“25 New Faces” Josephine Decker and Lauren Wolkstein on Hitchcock and the Choreography of Sex Scenes
Just named as two of Filmmaker‘s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” Josephine Decker and Lauren Wolkstein have both produced an impressive body of work that has placed them as bold, young voices on the independent film scene. Decker’s feature Butter on the Latch premiered to strong reviews, including a New Yorker article that called her film “an utter exhilaration of cinematic imagination.” An actor in many of Joe Swanberg’s films, Decker is finishing her new feature film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely while Wolkstein, whose short Social Butterfly premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and whose The Strange Ones showed at SXSW and Sundance 2011, has been writing a feature adaptation of Social Butterfly and plans to co-direct the feature of The Strange Ones soon. Preparing for the “25 New Faces” screening series in Tacoma, Wa., Decker and Wolkstein sat down to chat via video Skype about their films, their influences, Hitchcock, and the importance of sex scenes.
The following is part one of a two-part interview. The second installment will be available soon on The Huffington Post.
Decker: All right, now I’m recording this.
Wolkstein: Oh my God, that’s so embarrassing. I have a cardboard cut out of Spike from Buffy in my bedroom.
Decker: I can’t see it, but now that you’ve pointed it out I’m going to make sure to look for it.
Wolkstein: I’m in my parents’ house in Baltimore.
Decker: Oh, nice. Are you from Baltimore? I didn’t know that. It feels really appropriate that we’re doing this in our bedrooms because theoretically we’re going to be talking about sex scenes.
Wolkstein: It’s true, but I’ve never filmed one in my bedroom.
Decker: I did once. It was a little traumatic, actually.
Wolkstein: That you starred in?
Decker: I was in it but it hasn’t come out yet. There’s a part of me that hopes it never actually comes out. It was this movie I made with Zefrey, who’s a performance artist. We dated for a while and we had this incredibly graphic movie about our relationship, which was in the course of having high highs and low lows.
Wolkstein: That sounds awful.
Decker: It was great when it was a high high.
Wolkstein: I was in a relationship like that for two years, on and off. It was awful when it was a low low. How did you film that, though? Was it kind of like an autobiography about you guys? About your relationship?
Decker: Yes, it was very much based on – bad things would happen and we’d say, “Let’s put this in the movie!”
Wolkstein: Oh no!
Decker: And then we would recreate it into the narrative. It was actually very therapeutic.
Wolkstein: That’s a good point – you can kind of relive it and make your own ending.
Decker: Right, except that we really replicated our reality. It was nice, though, because I’d just say, “Cut!” In reality, nobody calls cut…. So many people make movies that they also act in and I feel like I can’t understand how that’s possible.
Wolkstein: That’s why directors who make cameos in their movies are great; you don’t have to actually act when you are directing if you are just making a cameo.
Decker: This actually brings me to one of my questions! Who are your influences? I mean, I don’t necessarily think my movies are anything like the people’s who have influenced them, but who do you think has had the strongest influence on you as a filmmaker?
Wolkstein: I think watching Hitchcock’s movies influenced me. I think that’s a given; Hitchcock taught me how to build suspense through shot progression. It’s a good question but it’s a hard question because I feel like everything I’ve watched over the years has somehow influenced me. The ones that I really take from are the really bold and brave filmmakers, the Hollywood rebels like Hal Ashby or Nicholas Ray. They were still in the system but simultaneously outside the system. Their films have a unique voice that I think is underplayed and I like that they make movies about people who are outsiders and on the fringes, I relate to that. I love a lot of French New Wave, too. I feel like we are kind of in a new wave now. All the films that I’ve seen you in and that our friends have been in, I feel like there is a resurgence of the French New Wave do-it-yourself kind of filmmaking that I really love. Our friends and independent filmmakers now are taking all the resources they have and they just make it happen with those limited resources. It feels so realistic and alive. I was actually just watching your Kickstarter video, which I love. It looks amazing and the point of view looks fantastic and original. It reminded me of Catherine Breillat and her movie A Real Young Girl. She’s someone who has influenced me. She’s a very bold filmmaker, bold in her view on sexuality. Some of the frames of your Kickstarter video reminded me of some of the shots in her coming of age story about this young girl dealing with her burgeoning sexuality for the first time. I’m still trying to grasp what your new film is all about. Is it a love story between a real young girl, her father, a married man, and a cow? I mean, that’s so original! I don’t know if it is a love quadrangle but it feels very sexual. I’m fascinated by what that will be.
Decker: [Laughs] Me too! When people saw the movie early on they said, “I think you could take that cow part out” and I said, “What? That’s the point!”
Wolkstein: It looks like your film is told through several different perspectives. What made you want to tell a story from different POV’s?
Decker: When I was writing the movie, I had just read East of Eden by Steinbeck, and there is a way that novels can shift perspective almost imperceptibly from one chapter to the next. That happens in East of Eden in a massive way. It is a story about a kid who grows into a dad and then, after over 200 pages, it becomes his son’s story. That was a big surprise to me. It’s very intense to read the second half of that book looking at this person that you spent the first half of the book living through only to look at him and his failures in a way that you couldn’t have done in the first person. It’s like growing up and thinking that your parents are heroes and then going through therapy and realizing, “I have issues with my parents.” In a way, that book affected the way I wrote the movie.
