Berlin Film Festival 2018:
An Interview with Josephine Decker
By Clara Miranda Scherffig
From John Cassavetes’s Opening Night to Jacques Rivette’s Love on the Ground to Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, films set in the world of theater have long experimented with the interplay between actors and their roles, improvisation vs. rehearsing, directing vs. abusing, inspiration vs. plagiarism. The frictions between real and fake, which these theater-based films problematize and incorporate, also remain fascinating, if overly exploited topics for cinema. To succeed in upgrading such themes is no easy task. With Madeline’s Madeline—which recently premiered in the Forum section of the Berlinale—Josephine Decker takes them on without making much of an intellectual fuss. This is not just another self-reflexive film about the nature of cinema. Although it deals with the confusion of fiction and reality, its high concept doesn’t stop the audience from taking part in Madeline’s journey.
She also introduces an impressive new talent: Helena Howard as Madeline, an aspiring stage actress who can easily transform into a cat, a turtle, or, in the eyes of her hyper-protective mother Regina (Miranda July), a problematic teenager. It quickly, if ambiguously, emerges that Madeline suffers from an unspecified mental disorder, which makes her act alternately aggressive, insecure, or simply irrational—“act” being the keyword of her constant negotiation between feeling and performing. Madeline seems most at ease only during the experimental theater workshop she attends under the guidance of the sharp, sophisticated, yet maternal teacher and stage director Evangeline (Molly Parker). A black sheep at school and a bad seed at home, she is a true star on stage, an acting force so natural and mesmerizing she can hardly be defined or categorized.
Madeline’s (and Howard’s) incredible performance, matched to a turbulent storyline and
expressionist, intimate camerawork—recalling the haptic style often employed by the Harvard Sensory Lab for experiential documentaries such as Leviathan or Somniloquies—makes us question who the “real” self is, and what the real story here is. Our bewilderment as viewers is not taken for granted, but stimulated with formal elements typical of Decker’s filmography: recurring POV shots highlighting Madeline’s seizures and dream are reminiscent of scenes from Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014); and as in Butter on the Latch (2014), the lines between drama and thriller are blurred in its nightmarish sequences that reflect on the power play in female relationships. Sudden shifts in tone reflect the film’s unpredictable personalities; Madeline's Madeline continuously shifts our empathy (or benefit of the doubt) onto different characters. No character or perspective can be taken as 100% reliable.
While Decker was in Berlin to present the film, we sat down at a cafe distant from the festival venue and spoke about the casting and editing process, the influence of performance art, and the role of ambiguity in storytelling and relationships.
Reverse Shot: Madeline’s Madeline feels like such a personal film. How did it take shape?
Josephine Decker: I just realized that the last time I came to Berlin was four years ago. The initial inspiration was meeting Helena, a month after I came here with my other two films. She was 15 and is 19 now. I also wanted to make a film with and about actors since my early twenties, when I worked with a group called Pig Iron Theater Company, in Philadelphia. They improvise with actors and really spend a lot of time adjusting a concept, trying things and then turning it into a script. Eventually they rehearse the script so that it is a finished, “scripted” play, but it’s developed in a collaborative way. I was really interested in that style of process, and I had tried it in my work before. But it was so much harder than I thought!
RS: Were you an actress back then?
JD: No, I was an assistant writer, and then also a puppeteer sometimes—whatever they needed. I also attended their advanced performance school. I realized a little late that even though you’re improvising, it’s good to have a little more structure. In the movie the troupe starts with “Cool, we’re all excited, we’re making something that just has to do with three little pigs, doctors, nurses and our own personal stories.” It was a lot of input and trying to find the central storyline was as complicated as it was for Evangeline’s character. With Pig Iron, I worked closely on a piece called Chekhov Lizardbrain—it had the structure of a play, although their play had nothing to do with the Chekhov’s Three Sisters—and it’s nice to have something so complete before you start. The next film I make is gonna be scripted; someone else will write it, and I am so glad!
RS: The film seems tailor-made for Helena's character, all the more now that you say how important your encounter with her was. How did Miranda July and Molly Parker come onboard?
JD: Meeting Helena was so central. The film is all fictionalized but I was craving for a character she would easily fit inside of. The story I was trying to tell had a lot to do with the figure of the director—and that was me in the actual space—and also that mother role that is a little bit outside of the rehearsal space we created. Molly Parker was just someone I had so much respect for. I never watch television. I mean, I see some movies... sometimes! Casting is really hard for me because I don’t know what people have done and I really have to do a lot of catch-up work. I never experienced binge watching until I started to look for someone else in House of Cards. “Oh I'm just gonna watch one more episode... and one more... and one more" and then it’s five in the morning and you’ve watched seven episodes. Molly Parker was in that whole season, she has a huge role, and by the end of that I had spent seven hours with her. I was like “I love this woman.” She's obviously a very talented actress.
Miranda came on board very differently. The film is kind of small, but I had pressure around getting someone with a name involved. Melissa McCarthy, for instance, was someone we were looking at. We needed someone who would really get the project and maybe even already knew my work. I was meditating one morning and it was like “Miranda July!” She had seen my movies and had appreciated them so we went to her. She was very beautifully humble, hadn’t really acted for other people that much.
RS: The theme of mental health is one of the things that blurs the lines between what we and Madeline perceive as what is real and what is not. Can you expand a little on this topic?
