Melodrama or comedy? Director Todd Haynes serves up both in May December, a movie that looks at the many roles women find themselves playing in dealing with life. Natalie Portman stars as Elizabeth, a Hollywood star researching a real-life biopic about Gracie (Julianne Moore), a housewife who years earlier was arrested and jailed for having an affair with a 13-year-old.
Samy Burch’s screenplay is based in part on the Mary Kay Letourneau case in the late 1990s, but the story unfolds in a modern-day world of reality shows and biopics.
Director Todd Haynes turned to May December after another project was postponed. Haynes tends to work with long-time collaborators like Moore and producer Christine Vachon. This is the sixth time he has used Editor Affonso Gonçalves.
An award-winning editor, Gonçalves has formed relationships with directors like Ira Sachs, Larry Clark, and Jim Jarmusch. He most recently edited The Lost Daughter and Don’t Worry Darling. He spoke with Below the Line via Zoom.
Below the Line: May December was shot on a very abbreviated schedule. Did that affect the way you approached the project?
Affonso Gonçalves: He texted me that he had a script as we were finishing The Velvet Underground. We started talking about it, and went from there.
BTL: Are you determining how to do scenes at that stage?
Gonçalves: Not at any real depth. I try not to anticipate how he’s going to approach the film. It’s a long process for Todd. He makes an image book and eventually starts thinking about individual scenes.
Elizabeth’s monologue while she’s looking at the camera, or the mirror scene with Gracie and Elizabeth, points like that, there’s no cutting. They’re going to be just one shot, so while I was reading the script I knew that the story was going to be complicated.
BTL: But you’ve worked together so frequently you must have an idea of his technique.
Gonçalves: Yes and no. I know that Todd’s going to be creative, artistic, specific. His references are so wide. You may not realize watching the film that in the editing room we were talking about Fassbinder, Goddard, Bergman.
Working with Todd is unique. He doesn’t like to watch any of the footage while he’s shooting. I watch the dailies and I’m cutting while I’m getting the material. If there’s any technical or creative issue, I can get in touch with him and ask if he wants to look at something.
BTL: Did that happen in May December?
Gonçalves: There was a scene after the dinner when Elizabeth first goes to Gracie’s house. She walks outside where Joe (Charles Melton), Gracie’s husband, is taking out the trash. When I was watching it on my Avid I thought it looked too dark. I showed it to Todd, he showed it to his DP Christopher Blauvelt, and then decided that the LUT that had been applied was a little too dense.
I remember with Carol there was a problem at the beginning of the shoot with a camera mounting, the focus wasn’t quite hitting. They fixed it quite quickly.
BTL: So Haynes doesn’t look at the footage while he’s shooting?
Gonçalves: I burn DVDs of the footage for him during production. After shooting he takes a two-week break to gather his thoughts. He goes home and watches the DVDs by himself. He takes really detailed notes, scene by scene, of his preferred takes and ideas, which he sends to me.
I put together a film that is his idea of what the film should be, so I end up with two versions, mine and the one Todd did. We watch his version from beginning to end, and then we start working scene by scene. And while we’re doing that, he’ll ask to see how I did the scenes.
So by the time we finish we have a third version of the film, one that is different from the first two, and then we start to work on that.
Todd sits with me all day, from nine to seven. Everything is super-detailed: performance, music, timing, everything. It’s an intense collaboration. For me, it’s super fun working that way.
BTL: Do you have a temp music track when you’re doing your cut?
Gonçalves: This one was very different from what we usually do because Todd had the idea of using Michel Legrand’s soundtrack for The Go-Between. He actually sent the music with script. He was very specific, track one for this scene, track two for that one.
So during my edit I could think about how to use the music. The score usually serves the narrative of a scene, but sometimes Todd was the other way around. I found I had to adjust when I felt the music was too aggressive, or was saying something different from what Todd wanted.
BTL: You use these melodramatic stings when Gracie says there aren’t enough hotdogs, or when Elizabeth strikes a pose by the stockroom door of the pet shop.
Gonçalves: Todd said, “Let’s try it. Let’s go for it. Let’s see how it feels.” It’s a dramatic camera to begin with, and then you zoom in on Gracie. My fear was: Are we pushing too far? Is this too much? We were conscious of the effect, but with this style of music there are no half measures. You can’t just lower the volume. If you’re going to use it, you’ve got to be bold. That was the word he used a lot. “Let’s be bold. Just go for it.”
