“May December,” by Portland director Todd Haynes, may be the most unsettling movie you’ll see all year. It’s set in Savannah, Georgia, with fictional characters, but the real-life scandal that it’s more than loosely based on unfolded in Seattle in the late ‘90s. Seattle-area second grade teacher Mary Kay Letourneau sexually abused Vili Fualaau, beginning just before his 13th birthday. She served time for child rape, and had two children while in custody, ultimately marrying Fualaau when he turned 18 after she had served her time. In “May December” an actress played by Natalie Portman is researching a role for an upcoming film that is based on the former teacher, played by Julianne Moore.
In her pursuit of the “truth” of the character she’ll be playing, Portman’s character displays a kind of cold obsession that’s both dehumanizing and deeply — perhaps even shamefully — compelling. We talk with Haynes about the movie, which is now streaming on Netflix, and how it’s been received by viewers and film critics.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Todd Haynes joins us now. He is arguably the most celebrated Portland director. His films include “Safe,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “I’m Not Here,” and “Far From Heaven.” His latest is called “May December.” It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix. It’s a fictionalized version of a real life scandal that unfolded near Seattle in the 1990s. In the film, a woman played by Julianne Moore went to prison for sexually abusing a middle school boy, then she goes on to marry him and they raise their kids together. But instead of focusing the action in the tabloid-covered past “May December” takes place 20 years later. That is when an actress played by Natalie Portman spends time with the ostensibly happy family. She’s there as preparation to take on the role of Julianne Moore’s character in an upcoming movie. Todd Haynes, welcome back to Think Out Loud and congratulations.
Todd Haynes: Hey, Dave. Thank you so much.
Miller: I want to start with the screenplay here because it seems like there’s a real story here. First, I’m just curious what the ratio is of screenplays that you might read for every film that you actually make.
Haynes: Oh man, mathematics…
Miller: I’m just curious.
Haynes: It’s interesting. It’s such an evolving question. And really, I began my career by writing and directing and developing my own scripts. And then at an interesting turning point I worked with local writer, brilliant novelist, screenwriter John Raymond, a dear friend and constant collaborator with Kelly Reichert, whose films often take place in the Pacific Northwest as well. And we adapted “Mildred Pierce” from the James M. Cain novel. That was an original script that we both did and we did it for HBO and with Kate Winslet. It was my first limited series, but it sort of opened up the parameters for me.
After “Mildrid,” I received a script that had been circulating for, based on a Patricia Highsmith Smith novel “Price of Salt” that became my film “Carol.” And I get involved in the sort of completion of preparation of a script, toward the filming of the script, and the visualization of the script. And all those things that get worked very closely with the writers, but it opened up a different mode of practice that has been only nourishing and has broadened my parameters and possibilities and it is also made for a slightly quicker turnaround of films. And “May December” came to me from Natalie Portman at the height of COVID and I was reading a little bit more than normal because we were all not working and didn’t know when we would all be getting back to work. But it was a script that made a real impression on me.
Miller: What does it take for a script to cut through the noise for you?
Haynes: I mean, Christine Vachon, who has been producing every single film I have made, every feature film of mine from my first feature film “Poison” in 1991 through to “May December” and works mostly at Killer Films with Pam Koffler, the amazing team at Killer. And they read a lot more stuff than ultimately probably gets to me and it’s really stuff…they kind of know where my radar is, they know the stuff I’m kind of trying to get into development and move forward on. And so it’s only with certain exceptions that they really say, “You gotta check this out. This is something really, really special and we think you’ll respond to it,” and they know me so well and I trust them and they really trust me. It, coming from Natalie Portman, already puts it in a different category and as I said, it was a time [when] I was actually reading more stuff than I usually do.
Miller: When she brought it to you, was she saying I want to play the actress in this movie?
