At the core of Todd Haynes’ latest feature, May December, lies a secret weapon that takes three central performances of the film to a whole other level, and that is the work of screenwriter Samy Burch. Burch, a former casting director, wrote the first draft of this screenplay back in 2019, and it easily became one of the hottest screenplays on the Blacklist just a few years later. Once it caught the eye of the film’s producers, and actress Natalie Portman, Burch’s work became the focus of the acclaimed director of Carol and Far from Heaven.
May December, written by Burch with story credit by Burch and Alex Mechanik, follows an actress (Portman) arriving in Georgia to do research for a film about a couple (Julianne Moore, Charles Melton) whose romance sparked a tabloid frenzy 23 years prior. While the film’s central scandal resembles the Mary Kay Letourneau case, Burch brought her own originality to the project, with hilarious dark humor throughout the razor-sharp commentary about the media we consume and the people we assume to know based on snippets off the television.
In my conversation with Burch back at the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival in October, we talked about the journey the script took to get to the big screen, the collaboration process with Haynes, the film’s tone, and the emotional journey her characters are going on in the film. When we had talked, she had just come from New York City, where she was able to experience the New York Film Festival opening night premiere with Haynes, the film’s producers, and a couple of the artisans behind the film. Flash to now where she just won the New York Film Critic Circle’s Best Screenplay prize. But in the stretch, audiences have been able to watch May December and notice that Burch is a writer to look out for and delivers one of the best debut screenplays in years.
Ryan McQuade: To start off, I think the film is fantastic. And I think it really does hinge on your wonderful screenplay.
Samy Burch: Thank you.
RM: I’m curious about the origin of this work for you, and how you came up with the story for May December with your collaborator Alex Mechanik?
SB: Well, it started just as a seed of an idea of doing a fictional version, looking at a tabloid case 20 years later, right before a high school graduation. That was the beginning. This idea of a man in his 30s who was about to be an empty nester who hadn’t processed everything. And then it was about finding a way into that story, which ended up being through a television actress coming to study Gracie to play in a role. That was what we had from one conversation basically. And my collaborator Alex, who’s my now husband, we’ve made things before. We’ve made a lot of shorts together, where normally I write them, and we direct them together.
And the process was very simple. I normally write character biographies of the lead characters, so I write a page or two on each character just for clarification for me, a lot of things don’t go in the script. And we outlined, on a much smaller wall than this, I was thinking, boy, that’d be great for an outline. We just hung a ribbon up in the living room of our apartment and put note cards. And then that just sat there for a few months like art, and then I wrote the first draft in the spring of 2019.
RM: Okay, first draft, it gets put on the blacklist. It’s such a great script, but it sat for a little while, as scripts sometimes do. When you were heard that Todd Haynes was going to potentially take on this project, what was your initial reaction to him wanting it? Must’ve seemed overwhelming and exciting.
SB: Yeah. Well, the blacklist, the script sat because it didn’t have any representation for six months. And then Jessica Elbaum and Will Ferrell came on as the lockdown happened. And then Natalie Portman came on right before the blacklist got announced. They didn’t tell me, thank God, that Todd was being sent the script. I have a nervous personality (laughs). I was told once the good news happened, which was that he had read it and was interested and wanted to talk about it. And that shock cannot really be explained in words. I was already in a surreal state because I hadn’t left my apartment in nine months. There had been a world locked down.
So, we’re already there. That’s the floor. And then Natalie Portman had attached, which was a life-changing moment. And so, then I get the call maybe a month after that, that Todd Haynes is really interested. At that point I’m like, is this actually a hallucination? I have loved everything that Todd has made, practically my whole life. It can’t be articulated, the excitement, and the relief, and everything. It was quite overwhelming.
Yeah, it was a dream. And it was very simple too. The first zoom was with me and Natalie and Todd. That was the first time I’d met her and him together. And we just talked for a few hours. I wrote so many notes down, it was their thoughts, their insights. Natalie’s a producer on the film too with her company Mountain A, and it was so exciting. It felt like how it should be. His notes are very generous and up for interpretation. That’s what I was so struck by as well because I’ve been in other situations where I’ve been very micromanaged. One of my favorite notes that he said was “Add more fog.” That’s a lot of trust to interpret what that means. And so that was in January of 2021. I think I turned something in a month or two later. We had another round of thoughts. And then that’s when he snuck the script to Julianne Moore.
RM: And then you’re thinking, “Okay, this is getting real.” (laughs)
SB: (laughs) Yeah, I remember getting that email, shaking. “No, really… it can’t be.“ And the fact that Julianne and Todd have this incredible history and collaboration and these films that have meant so much to me, that this is part of their history now. It’s overwhelming. Absolutely.
RM: Let’s talk about the characters in the film and start with Natalie’s Elizabeth. What I found so fascinating about her is her process of coming in as a disruptor. But then by the end, it almost feels like she didn’t learn maybe anything. Could you talk about writing a character like that, who is searching for those answers, and then ultimately it might not find any of those answers about Gracie and Joe?
SB: I think that in the top half, and maybe three, there’s a real cynical humor to this idea of a television actress that’s come to town and is trying to have this experience that is more important to her, I think ultimately than certainly anyone else’s feelings, but maybe even the work is how she’s perceiving herself in those moments. And Natalie is so funny and so subtle, and so the fake way in which this character talks to people is so funny to me. And I think that the scenes that our investigations, almost like a journalist, those were very fun to write because we get to have these new voices coming in and almost like a Law and Order interrogation.
RM: She’s essentially learning all that as we are as well.
SB: Exactly. Yeah.
RM: And learning the truth rather than what is in the tabloids.
