Or So We Think: Todd Haynes Discusses "May December"

Art tries to imitate (tabloid) life in Todd Haynes's wicked new melodrama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.
Nicolas Rapold

May December (Todd Haynes, 2023).

“This isn’t a story, this is my fucking life!” That’s Joe, in Todd Haynes’s May December, talking about his relationship with his wife, Gracie, which began when he was in seventh grade. Their life together is most definitely a story to Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a TV-famous actor shadowing the couple in preparation for playing Gracie in a movie. Haynes teases out the power dynamics in the taboo relationship and the process of its dramatization, as life transforms into a story (and back again). Grace now has three children with Joe, and more from her previous marriage, which broke up with the discovery of their affair, for which she served time in prison. “BABY BORN BEHIND BARS” blares a tabloid headline glimpsed during the film, but May December imagines what things look like when the aftermath of a scandal simply becomes life as lived.

Some audiences at the Cannes premiere praised the film as camp, as if the director of Carol (2015) and I’m Not There (2007) just had to be winking about this National Enquirer-ready backstory. But in its dazzling tightrope walk, May December is both cacklingly funny and sobering about the stakes, nothing less than identity collapse, or implosion. Gracie and Joe look relatively placid on the surface—much as the film’s cinematography has a transparent quality, a kind of glassy warmth—but all is not well, as Elizabeth gleans from asking around and from her own more involved investigations. Joe is plainly a caring dad, whose hobby is fostering caterpillars for release as butterflies, but he’s also a murmuring man-child who didn’t have a chance to grow up independently. And Gracie can appear brittle, or as Elizabeth jots down, “Birdlike but steely ... Mechanical or just removed?”

That’s not to confine Haynes’s film to psychological readings, as it enters another hall-of-mirrors of performance through Elizabeth’s embedding in the family’s lives to research her role (in what she says is an “independent movie”). May December is also a reflexive work about filmmaking, and specifically the extraction and the construction of realism involved in art-making. The screenplay by Samy Burch (her first produced feature) unofficially adapts the tabloid saga of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Washington State teacher jailed for raping her student, whom she later married. (She died in 2020.) Like Letourneau, Gracie has a slight lisp, which Elizabeth imitates in a minute-plus long monologue to camera reciting a love letter—the scene that Haynes says galvanized him to make the film. The screen as mirror, and multiple actual mirrors, are a natural outgrowth of a story of stunted identity and performance as reflection. (Haynes is definitely choosing a specific swatch from the fabric of their lives, as the Letourneau timeline of events would only get stranger: the couple later got their kicks hosting “Hot for Teacher” nights at a nightclub.) 

Shot by frequent Kelly Reichardt cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (when frequent Haynes DP Ed Lachman had to drop out), May December embraces clean wide compositions and static single-shot sequences. The big exception, of course, is when we get up close and Persona-like with its lead actresses, who face the camera as a mirror in more than one scene. Haynes has invoked classical European art cinema in describing the style—though I also thought of the charged front-facing dialogues of sexploitation auteur Joe Sarno—but in a way it just feels like a cooling agent for a story that’s laced throughout with lurid plot points and potential intrigues, some of which tend to go unmentioned in reviews. (Besides the benighted central relationship, this also happens: Gracie’s Stifler-esque eldest son tries to blackmail Elizabeth; Joe secretly texts with a female fellow caterpillar enthusiast about some butterfly-related getaway; and behind closed doors, Gracie has a meltdown reaction to a canceled baked-goods order that undercuts her more controlled public persona.) 

In one of the film’s most electric scenes, Elizabeth asks Gracie to show her how she does her make-up—a seemingly friendly gesture of curiosity that soon oozes mean-girl menace. Backgrounds are exchanged: Elizabeth says that her mother is a professor known for writing the book on “epistemic relativism” (a term which Portman/Elizabeth pretends to have to pick her way through), to which Gracie unforgettably replies that her mother was known for her blueberry cobbler recipe. This might be when Gracie really begins to unsettle Elizabeth with the steeliness that holds together her lifelong denial that anything is wrong (“I am naive,” Gracie says elsewhere. “I always have been. In a way it’s been a gift”). But it’s also a neat shorthand for what each woman brings to their fraught dynamic: Elizabeth starts the film assuming her sophistication compared to her quaint subject, with Portman coolly showing how the cracks show later; while Moore as Gracie adds to her Haynes gallery of portraits in ambiguous autonomy within the bounds of domesticity.