Haynes: It was basically implied when she brought it to me. I read the script before talking to her about it. And I think if I recall correctly, people said, yeah, Natalie would be attached to play Elizabeth and whether that was literally stated or not, it was impossible to not picture Natalie in this role as I read it. So it became fused completely in my imagination as I started to visualize the film, as I read it for the first time.
Miller: Elizabeth, the Natalie Portman character, is a TV star. And we get the sense just from various cues and clues here and there that she’s not making what people now call prestige TV. She doesn’t seem particularly proud of her work. At one point, she said something like, I’m happy to hear you watch it, but I wish you didn’t watch the movies, the TV shows I’m in. What’s at stake in this movie that she’s researching for her?
Haynes: I mean, I think we understand… and the thing that I should say right away is how carefully and sort of suggestively the tone of the script is and how much isn’t said and I loved this when I first read it. And it was a part of my sort of desire, my sort of creative juices began flowing to think of ways of transferring this to the screen, to really keep this going. But it put the reader in a state of interpretation and reading between the lines and reading into the subtext of stuff that wasn’t said. So you are intuit quite a lot from what is said. And so you sense that this actor has tremendous ambitions and although she’s received success for a popular television show, - and I kind of imagine it like we all sort of thought like a “Grey’s Anatomy,” like a highly respected Emmy Award winning show, comedy drama, something of that sort - she still was looking to prove her chops as an actor, in a more substantial way.
Miller: I want to play a clip from the movie. At one point, Natalie Portman’s actor character is visiting the high school drama club. She has an afternoon to spare and students ask her some questions and one boy asks if she’s ever done any sex scenes. He’s playing that for laughs and he gets some and the teacher scolds him, but this is how Elizabeth responds:
(Elizabeth): “Sometimes it’s really mechanical, like a choreographed dance. And the only thing you can focus on is where you’re supposed to be and when, and then sometimes there’s real chemistry between two people and you start feeling like it’s real, in a strange way. You never admit it to one another but you’re wearing practically nothing and you’re rubbing up against each other and sweating and it’s for hours and you start losing the line of like, am I pretending that I’m experiencing pleasure or am I pretending that I’m not experiencing pleasure? And the whole crew, they’re almost always all men, you feel them watching and you feel them like holding their breath and they try to hide it when they swallow. Yeah, you give in to the rhythm, every time. Tension never breaks. Yeah.”
(Kimmy): “How, how do you choose your roles?”
Miller: That is Natalie Portman who is in Todd Haynes’ new movie “May December.” What was most important to you when you were shooting that scene?
Haynes: Well, Natalie’s character Elizabeth is on a mission which she describes with the sort of customary presumptions or pretensions of sort of actor speech, to get to the truth, to make Gracie feel seen and known as a subject. And these presumptions we might take in earnest initially, but you start to watch the program of this actor and the sort of the almost reckless lack of concern for the costs of this mission to get to the quote, unquote, “truth.” And in this case, she’s in a classroom of high school students and the very premise of the film is about how could this relationship have ever begun between Julianne Moore, who was the age Natalie Portman is in the film as Elizabeth, 36, when she first seduced the character of Joe played by Charles Milton, when he was 13 years old.
So you watch that tension that Natalie describes as an actor and that’s in that scene, completely overwhelm the students, but she’s toying with them and she’s seducing them en masse. And so the tensions, it’s hard to fully, I think, experience it in an audio clip because so much of it is also about how it’s trapped in the frames, I think, of the film itself.
Miller: And I totally agree. I apologize for that.
Haynes: But it’s just so interesting to hear it. I don’t think I’ve heard it as a clip and you imagine, what is this, what are we seeing as you’re hearing it, the clip, be told.
Miller: We overall spend more time with that Natalie Portman character, Elizabeth, than with Gracie, the Julianne Moore character. And I think it’s also fair, we spend more time overall with the one time 12 year old now, the 36 or so year old husband. They’re more centered than the person who I think I expected to be the heart of the movie. What do you think that accomplishes for viewers?
