May December – Navigating Morally Trepidatious Themes & Volatile Subject Matter

Director Todd Hayes found Samy Burch’s screenplay for May December exceptional. It navigated potentially volatile subject matter with a kind of observational patience, it simmered with moral and narrative ambiguity which, as a film, would enlist the viewer into an active and excited state of watching and questioning. It explores one of the great talents of the human species: our colossal refusal to look at ourselves.

For director Todd Hayes, the narrative premise explores a particular American family, a family born out of a public scandal that became a national media event, an actress descends upon Savannah, Georgia, to study the woman she’ll be portraying and the lives that have carried on as a family ever since. It is through this delicate process of narrative exploration that this strange, unsettling story is framed, and that we come to learn about the past, the matriarch at the center of the scandal and her young husband, a Korean American, who she began her affair with when he was 13-years-old.

“May December is a term for a relationship between someone younger and someone much older. I thought it was a nuanced way of setting up the terms of the film right in the title. May is also an important month in this film because that’s when it takes place. “

“All lives, all families, are the result of choices, and revisiting them, probing them, is a risky business. But
it’s hard to think of more volatile romantic choices than these, and all the more so when so many defenses have been called upon to shut out such unanimous contempt and judgment from the world,” says Hayes.

Todd Haynes and Nathalie Portman / Copyright ©2023. MAY DECEMBER 2022 Investors LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Natalie Portman sent Burch’s screenplay was to Hayes in 2020: “With such compelling material, the project provided me the long-awaited opportunity to work with Natalie Portman — to ignite the reflexive whirligig of an actress playing an actress — and if that was not enough, to pair her with Julianne Moore in the fierce and inscrutable role of Gracie,” says Hayes. “Completing the triad would be no simple feat; but the casting of Charles Melton as Joe would serve to fill in the storied past and depict the treacherous present with astonishing subtlety.”

For Hayes, “Immediate cinematic associations were undeniable: Persona, of course, and other Bergman’s which put women in confrontation with one another, or which put characters, in key moments, in direct address to the lens, like in Autumn Sonata, Winter Light or various films of Godard’s. In addition, films about older women and younger men, like The Graduate, Sunset Boulevard or Sunday Bloody Sunday (or the more traditional inverse variety, like in Manhattan or Lolita). But particularly those examples in which a stylistic minimalism — like in The Graduate or Manhattan — is nearly indistinguishable from how the film succeeds.”

May December really begins as a double portrait between two women, an actress and somebody she is
going to be portraying in a film, along with the process of getting to know and mirror each other and the
issues of trust and distrust that emerge. But the film ultimately yields to the centerpiece of the story,
and that’s really in the character of Joe. So it becomes a triple portrait.”

“The film’s remarkable script and lead performances — filled out by by Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, among others — and all of the beauty and nuance provided by my creative partners, have restored what I believe is still possible in cinema: to find identification in the least likely places, and be compelled and surprised by a story and its characters without ever being entirely comfortable with who is right or wrong.” — Todd Haynes

Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past. Despite what began as a shocking affair, then 36-year old Gracie (Julianne Moore) and 13-year old Joe (Charles Melton) now lead a seemingly picture-perfect suburban life some 20 years later. Their domestic bliss is disrupted when Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a famous actress, arrives in their tight-knit community to research her upcoming role as Gracie. As Elizabeth ingratiates herself into the everyday lives of Gracie and Joe, the uncomfortable facts of their scandal unfurl, causing long-dormant emotions to resurface.

The film is now screening in select theaters, and streams on Netflix in the U.S. and Canada from Dec. 1. 

Crafting the Screenplay

“Writing the first draft of “May December” in the spring of 2019 was not very comfortable. Mostly because I was crammed into the coat closet of our old apartment: a 3-by-3 space that we had taken the rod out of and installed a folding tray-table that I used as a desk. There was no room to move once seated, but all the better. I put up some nice wallpaper so I had something to stare at desperately in the middle of the night. Sometimes I would stick my arm out of one of the slats in the door and my now-husband, Alex (who outlined the story with me), would hand me an Oreo cookie. For morale.”

Screenwriter Samy Burch (Craig Fleming / For The Times).

“One of my favorite notes from Todd Haynes during this process that I have written on a note card above my desk: “Add more fog.””

A conversation with director Todd Hayes

How did you discover Samy Burch’s script, and why did it resonate with you?

Natalie Portman sent me Samy’s script in 2020 at the height of COVID, when there was a lot of
speculation about what people were going to do once the industry returned. I was reading a lot of
scripts, but Samy’s was incredibly impressive and arresting. For a relatively new writer, she was so
confident in navigating these morally trepidatious themes with this sense of observation and restraint
and nuance and wit that actually made the process of reading the script very unnerving and intensely

What sort of visual aesthetic and tone did you want this film to capture?

When I first read May December, it was hard not to think about the Ingmar Bergman film Persona. The
pairing of these two female central characters, one of whom actually is an actress as well in Persona,
and the merging of the two female subjects. And then I started to think about other films that deal with
parallel female characters – Autumn Sonata, also by Bergman, and Three Women by Robert Altman –
and films that deal with older women in relationships with younger men – The Graduate, Sunset
Boulevard, Sunday Bloody Sunday. Coming out of these various references, I started to picture a way of
looking at this story in frames that would hold back and be still and allow the subjects to exist in the
frame over time.

You have a deep history of working with Julianne, going back to 1995’s Safe. What does her
performance in May December reveal that we haven’t seen from her before?

