Todd Haynes Things I've Learned as a Moviemaker
May December, L to R: Charles Melton as Joe, Todd Haynes Director and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Cr. François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

Greta Gerwig scored a global hit with Barbie, but Todd Haynes was the first to see the doll’s cinematic potential with his 1988 cult classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which enlisted Barbies to reimagine the life of the doomed singer-drummer. The film started Haynes’ long career of combining artful storytelling devices with real emotion — and it continues with his latest, May December.

The film, one of our favorites of 2023, follows Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), who started a shocking sexual relationship when she was 36 and he was 13. Twenty years later, the couple live together in the suburbs, apparently happily, until they meet a famous actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), whose research to play Gracie in an upcoming movie disrupts their supposed bliss.

Moore has frequently collaborated with Moore, including in his films Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002) and Wonderstruck (2017), but his longest creative collaboration has been with Christine Vachon, who started producing his films with his Superstar follow-up, 1991’s Poison

Long relationships are at the heart of his approach to filmmaking: Haynes believes artifice in movies can reveal deeper truths, but artificial friendships in the industry will result in a short career. 

He participated in the latest edition of Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker during NewFest, an LGBTQ+ film festival in New York City, where he received the Queer Visionary Award.—M.M.

As Told to Joshua Encinias

1. Building trust with your collaborators allows you to shoot intimate scenes safely. I had a conversation with Natalie Portman and Charles Melton about their sex scene in May December and whether they wanted to bring an intimacy coordinator onto the set. I talked to them separately so they could each safely tell me how they felt without the other person being there. They were actually fine and felt comfortable without a coordinator. In fact, they preferred there not be a person involved. 

(L-R) Natalie Portman as Elizabeth, Julianne Moore as Gracie, and Todd Haynes on the set of May December. Photo credit: François Duhamel, courtesy of Netflix

2. When filming sex scenes, you must be specific about how to keep your actors safe and supported. When I have done sex scenes with actors, it’s important to be really specific about what you want them to do; what you want to show and not show, and how you achieve it. Even when actors have done sex scenes before or had a lot of experience with them, I think it’s still challenging. It’s always best to just make everybody feel that we’re in as protected a place as possible. 

3. Don’t be afraid to allow your project the freedom to show exactly what the story needs. When I said my upcoming movie with Joaquin Phoenix will be NC-17, I mean that we need to have the freedom to depict the content. I don’t really know yet how much we need to see of specific sexual content in the movie, but the content itself definitely gets into areas that might disturb or provoke some viewers. But we want to have the freedom to do what is called for in the script and not have a limitation on that. 

4. When you acknowledge a story’s restrictions, you can challenge the audience’s expectations and respect them in the same scene. I’m very interested to have it known that my film is coming out of a narrative tradition, or genre, that the audience brings knowledge to from the outset.

We bring expectations and all kinds of sophistication to what we see on the screen. And to me, that’s something to fully embrace as a director. To allow the viewer’s expectations to be respected, but also challenged. The frames ultimately are exposing the fact that what’s coming to you in the movie comes from somewhere else. 

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry with Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December. Netflix

5. You don’t have to make your movie cinéma vérité to tell its truth.I think a lot of filmmakers want to dispel the consciousness of genre or frames, and I don’t. I don’t think accepting their restrictions interrupts your emotional experience. Sometimes knowing that there’s a frame around it almost makes the emotional response surprise you, because you don’t see it coming. You think you might be savvier than what you’re seeing, and then you actually find yourself innocently open up to an emotional experience.

Todd Haynes on the Art of Long Relationships

6. To have long relationships in moviemaking, find the people who share your storytelling instincts and become real friends, not just contacts in your phone. The relationship with my producer Christine Vachon started so long ago. We found common instincts in each other for the kind of film, art, and storytelling that attracted us. That was fortified and given great depth by the fact that we were living in a crisis around HIV and AIDS that was identifying certain people and singling them out. 

It took our entire community to stand up and do everything possible to change the research and development of medication for that illness, but also to change the minds of Americans and people around the world about gay people. And we did. That fused a very deep bond between Christine and me. I can’t imagine my career without my relationship with Christine, and I think she feels the same way about me.

Also Read: Ridley Scott: Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker

7. Be driven by the events of your time. It was the backdrop of AIDS that gave the stories that Christine and I wanted to make a sense of urgency. It also gave our films an audience and a context to be seen. That ultimately brought attention to the work we were doing and brought consideration to it that may not have happened at different times in the culture.

8. Have a strong vision for your movie and be radically open to input. Christine says that I have very strong ideas and instincts and that I exert a great deal of work to communicate to everyone working on my movies. I make it visible in my image books, shot lists, and in the preparation that I do for each film. But she says that at the same time, I can be more open to ideas and input from the people around me than some other directors for whom it’s more threatening. 

9. Clear communiction and relationships are the key to building your career in filmmaking. Every film I’ve made is a huge risk because I don’t repeat the type of movies I made before, so you never know how things are going to turn out. You just do the very best that you can to make these ideas be manifest.

Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative process, so communication and relationships with your partners in the process is how it happens. I’ve learned that the best collaborations are when your partner feels like they’re standing on something very solid. Then they can give you so much of what they do and what they know. Maybe it’s easier said than done. It comes out of practice and experience and trusting yourself. 

May December is now streaming on Netflix.

Main image: (L-R) Charles Melton as Joe, Todd Haynes, and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Photo credit: François Duhamel, courtesy of Netflix.