Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing May 10 – June 8, 2019, and a retrospective of Decker's work is showing May 7 – June 27, 2019.
A sensual charge that alternates between erotic and uneasy runs through the films of writer/director/editor Josephine Decker. One could describe the stories of her three features—Butter on the Latch (2013), Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) and Madeline's Madeline (2018)—but it is truer to say that each evokes a visceral experience that viewers must configure in our deepest imaginations.
This atmospheric ambiguity is partly a result of Decker investing high percentages of low budgets into sound design—she recruited Alejandro González Iñárritu's regular collaborator Martín Hernández for her last two pictures. Partly it is because she has found a cinematographer soulmate in Ashley Connor, whose woozy dreamlike images play with perception. And partly it is because her interests are wired to matters so personal they make you shiver.
Madeline’s Madeline is about a psychologically volatile teenage girl who captures the imagination of the director of her experimental theatre group to the anxiety of her smothering mother. As drops of backstory are spritzed in, Madeline’s true nature blurs with a “character” created by the teacher.
We meet in October during the London Film Festival as Decker is coming to terms with what it means that her star is on the ascendant. Not originally scheduled to attend LFF, she spontaneously decided to fly from New York after Madeline's Madeline was nominated for Best Picture at the Gotham Awards, and she felt empowered to command a short break from editing her next feature, Shirley. (“I was like, 'Okay, I think it's okay for me to ask for what I want.'”) We talked with the deliciously expansive director about how she met Ashley Connor, before delving into two big themes of Madeline's Madeline: the exploitation of actors by directors and the mysterious mental illness suffered by Helena Howard's character, Madeline.
NOTEBOOK: What is the origin story behind your long-term collaboration with cinematographer Ashley Connor?
JOSEPHINE DECKER: I love Ashley so much. It's a really great story! My godfather took me to an art opening. I met a young artist, Brad Kunkle. We just became friends and then I remember going home and looking at his work. It was gorgeous paintings of usually women in a very black and white setting, but he uses actual gold leaf in the paintings, and it's a very female abstract experience.
NOTEBOOK: “Female abstract experience” can also be a descriptor of your work.
DECKER: I know! So I saw these paintings and I was like, “Brad, your work is so luscious. This is what I want my movies to look like.” He said, “You should meet Ashley Connor.” He had just made a music video with her. I don't know how they knew each other. Then I went to his birthday party and Ashley was there. The first time we ever met was at this little birthday party gathering, and there were like seven of us.
NOTEBOOK: What year was this?
DECKER: The year that I made Me the Terrible ? Wow, I've known her for nearly ten years. My god. There was a guy at the table who was making a commentary about the objectification of women and it was so funny because it's going to sound crazy, but Ashley and I were like... It might have been Ashley who said it... I can't remember which of us said it first, but it was something along the lines of, “What's wrong with objectifying women?” Part of a woman's power is their looks and their bodies and their sexuality and the fact that we fetishize them is their power also. We were both saying, “I love to objectify women”—maybe we didn't mean “objectify,” more like “deify” or bring out the vicious power of the female body. It was so funny that we were speaking about female objectification as this empowering moment for us as women, and battling the men at the table—it was kind of like the moment you meet the person you're gonna marry.
So then we made Me the Terrible, our first short together. I asked her to shoot Butter on the Latch the following summer. Then we made Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. We worked together three summers in a row on those movies and by then knew each other in and out, backwards and forwards. For Madeline's Madeline she was part of the rehearsal process I had with all the actors. She knew the film and the work and the performance so deeply by the time we shot. We were very on the same page about what we were going to do.
NOTEBOOK: What you were saying about deification rather than objectification is actually an interesting way into the subject of Madeline's Madeline. What is the line—as a director regarding your subject—between exploitation and expression? And do you even know which side you're on?
DECKER: There are some obvious lines which have all been crossed in the #MeToo movement, and then there are the not-obvious lines. I made this movie about the not-obvious lines, the lines where you're an artist, you're obsessed with someone, you're interested in someone... At what point do you stop seeing them and start inventing them? That was the whole story of the movie. Evangeline, Madeline’s theatre director, has this invented idea of her as the perfect daughter and the perfect actress. Her mum has this invented idea of Madeline as this very ill person who needs to be protected, taken care of, controlled. Madeline is dying for someone to see her and let her be herself and love her in that way of seeing her for who she is. She doesn't have that kind of clear mirror in the film, so she has to become that for herself. To some degree, the troupe becomes a clearer mirror for Madeline than either of these two women. It's almost like the more passionate and excited we are about people the more dangerous we become in relation to them.
NOTEBOOK: You never slap a diagnosis on Madeline, although there are allusions to “episodes,” having been institutionalized and she doesn't eat. In the creating of the character, did you know what happened to her?
DECKER: We explored a lot of different diagnoses and a lot of ranges. When we were improvising and creating the piece we did a lot of work with depression and anxiety—like manic depression—and working on a scale as an experiment of like, “What is it like to bring something to an extreme of that incapacitated depression or that totally angsty anxiety or the ecstasy of mania, and also what are all the tiny little nuances in between?” You can be extreme, but you can also be three quarters of the way to extreme or one one-hundredth of the way to extreme and maybe you have very neutral days. So we explored that. We were exploring dissociation. A big inspiration for the movie was that someone very close to me was hospitalized for mental illness. What that person kept saying is—that person had a diagnosis of a Dissociative Disorder: “I feel like I'm in the movie of my life. I don't feel a connection with the people I'm sitting across from. I just feel like I'm watching my life on a TV screen and I'm totally separate from it.”
So that was another thing that was a real inspiration. Instead of doing a movie inside of the movie, we did a theatre piece inside of the movie. When I was writing the script I was always like, “Is this going to be a real theatre piece or is this all an expression of her disorder in some way?” In the movie she's in a real theatre troupe, but then there are moments when it's a little less real, I guess. There were a lot of things that went into it, a lot of conversations, a lot of first-person experiences. With the actors we would workshop some material and then we had conversations about our lives and the people who we knew who were struggling and how it affected us, so it was built up of a whole conglomeration of things.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like a Frankenstein's monster of a mental illness.
DECKER: The person I'm closest to who's struggling with mental illness has a different diagnosis every three years. Maybe not for everyone, but I've seen that person slip through a million disorders from OCD to Anxiety to Depersonalization and everything gets lumped on top of each other. It seems like a chaotic experience for that person, but also from the outside it feels chaotic in terms of trying to understand it, which is why I never pinned it down.
NOTEBOOK: I'm very excited to see what you and Elisabeth Moss come up with together in the new movie you’re working on. At what stage are you at with Shirley and how does it feel to be directing a film that you haven't written?
DECKER: Really different. So, so, so hard. Very, very challenging. I don't understand it as much. It's also such a relief to work on someone else's thing because you're like, “I'm getting inside of their guts instead of having to get inside of my guts,” but also it's just really different because it takes me a lot longer to understand each thing. The writer Sarah Gubbins is a genius. We had a great collaboration and honestly all the actors are very special. We shot it this summer. We'll be editing for hopefully another eight weeks or something like that. It will finish hopefully in March or April and then get into festivals maybe next fall.