The director’s latest film is loosely based on a true story of a teacher who had a sexual relationship with a seventh-grade student
For decades, Todd Haynes has hypnotised audiences and subverted expectations, even if he’s often dealing with biopics. In Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a film so controversial that it can’t be legally screened or purchased, the Carpenters singer is depicted by a Barbie doll that grows thinner and thinner as anorexia takes over. In Velvet Goldmine, Brian Slade is such a distortion of David Bowie that the real Bowie denied the music rights. And in I’m Not There, Bob Dylan is played by six different actors, including a Cate Blanchett whose singing voice is provided by Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus.
Fittingly, Haynes’s latest feature, May December, is a wry comedy-drama about the artistic impulse to craft a biopic. It also touches on a real-life scandal, too. In 1997, a 34-year-old Arizona teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, was arrested for having a sexual affair with a 12-year-old male student; after her prison stint, during which she gave birth to his son, the pair wedded in 2005. In the 2015-set May December, though, details are slightly altered: Letourneau is now Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who, in her 60s, is still married to 36-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), the pair having started their romance when Joe was 13. Moreover, the film’s focus is on Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actor wishing to play Gracie in a movie.
During the pandemic, Haynes was planning on shooting Fever, a Peggy Lee biopic with Michelle Williams. It was after funding faltered that Portman sent him Samy Burch’s script for May December. “I loved Samy’s construction of the story,” says Haynes, 62, speaking in the Corinthia Hotel during the London Film Festival. “You’re not dealing with the tabloid event. You’re not dealing with the rape of a 13-year-old boy. You’re not dealing with her incarceration and arrest. The movie starts when everything has gone silent. That puts the sizzling salaciousness of the backstory into such an interesting narrative context, and you’re also having this actor navigate the barricade built around this family.”
With a few weeks until the film-within-the-film shoots, Elizabeth shadows Gracie in her ostensibly pristine day-to-day life, meeting friends, relatives, and the crystallising butterflies in her model family home. But on closer inspection, there’s more larvae than love in the household. While Gracie is free from prison, silent judgement follows her everywhere, and Joe’s increasing flirtations with Elizabeth remind him that he was robbed of his youth. It is, then, another 2023 movie, like Priscilla, examining age-gap relationships – as well as the societal confusion over what is, and what isn’t, permissible.
“There’s a very different set of allowances that we make for men to transgress sexually than we do for women,” says Haynes. “There’s so much embedded in the fact that it’s an older woman and younger man in the story. There are profound instabilities that circulate around the theme, and contradictions in the fact that it’s clearly an abuse of power, whether it’s a woman or a man. But, also, there’s something arbitrary when you can get married in the United States at age 16, and younger in some states. It seems random, in a way, when the younger relationship can be legally sanctioned, and when it completely shatters the entirety of our sense of order and makes us despise the person who crossed that line.”
Haynes’s previous movie was The Velvet Underground, an experimental documentary about a band who, on “The Gift”, combined separate pieces of audio, one in the left channel, the other in the right. In The Velvet Underground, too, Haynes toyed with split-screen, mashing up bits of footage simultaneously, and on May December he layers on a piano score repurposed from the 1971 British period-drama The Go-Between. Sometimes Michael Legrand’s jazz chords are so sudden and staccato, they contradict the strained pleasantries of Elizabeth and Gracie’s small talk.
However, not all audiences have found the music jarring. “I’m very pleased that it’s happened,” says Haynes. “It’s almost like people aren’t noticing the formal language of the movie, and how austere and cold it is. Somehow there’s pleasure involved in that distancing, in the way people seem to be reacting to the movie. That’s just weird.”
Still, May December is supposed to be comedic in many places, even if some of the laughs it generates are at its audacity. In May, the New York Times referred to May December as “the most fun film at Cannes” (in December, their verdict will likely remain positive), and some of the story is so morally murky that it’s practically prodding the viewer: when watching taped auditions to play her 13-year-old love interest, Elizabeth complains that they’re “not sexy enough”. By the time Elizabeth has succumbed to Gracie mode, the transformation is startling – a monologue by Portman is a shoo-in for the Oscars broadcast when the inevitable nominations roll in.
That Portman thought Haynes could push her as an actor isn’t surprising. On Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo brought the script to Haynes (“it’s not what people would think of me to direct, but I’m obsessed with paranoia cinema from the ‘70s”), and Kate Winslet recently asked him to adapt the novel Trust for screen. Furthermore, Haynes’s actors frequently win awards, whether it’s on Carol, Far from Heaven, or Safe. The director’s next movie might also be a gay love story that Joaquin Phoenix asked him to write.
“There’s a very different set of allowances that we make for men to transgress sexually than we do for women” – Todd Haynes
“Sometimes it’s actors pushing me further, like Joaquin,” says Haynes. “Joaquin, myself, and Jon Raymond share a story credit on the script. It was ideas that came to me, unformed, at the beginning, where I was like, ‘Oh, interesting. A meditation on the detective story in ‘30s LA but with a relationship with two men at the centre.’ Jon and I started to research and think about the detective genre. But it was Joaquin who was like, ‘No, let’s get into the sexual life between these men, and really go deep.’ I was like, ‘OK!’”
So the actors give him permission to enter new territory? “Joaquin was really pushing it. I met him full on where he wanted to go. I find him so fearless, and so disinterested in received wisdom. I’m seeing the workings that produce those amazing performances he’s given. I’ve always been amazed at how these formative actors feel so stripped naked when they start working. I’m like, ‘That’s how I feel, too.’ You trust that you’re not going to lose your instincts by letting somebody else in.”
Like Dark Waters and the upcoming Phoenix noir-thriller, May December is also a detective story – Elizabeth just happens to be investigating a human being. “It really is,” Haynes responds. “Ruffalo [in Dark Waters] is disarmed and resistant to what he’s discovering until he can’t ignore it anymore. Whereas [Elizabeth] meets her match.” After jotting down endless notes into a diary, Portman’s character realises that everyone in Gracie’s life, not just Gracie, is, to some extent, performing in their everyday life.
“When I first read it, I was like, ‘This is how people refuse to look at themselves, and the choices that they make,’” says Haynes. “In that way, it’s about all of us. It’s not some crazy extreme. Of course, it is a crazy extreme story.” He laughs. “But the way that people manage this story, and the way that we all manage our lives, they all have similar ways of deflecting and repressing and denying our choices.”
May December is out in UK cinemas on November 17, and will launch on Sky Cinema on December 8.