SB: Absolutely, and it’s different truth. There’re so many different perspectives; from the lawyer, to the son from the old marriage, to the pet shop owner, all the ways that this event touched these people and disrupted their lives, sometimes very significantly. And I think, yeah, there’s a hopelessness or there’s an arrogance to this idea that she’s going to come in and find this truth when it might not even really exist. It’s impossible to quantify, even for the people in the situation themselves, partially because one of them is the walls have been built up for him and he’s also protecting himself in a way, and another very willfully not reflecting on the past or even the present. So, I think that’s all part of the braid is how it is funny, it is an indictment on some of the process of method acting, in dealing with real people for the true crime culture we’re in right now. But it’s sad too.
RM: Yeah, for sure. For Gracie and Joe’s story, did you incorporate research from real life cases into the story or did you try to keep it specifically to these characters? The line of fiction and fact for your story is what is so fascinating, especially to their relationship.
SB: I didn’t do much outside research at all because I grew up in the 90s, I grew up in tabloid culture. I think we all, to a certain extent, absorbed all of that, the big picture element. I wanted to make sure all the details were fictional. That was always important to me. Just it felt like there’s just a breath. I think that that’s the most common way we see these stories being retold, even the ones that are righting the wrong of the tabloids, we are looking directly at them. I don’t know, I just think it’s interesting that we feel compelled to keep telling these stories over and over. Big picture, there are certain similarities, but I wanted to make sure that the details and who these people are made sense to me and felt specific. And in that way, I didn’t really do any research it just kind of came. But I think the way I’ve seen the structure is that we come in with Elizabeth, we think she’s reliable as an entry point.
But she isn’t. Gracie’s sort of the sun, everything’s orbiting around her, every discussion are tension and curiosity and then at a certain point, Joe really steps into the spotlight, that this is his story or he’s the heart of the matter. We do get to see him a lot throughout, but they’re very quiet, private moments so you are taken aback a little bit when he does take that step. I wanted to protect him.
RM: I think of when Joe has the scene where he is with his son and he’s smoking pot with him, and it’s like he never got to do a lot of those things. And then it all starts to build and crumble on him. Can you talk about crafting Joe, who is slowly building to a boil as everything around him crumbles? Charles is fantastic throughout because we never really get to see that perspective of that lost innocence.
SB: Absolutely. It’s very sensitive and he’s played so beautifully in the film by Charles Melton. It’s a perfect storm, I think, for Joe in this moment because his kids are about to graduate, so he’s about to be alone in this house with her. He also was handed a baby when he was probably 14 or 15. So when has there been time for him to process? There really hasn’t. So, this is the first moment, I think, that he’s maybe able to be reconsidering his life and what’s been lost. And then having Elizabeth come at this exact time, being 36, being the age that Gracie was at the time, being the age that he is now. He’s suddenly on equal footing with a woman of his own age that’s this doppelgänger for her. I think all of that, it just becomes too much to suppress, which is how he’s been going for 20 something years, is just suppress, suppress, suppress and you can see it in his body.
I love those moments that Charles brought, the physicality of where sometimes he looks 13, the way he carries himself and his mannerisms, but sometimes he looks 50 or someone that would have kids going off to college and the performance of all of that. Yeah, I think that was just very important to me. And the balance is very delicate.
RM: I think it can’t be overstated enough; this movie is also hilarious. I know that we’re talking about a lot of dark subject matter, very deep stuff, but it’s also very funny. And through Todd’s visual style, the music, but then of course with your writing, it all blends together to have these moments of levity. I think of the early sequence when the zooms in on Julianne and she says, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” Can you talk about building the film’s tone with him?
SB: Absolutely. Well, that’s just what I like to do as far as in my writing. This is my first script that’s gotten made, but there were others. So that’s always been what’s interested me is this dark humor mixed with a certain amount of sympathy, humanity, whatever it is. It’s been so exciting to because I don’t think about the camera as a writer. I’m not thinking, “Oh, I’m going to hand over here.” To see what Todd, he’s such a master of tone, and to see the way he brings these elements to life with the music, with the framing, with the zoom. The hotdog line, it’s so funny, I love that too.
I think in the script it was like they’re having this domestic scene and then it says something like suddenly Gracie looks just distraught, this wave washes over her face of extreme panic. And then it says, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” And to see all the ways in which that can be communicated visually, not just with Julianne’s expression, it’s so exciting. But I think that the humor, some of it’s more acerbic, I guess, cynical about Hollywood and some of the stuff that comes with Elizabeth. And some of it, it’s just needed because it’s so uncomfortable. There’s just a need for this release, which I just like.
RM: I liked it too.
SB: Yeah. I think, dark things, if they’re just so dark, having humor, it helps the medicine go down or whatever.
RM: Lastly, by the end of the film, we feel a sense of a massive amount of sympathy, particularly for Joe, who these people are in this whole situation within a week or so. A snapshot of someone’s life. Can you talk about the imprint events like that can have on someone like Joe going forward because him leave them in such a shattered state?
SB: Absolutely. Yeah, we don’t get everything. I have my certain ideas about what happens to Joe. I don’t know that I should say too much to what those are. But I think it’s broken, but it’s also, it’s kind of an emancipation. What I see on Charles’s face in that last shot, which is so emotional every single time, is relief. I see it as his graduation too, that he did it. He didn’t have to do this, but he raised these children, and they seem wonderful. And they’re played so beautifully with these great young actors, some of which, the son, this was his first audition that he ever had. He’s’ from rural Georgia. I think that feeling of he’s kept the walls up and now there’s something that’s shifted, and I don’t think that can be re-shifted.
RM: For sure. Well, I think it’s a great film. And I can’t wait to see what you do next.
SB: Oh, thank you so much, Ryan.
May December is currently in select theaters and available on Netflix.
Photo by Natasha Campos/Getty Images for Netflix