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First reviews out of Cannes for Todd Haynes’ poisonously witty and complex new film “May December” heralded “a heartbreakingly sincere piece of high camp,” “a camp and curious pleasure,” a “camp look at an actor’s process of transformation into a character.”
But how does “camp” figure into the context of a film starring Natalie Portman as a celebrity actress studying Julianne Moore as a Southern spin on Mary Kay Letourneau, the middle school teacher who had a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student, was convicted of rape and imprisoned, and then married and had two children with him? Portman’s character is set to play Moore’s in a new movie. Is it by virtue of seeing these two gay-iconic actresses on a set with the director of “Carol,” “Velvet Goldmine,” and “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” a 1988 documentary about the ill-fated singer stop-motion-animated with Barbie dolls? Is it that Moore’s toxic self-deluding Gracie Atherton-Yoo has a lisp with which she delivers wicked retorts to her daughter like, “You try going through life without a scale. See how that works out”? Or what of Marcelo Zarvos’ darkly swelling score, adapted from Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s 1971 “The Go-Between”? The mezzo-forte piano puts you in an immediate place of “what am I watching?” from the first frame, and into an atmosphere over-the-top by design.
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“Camp” in the days of RuPaul and the meme-ification of movies, now almost lazily, speaks to something ironically trendy and self-consciously artificial and over-the-top. Is “May December” that? Haynes and his Killer Films “May December” team, who showed up at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival without a distributor after wrapping the film in Savannah, Georgia on Tybee Island over a 23-day shoot the previous November, were a little puzzled by this classification. (Netflix then bought the film for a cool $11 million.) Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the film’s introduction to Moore’s character is a crash zoom into her opening a refrigerator ahead of a backyard cookout and saying, “We’re going to need more hot dogth.” (Lisp intentional.) Todd Haynes’ breathtaking Oscar-nominated “Carol” is now a much-memed lesbian Christmas classic with its own unmovable position in the queer camp canon, but the director of Douglas Sirk homage “Far From Heaven” has always been inflecting queer film history through his own particular vernacular.
“[‘Camp’] was never something that entered my mind as a sort of methodology or a reference or a kind of attitude that I would be bringing to this, the telling of the story and interpretation of this script,” Haynes told IndieWire during a recent sit-down at the Netflix offices in Manhattan. That script, inspired by Letourneau’s tabloid “romance,” is written by first-time feature screenwriter Samy Burch, brought off The Black List by Portman to Haynes during COVID.
In “May December,” Charles Melton, heartthrob “Riverdale” actor now poised for bigness, plays Joe, the grown-up version of the kid Gracie seduced and abused. He’s now in his 30s and an X-ray technician who shares a brood of children with Gracie. The porous actress Elizabeth Berry (Portman) will observe Gracie to embody her in a movie that hopes to be more respectable than a TV version of Gracie’s headline-driving scandal already out there. In the process, Elizabeth winds up seducing Joe in their Savannah home to get closer to him and to articulating Gracie, confronting her own venomous traits as an actor absorbing another’s life in so doing. (Haynes swaps Letourneau’s background as a teacher for Gracie and Joe having met each other while working in a pet store, which is almost even more uncomfortable.) Elizabeth also relishes the icky task of signing off on what child actor will play opposite her as Joe in his adolescent years for her indie film about Gracie.
Read on for IndieWire’s conversation with Todd Haynes, with an update on his latest projects, his thoughts on “May December” as “camp,” and how casting the younger version of Charles Melton’s character ended up almost replicating the exact process of how the young Joe is cast in the film’s movie-within-a-movie, led by Portman’s character.
IndieWire: The movie sets up a rivalry between Natalie and Julianne’s characters. You’ve never worked with Natalie before on a set but Julianne has long been a close collaborator. Was any of that friction between Elizabeth and Gracie mirrored in making a film that’s a true double-hander?
Todd Haynes: Yeah, man, these two just tore each other to bits. [Laughs.] No, you never know what it’ll be like with different actors, bringing them together. I have the boring duty of reporting that it was just so — well, look, I’ll start by just saying that when I first started talking to Natalie about the script, she brought me the script “May December” around the height of COVID. I was really impressed, really excited by this very original piece of work and was very excited to talk to Natalie about it. She’s so fearless. She’s so smart. She’s so interested in pushing her characters and the audience into places that are not comfortable, and that raise questions and that make people squirm. This script offered all of those things to that character, but the experience as a whole watching this film unfold, talking to her reminded me of Julianne.
So it was very easy to think of Julianne for the role of Gracie.
[I suspected] that these two women might find something in common in the way that they approach their work and what they’re like on set, although I’d never been with Natalie on set before. So it was pretty cool. Everyone comes guardedly. Everyone’s scared, actors, and great actors, the amazing actors I’ve worked with. The one thing is that no matter how remarkable they are in the work that they’ve done in the past, what makes them great is that they feel stripped naked each time they approach something. They’re nervous. They don’t necessarily want to show that, but that’s evident. And I’m nervous, and I don’t necessarily want to show that. We’re all in similar places of anxiety, but then we have a job to do. And we had a very specific task in front of us in a very limited amount of time. They have similar ways of working and they found great ease in each other’s company on set.
How would you characterize the quality of the movie Elizabeth is starring in?
To me, it seems like a sort of movie with a sense of indie edginess and some generic gothic genre references, a little bit of a thriller and a horror movie. It would have a very different agenda and very different self-regard than that TV movie that you see, but ultimately something that maybe wouldn’t be the best movie in the world.