I sat down with Haynes (who recently talked about a future Freud project) last month at Netflix’s offices in Manhattan, where the film opened the New York Film Festival. Behind the couch where he sat was a tall, narrow mirror, where I saw my reflection while interviewing him.


NOTEBOOK: Douglas Sirk once said that the title of a film functions like the prologue to a play. May December invokes an old-fashioned euphemism for an age-gap relationship. What else does it mean to you?

TODD HAYNES: Well, there are no titles that live up to the titles of Douglas Sirk movies. I love how he came up with All That Heaven Allows (1955), and the studios were like, oh, wow, we love that title, it feels so infinitely pleasurable. And he said, no, I thought of it as exactly the opposite: heaven is stingy—it doesn’t allow much. May December was the title that Samy came up with, and I liked it because it’s simple and maybe reduces expectations of a lurid tabloid story. But also it just uses the term May, which is very important. The film is set in May, May is the graduation month and has Memorial Day, and so everything is framed within the month of May in a meaningful way. But it doesn’t translate to other languages. And even in England, it’s not a phrase that’s as well-known. Even in America, it’s not a phrase all people necessarily know for the connotation of a younger-older relationship.

NOTEBOOK: The story that the film tells is very much a “post” story.

HAYNES: Yes.

NOTEBOOK: To put it another way: “Well, that happened. And now we’re here.” Could you talk about that idea? 

HAYNES: To me, that really is the original stroke of genius in the script in Samy’s construction, because it sets up a distance and a space of reckoning. It opens up everything that the film then actually manifests as an experience watching it, where there is a gulf between what you’re watching and what you’re thinking. The gulf is everything. The gulf is in the story and the distance between when Joe and Gracie met until now, in the fact that Gracie was the age Joe now is when they met, and that Natalie’s character, Elizabeth, is that age as well. It shows the way people cope. And it shows the way we build up all kinds of barriers to confronting the choices that we make.

It also sets up a condition under which an investigative narrative is made active by the actor coming into town and interviewing everybody and figuring out what happened way back when. And I think it also just creates that distance and separation from source to present-day that the whole film continues to recycle as a film about the making of a film and the circularity of that process.

May December (Todd Haynes, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Elizabeth’s arrival is basically the introduction of self-consciousness. 

HAYNES: Yeah. Or so we think. 

NOTEBOOK: Or so we think. And it’s very interesting how differently that plays out for everyone. Joe comes to some kind of realization, albeit through being taken advantage of again by Elizabeth. But it’s fascinating how impervious Gracie can seem. 

HAYNES: Yeah, I know. The themes of the movie are played out or, I hope, made manifest in the visual language of the movie with so many mirror shots, where you’re really looking at who is looking at who, and who is looking at themselves, and who isn’t looking at themselves. And [the person] who we think has come here to see things and look at the truth—Elizabeth—is actually so blinded as well and so resistant to looking at herself. So we have all kinds of expectations about who’s ultimately going to be seen, and how the process of again making a film about this story is going to reveal visibility and exposure. And we like to think that the person who wants to see and find the truth is the one in the position of power, and that they are there for the mission of truth and that’s what the investigative journalist or the investigative crime story is going to do and all that. And instead, in the duel, the power play, the contest between the two women, you see that it’s the person who refuses to look at themselves who has the power.

NOTEBOOK: I’m reminded of Elizabeth’s final encounter with Gracie after the graduation: the camera pulls back on Elizabeth just standing there, obviously rattled. 

HAYNES: Yeah, yeah!

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of mirrors, could you talk about the specifics of staging and shooting the makeup scene between Gracie and Elizabeth?

HAYNES: It’s as simple and then as deceptively complex as it looks, in that we just were in a real bathroom and we had the camera against the mirror of the bathroom and as close to the mirror as possible. But that meant they couldn’t look at themselves in the mirror. There was no mirror that they were really looking at. They were looking at the lens for themselves, and they were looking at marks off the lens respectively left and right of the lens for the reflection of the other woman. And so there’s this whole little network of looks that get conducted in that very simple concept, where they’re each looking at themselves and the other, which is like four different looks between the two of them. And then they turn and look at each other in the face, so it’s another two looks. But we’re looking at all of them. Of course when they’re looking at the lens, they’re looking at you watching them. So again it’s these ideas about looking, seeing, and checking oneself against the other person who’s right next to them in the reflection. All of this has been conjured in the mind of the viewer and is being created technically by the skill of the actors. What happens and what makes a shot like that hopefully work is entirely in the hands of the actors. Because there’s no cuts, there’s no hiding. There’s no way to manipulate it.

