Sometimes, the entertainment industry is about being in the right place at the right time with a great idea that happens to click with others, but it’s just as much about having the degree of talent necessary to realize that idea into something fully-formed. For screenwriter Samy Burch, it was definitely a combination of both, first with having the idea that she developed into the screenplay that became May December.
May December is the latest movie directed by Todd Haynes in his long-time partnership with Producer Christine Vachon, and Ms. Burch’s screenplay just fits in beautifully with his oeuvre. It continues his long relationship with actress Julianne Moore, who plays Gracie, a teacher who decades earlier had a sexual encounter with her 13-year-old student Joe Yoo, but they remained married and had three kids together, the last two of them just finishing up high school. Along comes Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a Hollywood actress who has scored the role of playing Gracie in a movie, so she’s come to their Savannah, Georgia hometown to trailer the couple and learn more about them. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s attempt at research ends up disrupting the lives of Gracie and the adult Joe (played by Charles Melton, who just won a Gotham Award on Monday for his performance), as they’re forced to revisit the questionable origins of their relationship.
Above the Line had a chance to speak with Ms. Burch over Zoom about this fascinating project and how it came to be. (You can also read what she said about her screenplay for Coyote vs. ACME here.)
Above the Line: I first heard about this back when it was at Cannes, but I didn’t read about the movie before seeing it, so I just assumed the May December of the title was between Natalie and Julianne, but what got you started on this? There have been stories in the news and other movies about older teachers having relationships with students, but they seem very different than your approach here.
Sammy Burch: Totally. It was loosely inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau case, which is something I always knew. I just grew up in the ’90s. It was very much a time where these stories… there’s almost too many to name: Monica Lewinsky and Tanya [Harding] and Heidi Fleiss and JonBenét [Ramsey]. These characters were so unavoidable, and now we’re in this moment where many of them are being reexamined, and that’s just interesting to me. I think it came from this place of thinking of a couple like that, what would that house feel like with the kids out of the house, back to the two of them? With so many years having gone by with potentially not much being examined. So that was really the seed of it for me, especially Joe’s character, played so beautifully by Charles Melton in the movie. Getting that 20-year distance, and then coming in with a television actress who’s doing research, trying to search for truth. There was more space and air and breath that allows more room for investigation and for humor, and for all kinds of things. That was what got me excited about it.
ATL: When many of these stories break, they’re quite juicy when the come about, and then maybe there’s a criminal trial or something, but then you don’t hear much about them after that. This one is interesting because this couple literally stayed together and had kids. Have you read any stories where they stayed together that long?
Burch: Mary Kay LeTourneau, they got married. That’s the archetype of it, but obviously, this is fictionalized. I think that makes it all the more complicated. I assume, probably, more typical in this space than the tabloid stories are, more likely with the genders swapped back of very young girls that married older men and had kids and might be questioning the origins of their relationship. But it happens all the time. The complication of parenthood at such a young age, and these kids were amazing, and they’re so great in the movie — these amazing young actors. I think that complicates the process of figuring out exactly what happened and what was appropriate. I think that’s part of the journey that Joe is going on in this film.
ATL: Who is Alex Mechanik, who is co-credited with the story for the movie?
Burch: That’s my husband. We got married this year, but Alex and I have worked together a lot. We’ve made short films. We met in college – I was in the screenwriting department, he was in the film school, so we’ve broken a lot of stories together, and that’s been very fun.
ATL: I also saw you have a background in casting, too. A lot of writers who come from other backgrounds, but were you writing the whole time and casting was your day job?
Burch: Exactly, yeah. I kind of grew up among casting in my family. I went to school for screenwriting, and I was just writing spec after spec really, for a while before, but now, I haven’t been casting since 2019, so I kind of turned the corner.
ATL: And you have two great filmmakers who are producing your first feature, Todd and Christine. How did your screenplay get to them? Was it just happenstance that your agent sent it around or thought specifically of Todd?
Burch: I wrote it without any representation, so it got me signed to my wonderful managers at Grandview, and then the script went out to a bunch of production companies, and I was talking to people. The first producers that came on were Jessica Elbaum and Will Ferrell at Gloria Sanchez, and Jessica’s amazing – she just completely got it. It was her that got the script to Natalie Portman, and when Natalie signed on, she had been wanting to do something with Todd Haynes, so she brought it to Todd. And then with Todd comes the amazing collaborator of his life, Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler and all the creatives, and of course, Julianne Moore. So it’s been quite a dominoes starting just from me and Alex.
