Todd Haynes talks about his mum, the middle east and new movie May December

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Todd Haynes talks about his mum, the middle east and new movie May December

Etan Smallman met the Jewish director with the 'waspy' surname

Director Todd Haynes and his May December star Natalie Portman
Director Todd Haynes and his May December star Natalie Portman

Todd Haynes chuckles when I ask if any of his stars have ever gone to the lengths of Natalie Portman’s character in his new black comedy-drama May December. She plays actress Elizabeth, who takes her investigative research far too far when she visits Gracie (Julianne Moore) – whom she is playing – 20 years after her ‘May December’ relationship with a 13-year-old became a tabloid sensation across the US.

“I think I’d have fired them if they had!” the director of Far From Heaven and Carol says on video call from New York. “The film takes some shots at the sort of presumptions and arrogance that we see within the film industry and the seriousness with which people sometimes feel that they’re entitled to determine what truth is for other people.”

Todd Haynes
©Amazon/courtesy Everett Collection

However, the “master of illicit romance” – who made his name as a leading light of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s – is equally meticulous in his preparation. After being asked to take on the project by Jerusalem-born Portman (who also co-produced the movie), he hired ‘bug wranglers’ to breed armies of caterpillars for the visual metaphor of a chrysalis on the verge of hatching.

As he does for every production, he also created an image book complete with pictures from his various inspirations, ranging from Woody Allen’s Manhattan to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. He instructed his cast and crew to flick through it while listening to music from 1971 film The Go-Between.

In his fifth film with Moore – a performer he says is able to act in ways so invisible to the naked eye that he only picks them up when watching the rushes – he is again preoccupied by compelling female voices. “In May December, they are both dangerously strong women, perniciously strong women, whose desires are driving the outcome of the narrative.”

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December

He says he is usually more drawn to stories of characters constrained – by marriage or society – “because they tend to describe how none of us always feel in control of our powers, even when we have them” and because the “imbalances of how women’s lives and their choices are realised in the world are all too real and enduring”.

This template was provided by Haynes’ mother, Sherry Lynne, who, like all his creations, was “a combination of contradictory things”. He continues: “She had tremendous passion and strong interests and a wilfulness and enthusiasm. She also was very much a product of inherited ideas about how women should look and behave.”

His mother bequeathed him something else. “The Jewish side of my family is my mum’s side – so I am a Jew! And proud to be that,” says LA-born Haynes, who studied art and semiotics at Brown University in Rhode Island. Her parents, Arnold and Blessing, the children of European immigrants, embodied “the prototype of the sort of self-made liberal Jewish intellectual strivings that have so defined aspects of American culture”.

The only thing he regrets is that his surname “sounds so WASPY” – particularly as it comes from the man who adopted his father. “God, he was from another world, this guy. He was a racist and scary. It’s like all of us in America; we inherit all kinds of aspects of complicated histories.”

The 62-year-old fretfully combs his fingers through his bushy grey hair when I ask how he has been since 7 October. While many of his Hollywood colleagues have rushed to sign open letters, he says he resists the temptation to wade in with political statements.

“It’s been so distressing,” he says haltingly. “My heart goes out to the people who are suffering the most, the people who’ve died, the people who are held hostage, Palestinian civilians… and I don’t know how we get out of this situation.”

One man to whom Haynes looks in times of tumult is Sigmund Freud – and a TV series about the father of psychoanalysis is the project he says he has to complete before he dies. It is “because of my regard for Freud, how progressive a thinker he is, how much – no matter what crisis we’re facing – it’s all there in Freud”, he affirms. “There’s an understanding about humankind, which is fragile and tender, but also cautionary and full of a sense that human turmoil is the norm and there is no way of resolving all of our disquiet.

“Our internal primitive urges can never be fully expressed in a civilised society. So yeah, man. With every year that passes, it just feels like a subject that could yield such meaning and relevance.”

Todd and his May December cast at the Cannes Film Festival

The great man could surely also unwrap why – despite the Oscar nomination, Cannes and Sundance prizes and cinephile adulation – Haynes insists he still feels like an outsider. “The sense that my career has gained a foothold in certain circles still comes to me as a bit of a foreign idea,” he admits. “When you’re making a movie, you are inherently outside what you’re making because you don’t know what it is yet. And yet that’s the place I long to be back in all the time.

“That’s all I think about when I’m in this mode of promoting a movie and maybe that’s all I think about when I’m in that mode of being completely terrified of what we’re doing. Continually pivoting and ricocheting from one to the other… it’s a very exhilarating and creative life that I realise I am so lucky to have.”

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