May December director Todd Haynes says Hollywood's approach to true crime is 'exploitative'

The filmmaker's new film is inspired by a scandal involving a teacher and her young student

Watch: Todd Haynes discuss May December

Todd Haynes thinks all ‘storytelling is exploitative’ but Hollywood is particularly so when it comes to its depiction of true crime, he tells Yahoo UK.

The director’s new film May December explores the lengths an actor will go in search of the truth for a film, with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) meeting Gracie (Julianne Moore), who twenty years earlier had a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy and had his child whilst in prison for grooming him.

Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) are now married with three kids, and Elizabeth is set to portray the former in a biopic that is meant to "set the record straight" on their story.

The film presents an interesting commentary on how Hollywood depicts true crime, suggesting that there is little regard for the damage one does in the process of bringing a story from script to screen.

“Oh yes, I think it's exploitative,” Haynes says of Hollywood and its approach to depicting true crime.

“But I sort of feel like culture is exploitative, storytelling is exploitative. There's no clean way to engage in cultural discourse."Todd Haynes

“What you want to do is reveal that process that happens all the time in all kinds of different ways, so that the person watching that occur has the chance to make choices about it, or identify it, and not just see the benefits or the salacious products around it.

May December (Sky)
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore as Elizabeth and Gracie in May December (Sky)

“I think that's what I felt when I read this script, and what I hope the film helps you feel is all these layers of conflicting results to what they're after.”

Haynes goes on: “Even the very question that Elizabeth carries around — the presumed sense that we all know what she's talking about, of getting to the truth.

“What is the truth? Whose truth are we talking about? Who is entitled to determine that? How partial is that truth and how much is it serving larger forces?"Todd Haynes

“All of that I found to be material that was available in this story, but also questions that I hope the audience would feel excited to be thinking about.

“Of course you're disturbed, but that active sense of questioning was something I felt when I read the script and it was pleasurable, and there was humour involved. So there was a safe way to navigate these issues.”

May December (Sky)
May December director Todd Haynes said he feels all "storytelling is exploitative" (Sky)

True crime has been a topic of interest since the beginning of media, Haynes feels: “The proliferation of media and reality subject matter and all of that stuff has has has made it feel very contemporary, the obsession with it.

“But I think it's always driven the narrative film experience. It's a safe place to go in the dark and consider these things that you can't really play out in your life that are part of our dreams, are unconscious or part of things we think about but we don't live actually commit those crimes or those sexual acts ourselves.”

Speaking truth through fiction

The film, written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, is loosely inspired by the true story of the 1997 scandal involving Mary Kay Letourneau, who began a sexual relationship with 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree rape of a child and had his child in prison.

But Haynes insists the story is entirely fictional: “The film has very specific distinctions from that particular story.

May December (Sky)
May December sees Elizabeth insert herself in all aspects of Gracie's life to better understand her (Sky)

“It was something I was aware of at the time, I wasn't particularly tracking it, some of my friends were much more attentive to it.

“And when I began with this project, I was really like, 'no, no, no Samy made these distinctions between it' and I really wanted to consider it as its own fiction that we were creating."Todd Haynes

“But there were parts of the research process, and particularly conversations I would have with Julianne Moore, where looking at that story and really analysing the documentaries and the interviews and the details of it helped us understand how it happened.

"How to make sense of it, how she could portray it. But we still felt like we were doing something that had its own fictional parameters around it.”

The moral grey area

May December (Sky)
While May December is loosely inspired by a true story, the film itself is entirely fictional (Sky)

May December presents an interesting conundrum for its viewers with Elizabeth and Gracie, questioning who is the most trustworthy, and whether or not they can be considered good or bad.

This, Haynes says, was a deliberate choice: “That's where it all happens, in that indeterminate place.

“You sort of start by thinking, ‘Ohh yeah. Elizabeth she'll be the proxy. She'll be the reliable narrator coming into this world from the outside. She'll be our way in’, and you trust that and it becomes an investigative journalist story where she's trying to learn who Gracie was.

“But things start to shift and you start to question her motivations, how craven she can actually be, and the collateral damage that she causes in her search for telling the true story about what happened.

“And so these two complicated, willfull women are facing off through the course of the film and in many ways there are similarities between the two that I think neither would see in themselves that they see in the other.”

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman’s working relationship was ‘remarkable’

May December (Sky)
May December (Sky)

Haynes agreed to make the film when Portman came to him with the script, and he was keen to bring in his regular collaborator Moore who he’s worked with for Far From Heaven.

What impressed the Carol filmmaker most, though, was how well the two worked together.

“It was a remarkable thing to witness. I know Julie so well, and I was just getting to know Natalie and the way in which Natalie and I started to talk about this from the very beginning reminded me of Julianne Moore. It’s second nature to consider Julianne for that role,” he says.

“There's a lot of similarities in the way they both think, about the kind of films that they're drawn to, the kind of characters they want to explore, the grey areas that they want to inhabit and the questions that they want to raise, I think, as actors."Todd Haynes

“But you never know how two people of such distinction and intellect are going to actually work together. But it was an amazing thing to see, a real camaraderie.”

Haynes adds that he felt the actors have similar mindsets when it comes to their work: “We came prepared so that we could just enjoy each other on set, they both are the kind of actors who… they're not method actors they prepare in advance and then try to enjoy the process of the actual film as much as making it.”

May December premieres in cinemas on Friday, 17 November.

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