Haynes: What’s so compelling about the script, and I think that a lot of people have been talking about various lines of the film which have humor and a modern kind of irony to them. And they’re quotable. But what’s so remarkable to me about the script is its structure and how it’s set 20-plus years after the tabloid event and how basically it’s about an excavation into the past. And so it’s through Natalie’s driven, at times selfish, often selfish or by the end quite cravenly so, attempt to get to her notion of what the truth of the story, that we also learn more and more about Gracie, because she’s being described by people and interviewed by people who knew her. And ultimately, Elizabeth, Natalie’s character, starts to embody her and there’s a letter that is saved by Joe, that was not supposed to be saved during the legal proceedings all those years ago, that ultimately he gives her. And it comes as sort of a climactic moment of the film where Elizabeth has sort of fully entered the role of Gracie. And we see that transformation in front of us. And in fact, you learn more about Gracie, you also learn quite a bit about Elizabeth herself in that recitation of that letter.
Miller: What made you want to ask Julianne Moore, who I think now, this is the fifth time you’ve worked with her in a film, to play the Gracie character?
Haynes: I mean, look, I have been blessed as a filmmaker, as a creator of stories and scripts and ideas, from the beginning of my career, from the second feature film I made, “Safe,” with the incredible good fortune of finding, in Julianne Moore, a kind of creative counterpart of somebody who came fully…People say, oh how has your relationship with Julie changed or evolved over the years? And the remarkable thing about it, Dave, is like she was fully intact as a creative creature, as a fully formed actor, but somebody drawn to similar kinds of territory as I was as a director. And so we found each other at that time and probably what remains one of the most challenging roles I think she’s ever played, Carol White in “Safe.” And I’ve just been able to keep touching ground with her on film after film and role after role, and some, where she’s the center of the story like in “Far From Heaven,” a script I actually wrote for Julianne, the first and only time I’ve ever really done that for an actor all the way through to this project.
And when I first started to talk to Natalie about Elizabeth and what interested her about this role and the gray areas that the story unfolds and so navigates and puts it into the hands of the audience to negotiate and to sort of question their own expectations and presumptions about what these kinds of characters, who they might be, I was like, wow, this incredibly brilliant actor, Natalie Portman, reminds me of somebody I know very well. And here was this second role of a woman hovering around 60. And it’s rare for a director who loves to feature women and female characters in his films to be handed that kind of challenge and possibility and opportunity, to have two such incredibly strong and compelling women at the core of a script.
Miller: Let’s listen to a scene that takes place between Gracie, the Julianne Moore character and her husband Joe, who’s played by Charles Melton. We have learned a little bit before this scene takes place that some people in town are buying Gracie’s cakes or pies from her home baking business, largely out of pity. Those are the people who haven’t shunned her. In this scene, Joe has walked into the house and he hears her crying.
(Gracie): “Joyce Ann Mirther called and canceled her order and all future orders.”
(Joe): “I’m sorry.”
(Gracie): “And I told her that I’d already made it and she said that she would pay for it but that she didn’t need it. They were leaving town.”
(Joe): “Where are they going?”
(Gracie): “Oh, the sister is sick or something. It doesn’t matter. I wasted hours that I could have used.”
(Joe): “You couldn’t have known, Gracie.”
(Gracie): “I hate things like that and I have this cake that’s gonna go right in the garbage.”
(Joe): “You don’t have to throw it in the garbage.”
[Gracie crying loudly]
Miller: Can you describe the adult relationship between Gracie and Joe?
Haynes: I mean, in many ways, it’s sort of the object of the film that is trying to comprehend how this couple has subsisted over these years. And there are relatively few scenes of the two of them alone and this was one of them and so you gain tremendous insider clues as to how much he has been there to sort of manage the cracks in the edifice and the sort of lurking panic. And it’s hard to necessarily know whether those cracks and that panic is due to a couple things. One is the entrance of this actress into their sort of walled off edifice that they built up to protect this life. And/or due to the fact that the kids are about to graduate and leave an empty nest and force the couple to confront themselves for the first time in these 20 some years, and have to really take stock of who they are in ways that they haven’t had to. That raising children has been a relatively healthy way of evading all of these really trying and seismic questions.
