Director Todd Haynes said Julianne Moore's character Gracie's costumes, voice and more "helped us to sort of understand how this happened or the delusions that helped produce it"
May December is a fictionalized look at a shocking, much-talked-about true story.
During a press conference after a screening of the film at the New York Film Festival on Friday, screenwriter Samy Burch explained how much of the story was inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau.
"I really wanted a fictional story that dealt with this tabloid culture of the '90s that has kind of seemingly led into this true-crime biopic world we're in now, and kind of question that transition and why we want to keep recreating these stories," said Burch, who began working on the script in 2019. "That was the real jumping off point for me."
"All of these stories like this that are in the ether are just completely embedded in everyone's cultural history," she added.
Letourneau, who died of cancer at 58 in 2020, was a Seattle school teacher sentenced to more than seven years in prison for child rape after she began sexually abusing her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau in 1996.
She became pregnant with Fualaau's children twice before he was 15, despite court orders to keep them apart.
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Fualaau was an adult by the time she was released from prison, and he petitioned the court to allow them to see each other. The restraining order against Letourneau was dropped, but she remained a registered sex offender in Washington state until her death.
Despite the criminal history of their relationship, the couple married in 2005. They broke up in 2017 after Fualaau filed for legal separation. However, as the split proceeded, they still lived together. Fualaau was by Letourneau's side when she died, and she left much of her estate to him in her will.
Set in Savannah, Georgia, May December stars Julianne Moore as a woman named Gracie Atherton-Yoo, who, when she was 36, began an affair with a 13-year-old at a pet shop where they worked, sparking a tabloid obsession.
The two got married after her release from prison, and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), now 36 and preparing to be an empty nester as they send their younger kids to college, maintains that the relationship was always consensual.
That is, until a famous actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), comes to town to research their relationship as she prepares to portray Gracie in a new movie about the scandal. Elizabeth's prodding into their lives causes Joe to rethink his dynamic with Gracie.
Director Todd Haynes said during the press conference that Moore, 62, took some inspiration from Letourneau when building the character, including giving Gracie a noticeable lisp.
"To be honest, there were things in kind of a loose upper palate that we did find interesting in Mary Kay Letourneau's speech that was a kick-off for her. And she took it further," said Haynes, 62, of frequent collaborator Moore coming up with Gracie's speaking voice.
"Also this idea of how does this kind of original relationship occur? What is the myth these two people tell each other about the roles they're playing?" he continued of the character.
"She's not a pedophile, this woman; she doesn't have a history of going after every little teenage boy. There's something very specific that happened to these two people."
"But it's shrouded in a fantasy," said Haynes, "which is that she is the princess that needs to be rescued from the domestic tower, and he's the young, virile knight, almost like a Greco-Roman young knight, who's gonna come in with all this sexual virility and power and beauty and save her. And so she plays the little girl."
The filmmaker explained that Moore's costumes, manner of speech, color palette and more creative decisions "helped us to sort of understand how this happened or the delusions that helped produce it."
Though Moore could not participate in the festival press conference due to the ongoing actors' strike, she previously told Netflix's Queue outlet about what attracted her to the role.
"For Gracie, there’s been a tremendous amount of judgment about her. She wants to say, ‘See me. Know who I am. Know why I’ve made these choices.’ She wants to be known," says Moore. "I think that there’s something really interesting about that, about letting somebody into your very, very private life to explore, to see who you are."
She adds, "But, of course, Gracie’s also presenting a version of herself that she wants to be known. I think Elizabeth becomes more dangerous as Gracie realizes that she can’t control her own narrative."
May December is in select theaters Nov. 17 then on Netflix Dec. 1.
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