On the heels of his premiere, nine hours after Netflix bought his newest film for $11 million, Todd Haynes is a happy man, seated casually at breakfast in the Hôtel Martinez lobby mere steps away from the Croisette. And he should be.

May December is one of the most celebrated titles in competition at Cannes this year, which is saying a lot in a year with The Zone of Interest, Anatomy of a Fall, and Monster. While that could mean awards, which is great, distribution means eyeballs. And that, for most directors, is more precious than gold.  

The film follows a––to put it lightly––naive suburban mom Gracie Athertoon-Yoo (Julianne Moore in her fifth Haynes feature) and the actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman in her first) who arrives to study Gracie in order to play her in an upcoming film. Why? Because she’s a convicted child sex offender who married her victim and raised children with him. And they’re still together. 

I sat down with Haynes to talk about it.

The Film Stage: This is a really dark subject matter, but the film doesn’t play as this dark, heavy thing. It’s light and bright, a reckoning that feels like an awakening. Could you talk about what drew you to that, or why chose to go that route with it?

Todd Haynes: Well, what really excited me about how this story might navigate these themes really was apparent in Samy Burch’s script. It created this sense of ill-ease and discomfiture as you’re reading it, that was unsettling all the way through and never really resolves. But it was pleasurable. And that was so interesting and so cool. Natalie Portman sent me the script in the middle of COVID when I was planning to do other things, and she was doing other things, but I was like, “This is really interesting.” 

Have you known each other for a while?

No. She’d sent me something years ago, and it didn’t work out. But I always wanted to see if there was anything we could do together. And this just was such a fascinating project, and we started talking about it, and Natalie was going to be a producer on it as well as, quite clearly, the perfect choice to play Elizabeth. And she liked that idea of playing with expectations that people would bring about her as an actress and Natalie Portman herself as an actress.

Yeah, there’s a meta thing going on there.

Yeah, yeah. Because she’s so fearless to make it be, like: this woman is actually really problematic, you know? And not protecting the image of her own star status at all. The way she loved the cunning strategies in the script and how much they created a moral instability as you’re reading it. And how sort of inscrutable, ultimately, these two women are by the end, it made me think of Julianne Moore. The kind of things she’s drawn to, the kind of things she and I have connected on from the beginning. And then there’s this role of Gracie. So that triad became pretty quickly determined.

Photo by Maxence Parey / FDC

Speaking of the things you and Moore have explored, you’ve always been fascinated with the suburbs. And that seems to still be true here. What still fascinates you so much with them this deep into your career? And is the aim always to make people more critical of them? 

Well, yeah. What else is there to be but critical of American suburbs? Family life, suburban life, domestic life, wherever it exists is subject to all kinds of sanctioned ways of living and thinking that don’t encourage reflection or thinking. But, in a way, all conscious life is the same. We’re not really built as human beings to question ourselves every day and to go, “Am I really happy in the choices I’ve made in this relationship?” We all hide and it’s how we survive every minute of life. By navigating what we can possibly contend with and everything else that we can’t. 

So it’s not just about people in the suburbs. It’s not just about this woman who had an inappropriate relationship with too-young of a kid at that time. What I really liked about this––and what I liked about other stories I’ve tried to explore domestic life through––is that it just seeps into all of our experiences. We all come from domestic lives, from mothers and fathers, and we all deal with romantic life. And we try to follow our steps and do what everybody else does, you know? But it’s full of all kinds of questions.

Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs, so I can definitely relate. I don’t like them. 

Me too. [Laughs]

Why didn’t you work with Ed Lachman this time? Blauvelt’s cinematography is gorgeous, but I’m just curious. It’s been a while since you’ve made something without him.

I know, I know––it’s beautiful. I was planning to work with Ed on it, and then he was working on a Pablo Larraín film in Chile and he broke his femur bone. Literally. I heard about it two weeks before we had to be in full prep on the movie, so I had to find somebody, like, lightning-speed fast.

I’m assuming you met Blauvelt through Kelly Reichardt?

Oh yeah, but I’ve known Chris from all the days he worked with Harris Savides and Gus Van Sant, so I’ve known Chris for a really long time. But I called up Kelly when a couple other people weren’t available who I knew, that I’ve worked with. I called Kelly before I called Chris. I was like, “Is it okay… if I use…” [Haynes shrinks up, trails off, and laughs] I asked permission. And she not only was like, “Oh my God, that’d be amazing!” She tracked him down because I couldn’t get ahold of him. He wasn’t responding initially. He was in Chile doing a commercial. So she tracked Chris down for me, and then everything happened very fast. We had to really jump in and make this happen.

It doesn’t look like it happened fast, for what it’s worth. How do you feel about the Netflix deal?

Oh, I’m blown away by how much it seems to reflect their enthusiasm about the movie. I haven’t talked to them yet about it. So I don’t know anything about it. Except that the theatrical component is built into it, and that is very important to me. And our private equity investor put himself on the plank, so it rewards that commitment on this film. He already felt so thrilled to be at Cannes and to have it be where it is and reactions and all that. But this furthers and rewards that commitment.

May December premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Netflix.

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