Friday, August 30, 2019

“A sense of otherness is important” - An Interview with Mark Jenkin

At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking Bait is a newly discovered lost film, the print having languished for decades in the recesses of an abandoned cinema. The black-and-white footage is scratchy and prone to flaring, and the sound has obviously been post-dubbed, but Mark Jenkin has deliberately used archaic filmmaking techniques to explore very modern concerns. Set in his native Cornwall, Bait centres on the tension between the struggling fishing community and the influx of holidaymakers who have changed the face of the area, and while Jenkin’s images may evoke names like Robert Bresson or Roberto Rossellini, his debut feature is a true British original.

What have the reactions been like as you’ve travelled with this film? Stylistically and culturally it seems like a niche object on the surface, but there’s a fundamentally classical narrative underneath it.

When I started writing the film 20 years ago, I thought it was very local, very specific to Cornwall, and in the 20 years since I’ve put it down and picked it up again, it now seems that everybody can pick their own relevance out of it, and their own significance to their lives. It’s not even their own lives, necessarily, and from the Q&As and stuff people seem to recognise the state of the world in microcosm. It’s that old cliché about something very specific being very universal. Somebody came up to me in the Walter Reade at Lincoln Centre after the American premiere, it was this woman who was American but whose dad had been a fisherman in Barbados, and she said, “This is the story of my dad.”

Read the rest of my interview at the BFI website

"I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself" - An Interview with Joanna Hogg

Three films into her career, Joanna Hogg had already established herself as one of the most distinctive and exciting artists working in contemporary British cinema, but even by her own high standards The Souvenir is something extraordinary. This portrait of a young film student's relationship with an troubled older man in 1980s London is both her most nakedly autobiographical film and most ambitious project to date. The film as it stands is a singular and perfectly crafted gem, but for the director it’s only half-complete, with The Souvenir: Part II set to continue Julie’s story. She had just finished shooting the second instalment when we met in London recently to discuss The Souvenir.

We've spoken in the past about how you often begin your projects with a particular location in mind and then develop the characters within that space. With The Souvenir you've got a different starting point, drawing on your own memories and experiences. Did that make it a very different process for you?

I'm not sure in the end if it did change very much, but I suppose the starting point was different, which I was aware of. It concerned me in the beginning when I was first thinking about doing it because, you know, what was going to be the place? At that point I hadn't really thought about the reconstructing of the apartment and the film school, but it quickly became clear that I also needed a place to set this film. That place became the aircraft hangar we found that has ended up being – both for part one and part two – the container for everything, in a way. There are locations outside that hangar, but it is the centre of it. So in a way it is no different from the others, but then as the container for a lot of scenes and ideas it challenged me into making formally different choices with this film, and I was aware of that and aware of wanting to push myself. With those three previous films I felt there was a pattern emerging that I consciously wanted to break and confuse and destroy.

This is a memory piece and I'm fascinated by the way it feels like a memory. The moments feel very specific but the whole feels more elusive and fragmented.

[Long pause] You know, I was actually going to preface our meeting by saying that I feel completely emptied out after shooting the second part. It's a strange thing – and I will try to answer your question – but for the shoot it's such an intense moment. As a filmmaker you don't get to shoot that often, so I think I've got six and a half weeks here, I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself. At the end of it I'm sort of an empty vessel, and that's exactly where I am right now. [laughs] Now there's a little bit of a confusion between part one and part two, because I've been completely immersed in part two, and I have to try and remember what part one is and what I wanted to do with that and how to talk about these two separate things. For me it's all part of one piece of work.

With Exhibition – although that fits into the pattern of the previous films – I wanted to challenge myself with that in terms of trying to tell a story in a non-linear way, in a more fragmented way. I think Exhibition is more fragmented than The Souvenir; the first part, anyway, I don't yet know if the second part will be more fragmented. The first part seems quite linear in a way, and when you talk about the precision in one sense but the fragmented nature in another, I suppose just by the nature of the way I work and what I'm searching for there are...it's so hard to articulate right at this moment, to be honest. I don't want something too loose even though the way I work seems very open and allows a lot of things to come in, but that has to be very tightly controlled, so it's a mixture of extreme control on the one hand and letting things go. The result of that is something between those things.

It has an ellipical quality, like we're just getting these snapshots of a relationship.

It's interesting, because I didn't set out for it to be those snapshots, and I thought maybe this film would be less elliptical, because I'm aware of that with the other films. This was my attempt to tell more of a conventional narrative but I guess it's hard for me to do that

Your work often withholds things from the audience and leaves things unsaid, but I felt that aspect was particularly potent here. What's unsaid is often hanging heavily over every scene.

Yes, well, I think of the other films and maybe my experience in life is often people not saying what they mean, and speaking for myself, I don't think I'm very good at saying in everyday life what I want or what I think. I guess that opaqueness sort of washes over the films. I'm interested in depicting a scene and just letting it sit there. It's not even something I talk about with Helle [le Fevre], the editor I work with, but we're very interested in editing scenes together but letting the effect of them sit there and not wanting to spell too much out, even though I did think I was going to spell out more with this film. [laughs]

I was just thinking about that scene where they're having the birthday meal and Tilda is talking about taking a course at the Courtauld and everyone's having a nice time, but right behind them we see the broken mirror from when Anthony had his withdrawal meltdown. I kept wondering, have they discussed this? Do the parents know what happened? Are they all choosing to ignore it?

It's funny, because I remember my perspective on that when we shot it and edited it was, is it too obvious having this broken mirror in the background?

Do you talk about that kind of thing with the actors?

I do remember a certain amount of conversation around that. It was interesting because James Spencer Ashworth, who plays Julie's father, he's not an actor, he's actually a farmer in life. He would often ask those questions as someone who wasn't coming from an acting perspective. He would ask me, "Should I know that?" or "What would I know in this situation?" so some of those questions came interestingly from him just because he put himself into this new situation and had a natural curiosity I wouldn't encourage him to work out too much or think too much about the situation, but as a person he just wanted to understand what things meant. Tilda and Tom, and even Honor, were happy to just be in that situation, and Honor wasn't party to the story so she wasn't questioning anything because she really didn't know what was going to happen from one moment to the next.

You've often cast non actors. How do you know someone with no experience is going to be able to handle a role? Is it just gut instinct?

I think it's a gut instinct and – talking about James, for example – knowing that he didn't have to stray too far from who he is as a person, so I'm not asking him to play a pawnbroker or something. When I cast a non-actor I won't push them to stretch too far from who they are in life, and I think that helps a lot. But to answer your question about whether I know how it's going to be, I really don't. Even though I might take those precautions, the excitement for me is not knowing how it's going to be on the day. Someone might be playing who they are in real life but they might be very uncomfortable or self-conscious in front of the camera.

Do you screen test them?

No. I think I just create a comfortable environment for them to be in and that's maybe half the battle, having a calm set and creating a certain atmosphere that they can be themselves in. That's the same for the actors, actually, I want to create that atmosphere for them too.

Tom Burke is a remarkable actor. He has such a distinctive presence and delivery. What drew you to him for this role?

