Samy Burch's biggest aspiration was to get an agent. In the spring of 2019, she shut herself in a makeshift office — the coat closet in her apartment— with the goal of writing a script that would get her representation and help her pivot away from her day job in casting. She emerged months later with May December. Now, Burch is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
May December follows a television actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), as she descends upon the small town of Savannah, Georgia to study the notorious tabloid figure she will be portraying in her next movie — a "ripped from the headlines" reexamination of the relationship between Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), which started when she was a 36-year-old housewife and he was just in the seventh grade.
Portman, who is also a producer on the film, was the one who brought Burch's screenplay to director Todd Haynes. "The script just blew me away," he tells A.frame. "As you're reading it, especially the first time, you're sorting through the murkiness of your feelings, and your expectations about where the story is going to go, and who you trust of the characters, so you're really on edge."
"What I've tried to do in my films is take the incredible knowledge and fluency that spectators and filmgoers have, and invite that into the process, but then set it adrift, or create barriers to that, that make you have to think about things you don't usually think about while you're interpreting movies and enjoying movies," Haynes expounds. "I love that about the script. Samy is so remarkable in so many ways. I mean, she's so brilliant. She's so confident in her work, but she's so lovely and it's been such a pleasure to share this experience with her."
At the 96th Oscars, May December is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. "We are shocked and deeply moved," Burch and Alex Mechanik, with whom she conceived the story, said of the nomination. "This means so much coming from the writer's branch, which surely contains every one of our heroes… We're gonna go celebrate with a thick, sweet, dry slice of coconut cake."
In conversation with A.frame, the first-time screenwriter reflects on the "wild journey" from her coat closet to the Oscars.
A.frame: What was the first kernel of an idea that eventually became May December?
At some point, I was thinking about the Mary Kay Letourneau case — which is something I just always knew; it's as ubiquitous as O.J. and Monica — and it occurred to me that their children were probably adults, and it conjured this idea of an empty nest, this home with these two people that have gone through so much. So, right from the beginning, I knew I wanted to make it a fictionalized version of a couple like that, and it always was going to be right on the verge of a high school graduation, because that felt like a very loaded week to catch up with these characters, and with enough distance for investigation and for humor. We weren't staring at the thing directly in the face.
How did that evolve into the idea of an actress coming in as both our entry into their story and the spark that explodes this couple's dynamic?
It really came from a couple of conversations with my now husband, Alex Mechanik, where we were like, 'What's a way into this scenario 20 years later? What's our entry point?' It could have been a journalist, but it being this network television actress coming in with a chip on her shoulder and with something to prove, that inherently felt funny. There's something comedic about that, and also brings in with it a lot of this true-crime machine, this era that we're in right now where we are retelling and recreating these stories. That felt right from the beginning, so we had all those pieces within the first conversation.
You've said that you wrote this as a writing sample to get representation. When you finished the script, did you have a sense that it could have a life beyond that?
Honestly, I was finished with the first draft in spring of 2019, and I had friends send it to their managers. Nobody wanted to meet with me. It took time and it was just a lucky moment, where a friend of a friend sent it to my now managers, and then they went out with it. And then those were the first phone calls I got. I remember getting a call like, 'CAA is freaking out.' Things like that, of people seeing these roles, and I think that really has a lot to do with the fact that there are these roles for women that are interesting. But that was the first time where I thought, 'Oh my goodness, maybe this is going to get made.'
Was the next big call from Natalie Portman, not only telling you that she was interested in producing this movie but that she wanted to play Elizabeth too?
That was a life-changing call. The life-changing call in between those was Jessica Elbaum, who is Will Ferrell's producing partner and is so incredible. It was this very exciting, electric kind of call. And then finding out Natalie wanted to produce this movie and wanted to be this part, I mean, that was where the track changed pretty significantly. And it was her that brought the script to Todd. I didn't even know that. We had this dream list, but I was, thankfully, only told the good news once they'd had a conversation and wanted to talk to me. I met both of them for the first time on Zoom. I was in my kitchen, and it was me, Todd, Natalie. So, scary! [Laughs] But it was fun right from the beginning and there was this kinship, and they had such interesting things to say about the script. It's been amazing since that moment, really.
