A version of this story about “May December” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.
In movie history the most iconic “film with a key”– film à clef – is “Citizen Kane,” where director Orson Welles took pleasure in depicting tycoon William Randolph Hearst through a thinly veiled fictional drama. The technique involves the audience because viewers bring existing facts (or assumptions) into the theater as they connect the real-life details to the story being spun. “Primary Colors” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” both novels first, are more recent examples of the form.
Todd Haynes’s “May December” is not as scathing of a film à clef as those other titles, but its roots to the truth are just as knotty. The movie stars Julianne Moore and Charles Melton as a Georgia couple, decades apart in age, whose lives are upended by an actress (Natalie Portman) who has been cast to play the wife in a film adaptation of their story.
The screenplay by Samy Burch, a casting director making her first foray into feature writing, offers a prism-reflection of the Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau case, major tabloid fodder in the 1990s. Letourneau was a married teacher who served prison time for having sex with Fualaau, who was 12 years old at the time. They had two children together and were later married. She died from cancer in 2020 at age 58; the couple had separated in 2019.
In “May December,” Moore and Melton, who are 30 years apart in age, play Gracie and Joe. In the greatly fictionalized version, the characters met while working at a pet store. The story takes place during the weeks leading up to the high school graduation of their youngest twins.
“I grew up in the ’90s so all of the tabloids of the time just soaked into my blood, unfortunately,” Burch said, who also has a story credit for the film along with Alex Mechanik. Amid all the O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky headlines, she does not remember her first exposure to the Letourneau story, which broke in 1997 and triggered a tsunami of fascination and revulsion in the news media. “It’s like wondering when did you first see the image of Mount Rushmore,” she said. “The story is archetypal and eternal in this freaky way.”
But while brainstorming ideas for “May December,” Burch explained, “I thought back to that case and realized their kids would be college-aged now. And there was something about that, this particular couple as empty-nesters, which really struck me. I kept thinking of a quiet house and how much probably wouldn’t have been said over the last 20-something years, and how suffocating that would feel. That was the seed for me in developing this story.”
In adding many layers to the fictional material but still commenting on the ripple effects of the real-life case, Burch zeroed in on the character of Joe Yoo, the young husband (played by Melton of TV’s “Riverdale”).
“He’s someone with so much unspoken and unprocessed, right on the verge of seeing his kids graduate high school and way too young for that benchmark,” she said. “And it became a real opportunity to look at some of this ’90s tabloid culture with a bit of distance. And how that moment somewhat transformed into the never-ending true crime parade we have right now.”
“May December” delivers an intriguing commentary on that true crime parade, especially the public’s insatiable appetite for more – in podcasts, binge-centric streaming series and movies. The film offers brief peeks of how celebrity magazines and even respectable newspapers clung to the Letourneau scandal.
“Part of how I’ve seen where Joe is at this exact moment in his life, as the movie begins, is that he was never able to process what happened to him in his youth,” said Burch. “Or this second arrow of the media frenzy that followed. And it’s hard to say how much additional damage that could have caused.”
She added, “So seeing these little bits, these little hints – the magazines, TV movies, newspapers – which I got to write all of by the way. (Production designer) Sam Lisenco would call me and be like, ‘Can you write a NY Times one too?’ I was like looking up AP Style guides. These (things) all give us clues of what it must have been like at the time. Like an archaeological dig.”
This story about “May December” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.