Julianne’s repertoire over the years encompasses such an amazing plethora of complex women and a
range of characters and sensibilities. In Gracie, there are aspects that are reminiscent of some other
characters she has played, but what really distinguishes Gracie is how much she’s driven by her own will
and desires, and how much she has learned to expect that the world is going to accommodate them,
and that the men in her life are going to ultimately yield to her needs and demands.
And so there’s a fortitude, an almost stubborn refusal to take anything but the answer that she seeks in
life. And yet that is countered by all these ways of playing somebody who needs to be saved and
rescued and somebody who wants to feel that she’s made almost more feminine and more girlish. In a
way, it’s obviously a device to deny the age difference between her and Joe and to imbue him with a
masculine agency. There are few actors who can navigate those kinds of permutations with such
commitment, nuance, understatement, and then shocking moments of revelation where you just can’t
believe the extremity of the emotional experience that Gracie’s undergoing.

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“I loved this script when I first read it. The minute you get into it and start playing it, it’s unbelievably sturdy. It holds a tremendous amount of feeling and humanity and complexity,” Moore says. “It was
evident that it was wonderful on the page, but it became increasingly more interesting and deeper and more alive as we played it. When you work on a character, you don’t come from a place of sympathy. You always want to come from a place of empathy because you are trying to put yourself in that person’s position,” Moore says. And so with Gracie, I was attempting to put myself in a place of what does it feel like to have made this choice, to be living this life, and to believe in this life when you’ve done something that society judges as truly transgressive? It’s an interesting journey to take as an actor.”

What do you find most compelling about Natalie’s performance?

Natalie gives such an uncanny performance that you’re destabilized by it. You have a set of
expectations going in that her character, Elizabeth, is going to be our proxy, our way into this story, and
we’re going to be able to trust her. She’s the outsider coming in. She’s asking all the questions of the
relevant people in the story, and she has a mission. She wants to represent the real truth with all the
presumptions and blindness that might also entail.
But as you start to watch the story unfold, you start to lose faith in the reliability of her point of view as a
character and her own blindness, her own ability to make people yield to what she wants, which so fully
reflects aspects in Gracie. But the things that Elizabeth does not see in herself start to reveal
themselves through the course of the story. And so you’re really watching this dance around the
unveiling of these two characters, and that the very things that they see in the other are the things they
cannot see in themselves.

As Elizabeth, Portman was drawn to the notion of playing an actress who’s portraying a woman who
was so publicly – and relentlessly – ostracized. “People who do things that society might deem bad are often interesting to actors because art is a place where you’re supposed to be able to look for understanding behavior, but without judgment,” Portman says. “And judgment is for law or for society, but art is for just peering into a mind and allowing yourself that curiosity.”

Director Todd Hayes with Charles Melton and Julianne Moore during the filming of May December. Copyright ©2023. MAY DECEMBER 2022 Investors LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

There’s also so much buzz about Charles Melton’s breakout performance.

I knew finding our Joe was going to be a bit of discovery. I worked with my casting director, Laura
Rosenthal, to find somebody very special for this role. And we did. Charles Melton is probably best
known to people from the TV show Riverdale, so this probably was going to be a real departure for him
as an actor.
Right away in Charles’ readings and auditions I was stunned by his understatement and understanding
of Joe in a way that exceeded my own understanding of who this character was. I just kept going back
to it and was like, “It has to be this guy. This guy makes it all seem viable.” He brought this pent-up
quality to the way he interpreted the role from the very beginning that made such a huge impression on
me and really completed the storytelling.

“When I first read the script, I felt this intuitive connection to Joe’s character,” says Melton. “I was really attracted to this idea of loneliness, emotional repression, and the layered experience that Joe had throughout the film. As an actor I am really drawn to these kinds of characters. I really wanted to portray Joe from a place of empathy. Todd and I had constant conversations about what Joe would feel like, and how all that Joe was holding onto would reflect in how he walked, how he talked, how he acted in social situations, and how he moved,” he adds. “I felt so safe with Todd. His process throughout the film was so open, collaborative, and encouraging. Todd always trusted me to lean into my instincts.”

Composer Marcelo Zarvos’ adapted score is so arresting, almost like its own character in this film.
Why was the music so pivotal?

The music represents a throughline throughout the making of this movie that I can’t really think an
example of in anything I’ve done before. Marcelo adapted it from Michel Legrand’s score for the 1971
film The Go-Between, which I discovered in pre-production for May December. It put me on the edge
of my seat and into a state of interpretation, which is exactly what I was trying to do with May
It became an example of how music can do this in films and in a very different way from traditional
melodrama scores. It had a pensive urgency to it. It was like a warning bell that something was not right
or that there was going to be a doomful result to the events unfolding in front of you. And there was
something delicious about how that invited you as a viewer.
Marcelo had also already written and created additional music that took the score to this whole other
level. We decided together that we would adapt the Legrand music, but under Marcelo’s complete and
total creative oversight. And I couldn’t be happier with what we ended up with.

How does the film play with humor?

There was this wit, this sardonic humor that was evident from the start in Samy’s script, but we were
always trying to play this film extremely straight. I don’t think any of us quite realized how much the
humor would ultimately play for audiences until we started to show the film to viewers while we were
cutting the film and getting feedback. And I almost was taken aback. I was like, this movie is really funny
because it’s playing with very dark and complicated themes and you’re very disquieted by what’s going
on. The moral ambiguities in the film keep shifting and you keep not knowing which character to align
with and what to believe. So the humor is welcome as a way of interpreting this film and experiencing it.

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