Again so much is instinct, but knowing and having seen him perform brilliantly in certain things I had more evidence of his ability as an actor. He just had some qualities that reminded me of the original character and there was just something about his physique that is so different from the physique of a lot of young actors now, who are going to the gym all the time. There's a sort of body consciousness that I find off-putting sometimes. I want their mind to be connected with their body, I don't want this concern of looking right, and that's not where Tom is and that's not what he's interested in. I thought he reminded me a little bit of a young Orson Welles, he's not off to the gym every five minutes.

Anthony feels very specifically constructed as a character but he's also very enigmatic. How did you work with Tom on developing this?

I cast him quite early on and I gave him a lot of materials to use as foundation for the character, so he had voice recordings of the original character, letters, photographs. He's an incredibly intelligent actor and from these materials he was able to build a picture of someone that in the end was spookily close to the person I knew. That happened over weeks and months. It was a wonderful thing to meet Tom and spend that time with him in the lead-up to the shoot, because often I'll cast quite late in the day and won't have that opportunity, but it seemed so right with this character that he was carefully constructed. The person was very carefully constructed, in a way, and it needed that time and energy and focus.

The fact that he was so well prepared and Honor wasn't helps create that unbalanced power dynamic between their characters.

Yes, that's true. She came in very late and didn't know where she was going.

What I loved about Honor's performance is the way it shows how being in love can make someone so vulnerable. She doesn't hold anything back, she doesn't protect herself in any way. Did you discuss that with her or was that something she brought to the character?

I think a lot of that is Honor. She was party to some materials but in a very different way to Tom, and in a very sped-up way because she was cast so late in the process. I did show her some of my diaries from the time. I didn't show her so many letters but I showed her some materials so she could get an idea of who this young woman is at this point in her life. As well as diaries I showed her some of the screenplays I attempted to write and the film I did. I didn't want her to know anything about the relationship because that was going to happen during the filming, when she was going to meet him; in fact she didn't even know it was about a relationship. She knew it was about a young film student and I just wanted to have an idea of the projects and the impetus of a filmmaker and photographer. It was the creative and artistic side I wanted her to inhabit.

I know you like to put your actors into a scene with little preparation and to capture their spontaneous reactions. Can you maintain that sense of spontaneity when you're doing multiple takes?

Of course there's always a risk that after the first take the innocence has gone in a way. It always surprised me actually, even with Honor who had never acted before and never had a desire to be an actress, how she was able to repeat that surprise and that feeling of not knowing after a number of takes. That has continued to surprise me in shooting part two as well, her ability to perform.

This is the first feature you've shot on film. Did that change your process?

It did, it changed a lot because I can't have such long takes. I really liked having that disciple. I really liked having something telling me that a take could only be so long, the economy of it, how many rolls of film we were getting through. I found that very exciting actually, having those limits. I decided to put those limits on myself even more in the second part. So part one is partly shot on 16mm, partly digital and super 8, and the second part the ratio is more towards film. There are some digital moments but most of it is shot on film, and I absolutely loved that.

You're using close-ups a lot more too.

Yeah, and I feel like I'm pushing that even more in the second part, in terms of where to put the camera and how to shoot scenes. I'm trying to move the camera around a bit more too.

It's interesting that you've had this big gap between shooting the two parts. Was there ever a thought of doing them as one production, or was it the money factor that dictated that?

It was a money factor. I wanted to, actually, and in the lead up to shooting part one there was always the possibility of doing both back-to-back. I didn't want to have a break and certainly not a break of two years, but we just weren't able to get the commitment and raise the money for shooting two at the same time. I think in the end it's probably a good thing, actually, because I had much more time to construct part two. At first I thought what  a shame to lose momentum, but there are certain ideas that I hadn't come up with then that I'm really pleased I got a chance to do.

The Souvenir is in UK cinemas from August 30th

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg has evolved as an artist with every film she has made, but her fourth feature is a memoir of her first faltering steps as a director and the toxic relationship that almost derailed her. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a 24-year-old film student in 80s London who is captivated by Anthony (Tom Burke), the older man who saunters into her life and stays there. Anthony is worldly, enigmatic and charismatic, and we can see why she falls for him, but he's also prone to mysterious disappearances and erratic behaviour. He's harbouring a destructive secret that Julie is too naïve – or too smitten – to see.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

"I read an article the other day that claimed the world's weather is changing" Cary Grant tells Ingrid Bergman as they discuss the unseasonably muggy atmosphere in Indiscreet (1958), which screened from a vintage Technicolor print at year's Il Cinema Ritrovato. The line got a laugh from viewers frantically fanning themselves inside the Arlecchino Cinema because the encroaching heatwave had been a prime topic of conversation in Bologna all week, as it had been across much of Europe. "Hell is Coming" was a headline that confronted me as I read The Guardian over breakfast one morning. It's not really the kind of thing you want to read on your holiday.

The stuffy atmosphere inside the Arlecchino can threaten to make even a brisk trifle like Indiscreet feel like a slog, especially when the cinema is packed to capacity with viewers even sitting in the aisles, as it often the case for these Technicolor screenings; Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), hardly one of his most popular films, was similarly oversubscribed. Fortunately, the star power on display in Donen's film cannot be dimmed and it was a real treat to experience it with such a huge and appreciative crowd, particularly the increasingly farcical and funny second half of the movie. David Kossoff's perfectly timed appearance at the door following his protracted rehearsal towards the end of the film brought the house down.
The heat only defeated me on one notable occasion. When I watched the German film Der Ruf (1949) on my last evening in Bologna, I just couldn't focus on the movie. My energy had been completely sapped by the oppressive weather and I couldn't connect with a film that everyone else seemed to love. Perhaps it wasn't all down to the heat, though. I wonder if the film's steady pace and muted drama made it feel a little stodgy after the imaginative and zippy German films I'd enjoyed earlier in the week. The “We Are the Natives of Trizonia” strand focused on the immediate postwar period of German cinema, when filmmakers began contemplating the country's traumatic recent past and uncertain future. The methods they used to do this were frequently surprising. Helmut Käutner's In Jenen Tagen (1947) is narrated by the wreck of an old car, recalling its seven previous owners as it is stripped down in a scrapyard. Through these vignettes, which begin in 1933 and end in 1945, In Jenen Tagen attempts to tell the story of life in Nazi Germany from the perspective of ordinary citizens. In the hands of many filmmakers it may have felt gimmicky and clunky, but Käutner is such an elegant director, and so good at developing characters in a few swift strokes.

Käutner's touch was also evident in Film Without a Title (1948), with his ingenious screenplay being directed with great verve by Rudolf Jugert. The film begins with three filmmakers (including Willy Fritsch, hilariously spoofing himself) debating whether it's possible or even right to make a lighthearted romantic comedy in these dark times, and as they continue to argue the point we see the romance between a professor (Hans Söhnker) and his maid (Hildegard Knef) rewritten several times, with elements of social realism bleeding into the comic storytelling. What's so striking about these films is how they steered clear of the neo-realism or 'rubble films' that one might expect from a nation emerging from a destructive war. Instead they are slick, stylish entertainments made with great confidence and wit.
It's easy to imagine someone like Käutner crossing over into Hollywood and becoming one of the great studio directors. Il Cinema Ritrovato tends to put one Hollywood figure under the spotlight every year. In previous editions we have celebrated Leo McCarey, Carl Laemmle, Jr. and John M. Stahl, and this year Henry King was the main man, with eleven of his films (a fraction of his long career) being presented. I'd already seen two of the films in the programme – Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950) – and I caught another of his collaborations with Gregory Peck in Bologna with the riveting western The Bravados (1958). This is a shockingly dark and violent western, with Peck on excellent form as a man consumed by his need for vengeance, but the King films that really captivated me blended emotional complexity with a deceptive lightness of touch. State Fair (1933) and Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952) displayed King’s gift for recreating a nostalgic, idealised vision of American life and investing it with a melancholy undertone.

Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie in particular is an extraordinary piece of work. Shot in dazzling Technicolor by Leon Shamroy, the film follows fifty years in the life of both a town and the barber (David Wayne) who was one of its original inhabitants. His willingness to placate his frustrated wife through a series of lies and his determination to dictate his son’s ambitions drives them both away from him, and there’s a fascinating tension in this film between the colourful, high-spirited surface and the bitterness and regret that haunts its protagonist. Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie is a very strange film that shifts direction three or four times, even incorporating a gangster subplot and a musical number into its decades-spanning narrative. That strangeness is a key part of its appeal, though, and while this programme may have presented some Henry King films that feel more cohesive and complete, none of them got under my skin and lingered in my thoughts in quite the same way.
The question of what constitutes a filmmaker’s greatest achievement is an interesting one to consider. When introducing one of the Felix Feist screenings, programmer Eddie Muller described Tomorrow is Another Day (1952) as this director’s masterpiece, and it certainly is a fine film; Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman are excellent as the ex-con and the dame he gets mixed up with, and the film moves into morally ambiguous territory in its third act. It’s unquestionably a classier piece of filmmaking than The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), but give me the choice right now and I’d choose to re-watch the scrappy hour-long B-picture instead. This is a drum-tight noir with a hint of screwball comedy in which Laurence Tierney (on brutish, swaggering form) hitches a ride to make his getaway and causes all manner of problems for the driver and two women they pick up along the way. Within its limited boundaries the film is nimbly plotted and directed, and Feist finds room for several eccentric supporting characters who relish the hard-boiled dialogue (such levity was notably absent from The Threat (1949), the second half of this double-bill). Feist was a director capable of great elegance when required – I loved the understated, unnerving climax of The Man who Cheated Himself (1950) – but the title of this strand was ‘Brutal Nasty and Short,’ and no film lived up to that billing better than The Devil Thumbs a Ride.

Both Henry King and Felix Feist enjoyed long careers and varying degrees of success, but what happens to a director when a film just disappears? Spring Night, Summer Night (1967) has a fascinating ‘what if?’ story to tell. The film was programmed in the 1968 New York Film Festival before being dropped to make way for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), and that was pretty much it for Joseph L. Anderson’s film, which largely slipped out of public view for the next five decades, although it briefly emerged re-cut as an exploitation film entitled Miss Jessica Is Pregnant. Now it as been restored for Nicolas Winding Refn’s ByNWR streaming channel and it should finally earn its place as a major work of American independent cinema. It’s a tale of incest between two siblings (Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall) who come from a broken, bickering family in a rural Ohio town, but the film proceeds with no judgement and respects the complexity and ambiguity of each character. It’s a stunningly evocative piece of filmmaking, with crisp black-and-white photography and a haunting sense of place; it’s as vivid and moving a portrait of small-town American life as The Last Picture Show (1971). The performances are so naturalistic and affecting (particularly Larue Hall, who is jaw-droppingly great) it’s hard to believe that these actors have such few credits to their name, and I was glad to hear that a blu-ray release is currently in the works which will hopefully shed further light onto this overlooked masterwork.
Seeing forgotten directors be rediscovered is one of the great joys of this festival, particularly when those filmmakers are present to receive their long-overdue applause. I witnessed such an occasion two years ago when Med Hondo was present to give emotionally charged introductions to his films, and Hondo – who died in March – was a spiritual presence at this year’s festival with his film Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (1974), an imaginative and provocative examination of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, immigrant labour, exploitation and racism that unfolds in a series of arguments and sketches. This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Med Hondo and every one of them has been audacious, original and powerful. He wants to activate his audiences, to provoke questions and action, and in this is perhaps his most directly confrontational work.

One of the central questions Hondo poses in Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins is to ask what exactly constitutes African cinema. It’s a question that the festival has attempted to answer in recent years in collaboration with the African Film Heritage Project, which aims to restore and distribute fifty African films over the coming years. The latest fruits of its labour were presented at this year’s programme, with the best of them being Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa’s Muna Moto (1975), a riveting portrait of misogyny and exploitation within an African community. The film has a raw emotional force but Dikongué-Pipa brings lyrical touches to his direction – his use of direct point-of-view shots is particularly potent – and it’s brilliantly structured, opening with a dramatic confrontation and then flashing back to show how a young couple in love reached this moment of crisis. A film made with great passion, anger and artistry, Muna Moto deserves to be rediscovered by a new audience, and it was a privilege to be present as Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa shared this moment with us. As the director told festival curator Cecilia Cenciarelli: "You didn't restore my film, you restored me."
Many of the themes touched on in Muna Moto were reflected in Baara (1978), another of the African films presented in Bologna. The film’s title translates as Work, and almost every scene focuses on labour or capital; a series of negotiations through which Souleymane Cissé details a whole social and economic fabric of this patriarchal society, and the cycles of exploitation and corruption inherent within it. Like Muna Moto, Baara feels incredibly alive and resonant, but much discussion in the post-film Q&A focused on the quality of the presentation rather than the knotty themes of the film itself. Cissé was very unhappy with the quality of the 35mm print screened (which was the best the festival could locate after a months-long search and having rejected even worse prints), and in fact he said he would rather see this print destroyed than be shown again. It felt like an overreaction to me – the print certainly was far from the worst I’d seen, and it in no way diminished the film’s power – but I can understand his frustration at seeing his rarely screened film presented in sub-optimal conditions. One hopes this exceptional piece of work is next on the World Cinema Foundation's restoration list.

Director Q&As are a rarity in Bologna. The filmmakers who do attend usually introduce their films rather than take questions after them, and sometimes that’s more than enough; Nicolas Winding Refn’s antics during his pre-festival intro to Drive (2011) caused a full-body cringe from anyone who recalled them over the following days. Sometimes an impromptu Q&A session can break out in an unexpected way, though. "I don't want to disrupt the event... well, maybe I do" Francis Ford Coppola said as he began to question why an event billed as a ‘masterclass’ was in fact a staid onstage interview and expressed the desire to speak directly to aspiring filmmakers and students in the audience instead – to talk to them "student to student" as he put it. Soon a long line of young admirers was lining up to ask their questions with Coppola eagerly answering every one of them, resisting his interlocutors’ attempts to get the event back on track and refusing to leave the stage until he had addressed each question, even as the event overran.
But it wasn’t just his rebellious, disruptive spirit and passionate engagement with his audience that made this such a special event, it was the tone of his speech. He was full of earnest advice for the next generation, encouraging them to find new ways of making films, to form collectives and write from the heart and take advantage of modern technology to bypass the traditional cinematic structures. Coppola has always been a forward-thinking artist – remember his “one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera” line from Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)? – and it was thrilling to see how insatiably curious he remained about the potential of this medium. Il Cinema Ritrovato is a festival that celebrates cinema’s past, but its most invigorating spectacle was provided by a great filmmaker looking with boundless optimism and excitement into its future.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Apollo 11

Fifty years on, what’s left to be said about the flight of Apollo 11? The eight-day mission that fulfilled President Kennedy’s eight-year-old pledge to place a man on the moon before the end of the decade is one of the most widely documented events in human history. We all have the fuzzy, black-and-white footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface etched into our collective memories. We know their words by heart (“The eagle has landed…It’s one small step for man…”), and in 2018, Damien Chazelle recreated the journey from Armstrong’s perspective in the meticulously crafted First Man.

