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Todd Haynes will be spending the better part of his May in France. Between a career retrospective at Paris’ Centre Pompidou and the premiere of his latest film, May December, in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the Oscar nominee will be jetting all over the country. The back-to-back events have meant Haynes has been working on his latest release while reliving the entirety of his film career, which has included Far From Heaven, Carol and Wonderstruck. Says Haynes of the retrospective, which will include a screening of May December, “It’ll be a trip.”
His latest film stars Natalie Portman as a Hollywood actress who travels to Georgia to research the life of Gracie (Julianne Moore, teaming with Haynes for the fourth time), who became tabloid fodder after she started a May-December relationship with Joe (Charles Melton), a man 23 years her junior. While preparing for the film about the couple’s past, Elizabeth observes Gracie and Joe’s marriage 20 years after their relationship was national news, a time when they are about to become empty nesters. The film, which will premiere May 20 and is being sold in the U.S. by CAA Media Finance and UTA Independent Film Group, was written by Samy Burch, with a producing team that includes Killer Films’ Christine Vachon.
Ahead of touching down for his long stay in France, Haynes talked to THR about the origins of May December, why he (again) reteamed with Moore, and why the film had to premiere in Cannes.
I know it was on the Black List, but how did you first find out about the May December screenplay?
It came from Natalie and her producing team. She sent it to me during COVID, and a lot of things were circulating during that sort of shutdown time with a lot of speculation of what people would be doing next and when things would open up and all that. We’ve been in touch on other projects in the past, Natalie and I, but it never worked out. But this script of Samy Burch’s was pretty special; it was something I earmarked right away and wanted to start talking to Natalie about. We didn’t really know when it could happen, but it was just written with such a gripping restraint and intelligence and perceptiveness about the place and people. It kept you in a state of constant anticipation and moral uncertainty in ways that I just found to be so exciting. This story is about two women, and the second character was just an unbelievably complex, juicy and ambiguous character who was scripted as someone who was about 60 years old. I immediately had an idea about who that might be. (Laughs.)
I am assuming you are talking about Julianne Moore?
Yes, not to be coy. Rarely do you get scripts that feature such compelling female characters at their center and two characters at such different ages. I just said to Natalie one day, “What do you think about the idea of Julie?” And she was like, “Do you think she would do it?!” (Laughs.) I said, “I have a feeling she might be compelled by this, yeah.” And she was. She was so enthusiastic when she first read that script. There are real-life examples of the type of tabloid relationship seen in the movie.
Heading into filming, were you using these for research?
I really found myself honoring the distinction in Samy’s script from some of the famous examples of these tabloid stories like Mary Kay Letourneau. I was really looking more for sort of cinematic correlatives because the nature of the script is that you’re left in a state of uncertainty about what to think about these people. The reliability you attribute initially to Elizabeth, the character Natalie Portman plays, begins to become destabilized as the film unfolds. You’re in a constant state of reevaluation. So, I was more curious about how do we tell this story and let all of those ways of reading the film be made pleasurable and allow the audience to feel like it was going to be a fun film to be navigating.
What were the films you were looking to for inspiration?
It’s hard to not think of films like Persona, which is about the pairing and twinning of these two central female characters, one of whom is an actress. And then beautiful films about complicated relationships like Sunday Bloody Sunday. And then you can’t help but ricochet into all of the foundational films about older women, younger men, from Sunset Boulevard to The Graduate, where we almost forget that [relationship] is at the core of the conflict of the story. The Graduate has its elegant minimalism in the way it’s shot and the way shots are held, which in my opinion is so much how the comedy of that film works, in its sustained and restrained camera. When there is a cut, it really means something. That kind of simplicity lent itself to the storytelling of this movie.
Having these two powerhouse women on set, how did you go about finding your male lead?
I worked with Laura Rosenthal, my casting director I’ve worked with since we did Velvet Goldmine in 1998 together. We had a specific task: a challenging role to find. Joe is a Korean American character, so one would think that that would narrow the field somewhat in trying to cast that character, but we found really interesting ideas for Joe. Charles completely took us by surprise. He was more intensely good-looking than I had imagined Joe in this script, but my God, some stuff he did in auditioning for the role had this simplicity and innate understanding of who this guy was that made me utterly believe him in the predicament that you find him in the film. There are points in this story that just make you uncomfortable, and you kind of postpone fully engaging with them until you need to. Charles just really helped me see how this relationship could have come into being and understand it — romantically, sexually, and in every aspect of it. Charles put on 35 pounds for the role because I wanted him to just look a little more like a normal suburban 36-year-old husband. He was so excited to do so; he has a little bit of a tummy in it. It’s so wonderful.
What did production look like?
We shot the movie in 23 days. We had about six weeks of prep for it. Now, this is a basically contemporary film — we set it back in 2015, and we really leaned into Savannah, Georgia. It was originally set elsewhere, and for a variety of reasons [we changed it]. It really provided this sort of strange and very specific setting for the world that we were telling. We sort of placed Gracie’s house in Tybee Island, which is about 20 minutes outside of downtown Savannah, and then Elizabeth’s inn where she stays is in the historic district of Savannah. [Savannah] served all of these elements in the film — its climate, its color palette, its strange, marshy, humid language. Also, Savannah has increasingly become this party town and no longer a pristine, historic museum. Of course, it’s still as beautiful as it’s ever been, but it’s invaded by hordes of open container-bearing tourists year-round. We really utilized these interesting contradictions in the place itself that I think serves the film in interesting ways.
With limited preproduction and a very relationship-heavy movie, how did you work with your actors to build onscreen chemistry?
In a film like this, it was particularly critical. It was very important for Natalie and Julie to spend time together because Julie’s character had to establish a sort of physical type that Natalie’s character has to start to imitate throughout the course of the film. That put a tremendous extra burden on Julianne to come up with who Gracie was very quickly. We really did do our very best to [have] just time spent socially with Julianne and Charles and the two main kids who were in the film. All of that time just hanging out and talking helped. We didn’t really have a lot of time literally in the room working through scenes or going through the script as much as we would have liked.
Why was Cannes the right place to premiere the movie?
Look, I love the Venice Film Festival, and I’ve had great premieres and history at Venice, but Cannes is Cannes. And I’ll be in France with my retrospective, which is a complete career retrospective, everything I’ve ever made will be shown. Then we get to show May December, and this would only be true if it got into Cannes.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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