News Trending Viral Worldwide

Todd Haynes On ‘May December’ And That Time He Saw All Of Jack Tripper

todd haynes
Getty Image/Merle Cooper

Before seeing Todd Haynes‘ new film, May December, all I knew about the film was the title and the poster – and from that just assumed it was about a relationship between Natalie Portman’s character and Julianne Moore’s character. Nope, that is not the plot at all. Portman plays an actress named Elizabeth Berry who will be staying with a family near Savannah, Georgia. Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, married to Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), who are a little more than loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Elizabeth is going to be portraying Gracie in an upcoming film and wants to know everything there is to know about this relationship, now and then. As you might expect with a Todd Haynes film, the movie goes to some pretty twisted places as Elizabeth conducts her “research.”

May December is certainly the funniest movie Haynes has made in a while, after the serene Carol, the sweet and sentimental Wonderstruck, and his dive into paranoid thrillers with Dark Waters. It’s interesting to hear Haynes talk about his own movies like he didn’t even direct them. There’s something appealing about listening to a filmmaker kind of rediscover his earlier work. Or talk about how he was really into rewatching I’m Not There and considers it his best movie.

I met Haynes at Netflix’s offices in Manhattan. When I walked out he commented on a Three’s Company shirt I was wearing, which led to a lot more Three’s Company discussion than I had anticipated during this interview.

Todd Haynes: I thought this was just a hangout, not an interview…

Yes, this is a hangout.

Okay, good.

We can talk about anything you want. You mentioned Three’s Company a second ago…

I saw Three’s Company once and… well, we shouldn’t do that…

No, we can do that.

We don’t have enough time.

We have enough time.

I saw it live. I saw it on television where John Ritter’s wearing a super tiny, of course, athletic little shorts, right? And he’s sitting on a couch probably next to the two of the women, and his dick falls out.

Oh, I’ve seen that. John Ritter discussed it on Conan.

But I watched it when it aired and no one singled it out. I watched it happening with no context, and I was like, what the fuck?

Have you ever thought what are Mr. Roper’s politics?

I mean, I wasn’t a regular watcher of the show, so I’m not going to be able to answer.

Well, Jack pretends he’s a gay man to live with the two women.

Oh right, yeah.

Mr. Roper is adamant there’s no way a straight guy can live with two women in his building. But he was fine with a gay man living there. But he’s presented as a curmudgeon.

Oh, he’s the landlord, okay. Yeah. Well … it’s the late ’70s.

Before seeing May December I had no idea it was loosely about Mary Kay Letourneau.

Were you a follower of that?

Well, it was impossible not to be.

I know. I mean, I wasn’t that closely following it, although you could not not.

I did notice there’s an age cutoff of people who have no idea that happened or she existed. After the premiere, a lot of people in their 20s had no idea your movie was based in reality.

I’m not surprised. But I mean, do they think it hasn’t happened since? Or do they think that there wasn’t a specific story at that time? Because it’s not like it hasn’t continued to happen.

But they stayed together…

What do you mean?

I think that’s the difference between some of the other examples and makes this unique.

No, no, no, exactly. They stayed together for their entire lives, built a family, and raised kids.

Was this tough to get made? Do you have to get permission from anyone?

Not for that. Not for any reasons about her possession of the story or Vili Fualaau’s permission.

Obviously, because it’s not technically the same person.

And it’s a fictional version of this with enough differences. And I mean, there were a couple places where in the research, unbelievable stuff of interviews with Vili and and Mary Kay Letourneau that made me want to add some stuff.

Oh, like what?

Should I say?

Yes, you can say.

I guess I can say. In the final scene between Julianne Moore and Charles in the bedroom where she basically was, “Who was in charge? Who was the boss?”

So that’s real?

Oh my God. The source of that is bonkers.

Is this one of the more interesting research projects you had to do for a movie? I know you’ve made documentaries. I know you’ve done a lot of research on a lot of things, but this goes some twisted places.

It does go to some very twisted places. I mean, this all happened so fast. And all of a sudden it was like, oh shit. What does Natalie and Julie’s year look like? And we found a little sliver of time in the fall last year, and we jumped on it. So we got right into it, and we didn’t know it was going to be Savannah. And it was also like, we were resetting it. I mean, Mary Kay Letourneau was in Washington state. This was originally scripted for Camden, Maine. So everything kind of changed as it became real. And all the real participants joined in, and all of a sudden all the components and all those elements informed what the film ultimately became in an incredibly stimulating and exciting way. In a way that I think served the film in the end, but was incredibly fun while we were doing it.