So how can Todd Douglas Miller, the director of Apollo 11, offer us a new perspective? First of all, he has the benefit of using footage that we’ve never seen before, thanks to the discovery in 2017 of a wealth of materials in the NASA archive, including more than 60 reels of 65mm film related to the Apollo 11 mission. Miller is a smart enough filmmaker to know that this footage is his trump card, so he gives it to us straight; no explanatory voiceover, no talking heads, just captivating images that remind us of the awesome scale of this project.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Monday, June 17, 2019

"It's very important not to be surreal for the sake of it, everything has to be grounded in some kind of reality." - An Interview with Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland’s fourth feature is the director's most ambitious film, his most extravagant and his funniest. After making films that have focused narrowly on a small group of characters, and often set largely within a single environment, In Fabric sees him telling multiple stories about disparate characters, all of whom are connected by a haunted red dress. This dress – which is listed as ‘artery red’ the the Dentley & Soper’s department store catalogue – floats from one owner to the next, seemingly a perfect fit for their bodies until it renders those bodies lifeless. Pitched somewhere between Suspiria and Are You Being Served?, In Fabric is another singular film from one of the most distinctive artists currently working in British cinema, and I met Peter Strickland to discuss it during the London Film Festival. This conversation covers some surprising plot developments in the film, so I’d advise people to read it after watching In Fabric.

This feels like a more expansive vision from you, in that we're getting a look at the world that surrounds your characters. Is that something you had in your mind when you were developing the film?

Not really, but it makes sense now. For me it was just that the habitat was a high street, which involves lots of habitats within that, and I guess stuff came out of that organically. There was no conscious decision to open up the world, that's just what the story needed. The high street, a dress causing havoc, it was very difficult to do. We had more money than my previous film and I thought, "Wow, this is great!" but then we had more than triple the amount of actors, more than triple the amount of locations and so on, so that money doesn't go far at all. Plus we shot it in London whereas the last film was shot in Hungary, which is cheaper. It was tight, very tight, but you just have to make it work somehow.

Did you always see it as a two-part story?

No, there were many variations. There were some with six stories, there was one story, but in the end I settled on two halves. It could have been a TV series, quite easily, it could have had sequels and so on - it's still open to that, the dress will continue - but ultimately money decided it for me. I was a bit sad about it initially but I realised with hindsight that I wouldn't have time to be with those characters and then you don't get attached to them. The important thing was to not want them to die. I didn't want to it be like a slasher film where you don't care about the characters dying, or even worse this tacit understanding that they deserve to die because they've fornicated, which has always perplexed me. So it was very important that you see characters with all their frustrations, their dreams, hopes and motivations, and hopefully you can see that this dress is random in its power, it's not judgemental.

I guess there is a risk there in the fact that we get so attached to Sheila and her story...

Yes, I've noticed this...

It's a bold move to replace that character we've grown fond of with a guy who keeps delivering monologues about washing machine repair.

Yeah, I've paid the price for that. I've been told off quite a few times for the second half. I mean, that's the way it is and I wouldn't change it in hindsight. It's tragic that she dies, and to be honest I'd be more concerned if you weren't bothered by it, because that would mean I'm not doing my job with Sheila's character. The fact that there is such a strong reaction to her death means Marianne has pulled it off, she's really inhabited that character. For me, it always had to move on to other people.

But the shop still gives it all a sense of unity.

Yeah, and Stash and Clive. It's the high street. Originally I was going to have Reg fix Sheila's washing machine but that felt too connected, too fatalistic. It was important that they'd never met each other. There are hints, you know, when Bananas Brian is wrapping up the baubles in newspaper and you see that headline. That's one of my favourite moments in the film, just how cheap death can be, someone else's bauble wrapping. It's tragic, but there you go.

Another piece of connective tissue between the two halves is this idea that neighbours and co-workers are constantly snooping and reporting on each other. Where did that idea come from?

[Laughs] From real life! Well, maybe not neighbours, but you've never been grassed on at work?

I was just struck by how prevalent it is here. It seems like everyone is at it and it creates this paranoid Kafka-esque atmosphere.

I think it's because I lived in Eastern Europe too long. In Eastern Europe Kafka is regarded as a social realist, and I think it's very important not to be surreal for the sake of it, everything has to be grounded in some kind of reality. It is exaggerated but there's still a link to real life, that managers can behave like that and people are...I mean, you must know people at work who get jealous because somebody's going to the toilet and then clocking off. It's this petty mindedness. So much British humour comes from one-upmanship and making people look stupid, that's just a British thing and you don't get it so much in Hungarian humour.

Do you feel like your time in Eastern Europe gave you a different perspective on that kind of Britishness?

It's stuff I never noticed until I lived abroad. English euphemisms, the way Fatma's character speaks and all this kind of stuff, and how common acronyms are. And class hits you like anything. I guess because I'm middle-class I'd never really thought that much about it, and it's only when living abroad that I really hits you how class seeps into everything in this country.

Does it feel like a more personal film in the sense that you're back to where you grew up and exploring the shops you remembered as a child?

They're all personal, all the films. They're not autobiographical but they're all personal. It's weird because living in Reading I really craved escapism and I was obsessed with Herzog and Tarkovsky and the exoticism of Eastern Europe or Germany, and so on. I craved that as a filmmaker. But living for quite a long time in Eastern Europe, in Slovakia and Hungary, Reading became exotic for me. I would bring friends over to Reading and I could see it through their eyes as something wonderful rather than how I looked at it as a kid. So yeah, I guess I saw Reading with fresh eyes and I guess you try to combine your childhood perception with the perception of someone who is new to Reading, and that's how In Fabric ended up, as a merger of these two things. A Euro-pudding, I think we call it.

There's a nostalgia for a lost era of retail too. Going to a big department store which is this grand palatial space, and the tactility of sifting through objects and looking at catalogues. It's a stark contrast with how we shop today.

Yes, I think it's very sad. I think online shopping is great for people who can't get to the shops for whatever reason, but it's kind of taking over and very soon we're only going to have one mode of shopping. It's good to have both worlds. I like entering another space, especially independent shops, which always have a unique atmosphere, and I like the interaction. I also don't like having a record of what I buy online. I buy a lot of dodgy DVDs, that's no big secret.