Todd is this master of the stylized melodrama. Is his style of filmmaking along the lines of what you were imagining when you were writing the script? Or was it a surprise when your interests intersected on this project?
It's interesting. I think yes and no. It's so exciting to see what Todd does, just as a lifelong fan of Todd. Like, the visual choices, the stylistic choices, the boldness, some of those scenes that are framed so beautifully and they play out for minutes — I could not have anticipated any of it. I feel like from the beginning, I've always seen this as this braid of darkly comedic satire or uncomfortable comedy, and also something very humane, and something that needed to be protected — this incredibly serious portrait. So, in that way, I think yes. But then there's so much more.
Todd has discussed the films he was thinking of while making this — Ingmar Bergman's Persona, John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday, and such. Were there specific movies that you'd thought about while writing that you brought to the project?
Todd did make this amazing list of films that everybody on the crew all watched, which is so cool. But I like to watch things for really specific reasons. So, the film was initially set in Camden, Maine, so Alex and I were watching Belfast, Maine, this amazing Frederick Wiseman documentary — I wish Frederick Wiseman could make a documentary of every single place in the world, so you go, 'Oh, what's that like?' — and that was really helpful. We watched Peyton Place and In the Bedroom, more for a sense of place. And then we watched Streetcar Named Desire for this kind of weaponized hyperfemininity that Blanche Dubois has, and 3 Women.
Once Todd signed on and you started collaborating with him, were there ways in which the script evolved or new discoveries that you made?
Well, getting notes from Todd is such a gift. Todd's notes are poetry, ultimately, and there's so much trust, and they're all good. That's the thing. Sometimes, you get notes and you go, 'Ugh, I don't like this note,' but these were all incredibly beautiful. A lot of them were actually about taking away, about minusing instead of adding. One of the notes that I loved was he wanted me to 'add more fog,' to take away some of what is said so that the audience can feel it. I think that's amazing. I think of that all the time now.
There were some scenes that feel completely essential that weren't there before. The second scene with Georgie, played by Cory Michael Smith, that came from a note. The putting on the makeup scene, that was expanded. But it was a very natural process. I turned in a draft, got some more notes, turned in a draft, and then it was just waiting until the schedules aligned. And then it became quick. Then it was like, 'Okay, we are moving from Maine to Savannah in this pass.' So, practical things. But with everything, there's a level of boldness and fearlessness and thoughtfulness that's so contagious that all of these people share, but it starts at the top. It really starts with Todd.
Considering your history in casting, how close were Natalie, Julianne, and Charles to what you had envisioned Elizabeth, Gracie and Joe as on the page?
Oh my God. Well, it's so much more! It really is. They all brought so much specificity. I mean, it's crazy. Julianne had such a real challenge with her role, in particular because there are parts of Gracie that are unknowable. That's part of the whole idea, for me at least, that there are things that even I, as the writer, don't have access to. And she had to make that person completely whole and understand her in this full way, which was so amazing. And Natalie's notes as the producer informed so much of who Elizabeth became. Initially, there was a glibness to the writing of the Elizabeth character, but that was a fun part of the process, was making her richer, making her have more depth. And then Charles, he just brought so much sensitivity and nuance to this character. The physicality that he brought, among other things, is so exciting to see. Laura Rosenthal, who cast the movie, is a legend and she did such an amazing job with every role.
I mean, some of my favorite line readings are day players from Georgia with one line! The biggest thing that casting taught me is I would see these day player roles and then sometimes people would get cut, and it was painful. So, I try to be really intentional, that even if it's one line, it's there for a reason. Because I do really love and respect actors — as much as maybe this isn't the most flattering portrayal of one.
When did you see the finished film for the first time?
It wasn't completely finished, but it was very close. I hadn't seen that many dailies — I'd only seen what I was on set for — so it was quite a high. It was just Alex and I, in our house, and it was so thrilling to see it, finally. And also so fast! They ended filming in November and then it was March of the next year, so it came out of the blue. And then I saw it with some smaller audiences, and now I've seen it a bunch of times, including at the New York Film Festival. What an audience that was. That was like 1,200 people, and it is a fun movie to see in an audience! There is uncomfortable laughter and there are moments where you can feel everyone going, 'Ugh,' which is very satisfying for me!
By John Boone
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category for an interview.