One of the most serendipitous pairings in the film world this year is screenwriter Samy Burch and director Todd Haynes. If you’re thinking “Samy who?,” you’re not alone — Burch is best-known as a casting director, and she appears to have come out of nowhere with the superb screenplay for May December, the new Todd Haynes movie starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.
In fact, Burch is also a writer/director. The May December story was co-written by Burch and Alex Mechanik, a fellow filmmaker who happens to be her husband.
And before May December, Burch and Mechanik — he’s best known as an editor — co-directed three short films that she wrote: Crown Prince, Bev and All You Can Eat.
May December is a darkly comic, femme-centric and unexpectedly affecting tale about perception, performance and the shifting boundary between fact and fiction in our tabloid-news-fuelled contemporary world.
Burch’s screenplay is loosely based on the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the schoolteacher who went to prison for her relationship with a grade six student, Vili Fualaau — who eventually became her husband. When they got together, Letourneau was 34 and the married mother of four children. Fualaau was 12. The couple had two children and were married for 12 of the 20 years they had together. The affair, the prison term and the eventual marriage galvanized the public. The story was a staple of supermarket tabloids.
From that general real-life basis, Burch created May December, an intriguing tale about a fictitious notorious couple — set 20 years after they were front page news — and the actress who comes to insinuate herself into their lives in order to portray the wife in an upcoming movie. Julianne Moore and Charles Melton play the ‘scandalous’ couple; Natalie Portman plays the actress.
OUR TABLOID CULTURE
May December is a multi-layered project and in some ways it’s about filmmaking itself. It’s also about how news is delivered and perceptions formed in a world where tabloid journalism and reality TV dominate. Burch says she has no specific memories of the Letourneau case but that it was generally in the ether. “There were these cases — not all of them were teachers and young students — but I just absorbed all of it. There was no before or after, or rediscovery or research, it’s almost archetypal in the way that I think of that,” she comments.
What mattered to Burch was to create a fictional version of the story, “in all the details, and in their characters, voices, personalities.”
Still, she adds, “I grew up in a time when the tabloid culture was obviously very prominent, and some of it was pretty local. I wasn’t that far from the location of the Nicole Brown Simpson murder, and Monica Lewinsky is someone I saw in the neighborhood. “I’m realizing now that it was very much a part of the environment of my childhood.”
GROWING UP IN THE INDUSTRY
Burch was born and raised in Los Angeles and hails from an industry-oriented household. “I very much grew up in a movie home. Both of my parents had come to LA, they loved movies, and my dad is one of these encyclopedic-knowledge movie people. That was very much in our home constantly. I grew up watching all kinds of films and my mom is a casting director. I literally grew up in a casting office — doing my homework in the waiting room of auditions.”
She adds, laughing, “I don’t know if you’ve been to those before, but they’re not the greatest environment. I saw a lot of interesting moments.”
Later, Burch’s mother moved to North Carolina, and then to Atlanta, to do location casting. “At a certain point she needed an assistant for a project, and I was already trained, having grown up being the unpaid assistant all through school,” says Burch. “I’d fly down and be her assistant for movies shooting in the area, like The Hunger Games movies, and some smaller movies. That’s how I got into casting.”
Her father, said Burch, worked in film development.
“We would go every Tuesday to dinner at the same restaurant and he would kind of pitch to me the projects being pitched that week. I have memories of story structure in crayon, on a placemat, at like, age 10, that kind of thing.” She laughs. “For better or worse that’s definitely the beginning of all this.”
Burch began writing plays in high school, eventually going to NYU/Tisch to study playwriting and screenplay writing. By 2009 she was travelling south to assist her mother with local casting on such films as Iron Man 3, 42 and The Longest Ride; by 2013, she was Casting Director on features and TV movies and now has 20 such credits under her belt.
CONNECTING WITH TODD HAYNES
Natalie Portman sent a copy of Burch’s script to Todd Haynes in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Haynes was immediately intrigued. “I was reading a lot of scripts, but Samy’s was incredibly impressive and arresting,” said the director. “For a relatively new writer, she was so confident in navigating these morally trepidatious themes with this sense of observation and restraint and nuance and wit that actually made the process of reading the script very unnerving and intensely gripping.”
(“Very unnerving and intensely gripping” stands nicely for the experience of seeing the movie, too.)
Burch had finished the screenplay in 2019 but had no manager at the time. May December is not her first feature script, but it is the first to get produced. She jokes that she wrote it in the coat closet of her apartment. So she had no idea it would end up with Todd Haynes?
“I didn’t have any representation at the time,” explains Burch. “Before this, I had written a bunch of scripts for no one, so I think if I had said, ‘I’m going to write this for Todd Haynes,’ people would have been concerned that I’d had some kind of psychotic break.” She laughs. “When I found out Todd was interested, I can’t really describe the shock and euphoria of that.”
“Mind you, she adds, “it made some kind of sense. All his movies are deeply important to me, and thematically, there’s so much overlap — domestic melodrama, fame and performance, scathing social critiques. It’s so perfect and it’s been so perfect, as far as working with him and all the amazing people he brings with him. It’s really a dream come true.”
WHAT COMES NEXT
Burch has another project coming up in Coyote v. Acme —a highly anticipated family movie about Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and all those defective Acme products. It stars Will Forte, John Cena and Lana Condor. The hybrid animation extravaganza was bumped from a July release date for the Barbie blockbuster and has yet to be rescheduled. Burch describes Coyote v. Acme as a kids’ movie and a very different proposition: “It’s interesting — kind of like, what Who Framed Roger Rabbit is to film noir, this is to a legal thriller for kids.”
The two projects could not be more different — Coyote v. Acme is a huge studio film—but Burch was thrilled at the opportunity to write for the iconic Looney Tunes characters. “I never foresaw that in my life! It was very fun. Of all the many people who’ve gotten to write for those characters, it was an honor to hold that candle for a second.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
One of the great pleasures of writing about film is getting to witness the arrival of a great new voice or talent and helping spread the word. The movie is in theatres November 17 and on Netflix December 1; Oscar rumblings have already begun. Burch’s unique voice is worth celebrating. The screenplay for May December is a complex, beautifully layered work that manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking; it’s a story about storytelling, filmmaking, and the tales we tell ourselves to survive our own existence. Burch captures all our defences and blind spots even as she captures the general whiff of schadenfreude that wafts through contemporary life. As Todd Haynes put it in a director’s statement, the film’s remarkable script and its performances, “and all of the beauty and nuance provided by my creative partners, have restored what I believe is still possible in cinema: to find identification in the least likely places, and be compelled and surprised by a story and its characters without ever being entirely comfortable with who is right or wrong.” — Liz Braun