And then you get a lot of weird recommendations.

Oh, the algorithms! They drive me mad. I just want to speak to a human being and flick through a rack, there's something physical about flicking through records and that process of discovery, and talking to people. I think something would really be lost if we only did things online. You know, we all shop online and we have to sometimes, but when I go into DVD stores they're just empty now, it's just tragic. So yeah, I see it as much as a celebration of the shops as I do a light satire on consumerism, because I don't regard the lead characters as consumerists but that is in the background of it with the fighting and the queues and so on.

And the people working at the shop being personified as vampires.

Yeah, and this idea that once the dress is out it should never come back, so they always freak out when someone comes back with the dress. The vampire thing came very naturally, it just kind of made perfect sense in a way. And this idea of humans looking like mannequins and mannequins looking like humans. And this idea of bodily fluids; is the menstrual blood of the mannequin acting as some kind of dye?

The dress in the catalogue is listed as being 'artery red'.

Absolutely, yeah. Actually it's a shame because there was a scene that we just didn't have time to shoot, it was an extension of the scene where Mr Lundy ejaculates, and in the script the cum lands on a blouse and creates this beautiful splatter pattern. The next morning it dries into this kind of crystalline silvery thing and a woman sees it and says, "Ooh, that's nice!" and buys it. I really wanted to explore this idea of bodily fluids on clothing because, you know, all clothing has bodily fluids, sweat, blood, cum, whatever. It's very taboo but it's such an everyday thing, and there's something haunting in that, I mean, Vince is so obsessed with it that he wants his face printed on Gwen's underwear, but Sheila is disgusted by the same underwear, she won't even put it in the washing machine. Objects have a power, a dead person's clothing can make someone cry, so objects are not just objects, they're very powerful things that create human emotions. I think the film is just using the haunting as a device to explore ideas about...not about fashion - which I'm not very interested in, as you can probably tell - but about how we feel when we wear clothing and how we feel when we see clothing.

How do you work with your design team - your cinematographer, and your costume and production designers? Do you present them with a lot of photographs and references materials, or do you give them a sense of what you want and have them present ideas to you?

I give them stuff and they give me stuff, so it's like a two-way thing, and through trial and error we discover things. It was interesting with this film in particular, because the dress in The Duke of Burgundy was very heightened and not realistic at all, and there was a great chance to do something really beautiful, but these characters have to work on the high street. Reg has a fleece jacket, Marianne has an ordinary coat, and what I loved about working with Jo Thompson in costume is that she's not afraid to put those on a character. Sometimes people are like, "It doesn't look good on my portfolio!" but she was so good like that. She didn't care about the portfolio she just cared about the character. Yeah, Reg looks really, really plain in jeans and a fleece jacket, that's as plain as you can get, but that's his character. So I was really liberated by that and I think what's good about having the plain clothing is that it really contrasts with the staff in the store. My favourite moments are when you've got Marianne's very plain jacket with Fatma's very flamboyant costume. But yeah, I think with all these elements we spend a lot of time on details you don't see much, like the catalogue, that was a huge job.

Tell me about working with Fatma Mohamed, because I think I've only seen her in your films and she's incredible. Her presence, her delivery, everything she does is remarkable. When you create a character like this, I assume you're creating it specifically for her.

Absolutely.

Do you already see the character very vividly at that point or is it something you work with her to develop?

I do see it in my mind. It was written for her, clearly, and it's developed together in the sense that, when she did The Duke of Burgundy that was her take on my script, that delivery. That was very much her, and I really enjoyed it and I wanted to extend that into another character, so to that degree it was taking her cue from that film. I feel like we can't do it again, that's it, we need to put it to bed and find a completely different part for her on the next film, in a different look. But I love working with her, she's a chameleon, and it's an incredible privilege to find an actor you can trust, feel comfortable with and work with again and again, so I can't imagine not working with her. I was very lucky to find her. When I cast my first film Katalin Varga, she was in it purely because she was in the same theatre as Hilda [Péter] and Tibor [Pálffy] and everyone else, they all came from the same theatre, pretty much, in this small village in Transylvania. I loved all of the actors in Katalin Varga so I'm not trying to prioritise one or the other, but there was something about Fatma. Normally when I write a character I don't know who is going to play that character. When I wrote Sheila, in the first few drafts, I didn't know who would play that.

Because Marianne has mostly been off the scene in terms of cinema.

Yeah, thank God she accepted. I had no idea how she'd react to the script because I think she hasn't done genre before. She did Robocop, but not as a lead. Thank God she said yes because I can't imagine it with anyone else now, she's perfect.

Thinking about Fatma's performance also got me thinking about line readings. It's not just Fatma, but there's also the washing machine monologues that induce a trancelike state, the repartee between Julian Barrett and Steve Oram. The characters all have very specific ways of delivering their dialogue. How closely do you work with actors on that aspect of their performance?

It depends on the actor and the scene. Some actors I was very free with, like Hayley [Squires], I trusted her. Marianne as well, I was pretty hands off. With Reg it was a bit more about modulation, there's no high and no low. I know a few characters like that who just don't get excited, which I really respect, they're just not emphatic at all, everything's alright. So we talked a lot about people we knew, we both have friends like that, and we were just trying to find that tone. The whole mantra came from these guys called the Bowler Brothers who would read stuff from DIY catalogues. I mean, Fatma was the most specific. It was a weird one because it was written with her voice in mind but it had to correspond with how I had imagined her voice.

The sound in general is fascinating. I think I'm right in saying that we hear a different emotion in Sheila's voice every time we hear her answerphone message?

That's correct! Very good, you're the first person to say that. It was very important to do that, it's as if the machines are emoting with the characters, and it also happens with the fire alarm, the pre-recorded voice by Fatma, which changes.

It made me think of the old Preston Sturges gag with painting changing its expression.

That's a good point, I didn't think of it like that. It's true. The answerphone just seemed the perfect way to show how tragic it was. I didn't want to show Vince crying, I mean, he's masturbating upstairs, he's completely unaware and that's tragic. This is what happens, you know, you get a phone call that somebody close to you has died and you're masturbating upstairs, it's terrible. It's absurd and ridiculous, but it's kind of real life as well. I was not trying to make light of her death at all, I was just trying to show how fucked up real life can be. The answering message is completely unrealistic, of course, but that seemed the most effective way to show how sad it is that she's gone.

Sound design is obviously a key part of the process for you. Is it a process of discovery?

Yes, I'm very involved. There are discoveries, of course. The big discovery in sound design was the muttering in the store. We struggled a lot to make it work. It just didn't have that 'otherness' which I really wanted that department store to have. Martin Pavey, who did the sound mix, suggested bringing in six or seven women into the studio, to improvise and do muttering, just as plain background, not to the extent that we used it. They came in, stood in a semi-circle in the dark, and improvised, and I kind of fell asleep to it which is always a good sign. It was like a eureka moment for me, that this is more than just filling, this is like a chorus. So after that I had the confidence to take off all the foley and all the atmos, and have a really barren mix. Everything just floated after that, but again that was  a collaborative thing. It was Martin's input and my input, and it was all chance, so a lot of things in the sound mix are from discovery. Even the graphite, the pencil against the paper, we did a mid sweep on that which makes it sound like it's sucking in. You can only do that by being there in the studio with someone. If you're doing it remotely, these things don't happen. In a way it's one of my favourite processes, I think writing and sound design are my favourite parts of making a film.