JD: It was a topic I grew up very close to and had a lot of nature vs. nurture questions around: how does a family dynamic play into this, especially for young people? It was actually great workshopping with this group of people because we could work more abstractly to approach the theme of mental illness but also share a lot of personal stories. It brought a richness to the work, like a shared environment, creating a tapestry of ways to move inside the film. We did a lot of work around energy levels as actors—like energy of depression and energy of anxiety, and I think that is very much in the film.
RS: Speaking of that, Miranda July's character Regina is very anxious. At first we think she's just protective of her child, but then her fixations grow and she and makes hypochondriac remarks.
JD: That was a little bit about my journey in trying to understand the person close to me who struggled with mental illness: how much of that is being a complicated parent? Is this person mentally ill or is it just that the parent is mentally ill and creating the illness in the child? In a weird way, in my journey of making the film, I started to feel a lot more empathy towards a parent with an unstable child and how scary that is. If you haven’t had the opportunity to do 20 years of therapy about your own shit, having an unstable child definitely brings out your own worst. And some of the best too: Regina is a complicated mom not making the best choices for the daughter, but she’s also there for her.
RS: I was also wondering how your experience with performance art informed the project.
JD: The film is so much about experimental theater. I went to Pig Iron for a year basically to make this film and halfway through the year I thought, “Maybe this is overkill!” Obviously it impacted it a lot. Most of my performance art is made of durational pieces that respond to environmental disasters. After the BP oil spill, six women and I spent a week in Times Square. We were there three hours everyday, walking with buckets of oil on our heads. It turned into such a great metaphor: we walked in slow motion and every once in a while the bucket would fall off our head or a biker would go past and the bucket fell off, the oil spilled. Really simple but beautiful. And what I found in the audience is that people would stay for hours because it didn’t have a beginning or an end. I learned that attention is a funny thing, when you give people a set starting point and conclusion. A year later I added a dance number in the middle because I was doing it with kids. When that part came people would be like, “Oh great, now it’s done” and they would leave. The experience of understanding the audience in that way has allowed me as a filmmaker to maybe take deeper risks in what happens in front of the camera and what I allow to extend, because I think audiences are interested in things that don’t end.
RS: I think that audiences are also interested in waiting for the unexpected to happen. This leads me to my next question: Your films seem to deal a lot with the idea of “directing the reality” or “changing the reality,” so I was wondering, do you shoot with a very fixed structure or do you more or less compose the film in the editing room?
JD: What I learned with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is that you can make almost anything out of your material—I worked with an incredible editor, David Parker, who shaped the film around elements that weren’t even in the script. I really crafted so much of that film in editing, in terms of letting what we shot be the most alive. For Madeline’s Madeline I wrote a very long script. I thought we’d just find it in editing, convinced that poetic scripts give you a lot of space when you’re shooting. And that was not a great idea! Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was a pretty straightforward film, poetic but with a simple narrative. Madeline’s Madeline is not simple; there are a lot of “balls” in the air. I worked with a great editor, Harrison Atkins, until basically we ran out of money. Together we found most of the ways the scenes are still cut in the film. But structurally, I ended up editing it for eight more months by myself and eventually one of the producers [Elizabeth Rao], who’s also a very talented editor, joined along with two editing consultants—Marie Dozo, who works with the Dardenne brothers, and again David Parker.
For the shooting we usually had a strong idea visually about what we were doing in every scene. When I work with [cinematographer] Ashley Connor, who’s an incredible collaborator, that always reshapes things: on set we are pretty alive to the moment. For instance for the shooting of Evangeline’s party scene we had 18 script pages and two days in the location. We ended up shooting a party and try to get the scenes. I told the cast “We're just shooting a party, just say your lines whenever you feel like saying them and we’ll try to get them!”
RS: If improvisation is a sort of strategy, I think that also comes with an ethical question, especially if we think about Evangeline—the teacher using Madeline’s story for her own play. How do you deal with that “ethical dilemma” of using real life to make fiction or the other way around, and manipulating the audience into that?
JD: As an actor who’s worked a lot with improvised movies, it was always really interesting for me that, especially if you’re improvising in a film without much preparation for your character, you’re drawing on your own life and then your own life is a thing that ends up in the film, and that is... complicated. The improvised sections in this film were actually with actors playing characters. The most improv parts were those with Miranda. She’s such a great writer. I realized very early on that I could set her loose and she would say things that were so bizarre and amazing, so much better than anything I would write!
RS: I would like to conclude talking about the issue of ambiguity because Madeline’s Madeline tackles it not only in terms of the frictions between reality and fiction, but also in terms of special relationships that unfold in ambiguous ways. The mother-daughter relationship, the teacher-student, the director-actor—these are power relationships that you subvert.
JD: I thought we were going to talk about something completely different—ambiguity in the sense of the storytelling. All my endings are very ambiguous, or I try really hard to have endings that open a pathway into something else, so that the film doesn’t necessarily end when the film ends. When it comes to power relationships I think it’s just really part of our lives as women. There’s so much fucking ambiguity in every relationship. Every female collaboration is also a real friendship. This is just a part of our female experience, so if those relationships have ambiguity is because that’s really how my life feels. I am also against characters who are one dimensional or evil: my own relationships are quite complicated and the people I have the most tension with, the most fury with, are some of my closest friends. I love them more deeply because they challenge me so much.