Your last narrative feature was Dark Waters, a movie I liked but I had to keep reminding myself you directed it. Does that make sense?

But I don’t think May December is like any of my other movies.

Well, no, but there’s a point of view that’s very much you in this.

I guess. I mean, I didn’t write this movie. Dark Waters was basically a script that came to me and I decided I needed to bring a writer in. And we went to Cincinnati and we met all the real people, and we started from scratch, and we built the whole film from scratch. But no, that film owes everything to the real story, the paranoia stuff. The paranoia cinema of the ’70s, which I am a completely obsessed lover of.

Like Pakula?

Yeah! And that’s what inspired the look and feel of that movie. But it was fortified and supported by the real story.


All The President’s Men, The Parallax View. They’re just the true claustrophobia of paranoia.

Well see, that’s the thing, I’ve never thought of you as making a paranoia movie. That was very different for you.

It is.

And this one goes back to relationships.

And a female subject.

Most of your movies deal with relationships.

And all that stuff. Yeah. I mean, I think that I loved that experience of making Dark Waters. It was also the closest I’ve ever come to what Natalie Portman’s character actually does in this movie, which we were surrounded by the real people in Cincinnati making Dark Waters. And Rob Bilott was there. I mean, to a degree, at first Mark Ruffalo was like, “I want Rob on set every day.” And, at first, I was like, “I’m not so sure about that.” And then I couldn’t let go of having Rob on set every day because he was sensitive and sweet, but also smart and informative and remembered every fucking thing about the entire history. And so I became addicted to having the real guy who we’re making the movie about right in the next room next to us. It was a great experience.

So you felt like a journalist? Getting the story right and you liked that?

But what I loved is that crazy claustrophobic isolation. The loneliness of people who are onto massive corporate busting stories like that – that challenge power; systems of power and what it does to you. How it fucks you up and how lonely you get and how isolated you get and how scared you get. I mean, it’s true for All The President’s Men, it’s a real true story. But you feel it. You feel it in The Parallax View, and those are fictions. But this was the true story. It was all there.

So yesterday I went back and I re-watched Velvet Goldmine. Do you think about the kind of movies you made then versus now? You have this arc to your movies over your career, but when you go that far back from now it’s a little jarring the difference in style.

Yeah. I mean, what’s funny is I had this respective at Pompidou in May before Cannes with May December. And so I re-watched the movies that I hadn’t seen in years, and also the ones that I would be talking about. I mean, I talked about a bunch of them, but not all of them. But Cate Blanchett came and was there for two days. We did Carol and we did I’m Not There. And then Kate Winslet came. And so I had amazing guests and partners coming and so I watched movies of mine that I hadn’t seen. Velvet Goldmine, I’d seen not that long ago, because they did a restored version at Tribeca Film Festival recently.

But literally a week later, I watched the new DCP of Velvet Goldmine. But then they showed a print of it at the Hollywood Theater in Portland. I only came for the last half hour because I was doing a Q and A afterward, and I was like, fucking shit. The print is so fucking gorgeous. And it sounded better than the DCP. It was so superior in every conceivable way. I’m Not There was the one that kind of… I think it’s my favorite film of mine.

Oh, that’s interesting.

Yeah, I was into it. I was so into it.

Watching Velvet Goldmine, I kept thinking you don’t get enough credit for casting. Everyone in that movie became famous. Even Wonderstruck, with Millicent Simmonds, she has her own franchise now.

What franchise?

A Quiet Place.

Oh, A Quiet Place. Oh yeah, of course that. No, no. It’s amazing. I know. Oh, Millicent.

You’re the one who introduced us to her.

No, look, I am super proud of all of that. And I owe so much of that also to Laura Rosenthal, my casting director. And she and I go on these adventures and find these people and find unknown actors like Millicent and Millie and Charles. Finding Charles Melton, I didn’t know his work. I didn’t see him on Riverdale. He auditioned for us. But I was like, what the fuck? This guy. It completely changed who I thought Joe was. It deepened. It clarified. It made him human.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.