Todd Haynes with Charles Melton and Julianne Moore on the set of 'May December'

Source: François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

Todd Haynes with Charles Melton and Julianne Moore on the set of ‘May December’

Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik had a busy 2023. The pair got married, and in May, a film they had plotted together, and which Burch had scripted, premiered at Cannes Film Festival. May December, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton, went on to pick up a host of critics’ awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

But a wedding and an acclaimed debut film was not all that 2023 had in store for the couple. Burch had written the screenplay for Coyote Vs. Acme, a live action-animation hybrid in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But in November, Warner Bros Discovery announced that, for tax purposes, it would not be releasing the finished film.

“I got the news two hours before the actors strike ended, and we knew Natalie and everyone were going to be at the [Los Angeles] premiere of May December,” says Burch, sitting side-by-side with Mechanik on a Zoom call. “The two films orbited each other this whole time in a very strange way, even though they couldn’t have been more different.”

Burch, who grew up in Los Angeles, and Mechanik, from Tampa, Florida, previously worked in casting and other film departments, and had collaborated on short films and spec screenplays ever since graduating from New York University, where Burch studied screenwriting and Mechanik film.

“I had 10 to 12 years of writing spec after spec for no-one at all,” says Burch. In 2018, they noticed the tabloid scandals they remembered from their 1990s childhoods — the OJ Simpson murder case; the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton affair — were being turned into true-crime dramas. This prompted them to think about Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who was convicted in 1997 of sexually abusing a student when she was 34 and he was 12. Letourneau and her victim would go on to have two children together and be married for 14 years.

Burch and Mechanik’s idea was to have a struggling television actress visit a fictionalised version of this unconventional family as she was preparing to play the abuser in a biopic. “You could do it with a reporter coming to get the scoop, but it made so much sense to us right from the beginning that this was an actress, and that it was not someone with any kind of ethical or moral code,” says Burch.

“You wouldn’t know it from the film,” adds Mechanik, “but we really love actors.”

The pair roughed out their darkly funny and ultimately tender story in 2019, and Burch wrote the screenplay, mainly in the hope it might attract an agent. “There was a bit of a wait because neither of us had any representation,” she says, “so nobody wanted to read the script or had any way of knowing it existed.”

The following January, Burch “got signed by some great managers” who sent out the screenplay to several production companies. In March, Booksmart producer Jessica Elbaum called her to say she wanted to produce the film alongside Will Ferrell, her partner at Gloria Sanchez Productions. Elbaum and Ferrell then sent it to Natalie Portman, who offered to come onboard as a producer, and play the television actress Elizabeth.

“It was so surreal,” says Burch. “That was a life-changing phone call, but I had not left the apartment in months [because of the pandemic], so it was like, ‘I guess I’m taking everyone’s word for it that this is all happening, because as far as I can tell we’re still in the apartment.’”

The year ended with the news Portman had given the screenplay to Haynes and he was interested in directing. “We have been lifelong fans of Todd and all of his beautiful work, so that was like a lottery-ticket level of shock and awe,” says Burch, who refined the script based on notes from Haynes, Portman, Elbaum and Ferrell. In May 2021, Haynes told her that his frequent collaborator Moore had agreed to play Gracie, the woman at the heart of the scandal. The cast, says Mechanik, was “an embarrassment of riches”.

All they had to do was wait for Haynes to get through another project, a biopic of singer Peggy Lee starring Michelle Williams. “But something happened that put the whole thing on hold,” says Burch, “[and] to such a degree that Todd then said, ‘Let’s just pivot [and make May December].’ There had been about nine months of, ‘The script is in a good place, we’re waiting for the schedules to align,’ then it became all hands on deck very fast.”

The only snag was that the climax of May December was set at a high-school graduation ceremony in May, whereas the cast and crew were only available to shoot in October, which meant the original location, Maine, would be too obviously autumnal.

“It became an issue of leaves, basically,” says Burch. The answer was to relocate the story to Savannah, Georgia. “I was at the art school in Savannah for my freshman year of college, so it was like kismet. Now it feels obvious that it always should have been Savannah because it’s thematically perfect. It’s this quaint little southern town that feels like it’s in denial. It’s so lovely and beautiful and charming but it’s harbouring a lot of past and present dysfunction.”

Upcoming projects

Samy Burch (left) and Alex Mechanik

Source: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for Netflix

Samy Burch (left) and Alex Mechanik

Netflix bought North American rights to May December last May, and released in cinemas for a brief window before streaming in December. Sky Cinema released in the UK. The film made plenty of waves with awards voters — for example, four Golden Globe nominations including for principal actors Portman, Moore and Melton — but ultimately Burch and Mechanik are the film’s sole Oscar nominees.

Mechanik is now about to direct a feature film scripted by him and plotted by the couple, which is being produced by Gloria Sanchez Productions. Burch has a television project lined up with the same company, as well as a feature with Killer Films “which I shouldn’t say much about”.

Then there is Coyote Vs. Acme, which is “in limbo”, says Burch, as another company may buy it from Warner and release it. She was hired for Coyote Vs. Acme in February 2020 on the strength of her May December script, and was tasked with writing a “legal thriller for kids” featuring the Looney Tunes cartoon characters.

“Through the pandemic I was going back and forth from, ‘Oh my God, I’m getting these gorgeous notes from Todd Haynes,’ to ‘Okay, Tweety Bird — what’s his deal?’ Early in the pandemic, when everything was shut down, I was watching exclusively Wile E Coyote Looney Tunes episodes and legal thrillers like The Firm and Michael Clayton. It’s a recipe to lose someone’s mind, I’m sure of it.”

Still, at least she kept busy during lockdown. “It was incredibly lucky to be employed and just to have something to focus on,” Burch agrees. “But there were times when everyone was having a very different experience and I was like, ‘I wish I could make sourdough bread…’”