Madeline’s Madeline, the latest film from Josephine Decker, wowed audiences when it premiered at Sundance last month. Telling the story of a precocious young girl (newcomer Helena Howard) who takes her acting classes a little too seriously, it is a psychologically rich tale about parenting, race, and the blurring between art and life. We sat down with Decker in Berlin to talk all about her latest work.
Redmond Bacon: How did the idea for the film first come about?
Josephine Decker: It wasn’t ever one idea. I met Helena [and] I was like “we’ve got to make something with you,” then we started talking about themes that were interesting to us. I had this idea about the futility of art, and how you go into something thinking you are going to save the world and take on the prison system and immigration with your little performance art piece about the three little pigs. And I was really interested in the ways that performance itself and the processes of acting can really crack open and reveal parts of yourself that you don’t really know are there. So, I think there was a lot of ideas actually – it wasn’t just one. Then we improvised with actors for like almost a year on the weekends.
RB: Did you workshop like in the film itself?
JD: Yep. After that long I started trying to write and cull down, and realized the thing that was really staying with me from that year, even though we made so many amazing improvisations, was actually just the process itself; the complex weaving of real life and art and how those two blended together.
RB: I was going to ask about the relationship between life and art, because the in the film the theatre piece starts to blend in with real life. Was this the same for you while you were making the movie, or did things remain professional?
JD: Professional is a funny thing in this context because when you’re improvising with people and improvising from real life, you use the time that you have, and you leave at a certain time, but there is an intimacy and a shared experience that already blurs life and art. For all the confusing ethics that come up around that, when you’re in a theatrical troupe it’s a real, shared experience that enhances your own life. So it is your art, it is your life.
RB: The scenes of people workshopping and the theatre scenes reminded me of Jacques Rivette. Was this an influence for you?
JD: Oh that’s so wonderful. The funny thing is I haven’t seen that much of his work. I saw Celine and Julie Go Boating which blew my mind. I saw it at Bam [Brooklyn Academy Of Music]. They did a print of it, and I thought “Wow, you can do a lot with cinema”. But truthfully, I haven’t seen that much. Also, now I’m very curious. I would like to see some more Jacques Rivette.
RB: Out 1 is the 13-hour one. I saw it on Mubi.
JD: It’s pretty wild. I think I saw one section of that and was like: “It’s a little slow”.
RB: Very slow, yes. But your style is very different from Rivette’s. You use a hand-held camera, lots of cutting and you don’t really go for establishing shots, like “this is the outside of the building” and then we’re inside now. You always go straight into the characters heads and emotions. Is this your intention?
JD: Yes, I’m really big on seamless transitions. I remember writing in the script that she would run out of a car upset and run into a rehearsal [on a] totally different day, wearing totally different clothes – but the emotion moves with her. I never really understood this whole establishing shot, because I know it tells you what place you’re in, but it can take you out of the emotion you’re in. To me, the emotion you’re in is always much more important than the place.
RB: I saw your other films to prepare for the interview, and they didn’t hit me as much because I didn’t see them in the cinema. Do you always make films to be seen in the cinema? You wouldn’t sell it to Netflix or anything, without a theatrical release?
JD: It’s a great question. [Putting on a jokey voice] It depends how much Netflix is paying.
RB: They get everyone eventually.
JD: It’s interesting because for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely we shot on a 5D, and we didn’t even have a monitor. So poor Ashley Connor [cinematographer] is looking at a screen like this big [makes a small rectangle with her hands] to make her choices about what’s going to be in the film. And in a way it was funny, because I edited that film almost completely on a laptop. Seeing it in a theatre was such a surprise because it’s kind of a claustrophobic film in that people are framed very close and its tons of medium shots until the end where you really release things into the bigger world. That was on purpose, because I feel like that film plays fairly well on a smaller screen, because it was shot on a smaller screen. I think this film [Madeline’s Madeline] does do much better in a theatre. Saying I make films for the theatre – truthfully I can’t afford to edit on anything bigger than [a laptop] yet. Maybe someday. I do think the size of the screen really affects the pace of the film and the edit of the film.
RB: I wanted to mention the theme of race in the movie. First, I thought it was incidental, but when we meet Evangeline’s husband, he’s also black. Did you want to say something intentional about race here?
JD: I think it was intentional, like: what is Evangeline’s curiosity? Where is that coming from? Is that derived from her experience of “I’m going to have this baby”, or “what is this baby like?” I think it was intentional that the questions she might have around race are embedded in her, in her pregnancy and in her partnership.
RB: What were your key inspirations for the movie? I thought there was a Persona kind of vibe and I also wrote down 3 Women.
JD: Two of my favourite films. I love 3 Women, and Persona I just re-watched recently. Persona and Babe are two of my favourite movies. I would say I didn’t have a lot of film inspirations for this. I had a lot of painting inspirations, like abstract paintings, and I was really interested in minimalist painting and making a canvas that allows you to choose the story or create the story out of just brushstrokes. And then I listened to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” maybe a hundred times and I think that I was kind of really interested in a structure for a film that wasn’t a normal narrative structure but felt a little more like a song. Like the way that a motif arises and arises and arises enough times that it explodes into the – like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” [sings “Rhapsody in Blue”] and then when it hits the Dah you’re like “yes!” Anyway that’s all.
