Director Todd Haynes about ‘May December’: ‘She abused her position’

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Written By Maya Cantina

Todd Haynes’ film May December was nominated for an Oscar this year. He talks about patriarchal behavior of women and ambivalent characters.

Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) cook together in a kitchen.

One copies the other: Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) in “May December” Photo: Wild Bunch Germany

All films by American director Todd Haynes are about the gray areas between fiction and reality, about the authentic in the artificial. Whether it is the wish in the Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Carol”, David Bowie’s incarnations in “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There” about Bob Dylan in various phases. His ninth feature film ‘May December’ is also only ostensibly about a scandal, inspired by real events. Actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) shows up with Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her family, whose life story will be made into a film. 23 years ago, Gracie, a teacher, had an affair with her 13-year-old student. Despite the prison sentence, the relationship survived; their release, Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) married, became parents and now live an almost normal family life in Savannah, Georgia. When Elizabeth inserts herself into their daily lives and plays her own treacherous game, this idyll soon begins to crack. The 63-year-old Haynes turns this construction of melodrama, psychological thriller and tragicomedy into a fascinating enigmatic puzzle game.

taz: Mr. Haynes, “May December” is loosely based on a real case that caused a stir in the US in the 1990s. What interested you about it?

Todd Haynes: Mary Kate Letourneau was a 34-year-old teacher who began an affair with her student at the age of 13. The tabloids pounced on it, she was eventually convicted and initially served two years in prison. When she was released, she immediately violated the conditions, the two were caught having sex in a car and she had to serve the full seven-year prison sentence. But they stayed together and started a family after their release, having two daughters. She died of cancer two years ago. There are many books and documentaries about her story, our film is inspired by this case, but we take liberties. I was interested in how they stayed together against all odds and what they ignored: the blinders needed to live a seemingly normal life as a family.

In the film you make a character study of two women who each fall victim to illusions in their own way, a game about identities and motivations in which attitude and perspective remain ambivalent. How did you build that up?

I liked that at first you feel like you know how you feel about these characters, and then slowly your perception shifts and the rug is pulled out from under you. As Elizabeth begins to investigate Gracie, the audience’s expectations and moral stance are also questioned. “May December” does not divide its characters into good and evil. Something else sets it apart from my previous films: the story is driven by female desire, the women are the active actors; To achieve their goals, they also behave inappropriately and accept sacrifices. It reflects aspects of patriarchal power dynamics, but with gender roles reversed. Because women in positions of power can also reproduce structures of the patriarchal system. Gracie abused her position, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m interested in her motivation behind it. In her fantasy, she believes that as a princess she has been saved by a young knight, completely denying her own power in the relationship. Then Elizabeth turns out to be no less complicated…

This Elizabeth is played by Natalie Portman, who is also a producer of the film. How did that happen?

She sent me the script in 2020, during the lockdown. We then talked a lot about the expectations of her as a movie star, where she plays an actress preparing for a role, how that adds a new layer to the story. We liked the idea that the audience felt safe with her at first, but gradually became more doubtful. It was immediately clear to both of us that only Julianne Moore would be considered for the other lead role. Fortunately, she immediately agreed. She was initially nervous during filming because we barely had time to prepare. She then quickly developed her figure with all the little gestures and facial expressions, which Elizabeth then copied and adopted from her.

What responsibility do you have as a filmmaker when you tell a story based on real people?

We have always seen it as a fictional story with complete freedom to interpret and change it. Unlike Elizabeth, who claims to be telling the truth. What is the truth? Or whose version is being told? This has a lot to do with power and interests; pure, objective truth does not exist.

You’ve covered the subject in previous films like ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and “I’m not here”

David Bowie constructed his own fiction and created all these characters like Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane. He understood that pop culture is about artifice and invention. Bob Dylan also reinvented himself time and time again and refused to meet his fans’ expectations; this was the only way he could survive his own success. Dylan gave me complete freedom because I didn’t reduce him to one version. We were even allowed to use his music. In “May December” I also formally exhibit the artificial, using zoom lenses and dramatic music that create distance from the action and thus make the audience aware of their own role as spectators.

Todd Haynes was born in Los Angeles in 1961. He studied semiotics at Brown University and then moved to New York. ‘Poison’ was his first feature film in 1991. In 2007 he won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice for the Bob Dylan biography “I’m Not There”. “Poisoned Truth” (2019) described the legal unmasking of the Teflon scandal.

In your works you repeatedly refer to Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. To what extent did they influence “May December”?

I was thinking more about Ingmar Bergman and ‘Persona’ and his reflections on identities. But Sirk influences every molecule of my being and work, whether I’m making a melodrama in his style, like ‘So Far from Heaven’, or something completely different like this. He makes me think about the world and cinema and how authentic feelings can be created through artificial productions. For me, Sirk is like rocket science.

Your films are shown at the Cannes and Venice festivals, and last year you had a major retrospective at the Center Pompidou in Paris. Do you feel more seen in Europe than in the US?

My films are influenced by both American and European culture, but I never thought about whether audiences would perceive them differently. In short, each of my films has its own fan base, which rarely overlaps, whether it is ‘Carol’ or ‘Velvet Goldmine’. But my career certainly wouldn’t have turned out the way it did if the film critics hadn’t followed my work so carefully and sympathetically from the start.

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