ATL: As executive producer on the movie, do you get involved in casting, or do you assume that Christine and Laura have that together, where you don’t have to step in with your own casting experience?
Burch: Oh, my God, definitely not. [laughs] Laura Rosenthal is such an amazing casting director and has worked with Todd since Velvet Goldmine. She’s so cool, and they were very nice. I got a lot of auditions sent to me. It was very meta, because there are auditions sent within the film, but no, I’m such a fan of her work, and it was amazing.
ATL: Was Joe Asian in the original script or was that something that was modified when they came up with the idea of having Charles Melton play him?
Burch: Joe was written as Korean-American from the beginning. So that was a very specific search that I think they knew would be a discovery. Laura brought in some amazing actors. I got to see some of them, and there were chemistry reads with Julie. Charles really came as such a surprise, because I knew he was on Riverdale. His performance is so subtle and beautiful and heartbreaking, and it’s been a wonderful gift that he’s in the movie.
ATL: I wasn’t really familiar with his work on Riverdale, but I was just blown away by his scenes with Natalie and Julianne, often where he doesn’t talk at all, but he has this captivating and expressive look. I trust in Todd and Christine that they know how to cast a movie, but he’s just next level.
Burch: Todd has had such a… there are a lot of those examples in his films where there are certain roles that have been discoveries of people. I think this is certainly one of themm even though he’s incredibly well-known to Riverdale [fans], but [this brings] a whole new audience that get to see what an incredible actor Charles is.
ATL: I’ll have to go see this at the Paris to see if any Riverdale fans show up to see it there. It also allowed them to cast Kelvin Han Yee as Joe’s father, and he’s been acting for ages, but nothing on the level of the scene he has with Charles.
Burch: I love all the actors in the film. Cory Michael Smith, who plays the son from the first marriage, Georgie, is electric, and he’s worked with Todd before. I remember he was also in Oliver Kitteridge, and he’s on Gotham. I mean, he’s really a chameleon, and the kids. Gabriel Chung, who plays their teenage son on the roof, this was his first audition. He’s 18 years old; he lives in Georgia. It’s such an incredible mix of actors who have long histories of work and new ones.
ATL: One of Todd’s collaborators who didn’t work on May December was his longtime music supervisor Randall Poster, and there’s this great scene where Georgie tries to convince Natalie’s character to make him music supervisor on her movie, which I thought was hilarious. Was that a coincidence, or was that something put in as an in-joke to Randall?
Burch: It was just a coincidence, I’m just learning now! Yeah, that just seemed like a funny thing to me, but that’s just a coincidence.
ATL: Obviously, Todd is a filmmaker known for writing his own material, but did you sit down with Natalie and Julianne to talk about the characters and dialogue at all or was that more with Todd?
Burch: Todd’s amazing, and obviously, he’s written a lot of his films, and more recently, has done films with other writers, with Carol and Dark Waters and Wondstruck, but he is the best. I’ve been a fan forever, of course. I think his films are just everything. They’re beautiful, and they’re so interesting, and they vary so much. He can’t be put in a box in that way. As well as his work in television — I think Mildred Pierce is the best mini-series ever made. In that process, it’s just a gift. Getting notes from Todd is really unlike any experience I’ve had, and he’s a very generous collaborator. He’s very thoughtful. I felt like I had a voice with someone that I was fully willing to just be like, “Here you go. See you at the premiere,” but that never happened. I was part of this process. I think it just speaks to his spirit, artistically and personally, and also explains why Christine Vachon, Julianne Moore, and so many of the heads of departments, Laura Rosenthal. They’re these teammates that he has been working with since the 90s. and that doesn’t always happen. That’s been really nice. Natalie is a producer on the film, her and her producing partner, Sophie Mas, they have a company called Mountain A, so I’ve talked with Natalie. The first time I met Todd was the first time I met Natalie on a Zoom in 2021. She is obviously such a brilliant person and had so much insight and wonderful notes as well. That was an incredible experience to talk about acting and everything with this character being an actress. Natalie’s very fearless.
May December is now playing in select cities and will stream on Netflix, starting Friday, December 1.