RB: So regarding the topic of mental illness. This is a topic that is very prominent now in the media. Do you think – I don’t think so – that some critics may accuse you of exploiting mental illness for narrative purposes?
JD: Well I guess that depends on your take of the film, but I definitely wouldn’t call it exploiting mental illness. I think the characters exploit the mental illness of others. I think both characters are exploiting the other character’s mental illness for their own gains. If anything, I hope it would be read as a commentary on how misunderstood mental illness is, how easy it is to psychologise someone and how easy it is to put a person into a category. I think that the mother Regina is creating this character of Madeline as a mentally ill helpless person that she has to really watch because who knows what will happen, and I think there’s moments where Madeline’s like “OK great, you want me to be that person, I’ll be that person for you”. I think it’s complicated, especially with a young person, and there were versions of the film where I thought it was interesting to keep the question alive – is she mentally ill, or is her mum convinced of it – but I think this one is a little clearer that she is struggling with something that is going on inside of her. My hope would be that it creates a deeper conversation around it.
RB: We get this ambiguous ending, where we’re not quite sure if its real or not. Do you always look to create an ambiguous, unsettling feeling in the viewer, as opposed to tidying it up with a neat bow?
JD: I would say that’s true, yes. Always. I like movies that don’t end on the final shot, you kind of keep the audience writing the film until long after it works out.
RB: For a film like this, how do you find the funding? Because it might be a hard sell for Hollywood.
JD: I know, it’s so true. We were lucky that Bow and Arrow – the production company – read a draft of the script and was interested and responded. They really liked Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, so they were really early partners in saying yes to the project. We were able to raise a lot of money through the momentum of having a group that was excited for the piece to exist. Then Forager came on and helped us as we were getting into the edit. We were lucky to have partners who believed in this kind of work. It’s a strange piece, it’s not your normal piece of cinema, so I was grateful that some folks seem to respond well.
RB: In Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, you worked with Joe Swanberg, who is something of a patron saint of Modern American Independent Cinema. I’m wondering if Swanberg gave you any advice in your filmmaking.
JD: It’s funny because he might even be sleeping in that room right now [points to room behind her]. He’s staying with us here – he’s one of the executive producers on this film. We were working on Mild and Lovely and he saw me getting a little surly at the end of the day and I was like this is so hard balancing everyone’s input and making everyone happy and he said: “Josephine, no one’s happy unless you’re happy. If we finish a take and you look miserable, we’re all miserable. You need to get what you need. Just ask for what you need and we will all feel like we got what we needed, even at the time it feels like we’re fighting back.” And that gave me a lot of permission.
RB: In The New Yorker in 2014, Richard Brody said that the three most exciting American directors working today are Wes Anderson, Terence Malick and Josephine Decker. Does that excite you or make you very, very nervous?
JD: I think I feel really honoured to have his support and trust.
RB: He doesn’t like a lot of films.
JD: That kind of thing, it feels like a kindness. Because I’m so often saying the opposite to myself. The process of art-making, at least for me, is feeling like a failure all the time, feeling like I’m not going to be good enough, nobody is going to like what I do, so when there’s a little bit of news that somebody thinks what I’m doing is worthwhile it’s kind of like a salve that helps me keep going and calms the intestine. I’m very grateful and will take all the positive reinforcement I can get.
RB: Your films are a lot about female power and women’s relationship to sex. What are the ideas you are trying to create around female sexuality and power?
JD: I grew up in Texas in a very repressed culture that was not sex positive at all. It was all about waiting until marriage; it was a very religious community. It was honestly very focused around male pleasure. There was not very much exploration of female pleasure. It was not something that was talked about. I think that when I started to make work, I think there was pent-up, brewing anger and also violence inside my own sexuality around what I wanted to get and how I wanted to get it. I think I created characters in Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely who were going to get what they wanted, and they would destroy anyone to get that. And that felt really good to me to create, and I needed to see that to feel more empowered within myself.
RB: This actually ties into one of my other questions. Do you want to provide a sense of catharsis for the audience, to allow them to confront their demons and get a cathartic reaction to it?
JD: I think I try to. I can’t ever tell how the audience is going to react to something. My dad is a poet, and the thing I learnt from poetry is that with the smallest amount of words you’re trying to take a sword to someone’s soul and explode something open in a very beautiful way. I think that is something that I am interested in within cinema. How do you access a part of our human space that isn’t about [the] plot blowing up at the end but is about expansion?
RB: How did you discover Helena?
JD: She was doing a performance at a teen arts festival in New Jersey. A bunch of teens were performing and I was supposed to give feedback on every performance. I gave feedback on two kids from Frozen before her, and she got on stage and did a monologue from Blackbird that left me literally weeping and I couldn’t give any feedback. I think I said: “I have no notes”. This was the best performance I had ever seen in my life. Then I very patiently requested her contact information slash chased her down the hall, got the contact information and said: “Yeah, let’s make a movie together.”
RB: What’s next?
JD: I was hopefully going to direct a feature film this summer that is in the early stages, and I don’t know how much I will be able to talk about it yet. But it will be set in upstate New York and [knocks wood] fingers crossed that will come together.