it, man. Thank you so much. 

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Connor Dalton

Connor Dalton is a freelance entertainment journalist with a Bachelor’s degree in film and television studies. When he isn’t interviewing stars of the screen, he works in the reality television sector. He is sadly not related to Timothy Dalton.

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