BTL: Did you watch The Go-Between? Did that affect the way you cut?
Gonçalves: Yes and no. I mean I didn’t watch the film. Maybe there are some echoes of ideas, remnants, in May December, but I don’t think visually or in how it was cut. Because I had already finished my cut.
I don’t tend to use music right away. Later I pick a temp, but this time was different. It was very interesting. Frankly it didn’t seem right to me, I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but I went with how it was scripted. Later I would try to adjust. Maybe track seven is not perfect here, let’s try track eight. Or let’s repeat track seven here instead of there. Once I started putting the music in, it kind of taught me how to use it. I can use it to create a feeling.
The movie takes you on a path and then suddenly you’re like, “Wait, I didn’t think it was going there.” There are tensions, moments that are quiet, moments without cutting. Little things that happen.
I had to remember that this could be cut as a thriller, where you don’t know what will happen. It was important to push the comedy, without losing the tension running underneath.
BTL: Do you consciously think, “I’m going to cut this for comic effect?” Or are you cutting first for the narrative?
Gonçalves: Well, it’s both, because I’m cutting for the narrative first, but then you realize, “Oh, this is funny.” Like when Elizabeth is talking to the theater students and she’s getting inappropriate, you can cut to the wide shot of the class dumbfounded. So I can push those funny, really messed-up moments, like when Gracie is telling her daughters to live life without scales. Hopefully I can get the audience to ride with it, maybe by cutting to a reaction shot of a character gasping.
That moment creates tension because it’s never released. If you keep doing it, the viewer wonders, “Why am I feeling uncomfortable?” Because you’re cutting just as someone is about to say something. Or you cut so the actor is inhaling, never exhaling.
The last shot where the director calls, “Action.” The first version we had, we cut to black. Now there’s a beat, and a beat, and then cut to black. And immediately that forces you to change your thinking.
That’s how you play with tension, by playing with your idea of when something should happen. We are all so accustomed to watching movies that we have like these metronomes of when to expect a cut. If you start messing with that tempo, with the cadence of the cutting, you can control tension that way.
BTL: That scene with Elizabeth and the students was incredibly tense because you’re pulling viewers into something that starts out fun and gets very dark. How do you build a scene like that? Does Haynes shoot a master first? Or is he willing to just go with what he thinks he will use?
Gonçalves: It’s a little bit of both. He planned that long shot of Elizabeth as the master. He was very specific that he wanted a slight zoom in on her, from the side. He was also specific about the reaction shots, like the girl who slowly raises her hand uncomfortably.
When we are cutting, we can make choices. Is a closeup too strong right away? Should we start wide and go to two shots? We can decide how tense or funny to be just by the choice of sizes.
BTL: Did you have a lot of takes of Elizabeth?
Gonçalves: There were some, I can’t remember. I do know I chose one take when I made my cut, and Todd chose another. There was another excellent take, so I’m not sure which one we used. We played the film with different takes, because so much of editing is the effect of what you’ve seen before. Or punting to what comes next. You almost have to reverse engineer the scene to get the right feel. The edit can’t just be moment-to-moment, it has to be broad.
I’ve been working with Todd for 12 years now. Certain moments that are dramatically specific, like that zoom, I’m reading as, “Todd’s talking to me.” He’s telling me, but not telling me. It’s kind of implied. So I start cutting the scene with that shot, the heart of the scene, and then cut everything around it.
BTL: What’s your job on the scenes where Elizabeth and Gracie are looking into a mirror?
Gonçalves: With a shot like that, you have to know and to get in and get out. You stay too long, the audience will feel it. If you’re too fast, they will feel it. What is the perfect point? Is it when they are looking at each other, or are they looking at the mirror? It’s a dance. Those scenes seem so obvious because it’s one shot, but Todd and I go back and forth forever on them. “Is this right?” “No, let’s go three frames less.” You have to be super precise.
BTL: Do you think your editing style is the same when you’re working with other directors?
Gonçalves: I would say I have a taste, which is different than a style. There are things I like to do sonically, I like to work on sound and music. I think I have a distinctive sense of timing. But I don’t want to apply a template or anything to a project. I don’t know how I will cut any film.
As I’m getting the footage, I will see this is not an Ira Sachs movie or a Larry Clark movie. The acting is different, the pacing is different. Ira puts the camera here instead of there. As an editor, I have to adjust to what I have. There are little things that I like to do, that I do often so. That might be the difference.
May December is now available to stream on Netflix.