With Madeline’s Madeline, filmmaker Josephine Decker makes a bold leap as an artist, fashioning a florid, emotionally unbridled aesthetic that suggests how someone might adequately render, in filmic form, the free-associative and psychological-informed prose of William Faulkner. Decker evinces no distance from her subject matter, which yields unique empathy and insight at the perhaps justifiable cost of perspective.
A neurotically auto-critical film, Madeline’s Madeline centers around a theater troupe that’s presided over by Evangeline (Molly Parker), who wrestles with Regina (Miranda July) for control of the latter’s daughter, Madeline (Helena Howard), a brilliant teenage actor with unspecified mental issues who’s headlining Evangeline’s latest production. Dramatizing this intense, ambiguous psychological roundelay, Decker examines the simultaneously parasitic and empowering textures of art, creating a film that’s born from the very sort of environment that it deconstructs.
Decker is aware of this irony, and she spoke freely of her uncertainties with me on the phone last month. We also spoke about the complex editing structure of Madeline’s Madeline, as well as its flamboyant imagery, galvanic climax, and the affinity it shares with the horror genre. Speaking of which, Decker is set to further mine horror terrain in her next film, Shirley, based on the writing of Shirley Jackson, which we also briefly discuss.
There’s a startling sense of vulnerability in the film. When I watch those actors rehearse, I feel as if I shouldn’t be seeing those moments. Did you ever feel as if you were tapping into something that’s too intimate for us?
I work very hard to make these ecosystems, in which you feel like you’re peeking through a hole in the wall. I sometimes think, “Oh my god, what am I doing? How do I convince people that I know how to direct films?” But the only thing I think I know how to do is that—to make those ecosystems.
This film also feels like an ultimate manifestation of your style and your empathetic concerns so far. Did you ever consciously approach Madeline’s Madeline as a kind of “summing up”?
Yeah, in some ways. I knew that I wanted to make something self-reflective that was also looking at some of the questions that I’ve been dealing with in making, first, documentaries and then also acting in and making fictional films. Putting together the process for Madeline’s Madeline felt like a response to all those experiences. I remember thinking, “This is not a commercial movie, but I just have to make it.” I couldn’t keep being an artist without making this film, because there was just too much swimming around. This movie is a weird questioning of what it is to be an artist at all.
I’m curious about your use of the camera and your editing process. The swooping, disembodied camera conjures a thrilling sense of omnipotence, and the film is densely packed with overlapping images and sounds. Was Madeline’s Madeline winnowed down from a longer cut?
Ashley Connor, our D.P., was part of this long rehearsal process we did with the actors. She was often performing and becoming animals and looking at different aspects of all that, and I think there was something really exciting about how the camera was allowing itself to become these creatures and characters in the film. That was a deep part of the project, and it’s something I’m obsessed with in all the movies that I make: What spirit is the camera is inhabiting? I’m making a film in a few weeks, and this will be the first time that I will be able to vocalize that ambition like, “Oh, yeah, I’m trying to put a spirit in the camera.” I’m trying to make the camera a character, in a way.
It was such a long editing process. We were definitely shifting things around, but we never really had a much longer film. The final cut of Madeline’s Madeline is actually one of the longer cuts. We were hovering around 80 minutes for most of the year that we were editing. But it was more about finding and grounding Madeline’s character and making sure that the character was full and rich and somebody that you would root for. For about six months, Madeline’s character was so oppressed in the first act that it was hard to hope for anything good. We spent time infusing Madeline’s reality with hope and with a stronger and deeper connection with her mom, Regina, and also with more of a sense that the inside of her imagination is not just this dark place as there’s also this possibility of ecstasy. All so that we know the full landscape that her inner battle is playing out in.
That was the thought process in terms of editing, but it took us a long time to find the film. For a long time, I didn’t know what was wrong, but I was like, “I hate the first act!” I hated the first act for six months, and then I was like, “I have to throw everything away.” Shortly before the Sundance deadline, I decided to find a new movie in the footage. I went for a much more ecstatic opening and finally I felt like the movie was working.
There’s a sense that we’re taking a dive in the opening, that the filmmaker is saying, “Screw conventional orientation, let’s jump in the psychological soup.” Madeline also arises as a lucidly realized character, with none of the condescension that’s often evident in films concerned with mental illness. It sounds to me as if you were intuitively wrestling with the pitfalls of the “mental-illness film,” trying to avoid easy reductions.
Yeah, it was important to me that we not put her in a category. It was also just knowing that, for anyone who saw this film who had mental illness or had been diagnosed with mental illness, the minute we put a word to her diagnosis, there would be reactions along the lines of “that’s not how that works,” or “that’s not how that goes.” Also, my personal experience with mental illness, growing up close with someone who struggles very deeply with mental illness, was that there are multiple phases. These five years, there’s one diagnosis, and then these five years, there’s a different diagnosis, and then there’s three years where there’s four diagnoses on top of each other.
What felt organic to my own lived experience was to show this girl who’s going through something others don’t understand; they’re projecting all of their own narratives onto her. Madeline’s living inside of something that, at times, feels very positive and exuberant, like you said, and, at times, her existence is very limiting and terrifying, as if the ground is falling out from under her. She can’t always predict when she’s going to feel safe in her own skin, and that allows for others to take advantage of her and write their narrative over hers.
I was reading another interview you gave, where you were talking about open communication with the entire cast, and ensuring that everyone was heard. I assume you aren’t susceptible, then, to the stereotype of the artist as the tyrannical genius imposing his or her will on others.
The hardest part about making this film is that I had to reckon with the fact that my intention was to have a democratic process, but, ultimately, I was the writer and director. I had to realize that, democracy aside, somebody was going to write and direct this movie, and that person was always going to be me. I think that conflict skewed my intentions without my realizing that the shoot was going to involve such a complex set of power dynamics, which I was stepping into naïvely and idealistically. The irony is that we don’t even recognize as artists the tyrannies that we’re setting up. We’re just making our little tyrannies and blindly feeling great about them.
I’ve been on multiple sides of that process as an actor and a documentary filmmaker. There are ways of respecting people’s stories and asking for lots of input, and there are ways of ignoring other people’s boundaries and exploiting their willingness to go along with the beautiful invitation that you proposed by allowing someone to be in your movie. It was a power dynamic that I was excited to acknowledge. Once I was inside this project, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m lost and I’m fucking up left and right and letting everybody down.” And then I was like, “Nobody talks about this.”
Nobody talks about how, as artists, especially indie artists, we’re trying so hard to imprint our stamp and bring out our voices and tell stories that we think are important, and then, in that process, with all good intentions, be exploitive. I felt uncomfortable with that possibility and with how little I was discussing that with my own community. My art is very much about working out questions that I don’t have answers to.