The DelicateArt of Directing (Exclusive Interview)
Josephine Decker is an American actor, filmmaker, and performance artist. She has directed four feature films: the experimental psychological thriller Butter on the Latch (2013), the experimental erotic thriller Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) both premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival; also the experimental drama Madeline’s Madeline (2018), and the semi-biographical thriller Shirley (2020). She also explores collaborative storytelling via T.V. directing, documentary making, performance art, accordion playing, acting, teaching, and leading artist residencies with the School of Making Thinking.
She also co-directed the documentary Bi the Way (2008) with Brittany Blockman. The Movie Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine’s previous film, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and Berlin film festival in early 2018 and was nominated for best picture at Independent Filmmaker Project’s Gotham Awards and for two Film Independent Spirit Awards
Josephine is also an actress in many independent films, including Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding, Saturday Morning Mystery, the romantic tragedy Loves Her Gun, and Stephen Cone’s critically lauded drama film Black Box in 2013. In November 2015, Josephine Decker served on the Jury of the 33rd Torino Film Festival. The Italian festival had already paid tribute to her work in the Onde section of the 2014 edition.
In her most recent film, Shirley, released in June by Neon, premiered in the U.S at Dramatic Competition at Sundance, where it received the Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking.
Liane Buck was fortunate to sit down with Josephine Decker to talk about her new movie, Shirley, her career, her art, and her dreams.
Liane Buck: So, let’s start with the first question What moved you to create this non-biotic movie based on one of the many versions of the real person of the writer Shirley Jackson? What tickled you to create this movie?
Josephine Decker: Yes. Well, the script was written by Sarah Gubbins, and I was really attracted to it. She’d written a terrific script, and I didn’t know that much about Shirley’s real life at the time. I had read her fiction, and so really, the main reason I wanted to work on it was the chance to go deep into Shirley’s writing and try to create a film that felt like you were entering a Shirley Jackson story.
Liane Buck: That’s interesting. The movie is like seeing a corresponding reality, and you see the people. You see, they’re living their lives, but there is a network of things working in the parallel existence that’s overflowing. So, how do you classify? I know you’re incredibly creative. You have your own voice, and I actually took the liberty and saw your other movie. I noticed that you wear the language, something about the way you direct things. The eye of the observer. How would you classify your artistic genre, your style of directing? Shirley is a noteworthy movie, while it is a work of fiction, a non-biopic creation. At the same time, it seems to have a Documovie vibe. Why is that?
Josephine Decker: You know, I think I really prioritize performance. I think I love being in the moment with the actors and so I have chosen a method — at least for my last film — of directing that allows me to be very present with them. It means giving the Cinematographer a lot of freedom to be performing with the actors and moving with them, being in conversation with them so that the camera, and the eye through which you’re seeing the film, is breathing and is filled with life and is responsive to the environment. That was, I think, a big contributor to why my films feel the way they do. Because, otherwise, it’s really just trying to hire really wonderful people and let them do what they do really well and let them teach me in a way. I love to learn from my co-workers and be incredibly open and collaborative with them so that they can kind of fill the movie with their vision, too. So, it’s really a process of conversation, I guess, it’s my style of directing.
Liane Buck: It seems that all the independent movies are always in a constant process of flow, of unfolding, of improving and of endless editing (Of course, it must be a nightmare when you edit). How do you know when a project is done? Do you have guidelines or rules for that, or do you or play by ear?
Josephine Decker: On previous films — oh, my gosh — I would just torture myself, and I could go on forever and ever. In this film, we had a deadline that was defined by not me but by the producers. They were very flexible, so I think the deadline was the right deadline. It was kind of the time when the audience was doing a lot of test screening. It was kind of when people seemed to feel that their experience of watching the film — they were “I don’t know how you could improve this” — and stopped having notes. That was a good thing.
Liane Buck: Most of your films have a theme of the dance between Light and Darkness. In Shirley, we have a very instinctual motion picture, madness and seduction seem to be the shadow dance. I think the most horrifying and seductive aspect of the movie is that the audience cannot pinpoint the level of manipulation because all the characters are so profoundly and eccentric deceiving: Can you talk a bit about this element of strangeness and Loneliness of every character?