May December (Todd Haynes, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: How long did it take to shoot that scene?

HAYNES: I don’t remember. Everything was so fast. It didn’t take long because there was only one shot. And we didn’t do as many—Natalie did eight takes of the letter [reading] scene on the second-to-the-last day of our shoot, and this mirror scene came toward the end of our first day, the beginning of the shoot, when we were shooting out the house first. I think there were five takes [of the mirror scene].

NOTEBOOK: There’s a particular frisson in seeing Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore together in the same movie somehow, maybe because we’re used to seeing them each as the clear solo center of a narrative. Does that make sense? 

HAYNES: Oh, yeah! What excited Natalie about the script were things that excited me about the script, the treacherous places that this character goes and even how audiences might think, “Oh, wait, I wonder if this is how Natalie Portman really is.” That delighted her, thrilled her. And I think the notes that she and I agreed on right away were to make the film less resolved than it was in its earlier drafts, to keep leaning into a place of feeling unstable, that there was no solution to the problems that had been opened up in the start.  All of this reminded me of Julianne Moore, and so it’s very easy to come to the idea of casting her, to slip her the script to make sure she was interested before I brought her name up to Natalie. As it turns out, they approach the practice of acting and preparation in similar ways too. That doesn’t mean you know anything about what’s going to happen when you’re actually on set. We didn’t have a day to rehearse. We just threw everybody together. We talked on the phone, we planned the wigs, the things that take the longest to make are the wigs, you know. We prepared, but still, you jump in—and we shot it ridiculously fast, 23 days. So we’re churning through these days, and it’s like okay, go, go, Julie, go, Natalie. Once I’ve set the shot, and we’ve lit it, and we blocked it, then you just start watching the actors do what they do. And it was an amazing thing to watch.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve described the film’s visual style in terms of European art cinema. Was that choice partly related to the tabloid-adjacent material, so that the style could complement or offset the subject matter?

HAYNES: It started so specifically with just reading the script, being blown away by that letter monologue of Natalie’s toward the end of the movie, immediately thinking of a scene in Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) where a letter is delivered to the lens of the camera by Ingrid Thulin in a medium shot. And I was just like, that’s how we have to shoot this—I want to make this movie just so I can shoot that scene that way. And from then, it was just kind of like, okay, so if that’s the language we get to, there are all these things in mirrors, what if all the mirrors were the camera? What if there was no establishing shot of mirrors? We just start the scene in the mirror. And so it just made me want to watch, of course, Persona (1966) and then Winter Light and then Autumn Sonata (1978), and then I just went from there. Other films were of thematic interest like The Graduate (1967) and Manhattan (1979). But both of those films are comedies, and it’s how they’re shot, it’s the austerity of the camera, the elegance of its restraint: how actors walk in and out of static shots in both of those films, how what’s happening off the frame is as important as what’s happening in the frame. Those films would not work and would not have the sophisticated humor without the visual language and the performances, and so it all just started to [makes a click, click sound] fortify instincts that I wanted to justify and reverse-engineer around.

NOTEBOOK: The music is essential to the film, and the fridge music cue that has attracted so much attention is in fact key for cuing the audience generally. It gives the audience a certain permission to see the different levels the movie is going to be working on. [Haynes: “Mmm-hmm.”] There’s clear intentionality in placing that cue there, so could you talk about your thinking?

HAYNES: It was sort of an afterthought while we were cutting it. I mean, I always knew it would zoom in—the zoom was conceived before we were shooting it. But the sting of the music [“sting” meaning a musical phrase that punctuates a moment] was just that I was like, oh, Fonsi [editor Affonso Gonçalves], let’s try this here, you know? And then we were like... “Okay, I love that.” [laughs] But whereas I was using Michel Legrand’s score in The Go-Between (1971) as an example of what the score might be, I just dropped the cues into the script when I was flying to Savannah to go into pre-production and move there. I landed in Savannah and I immediately called Marcelo [Zarvos, the film’s composer], because I was sending everybody my image book with that music and saying, you guys have to play the music as you turn the pages of the image book because this is what I’m thinking. I was just having the time of my life doing that myself. And Marcelo was like, oh, my God, that music, it’s so brilliant, and it’s so bold, and it breaks every rule of what movie scores do.