I was reading an interview you gave around the release of The Duke of Burgundy and you said your next film was going to focus on gay life in the pre-AIDS era. Is that still in the works?

That's going to be my next film! [Laughs] It was going to be my next film after Berberian and then after Duke, it's on and on. It's just so difficult to get money for that kind of thing, just because of what it is. You can't sell it to many countries, hence you can't make the money back. If it was cheap I reckon we could do it, but because we have to recreate a lot of nightclubs, it's really difficult. We've got Christine Vachon now on board, she's been really great, she and David from Killer Films, and Tristan Goligher from the Bureau. We're trying now to make it work but it has been six years that I've been trying to make that film. I guess it's just the way it is, someone else will say to me "I've been waiting twelve years to make my film," so I'm not complaining.

You mentioned Querelle as a reference point. Is the idea still to go for that kind of heightened, artificial style?

That's still the idea. Since then I've really got into '70s gay porn, specifically Wakefield Poole. There's one film called Bijou, which blew my mind, it was so strange and psychedelic, and vaguely similar to Pink Narcissus; completely underground, self-made sets, with dry ice and mirrors, and multi-projections. I thought, "Wow, this is the key!" I mean, I can't recreate the clubs because I wasn't there, I was in my school shorts in Reading, so you might as well go completely the other way and make it into this cinematic netherworld, which has its own logic. I'm trying. The cynic in me suggests it's just going to go on like this, but I hope not.

In Fabric is released in the UK on June 28th

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

"I appreciate when a movie is giving me a visceral experience and I'm not really into passive entertainment." - An Interview with Josephine Decker

An artist never knows when inspiration is going to strike, or what form it will take. Josephine Decker wasn't actively looking for the star of her next film when she agreed to be one of the judges at a teen arts festival in early 2014, but there she was in the shape of a 15 year-old named Helena Howard, whose powerful rendition of a monologue from David Harrower's play Blackbird moved Decker to tears. When she had recovered from the impact of this performance, Decker sought out Howard backstage, driven by an overwhelming and unignorable impulse – she simply had to work with this girl. Four years after that serendipitous meeting, Decker premiered Madeline's Madeline, a sensational film about life and art, inspiration and exploitation, and a film that announces the arrival of an extraordinary new talent in Helena Howard. Ahead of the film's UK release on May 10th, I discussed it with Josephine Decker.

I know you've told the story about meeting Helena Howard many times so I won't ask you to repeat that, but I'm just curious about how you knew at the time that you could build a film around this teenage girl. Displaying talent in a context like that is a very different thing to giving a performance that can carry a feature film.

I think a lot of building a film around someone is mostly just wanting to build a film around someone. It's just a willingness and knowing that this person is someone you're eager to dive into and get to know personally. I never even hesitated. It was so clear to me that she could do anything as an actor and that she was just a great human being as well, and when something strikes you so hard I just try to follow it all the way. It's weird to have that strong of a feeling so when I do I try to listen to it. You know, sometimes actors do things and you don't understand why you're so gripped, and I always feel that those are the best kind of actors to work with. Sometimes you think that a person is such a great actor because they can do all these impressive things, but it's not as great as when you just face someone and you think, “I don't know why I can't stop watching you, but I just can't.” This is probably the strongest example of that, you know, building a film with a real person and building it from improvisation. The other films I was writing on my own inspired by a person, but this time we really spent ages together figuring out Madeline's Madeline, and she was part of our process with these ten amazing New York actors. It made the film much more special to have that deep participation.

I'm interested in that process of building a film through workshops and improvisations. How do you approach something like that, and what kind of guidelines and parameters do you put in place for the actors to work within?

I ended up bringing on this director, Quinn Bauriedel. He works with improvisation all the time in his theatre company Pig Iron - they write their scripts through improvisation - and I was very concerned that I wouldn't know how to do that, you know, how do you build a world and make it believable and work with actors? And how do you make it loose enough that you find exciting things but tight enough that you have somewhere to go? He was great because we could flesh out what we were going to do in the rehearsal together. Sometimes we would co-meet them and sometimes I would meet them alone, and - while I was always in the room - he led some of the early ones because I just wanted to see how he works and learn from him. I think the most effective days were the ones where we made the strongest path for ourselves. Usually we'd do a warm-up in the morning and the warm-up ideally was touching on things we're going to be developing that day, so one day we were working through anxiety and depression and we did a kind of scale of anxiety. Five people stand at the front of the room, one was just totally neutral and one was barely more anxious, and each is more anxious than the previous person so we kind of built a scale with all the levels of anxiety, and then we'd crescendo that into a really disastrous place. So we'd have that kind of warm-up or exercise in the first half of the day, and then we'd talk about the material we were interested in developing. In the afternoon, Quinn and I would give a prompt for the actors; for example, we were rehearsing in this house that had been donated to us and we said that if the bottom floor is anxiety and the top is depression, each of you is a host on a floor and you're taking us to a party on the top floor in depression. I think that was one of our best prompts because it used the space really well and it gave everyone a really clear thing to do, but what that party was and how we were getting there they had to really map out. That was one of our strongest days. There were definitely lots of loosey-goosey days when I was like, "Oh my God, what are we making?" but the successful days were when I think we had a strong plan, and a lot of the time developing that kind of a plan just takes a lot of beating around in the dark. We had a lot of improvisation with the actors and a lot of check-ins to figure out where people were at; check-ins meant that everyone just shares what's going on with them, so it was like a sacred sharing space. Yeah, it was very process-oriented and I think when you're making something and you let it be process-oriented, it's usually much stronger material that emerges.

And how long did it take for something resembling a film to take shape through this process? I imagine there's an awful lot of trial-and-error before you really start to see a clear narrative and structure emerging.

We rehearsed one weekend a month for about six months, and then I think I realised that I had so much material I needed to start honing on a trajectory; a beginning, middle and end for the larger piece, not just the improvisation. We took a break and I went away for about eight months, and then I started sharing script drafts, you know, getting the actors together and reading the script, and then we only got a couple more rehearsals in before the shoot to reground that material. I think if I'd had a writer who wasn't me in the room we probably would have done little more shaping in the room, but I was also just interested in different levels of energy and how we could use our personal experiences and transform them. It was not always very structured so I think it did need me stepping back and going away to find the film.

I guess the closest point of comparison is someone like Mike Leigh. He has obviously long established himself in a way that allows him to say "I'm going to make a film. I can't tell you what it's about, but please support me," but how does someone at start of their career convince people to go on this journey with them?

