Todd Haynes Talks ‘May December’ and Movie Mischief at New York Film Festival

Though the talk was affected by the ongoing SAG strike, Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch shared some secrets about this stunning new film.

NYFF programmer Rachel Rosen (far left) moderates a press conference with director Todd Haynes and writer/executive producer Samy Burch for May December during the 61st New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for FLC

On a rainy, flash flood-warning laden afternoon in late September, director Todd Haynes and the team behind his newest movie graced Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater with their presence to chat about May December ahead of its Opening Night premiere at the New York Film Festival. Topics ranged from the joy of having screenwriter Samy Burch present to Julianne Moore’s fascinating lisp in the film, as Haynes outlined the speedy production process that led to one of his best, most complex and riveting projects.

Though Haynes did most of the talking, Burch was perhaps the biggest star on stage and received some of the most rapturous applause in the room. May December is the writer’s first feature screenplay, based loosely on the Mary Kay Letourneau saga of the late ‘90s, and it’s an absolute stunner. She explained that she had written it as a spec script (i.e., free from any promise of purchase or production), wanting to dig into the “tabloid culture of the ‘90s that has… bled into this true crime, biopic world we’re in right now” and “question that transition and why we want to keep recreating these stories.”

As of May December’s New York premiere, the WGA strike had only recently been resolved; it had been impacting the film’s rollout since its Cannes premiere in May, so this was Burch’s first appearance in support of the movie. At one point, Haynes gave her a hug and mentioned how exciting it was “to finally have [Samy] on board with us” after months of promoting the film, later adding that having Burch along for the ride “helps us a little bit with the grief of not having actors.”

Of course, that pointed to the two most glaring absences on stage: stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. Each gives a layered, powerhouse performance, and their work was highlighted by their colleagues. Haynes lauded Moore’s work as Gracie, the Letourneau stand-in who wooed a pre-teen a few decades before the film takes place and is now sending their kids off to college. He emphasized that “there was no rehearsal time” on the film, which was shot in 23 days, making Moore’s craft all the more impressive. Haynes described the process of creating “the myth [Gracie and her husband Joe, played by Charles Melton] tell each other about the roles they play,” combining Moore’s performance and costuming to turn Gracie’s story into a “fantasy, which is that she’s the princess who needs to be rescued from the domestic tower.” Haynes explained that Gracie “plays the little girl,” adding to a “dedicated sense of discomfiture” and “a refusal to redeem the characters” that May December plays with.

Portman was also appreciated not only as a skilled performer (she plays Elizabeth, an actress set to play Gracie in an upcoming project), but as a producer on the film who was there throughout the development process. Haynes mentioned that he and Portman had planned to work together in the past, so this collaboration was a long time coming—and it’s a joy for movie lovers everywhere that it’s finally happened. Through her character’s outsider eyes, Haynes expressed that he wants the viewer to “interrogate” what they’re watching. Throughout the talk, the director emphasized that bringing “mischief… into how the audience might be able to navigate” this tricky, prickly story was always the top priority. He (and the rest of his talented cast and production team) pulls off that particular kind of envelope pushing with marvelous results. 

Todd Haynes Talks ‘May December’ and Movie Mischief at New York Film Festival