Miller: One of the most indelible aspects of the movie as a viewer and as a listener, is a musical theme that you bring back in multiple scenes at multiple times. I want to play one of the versions of this theme for folks and then we can talk about it.
Miller: What is this music from?
Haynes: The music is created by my composer Marcelo Zarvos. But the source of the main melodic theme is from the 1971 Joseph Losey film, “The Go Between” and the score from that film is by Michel Legrand. And this was a very well celebrated film when it came out in 1971. For some reason, that film has sort of disappeared from circulation in the United States. It’s very rarely seen. And as is often the case, it cropped up on Turner Classic Movies last year when I was putting together materials for “May December” in my image book and doing the kind of preparation I do for my movies. I mean, it’s a fantastic film. It’s a gorgeous film starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, but the score by Michel Legrand asserts itself, as you just played that example, at the very beginning of the movie before it’s even started in the opening credits. And I found myself on the edge of my seat going, wait a minute, what is this film about, where is this film going? It’s not a thriller, it’s not a murder mystery. This film is like a coming of age story set at the turn of the century, about a 12-year-old boy who becomes a sort of go between, between an illicit relationship between Julie Christie and a farm hand played by Alan Bates. But it puts the audience in a state of compulsive questioning and interpreting against what is happening in front of you.
I thought, OK, OK, this is what we gotta do. This is something, this is something I want to do for “May December,” to create a very strong and compelling frame, that puts the audience into a place of constantly questioning and reading what was going on, but that allowed you a kind of compulsive pleasure in doing so.
Miller: I think the first time it happens in the movie proper after the opening scene in your movie, is when Julianne Moore’s character is opening the refrigerator door, the camera zooms in on her, which is one of not very many zooms like that, as I remember it. It seems like there’s going to be a dramatic reveal, the dramatic music is happening. And then she says, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” What were you going for in that very specific moment?
Haynes: The sting of music that accompanied the zoom for that particular shot was sort of an afterthought. It’s just a sting, meaning a little hit of the music from the score that I just pulled out of a piece of the score while we were cutting it. Now, this music I actually used tonally for the sake of the production, the actors, as a sort of example. I didn’t think we would literally try to adapt this particular score. I just thought this is where I wanna maybe go with it, but we played it during the making of the film. So every scene where I thought music would play in the film, this one being one of the rare exceptions, we played that music on set and then we turned it down when we were recording the dialogue and turned it back up when the dialogue ended, so everybody was in the same tonal place.
Miller: Is that the way you regularly make movies, where you play music for people and then turning it down and saying action?
Haynes: No, I mean, only when in films that I’ve made that are about musical subjects, like “Velvet Goldmine,” which is about the glam rock era or “I’m Not There,” which was about the music of Bob Dylan. And only in films that were explicitly about music because you don’t know what the score is gonna be. And no, I never would think to like play a score, especially a single, a score in its entirety, cue by cue by cue, while making a film. But we had to do this film very quickly on a limited budget and we shot the movie in 23 days in Savannah, Georgia.
Haynes: We all had to sort of join hands and jump off the cliff together, take some very bold creative risks. The film is comprised of scenes that are often single shot scenes, many of which are mirror scenes where the actors are performing in front of mirrors, or the characters are performing in front of mirrors and the lens of the camera is the reflection of the actor in the mirror and we don’t cut or establish the mirror in the scene. You understand exactly what’s happening due to the performances. But it puts, of course, a tremendous burden on the fact that there’s no other way to cut the film.
Miller: Todd Haynes, it was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.
Haynes: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Todd Haynes, the director of the new film “May December,” which is streaming now on Netflix.
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