Josephine Decker: Well, some of that we try to bring out on set when we’re shooting. We’ll do a lot of work, seeing if the presence of the actors can find their own spontaneous and unpredictable performances. But, then, also actually go into the edit. In the edit, we try to really refine the performance that happened in front of the camera. Then there’s the performance that’s put together in the edit, and in the edit, what we’re trying to do is choose maybe the most unpredictable way of putting together the scene so that you kind of don’t know what’s going to happen next. But it feels that you’re always excited to see what could happen next, so it’s not random. It doesn’t feel like so crazy what you’re seeing, but there’s a level of unpredictability that also feels inevitable. You have to bring those two things together and allow your characters to be very much themselves. Also, be unpredictable so that the viewer is excited to see what could happen next.
Liane Buck: That’s for sure. Most of your movies are very feminine. The energy of the feminine is powerful, and the womanly in all aspects, all those nuances, all the degrees are spherically feminine. Based on that, would you say that the female and male characters are alike in some ways? Despite their societal and age differences, both are like notes in a symphony, because the movie plays a lot like music: a symphony of Loneliness, of invisible women. They’re undervalued and, in a way, tormented and haunted. What are the similarities between those two characters?
Josephine Decker: Yes. Well, you know what’s interesting, we tried to have the two characters really reflect the characters in Shirley’s own writing. When Shirley writes, she often has two female characters, one of whom is sort of misanthropic. One character has a terrific sense of humor and is brilliant. The other is, in a way, conforming to societal expectations. She’s good at baking, very generous, human, has a light spirit, gets on well with men. Her Biographer talks about this kind of dynamic of these two quite different female characters. In a lot of Shirley’s work, as being two sides of her own consciousness that Shirley was working with, and these women blend into one person. So, in a way, I think they are very different on the outside and the inside. I think what you’re picking up is that they’re very similar. We even tried to work with the costumes and makeup to sort of seeing that where Shirley starts in the movie, kind of disheveled and unable to get out of bed, is where Rose is towards the end of the film when she’s just had her baby. She totally hasn’t brushed her hair in a month and can’t leave the house. They flip-flop places. They have something inherently in the center of them that’s similar.
“I cannot believe we got Elizabeth Moss to play Shirley and Odessa Young to be Rose, and she did such a great job of making Rose so complicated”
Liane Buck: How was your experience in selecting the actors that would portray such rich and densely disturbed characters? Are you peculiar in your process of choosing them, what do you first look for in an actor/ actress? How do you pick them? Is there anything unique that you look for, or do you have a wish list?
Josephine Decker: You have to pick great actors. You can’t do too much when you don’t have a great actor. In this movie, we got incredibly lucky. We just had the best actors ever. I cannot believe we got Elizabeth Moss to play Shirley and Odessa Young to be Rose, and she did such a great job of making Rose so complicated. Then Michael Stuhlbarg is one of the greatest actors. He is just one of the greatest actors of all time. He is so wildly good. Then, Logan Lerman playing Fred. He is also just a super patient and an open person. I feel like across the board, we had just terrific actors. Yes, you try to find the person who fits the role and who instinctually feels right for the part. If it’s a fit, they’re usually excited, too, and they bring all their magic.
Liane Buck: “Shirley “is a movie with a lot of soft details that give glimpses into the haunted mind of Shirley Jackson. These subtleties play well to a more artistic inclined public. They are very delicate threads that make the spectator oscillate between madness and seduction. Was that done on purpose, following a framework, or it was just something that started flowing naturally, as the result of a spontaneous creative process?
Josephine Decker: Yes, I know what you mean. We did both. We were trying to be very in the moment and responding to the performers and to the environment. We obviously had our intentions, and then we tried to bring those to life but also tried to go with what wanted to unfold. So, there was a lot of spontaneity and presence, but it was also about trying to make sure that we had fulfilled our dreams for the scene. That we felt that we had, hopefully, exceeded our own expectations. I think it gets back to that unpredictable element that we were talking about earlier. Sometimes in editing, we have to be very, very intentional about how we lay things out so that the audience does feel there’s the symphony of details that is ramping up and building so that certain notes are ringing again and again; so that the ending really feels like the climax to the film as a whole.
Liane Buck: That is remarkably interesting because the movie has a rhythm of its own. I do not know if it’s because I really was into the movie. It’s kind of creepy, and I’m not really a horror type of person, but I noticed that there is actually a little coordination between the playing of the music in the background and the lighting, and how the angles of the characters move into and between the scenes. You may say that this was completely natural, but it looks like it was almost like a symphony. I really liked the movie.
Josephine Decker: That’s so great. I think that is a beautiful metaphor that you brought up — the song. I feel that music is a big inspiration for me for filmmaking.
Liane Buck: Shirley, as a character, is sometimes witchy, sometimes mystical, but always totally eerie. As a creator of this non-biopic tale, would you say that your version of Shirley has real prophetic qualities, or is everything part of her “mise en scene” as a horror writer??