A designation that came up in reviews out of Cannes was that “May December” was “camp.” This is a label that’s become almost gay slang, eroded of its meaning. What did you make of that response?
It came up, sort of emerged at Cannes when the film first premiered. All of us were like, “What? Camp?” It was never something that entered my mind as a sort of methodology or a reference or a kind of attitude that I would be bringing to this, the telling of the story and interpretation of this script. I was surprised by it, and I felt like it was possibly reductive, but then I thought, you know what? The term is sort of symptomatic of trying to locate a word that means — [pauses] to me, camp is in the eye of the beholder. Camp is an interpretive mode where we revisit material from the past with a lot of history and a lot of distance from it, and we project onto it all kinds of meaning that wasn’t necessarily intended at the time. In that regard, I’m like, yeah, OK. I appreciate where the search for that term is.
What’s driving the search for that term? I don’t know if that’s necessarily where I would land, because that is what this movie is about, is interpretation and reading sort of against the grain of what you’re watching or at least being put into a place of uncertainty about what you think as you watch it. So, sure,, the music is of a completely different function […] the only parallel I can find is the film that originally some of that music comes from, which is “The Go-Between” from 1971, where the score is so aggressive and so in your face that you were immediately put into a state of going, “What is this movie going to be? What am I watching?” And I love that about that score. And I do think that contributes to, and of course, the zoom-in on the refrigerator and all that, but that’s, that’s been my reaction to camp. Although I love camp. I mean, I’m a student of camp.
The film is a loose adaptation of the Mary Kay Letourneau story. Was there material from her biography that you left out?
There were not things that we wanted or that were scripted or that we felt we couldn’t incorporate or refer to. This was clearly fiction, and when I first read Sammy’s script, I pushed back a little bit in my mind from the Mary Kay Letourneau origin story and tried to really honor and embrace the distinctions between Sammy’s script and story and that story. But it ultimately became really informative and really, even though Mary Kay Letourneau and Gracie Atherton remain very different kinds of women in how they present themselves as both very attractive women.
There’s a scene where Elizabeth attends a middle school drama class as “research” for her character. Walking in the hallway, she exchanges a flirtatious glance with a very young student who ends up in that very class, where she details the ins and outs of doing sex scenes onscreen, and quite flirtatiously. How does one make references to these sorts of potentially inappropriate attractions … funny?
That scene is scripted, of the boy in the hallway, giving her a look and her responding and her practicing all of the crossings of these barriers, all these transgressions in real time with real people, even with the kids in that room, with the discussion of how she performs her sex scenes in movies and how far she goes to make that whole room completely uncomfortable with her answer. But while making this movie, we found ourselves in this amusing and uncomfortable place where we’re literally casting all these boys and trying to find where the line is between some of the boys who were meant to be way too young to be the in role of Joe in the movie that Elizabeth’s making. But then we had to find the right one, and we had to find the right version of Charles in the past.
Right, because a major drama for Elizabeth is casting the right child actor to play the young Joe, when he’s 12 years old, in her film.
We were doing a version of what was happening and we’re walking those crazy lines. So yeah, there was a lot of that sort of crazy meta stuff going on.
A few days after the Cannes premiere, Netflix bought “May December” for $11 million, and the worry that Hollywood’s dominant streamer could ultimately just dump the film on its streaming platform stirred some controversy. Was the sale a relief or anxiety after your film “Wonderstruck” wound up mostly a box-office failure in the hands of Amazon?
My films present challenges in how to distribute and how to find audiences. Our ways of seeing movies and the kind of collective experience of watching movies on the screen is dispersing. Everything we know changes and problematizes or makes for greater challenges in how movies get distributed. This is the first time in my career of working well outside mainstream conventional filmmaking where I came to a festival without a distributor. We were really exposed, and we were very happy to be invited into competition at Cannes. You never know how these things are going to go, and you hope the film will play well, and you hope it’s going to work. But we mostly wanted to pay back our equity investors and feel like there was solid ground on all the risks that people had taken in getting the film made.
So the enthusiasm with which Netflix singled it out and really made a beeline for this movie only made us feel a security and excitement about where it could possibly go. It was definitely a condition for me that any distributor that we wanted to sign with, I wanted to have a theatrical release of the film. If it was a big streaming company that was going to buy it like Netflix, that had to be part of the deal. I just saw the list of the number of theaters that it’s opening at next week, and it’s really impressive. It was Netflix that came to me and were like, “We have a really cool idea. We’d love to do a 35-millimeter print of the movie for special screenings.” That’s cool.
You’ve talked extensively about the explicit gay film you’re directing with star Joaquin Phoenix. There’s also a Freud project on the back burner and a pin in the Peggy Lee biopic with Michelle Williams. What’s your priority for your next film or TV series?
There’s been too much going on. We made [“May December”] really quickly, and we were still shooting it a year ago now, and I’ve been developing this Joaquin project for the last few years with my partner Jonathan Raymond. And then there’s an adaptation of the Sarah Waters book, “The Paying Guests.” It’s a three-part limited series that would need to be a British production, but it’s a really great novel. And then Kate Winslet brought me “Trust,” so I have my hands really full. As Julianne says [in the movie], “I have a lot on my plate.”
“May December” opens in limited release from Netflix on November 17 before streaming December 1.
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