While editing her first film, director Josephine Decker was convinced no one was going to see anything she made. She had applied for Teach For America and was preparing to move to Mississippi to become a middle school teacher when the Maryland Film Festival invited Butter on the Latch to have its world premiere. By the end of that year, the film, and Josephine's second, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, had been selected for the Berlinale.
Her latest, Shirley, now on Hulu, is an anti-biopic about the mystery writer Shirley Jackson. She spoke to us about how this film, much like her others, was an exercise in accessing the present.
As told to A.frame.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer and a photographer. I was obsessed with National Geographic. I would look through pages of the magazine and I just wanted to walk along the coast of Africa taking photos. I also grew up playing the piano seriously, so music was always a really important part of my life. I think filmmaking is not that far removed. Those three things are really the backbone of cinema: music, photography, and writing.
I loved movies—I think so many young people do—and they really affected me. I remember I saw Jurassic Park and had nightmares of the dinosaurs for four years. I read somewhere that a lot of people who go into the film business are extremely affected by movies. The empathy machine works on us.
I wanted to make things that were unlike anything I'd seen before. I thought that was what everyone wanted to do. I just assumed that if you made a movie, you were just trying to do something that was new. And then slowly, I realized that that's actually not how most people feel about making these...
That was my younger self—because I was just so excited by poetry and storytelling that felt like nothing I had ever witnessed. Now, it's not so much about doing something no one's ever done before because that's a little bit grandiose. Now, when I'm making movies, I think of it as a spiritual endeavor. It's about accessing the present.
I think what actors do is a very spiritual pursuit, and my job is to create an environment that is a container... a temple around their acting. When an actor is performing, they're literally transforming. That's a space that has to be handled really delicately and with a lot of love.
My dad is a poet, so poetry has always been a really important part of my life. In great poems, there's this fusion of all of the imagery and magic inside the poem, that when you get to the end, there's just this flash of insight, this feeling that you don't know how you got to this point, but you can't imagine it ending anywhere else. It's so powerful, and when I think about how I create cinema, I'm really interested in how you get to the end of a film and have that feeling that you have at the end of a great poem, which is, you almost can't explain how you got there. I really love movies that make you feel that.
I tend to be drawn to making work that is about imagination and reality, or the poetry of the unconscious, so sound design has been a real tool and partner to help the audience follow when we are in reality, when we are in a bit of an imagined reality, and when we are not sure.
When I was making and editing my early works, I couldn't understand the film unless I could really hear it. I was always putting in a lot of sound to help me figure out where I was. I feel really lucky that with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, I managed to convince Martín Hernández, who was the sound designer on Birdman and The Revenant, to work on my movie. He would go to his day job and would work on my movie from 7:00 pm to 2:00 in the morning. He did such beautiful work on that film. We worked together on Madeline's Madeline as well. Martín really opened my eyes to what sound could do and how deeply it could transform the experience of cinema.
And there are so many other tools you get to use, too: music, storytelling, performances. I really try to lean into the fusion of all those to tell one great story. Sometimes, I'll have a really clear vision for a certain scene, but a lot of times, I'm working with the cinematographer on either different approaches that we then use on multiple scenes, or a specific technique to use throughout.
For Madeline's Madeline, we devised the film with the actors, so cinematographer Ashley Connor was actually part of the whole year and a half that we spent improvising. She really understood that we were inside this young woman's consciousness, and there were surreal and dreamy visions that she would have, while also maintaining this grounding in reality. Ashley built a special rig to get that interior consciousness.
With Shirley, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and I had five different rules for different scenes because there were so many layers of that movie, so many different relationships that needed to emerge in different ways. Shirley is based on a fictional novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. So this is not a biopic; it's based on a work of fiction about a real person, so we knew that we were many degrees removed from any reality of Shirley Jackson. But the thing that we were committed to was trying to capture, in a way, the essence of Shirley. The strongest way it got across was to allow the audience to feel like they were inside of a Shirley Jackson story.
We tried to give the film the energy of a Shirley Jackson work in that you move between a third-person and first-person perspective, sometimes without realizing that you've gone inside the mind of one of the characters. Her storytelling is so complex, so we had these different rules for each section. There's a moment when Rose comes downstairs in the middle of the night and connects with Shirley, and we use this camera approach we call “creature,” where the camera is a creature that lives very close to the body, and if it wants to travel to the other body, it has to travel along a surface to get there. It can't quite pan; it has to go along the table or along the floor.
There's a whole section where Rose goes to town, so we wanted there to be a fakeness to that look. It's almost too perfect. Everything's framed in a very locked-down way, so it feels like you're looking at a work of fiction, that you’re inside of Shirley’s mind. Her relationship to the town in a lot of her short stories is this weirdly formal fake, so we made the camera work for that very stiff. We tried to be really thoughtful about the camera and how it was telling the specific story of each scene.
It's amazing that we have this technology where an audience is seeing through the lens of a camera into a whole world that you cannot see otherwise. I think a lot about the eye that they're seeing through and how this eye experiences the world. What is that eye's agenda? Is that eye a benevolent presence or an ominous presence? What does that eye see that the characters don't?
You witness every film through the spirit of the camera. Your experience of the film is through that eye.
When I'm making something, I’m trying to figure out which eye I'm seeing through, whether that eye is a human eye or whether that eye is a spirit of the forest, like it was in Butter on the Latch, or whether that eye has the energy of a cow, like in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
I've been thinking about this a lot for my next film, The Sky is Everywhere, about a young woman who's lost her sister. I’m thinking a lot about the eye of the spirit. It's about trying to connect with someone who's not there anymore, so that eye is connecting to the beyond. I'm going to have to really go deep for that one.