Josephine Decker: Oh. I think a lot of connecting with the beyond or with spirit is about your intention, and I think in the movie, she is trying to be really tapped into her own subconscious and listening to herself. I think the reason that the I ‘Ching or Tarot Cards are so effective is that they ask you a very open-ended question that then you get to put to yourself. So, I think Shirley is opening up. She’s working very hard to work her magic, mostly on herself. She’s trying to open up a part of herself so that her story can come out. So, I think the magic that Shirley is really doing in the film is really the magic of the creative process. It’s the magic of unleashing her own imagination and of using the tools around her to make that happen. Using, or maybe abusing, the tools around her to make that happen. Yes, so I think she’s witchy in the way that artists are witchy. Artists are very much the Shamans of our time.
Liane Buck: Oh, I agree with you, 100%. Now tell us a little bit more personal about yourself. You have been on the circuit of Independent movies and the Production of Documentaries for a while. You are also an actress: How these experiences played a role in the making of Shirley, from production design to the directing?
Josephine Decker: I think that everything you ever do in your life prepares you for directing. The beautiful thing about directing is you have to do everything: Communicating across all the departments, which are the camera, the costumes, the actors — very importantly — hair and makeup, the production design, the coloring at the end of the film, the sound, the editing, the music. There are so many aspects so, I think almost anything in life is preparing you for one of those things. Maybe just living a very crazy story helps you become a better storyteller. So, for me, acting for sure supported me in understanding how to be just really honest with actors about what I know and what I don’t know, or what I see and feel more comfortable in talking to actors. Having been an actor, not very much, but just sometimes, feeling like it opened me up to be a bit freer. There are lots of ways of communicating. There is not a right way to direct an actor. It is more about like you just have to make sure you’re communicating with them, and then to help them feel safe. When I was in High School, I loved photography, I played music really seriously when I was a kid. I think that has had a significant impact on me, too, in terms of how I direct.
Liane Buck: That’s fantastic. Well, you mentioned two things. You mentioned Tarot Cards. You mentioned I ‘Ching. Do you use one of those yourself?
Josephine Decker: I use Tarot Cards sometimes. Yes, me and my best friend, Ruby, we love to read them for each other, even at long distances.
Liane Buck: Another thing I was meaning to ask you is: Do you have a ritual, self-centering, that helps you with your daily work and help you create?
Josephine Decker: I started meditating. I started practicing Zen Buddhism in 2011, so I think that really affected my work so much. When I started practicing Zen Buddhism, I started practicing meditation, so I try to have meditation be a part of my life. I have a baby now. She is eight months old, so I don’t have as much time exactly. I think that is its own meditation. So, she, in a way, now, is my spiritual practice. I grew up Christian, and I still go to church sometimes, and I also practice Zen Buddhism.
Liane Buck: Oh, that’s awesome. I don’t think that Buddhism is actually a religion. I believe that is where I started. I am that weirdo that believed that all paths go to the same place. Do you cultivate any spiritual practice, an if so, what is its impact on your creative process of work?
Josephine Decker: No. Well, I like to make up rituals with my friends. I help run an Artists’ Residency, sometimes, called The School of Making Thinking, and we do a lot of rituals there. I think ritual is beautiful and a super-important part of life, and I wish that I did more of it, but I love the rituals that I have been part of. Some of those are ancient ones, and some of them are ones that we just make up for each other at this Artists’ Residency, which is nice.
Liane Buck: There is an element in rituals that’s marks rites of passage. I see things from this perspective, it’s almost like a Shamanic thing –an Aboriginal element. You sing to existence each day of what is in your head. You sing into existence because you have to bring it in. First, it forms in your mind, and you know you as a Shamanic storytelling master, the way you will tell that story that you brought into existence. That’s a ritual. In this movie, you have a lot of rites of passage. I want a lot of people to see the film, but that’s the thing. I think it’s fantastic. Do you have any spiritual vision for the world today? What would you change if you could?
Josephine Decker: Vision for the world. What a beautiful question. I feel fortunate that I get to have the freedom to have a spiritual life that I have the time to. I wish that we had a country that has more equality — income equality — and less income discrimination and racial discrimination. With equal opportunities that more people in America get the chance to really thrive and that all of us can come into the present. You know I had a great meditation teacher who said: “Love is really seeing someone clearly,” and I wish we could really see each other very clearly right now. We don’t really see each other very clearly, and if we could just see each other clearly, there would be a lot more love going on.