Mirrors play a key role in acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes’ latest film “May December,” and the “Carol” and “Far From Heaven” director worked closely with his cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to visually emphasize the drama’s themes of watching and being seen.
“May December” stars Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are a couple grappling with their tabloid-covered past when an actress, played by Natalie Portman, shows up to research a role.
“It doesn’t redeem either of these women, they’re always in this tension,” Haynes said of the film’s approach to the central relationships in TheWrap’s How I Did It presented by Netflix. The director said he wanted to drill down the way the two women at the center of the story are mirroring each other through the use of mirrors and direct address, in which characters speak directly to the camera.
“Direct address is used in different ways in movies. I couldn’t think of a lot of examples of it being used this way where the actor just looks into the camera as their reflection in a mirror and you don’t have to necessarily establish that there’s a mirror, you just let the performance tell you that,” he said.
Haynes worked for the first time with Blauvelt when his regular cinematographer Ed Lachman fell and broke his femur. Blauvelt, whose credits include 2020’s stunning “Emma.” and 2016’s “Certain Women,” jumped at the chance to work with Haynes. “My answer is like, you don’t even have to give me credit,” he joked.
The mirror theme came to a head during a crucial scene in which Portman and Moore’s characters are watching one of Moore’s daughters try on a dress.
“The scene itself is shocking and funny, but it’s also very cruel and I see that as a show of force,” screenwriter Samy Burch said.
“Every woman that I know understands that scene and has been there,” Haynes added. “Yes, she’s playing games with power and marking her territory around Elizabeth, but it’s a modeling thing about femininity and how it gets passed on from mothers to daughters. I wanted to try to let that all play out in the mirrors that the two women are speaking into and starting to observe each other through.”
Haynes said his initial idea for the shot was much simpler, but it evolved from there. The performers are surrounded by mirrors and the camera had to be positioned just right so it wouldn’t catch any errant reflections of the set or crew. It was one of the most complicated scenes in the entire shoot and Blauvelt said it was a true team effort to nail it.
“It’s not exclusive to me, or even the departments, it’s like a collective that goes all the way back to the genius of the writing, and the characters, and Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman and Elizabeth Yu,” the cinematographer said. “When that happens, and all the pistons are firing and you know that we got there from everybody really understanding the intent and building something like that, it’s the best feeling you can have as a filmmaker.”
Haynes said the entire filmmaking team came together to make the shot possible.
“It was a really special time,” Haynes said. “We felt like, ‘Damn we are working as a team so well.’ It just took everybody hands-on sharing that process.”
“May December” is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.