While at the Deauville American Film Festival to present “May December,” Todd Haynes spoke to Variety, during a one-on-one interview at the Royal Hotel, about bringing Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore together in a film for the first time, provoking audiences and pushing against American conservatism. Haynes, who is attending Deauville with his producers Christine Vachon and Sophie Mas, also teased his next directorial effort starring Joaquin Phoenix, a “sexually explicit” movie telling a “love story between two men set in the 30s.”
Loosely based on the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who had an affair with her 6th grade student, “May December” has already earned awards buzz since world premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was bought by Netflix. In France, the movie will be released by ARP Selection in January.
What’s your next project with Joaquin Phoenix about?
It’s a love story between two men set in the 30s that has explicit sexual content that or at least it challenges you with the sexual relationship between these two men. One is a Native American character and one is a corrupt cop in LA. It’s set in the 30s. They have to flee L.A. ultimately and go to Mexico. But it’s a love story and with a strong sexual component. And what was so remarkable is that it all started with Joaquin having some ideas and some thoughts and just questions and images. And he came to me and said, “Does this connect to you at all?” And I was like, “Yeah, this is really interesting.” And so we would just be on the phone talking and it developed into a script.
So Joaquin came up with the story?
He had fragments of ideas and then I started to formulate them into an actual narrative. And then I brought my wonderful, brilliant friend John Raymond, with whom I collaborated with on “Mildred Pierce” into the process. Basically it was just this wonderful, organic way to create the script. And Joaquin was pushing it further into more dangerous territory, sexually.
Who’s going to play the part of the Native American character?
We don’t know yet. We’ve got to find him. It’s probably going to be a discovery.
Do you think you’ll be able to finance this film since it’s very daring?
Yeah, for sure. I want to do it as cheaply as we can so we have all the freedom to do it the way we want. I’d love to use many of the people I just finished working with on “May December” because the atmosphere and the experience of making “May December” was so superb. Everyone is already engaged on this next one and can’t wait. We have everybody already doing stuff on it, research stuff. And yeah, we’re talking to Mexican producers, co-producers. We might want to shoot the whole thing in Mexico, so that we can build our Los Angeles of the 30’s there, and stretch our resources and work with the amazing craftspeople of Mexican cinema. That would be my dream. We’re hoping all that works out.
You don’t mind controversy. In “May December” you’re not making any judgments about your characters, which can be unsettling.
This is how I experienced that script. When it first came to me that’s what I loved about it. So my job was to try to find ways to convey that cinematically, to encourage and allow that sense of not knowing what you think — to create a pleasurable challenge to the viewer. Not a frustration, but something that was an invitation. And this music, this score that I heard when I saw “The Go-Between” (a 1971 film directed by Joseph Losey), while I was preparing “May December” last year. I loved how it puts you on alert. As a viewer, there was something thrilling about it, so I just used it as a sort of example while we were making this film. I had people listen to the score when I first made my image book and circulated it to my creative partners. I said, “play this music while you look at the book.”
What was it like to work with Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman?
Julianne and I have such common instincts and curiosities about what cinema can be. That’s why I’ve continued to work with her so many times on films. And when I was first talking to Natalie about this film and how interested she was in these discomforting places in the film and in the story and playing with people’s projections onto her, even as an actress, she reminded me of Julianne Moore. It was very easy to make the decision to have these two amazing women in a film together for the first time.
How did you create that chemistry between Julianne and Natalie?
We jumped in because we had to jump in. We talked about practical things, about hair, things that are necessary like “What was the style of Gracie’s hair?” “How was Elizabeth’s hair going to begin and how it would change?” “What was the makeup going to be like for Gracie that could be adopted by Natalie?” So it was very specific, practical, seemingly external decision we were making about what the character would look like. But then we didn’t have time to rehearse. We had just enough time to go out to a couple of dinners and we shot the movie in 23 days.
Why did you have to shoot it so fast?
Because we had very little money. Crazily, this is what we could raise with a cast starring these women. I think it’s obvious that it’s because it’s two women. There’s just a limit. They just say, “You know, this can only make back this much money based on demographics and statistics and algorithms and so forth.” But look, we didn’t need much more than we had. It required a level of precision to make it work for that amount of money and that amount of time. I brought my visual language and stylistic ideas about how to shoot it with many single shot scenes and static camera, and those scenes in the mirror where there’s no establishing shot. That’s putting a tremendous burden on the performers and what an audience will do with a movie that doesn’t stimulate you visually with a million cuts. I hoped people would appreciate that sense of duration and be kind of intrigued by the actors looking into the lens of the camera and all that shit. And in fact, no one even mentions it.
That long scene in front of the mirror for instance is a reference to a movie by Bergman.
Yes, and no one mentions that the shot holds for seven minutes. Those tropes come from European art cinema. Like Bergman with “Persona” and so forth. I was very consciously thinking about that, and I wanted to create an observant distance. A slight distance from the action that allowed you to be thinking about what was going on all the time, and what has just been kind of exciting is that audiences are stimulated by the uncertainty, they’re not frustrated by that. They didn’t make a critique like, “That was too long!” And I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s because I have these genius actresses.”
It’s interesting what you said about financiers being concerned that a movie with a predominantly female cast will make less money. What about “Barbie”?
Of course, there have always been exceptions. It’s just that we still live in a culture that reverts back to its its norms. And, in fact, it even goes farther backwards. Look at what’s happening everywhere today. There’s a reactionary strain that comes out of the conservative parties in America and throughout Europe. And far more ease in using a kind of language against minorities and targeting minorities that we’ve become all too used to. It’s exhausting to be shocked by it every day.
I watched “May December” with my teenage son who found it very compelling!
That’s what I was exposed to when I was young. I guess my parents trusted my ability to deal with complicated themes and things that were maybe… The great thing is, you know, the work that often inspires you the most when you’re young and stuff, you can’t entirely understand. It creates a hunger to learn and to be able to enter different places. There’s this unfortunate trend in the United States right now with parents who are deciding that exposing young people to complicated themes, or just basic themes about life like queerness and the fact that we have a very complicated racial history in America will make people feel bad about being the being white Americans. It’s like completely reactionary. And stifling for the minds of young people who need to learn how to look at things that are difficult and complicated.
When do you think you’ll shoot that next movie with Joaquin?
We hope we’ll be shooting by early summer. It’s a little tricky because the strike and projects of Joaquin’s that have gotten stopped.
What’s your perspective on the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike?
The challenge is to come to an agreement based on these new technologies and modes of distribution of of media that seemed to collect mostly around streaming and episodic TV. But we just have to find an adequate way to to pay for it and to pay writers and actors for their work as technology changes how films and television are created. We need to sit down at the table and come to an agreement, and studios need to realize that that they have to compromise. The results will be a compromise for both sides.