Phil on Film Index

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 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. 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.