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May December: The Anatomy of a Scene

Hi, I’m Todd Haynes, and I’m the director of ‘May December.’ [DOOR OPENS & CLOSES]: “Now, this is silly.” “This is actually very serious business.” “If you say so.”

So in this scene, Natalie Portman, who is playing an actor, Elizabeth Berry, who’s planning to portray the character that Julianne Moore plays, Gracie Atherton-Yoo, in a story about the origins of this scandalous relationship that took place over 20 years ago, where Gracie seduced a 13-year-old boy. And in this scene, she literally is, as actors do, looking at the way Gracie applies makeup, and her makeup choices. And so like many scenes that you will see in the film that take place in rooms with mirrors, the scene is shot with the camera occupying the place of the mirror. “You know, I think that it would be better if I just did this to you.” And so the actors are performing directly into the lens of the camera when they are looking at the reflections of themselves, and they look just off the lens at the reflection of the other actor.

What’s really interesting about the scene is, that usually Natalie Portman’s character is in the position of interviewing people and asking questions and trying to collect information to help her in her transformation into portraying this woman. Here, it’s Julianne who starts asking questions about Natalie’s character and Natalie, Elizabeth’s life. “So, did you always want to be an actress?” “Always.” So, you start to hear more about Natalie’s character than we’ve ever heard in this scene. “I wanted to be on Broadway. And when I told my parents, I was nine or 10, they were so disappointed. They said, honey, you’re so much smarter than that.” “What did you say? Are you smarter than that?” “I don’t know. I don’t know.” And there’s an intimacy that starts to emerge between the two of them, and a sense that, wow, are these women going to find a kind of safety in each other rather than a sense of threat, or how far is this going to go? And that’s the sort of atmosphere that the scene conjures I think for the viewer as you’re watching. But in the end, man, as a director of great actresses that I’ve been lucky enough to mark my career by, this was a particular astonishing day to watch these two women. “What was your mother like?” “She was beautiful.” And so a shot like this is a great idea, but it doesn’t work unless you have Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman. And so the silences and the breaks and the little bit of laughter is really what’s happening, and it gives the viewer a lot to chew on. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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