I got the space donated and a lot of the early rehearsals I was funding on my own. Most of the actors donated their time to be on the project since it wasn't a huge time commitment, it was just a weekend a month. You know, I had so relied on free labour honestly for all my films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely wouldn't have been made if I was paying everyone. I was working with a lot of people who could work for free and I think what really changed my perspective when I was working on Madeline's Madeline was a clear directive for myself that I wanted the room to be very diverse, and I started to realise that if you want diversity in a room you have to you have to be paying people, because there are some people who can afford to donate their time and some people who can't, and that's also historical. So we started out in this more loosey-goosey "yeah, it's just going to be like this" way, and then we eventually stopped rehearsals because I realised I needed to be paying people for their time and also to be very clear about how I'm using it, so that's when I decide to go and write for a while and figure out some of the stuff that we had. I mean, as much as I could pay people I did, but it wasn't like some production company gave me $100,000 to develop the movie. I probably just spent like $10-15,000 of my own money trying to get through rehearsals and turn the script into something, and then we raised money for the film once there was a script.

You're making this film through a collaborative process and the film that has emerged from it works as a critique of that kind of collaborative process. Was that an idea you already had your head or was that something that developed as you were working in this way?

I've been interested in how the artistic process can be a bit brutal and how there's a thing that you're trying to address that may be impossible to address through your art. I think what I didn't expect, and what emerged through the rehearsals, was just that the process of making the art in itself could reveal lots of things about the larger politics of the world in a weird way. Being part of that rehearsal process, I was very fortunate to work with incredible actors who were really willing to be honest with me and share both their own experiences and also how they felt we could improve the process, and you know, it's never really conversation that we're having as artists, but how do you stay responsible to the people you build work with and how are you portraying their story? What are the ethics of improvising, even? When you're improvising you're forced to use what's inside your own head and that's to some degree personal, so when does that become exploitative? All of those things were things that we were just encountering as we did this process, so I started to think that this is something that in a way has been part of my whole artistic life since my early twenties, working on documentaries or acting in other people's movies. There are just these subtle ways in which we maybe even accidentally manipulate each other, or sometimes not so accidentally, but never really talking about it. Eventually I thought that I've learnt so much from this process it would be a shame not to be putting that learning into the film.

I made something as part of a collection of short films called Collective Unconscious, and I made a project where the audio is all from formerly incarcerated men who had been interviewed through this group called the Centre for Employment Opportunities. I think also in that process I was learning about things like how do you shape someone's story that's very different from your own? How do you allow yourself to have freedom and play in the way that good art is obviously made? How do you allow the audience to know who you the filmmaker are in relation to your art? How do you not hide behind someone else? You can't just say "I'm just filming a story" because I think when you point a camera at something you affect it and you affect the way the audience views it, so I started to learn in that process that it's really important that the audience understands - especially with stories that are not that close to my own - the lens on the relationship between the filmmaker on the art itself, to have the clarity on who the filmmaker is. Not to be self-aggrandizing, it's more about having transparency about how a story is being approached.  I think that was feeding into the whole idea that if I want to be clear about who the artist is in relation to the work, in this case that kind of became the story. How is Madeline relating to Evangeline? How is Evangeline relating to Madeline? And what is the lens through which they're seeing each other?

So Evangeline represents a kind of worst-case scenario version of you.

Yeah, completely. If I never listened to anyone and didn't pick up any clues along the way, then maybe what I'm doing is a little off and that would have been me.

I get the impression that for you the writing, the shooting and the editing are very distinct periods of exploration and discovery. I wonder how do you transition from one part of process to the next and manage to have a fresh perspective on the work you've already done. For example, when you're editing, can you detach yourself and look at this material you've been so intimately involved in creating in a new way?

I love editing, and often that's where I find the movie, I think maybe to a fault. With Madeline's Madeline I was like, "Cool, the script is kind of there, we're gonna find it in editing," and then we got into editing and I was like, "Oh fuck." I gave myself a hall of mirrors to deal with, and then I was really grateful to have this editor I've worked with a few times, his name is David Barker. He really helped a lot with shaping Madeline's Madeline into something that was actually a digestible experience for anyone but me. On moving from one space to another... for me writing is really one of the hardest parts, partly because it's the most solo, and I think that's why I wanted to engage people so much in the writing process for this movie. I think better in relation than I do just on my own in my own little bubble, and I always find that for me the thing that charges writing is working with other people, so this process on Madeline's Madeline gave me enough of a running start so I could try to write. The writing was really complicated because we had made so much amazing material and so much of that isn't in the film, and it really could have gone in a million directions; at one point it was a kind of Alice in Wonderland movie where she's wondering through these different weird worlds. I think the collaborative part, so being on set - and in this case rehearsing with the actors and finding the film together in that way - those are always the most inspiring parts for me, and the torturous parts are when I'm alone trying to figure it out. The control is always nice, and sometimes it is really important that you get this time alone to be like, "What am I really trying to say? What do I want to make? How do I do that in the strongest way?" Part of that for me in this process was also, "How do I make sure I'm not wasting everyone's time?" To your question about the different parts of the process, for me the mix between them is very gooey. I think writing happens so much with the actors, and I love getting into scenes and I'm really open to rewriting on the spot when we're shooting because then it feels alive and right. We definitely did a bit of that when we were together on set, important moments when someone said "This just doesn't feel right" and we would try to go in different directions. I always think that ultimately you're making a movie which is a collection of images and sounds, so the main goal for me is always to collect a lot of images and sounds and then the movie will sort of show its face, hopefully.

In that long editing process was there a breakthrough moment or a particular problem that you solved that then allowed you to think, "OK, here is the film we're making"?

Well, we had two great editing consultants. We had Marie-Hélène Dozo - she works a lot with the Dardenne brothers - and then David who has helped me on a lot of my films, and they were so different but also so amazing. I remember at one point we had her encounter with the homeless guy on the street quite early in the film, and Marie was like [stern French accent] "This does not feel right. I don't know what is right but that is not the right place for it. I do not know what is better. That's all!" And I was like, "Oh god!" But it's great to have someone just tell you to figure it out, and Marie was right that this was just at the wrong place in the movie. I think the thing that really clicked in with David was figuring out when the movie starts to eat itself, and he did a really good job with helping me set up all the different threads so when the troupe starts to re-enact Madeline's life you can really feel it as a big betrayal in the film and a big boundary that has been crossed. When we restructured the first third of the film I think people start to get the movie, and I don't think they'd really gotten it before that because it was a pretty abstract and elliptical thing. I had eased into it a bit and he was really good at finding that sometimes you need a sharp edge around something for it to stand out and really hit, so I was grateful for that.

I think we can definitely feel those sharp edges, and I think all of your films seem to be on this kind of knife edge between contrasting tones or moods, between reality and fantasy, tenderness and violence, humour and darkness. As a viewer, we have no idea which way each scene is going to go and I was wondering how you find and sustain that kind of balance.

Oh wow. Yeah. OK wait - how do you find the edge between...you said reality and fantasy, violence and…?

I think there are lots of moments where there is comedy and the potential for violence sitting side-by-side. For instance, I'm thinking of the scene where the mother comes home and finds them watching porn in the basement, and it's very funny comic situation, but then it very quickly shifts into the shocking moment where Madeline attacks her. I feel like the whole movie is on that kind of that knife edge or tightrope.

Oh well, that's great! [Laughs] I'm really glad to hear that. Great question. Um...how do I do that?

Maybe asking how you do that isn't actually a very good question. I'm just interested in the way you navigate that space, which is a very unnerving place for an audience member to be. You don't really allow us any comfort zone.