NOTEBOOK: It’s almost a collage-like gesture to use another score like that. How do you settle on that kind of bold decision? 

HAYNES: I didn’t think I would. I just used it to make the movie and to cut the movie. You usually bring scores in as you’re cutting as temp tracks, but I’ve never—even in an existing film—used a single score as my temp track. I mean, we added little, there were some tonal things, cues that we use as temp. Marcelo took it all and redid it all in his hand and rerecorded it all from scratch, after he arranged it. But it wasn’t till we were toward the end of editing it that I was like, I think you have to use this music. It was like it had been baked into the cellular logic of the film.

May December (Todd Haynes, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Rewatching The Go-Between, I was struck by little resonances with May December. You watched it after reading the script?

HAYNES: Oh yeah. I think I saw the film when I was a kid. But that film does not circulate. I even have two copies of the French DVD, and it’s the only way you can buy it. So it just showed on TCM [leans into mic] the greatest living resource for cinema in the world. 

NOTEBOOK: It’s terrific. What’s the most recent thing you saw on TCM?

HAYNES: I was in my hotel room, and Saboteur (1942) was on, which I just watched for my 75th time.

NOTEBOOK: I don’t have TCM anymore but maybe I need to reconsider. 

HAYNES: Oh yeah, get it! Dude, stop everything! They literally are still broadcasting movies that have never been broadcast, from the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s to the present day. I mean, I’m sorry, Netflix, but you can’t even find a movie on Netflix from before 2010. 

NOTEBOOK: Thinking of melodramas past, how much and in what ways do you regard May December as melodrama? And what variety or era of melodrama? 

HAYNES: It’s a question that comes up, and I think I’ve been weirdly resistant to calling this a melodrama. And it is a melodrama. And look, melodrama is a word that has been so drained [of meaning]. I mean, of course I think of it in the highest regard as the Sirkian melodrama or the Fassbinder melodrama or the Chabrol melodrama. And I was thinking the other day it’s almost like the word “uncanny” where the word melodrama is both the most exotic and artificial and unreal thing, and at the same time the most familiar and known thing. So of course it becomes unheimlich—which includes the word “home” in the center. Freud has an article called “Das Unheimlich” (“The Uncanny”) which is an etymology of the word unheimlich where through the etymology of heimlich and unheimlich, it’s a circle that brings you back where both meanings are contained in the positive and negative version of the word. So, music marks a distancing and a way of interpreting a domestic story, and maybe by that simple definition, this [May December] qualifies as a melodrama in my high regard for the term.

And yet that score and that kind of music doesn’t really fit into the existing categories. And when you ask what era of melodrama, that’s when it doesn’t sound like any Michel Legrand score. It doesn’t sound like any Joseph Losey film. It doesn’t sound like Fassbinder. It doesn’t sound like Sirk. It doesn’t sound like Carol. It doesn’t sound like Far From Heaven (2002). It doesn’t sound like Bergman. It doesn’t sound like Chabrol. It is utterly its own. I mean, if anything, it’s almost like Manhattan’s use of Gershwin. It’s so exposed and so a frontal character before you even get to the story—it announces itself. And that’s true for May December and The Go-Between: you have to contend with it first, and then you figure out how to fold the movie back into it yourself as you watch. But I do think because it’s so distancing but also thrilling, yes, I dig that it’s a melodrama. I don’t see the movie as camp as people have been saying, or a riff on a TV movie or a Lifetime movie or tabloid. It’s none of those things. 

NOTEBOOK: I think it’s partly that the cue has a bit of an echo of music from, I don’t know, ’80s TV or something. 

HAYNES: Yes. But it’s almost that one sting [i.e., music cue], because the music has been well established before that refrigerator scene. The music announces itself over a pastoral shot of butterflies laying eggs on milkweed plants. So I always think that’s where the joke is, at the very beginning of the movie, where we’re not being at all precious about this metaphor. We’re way ahead of it—and we’re letting you in on that position. 

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