Yeah, maybe that's one of the flaws of my work is that nobody can be comfortable when they watch it. I love that, though. I appreciate when a movie is giving me a visceral experience and I'm not really into a passive entertainment. I really don't like to go to the movies when I'm just going to watch people do things and I know what's going to happen, and then it happens and it's maybe mildly interesting. Suspense can be formed in so many different ways but suspense to me is the essence of durational storytelling, you're telling a story over time and you want people to be engaged. I think great comedy creates really interesting suspense too, I don't think it only has to be super intense, although I always end up veering towards intensity. A lot of that is just trying not to let a feeling land until it's the right feeling, so my editor I talked a lot about not having beginnings or endings on scenes, and how we could push the energy of a scene into the next scene, so there's always a kind of question at the end of a scene that has to be answered in next one. If you have this rising series of questions then ideally the answer is going to be something you didn't expect, which creates a new question that launches you into the next section of the film.

I'm trying to write in a way that is human and humans are so predictably unpredictable, I think that's great character storytelling. That's why people were obsessed with Breaking Bad, that TV show. I watched one episode and I ended up watching like seven in a row, I was up until seven in the morning watching this show, and I was like, "This show is crack. This show is the methamphetamine that it's commenting on." But I thought that what Breaking Bad did so well is that the characters were always so deeply themselves, and therefore unpredictable. I think when you really dig into characters there's a real pleasure in the choices that they're going to make and the rebellions that they're going to have, so I tried to follow that, but I'm definitely not about predictability. In terms of the knife-edge, maybe it's that I'm very hard on myself when I'm editing and I never want the film to feel settled or boring. I'm very afraid of being boring - which is maybe another problem that my producers probably have! - but to some degree it forces me to make more unusual choices and I'm constantly restructuring. I mean, we restructured Madeline's Madeline from top to bottom, I don't know if any of the scenes are in the original order. Actually, ironically the very first scene and the very last scene are as written in the script, it's kind of shocking that it turned out that way, but all the middle is completely rearranged. A lot of that is kind of just trying to find the path towards the most increasing tension, the most unexpected choices and creating different situations that demand something new. I just know that my editing process is very harrowing and I feel like dying every time I'm editing, so maybe that's what I mean by the knife edge. I'm holding a knife to my own throat while editing!

I wanted to ask you about the casting of Miranda July, because I think she's a great choice and an unexpected choice, and she's someone who doesn't do a lot of films because she has her own projects that she's working on. The second time I watched the film I was particularly drawn to her character. She's really the most sympathetic and moving character in the film, and she gives the least showy performance.

She's a wonderful genius, and she just came to me in a flash. I was meditating morning and I was thinking "Who would be a good mom? Who has the name that will help us raise money with our investors? Who would have fun with this?" And then I thought - Miranda July! It was a process convincing her to do the movie because she really does focus on her own work, and I think she really does enjoy acting but I don't think she's aiming to do tonnes more. She's so good, she's very deeply present, and I think because of this performance art background she brings this real authenticity. I don't feel that she's acting ever, she just goes there, and it's a beautiful gift to to work with somebody who's that level of just being willing to be inside of the material. I just loved her work so much and I had tried to option her book, actually, The First Bad Man, and she said she wasn't really optioning it to anyone, but I got a very nice note back from her agent saying she's not interested in optioning the book but she wanted me know that she really loves my work. This was before we tried to get on the project, but now I knew that she was familiar with my work and liked it, and it's so hard to approach famous actors and get them to care about what you're doing when you're a little indie filmmaker, so that was really such a boost to my confidence.

Working with her with such a dream. She really gets how hard it is to direct because she's directed films, so she was very supportive. I was really grateful to have her participation. Her performance as the mom actually really changed the meaning of that character for me, I really thought the mom was going to be the villain of the movie more than Evangeline but then, like you said, she became the hero, she's so sympathetic. It taught me something about what I'd written, it taught me something about dynamic and that being the mother of a child who is anywhere on the spectrum of mental illness - and even just being a teenager - is so, so hard, and when you worry about your child's safety you do maybe make decisions are probably not in the child's best interests, but it is desperation. She made that so empathetic.

This film has a very different energy to your two previous features, and I wonder how much of that is shooting in New York rather than in a more rural environment. Does the location inform your filmmaking in that way?

Yeah, it definitely did. That was a big change, not being in beautiful nature. I've been spoiled after making really nice, relaxing nature movies, and then I made this one and I was like, “Oh my God!” All the cast was totally stressed, and the crew was really stressed because they had to get up so early to make it there in time. It's a long-ass way to go to drag yourself out to the middle of Queens for these rehearsals and shoots, and people were going home exhausted. On Thou Wast Mild and Lovely I was sleeping the dog shed but I didn't have to commute! [Laughs] There's something really nice about being able to turn off the rest of the world but when you're in New York everyone has the rest of the world going strong all the time, which can be really distracting. There was a freneticness there that in a way really helped the film, though.

And have to ask you about Ashley Connor, because she's obviously a key collaborator of yours and she does incredible work on this film. I love the way you find different ways to put us in Madeline's unstable headspace. How early in the process do you start talking to her about your visual ideas for the film?

She was actually in all of our rehearsals, she was there for this whole exploration process with Helena, and so she was really vital to the whole thing. What was great about having her be part of the building process was that she knew so clearly what film we were making, and so she was like, “OK, when we're going to be in her imagination I’m going to use this crazy rig that I've built, and when we’re in reality we’ll do this.” I think we used a lot of those ideas for the film. I sometimes have these big ideas as a director but when you actually start shooting you think, “Oh yeah, great idea but it doesn't actually work like it needed to” and Ashley's really flexible. One of the ways we have fun working together is when I just let her go. We have this thing called the “Ash-cam,” which is when she actually runs around the room and shoots whatever she wants, and that has become a hallmark of the way we talk to each other. The spontaneity that I try to create in the world around her allows her that freedom, as she knows that hopefully wherever she points the camera there’ll be something real and not just a dead space where there's just a light and some actors forgetting they’re supposed to be acting. I really tried to fill the whole world and then she can be free inside of it. A lot of the bigger techniques, in terms of being inside Madeline’s mind, we had that in advance because we had all that time in rehearsals, but she had just done Desiree Akhavan’s movie [The Miseducation of Cameron Post] right before mine so she and I had very little actual prep time. I think we sat down just twice, and she said “This is what I'm going to do” and I said “Great!” and we got to it with literally two days of prep shoot.

You've talked about this being a long process starting way back in 2014, and I'm just curious about how you feel when you look at the film now. Do you recognise it as the vision you had way back then, or has it completely transformed into something you didn’t imagine?

That's a great question. Honestly, I think it's totally different than what I thought I would make when I was writing. I think some people really do make the movie that's inside their mind but my movies are often so improved by becoming whatever is happening with the people that are working on the film, so I'm always really grateful once the movie has reared its head and revealed itself to be something really unexpected and new. In this instance it was nothing like what I thought I was setting out to make, and I'm kind of happy that's the case.

Madeline's Madeline is in UK cinemas and available to stream on Mubi from May 10th.