Wolkstein: So where does the cow come in?
Decker: It’s very abstract, all of a sudden you [the audience] and the camera are a cow. It sort of made sense that I was getting that note [that people didn’t get the cow part] because it used to be very jarring. We had to bring the level of weirdness of the rest of the movie up to meet the weirdness level of the cow being the narrator.
Wolkstein: That’s great though, because it’s a very bold and brave decision – to show people something that they haven’t seen before.
Decker: I’m so glad you said Hitchcock was one of your influences, though, because I feel like Hitchcock is one of the biggest influences of my life. When we were kids, if we got sick, our mom would take us to the library and she would get us Hitchcock movies. We were pretty young. I saw most of Hitchcock’s movies between the ages of 10 and 13. It’s funny to rewatch those movies now because they are slow compared to modern horror-thriller movies. He lets his movies elongate in a way that’s interesting.
Wolkstein: He let’s them breathe. He’ll stay on a shot until it’s necessary to move forward, until he needs to push the narrative further. You’ll watch Psycho or Notorious (just to name two films that do this very well) and Hitchcock will stay on the same shot until something changes in the action. It’s hidden but it’s very structured, probably because he storyboards everything. It’s so beautiful in its simplistic formalism. What are some of your favorites?
Decker: When I was little my favorite was The Lady Vanishes and, the crazy thing is, I rewatched it recently and nothing happens for the first 30 minutes. Nothing. It’s people waiting for a train. It’s not boring but it’s not particularly entertaining and the movie slowly builds this weird tension of meeting this person. I was really surprised to watch it again at age 30 and think, “Oh, this was the thing that was my favorite when I was 10?” The Birds scared me for years. I haven’t rewatched it since I was 11 because I couldn’t eat eggs for years afterwards. Somehow I thought the bird was going to peck out of the egg and attack me. In a way that’s probably one of my favorites because of that extreme feeling.
Wolkstein: My favorite Hitchcock is Shadow of a Doubt because it takes place in an idyllic suburban environment where a guy enters and shakes things up. What normally is mundane is not. You know, as much as I feel like I’ve seen a lot of movies, there are so many films I need to see. I go out of my way to watch obscure films – this year it was weird Polish films – but I haven’t seen a lot of the mainstream Hollywood classics.
Decker: I didn’t go to film school and sometimes I feel like, “Oh my God, I’m so behind.”
Wolkstein: It sounds like your film school is actually making and being in films. From what I’ve seen, that seems like it is a sort of film school. Take Joe Swanberg, I admire the way he works so much. It’s like his own way of learning how to make films by just doing it and I think that’s more a film school than you can get by just watching movies. You just have to do it.
Decker: I’ve definitely been having that experience on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. I always note when movies have more than one editor and I think to myself, “What went wrong?” And this movie has a lot of editors, me and two other people.
Wolkstein: Well, what went wrong?
Decker: [Laughs] The truth is, I have edited everything else that I’ve ever made and it’s been a really big process to let go of control over the film. In a weird way, by letting other people have some influence over the film, the film becomes more what I intended it to be.
Wolkstein: That’s what is so great about collaborating with people, you don’t always know the answers and a lot of people have better ideas than you could ever have. That’s another thing that I find fascinating about Hitchcock, how he worked with people, especially his girls. But, for me, I like things that happen spontaneously and that I hadn’t planned. I like to adapt. For me, my process is to think everything out beforehand and then to just let it all go once we are actually shooting. What you couldn’t have planned is sometimes better than what you could have planned. I like to collaborate; I don’t like to micro-manage.
Decker: Most of the directors I’ve worked with have been very hands off and, in a way, Joe [Swanberg] is extremely hands-off, but I think that’s part of why the performances in his movies are so good. He’s letting people be themselves and they are improvising themselves.
Wolkstein: Yeah, I loved your performance in Uncle Kent.
Decker: Thanks! It was all improvised but the one time that he did have a lot of ideas of where he wanted it to go was the sex scene, actually. He was like, “Alright, now the bra strap comes off.” It was very choreographed. As a filmmaker, there are certain scenes where you just put the people together and it grows, and then there are certain scenes, at least for me, where I’ll have a very strong visual concept of how it’s going to look, what it’s going to feel like, what the references are. I think, for him, he was just very clear on how the sex scene would go. Who knows what people will say when they talk but when people are having sex you, as a director, know exactly what’s going to happen. [laughs]
Wolkstein: I think that’s the one type of scene that needs absolute control. It may feel like its something that should be wild and spontaneous, but it’s the director’s responsibility to have control so that the actors do feel safe. It is such a vulnerable position that you’re putting them in.
Decker: I was curious how your sex scene [for Social Butterfly] came about in your brain. How did you have the idea that these two girls would end up together? It’s very unexpected.
Wolkstein: I love talking about sex, it’s something you don’t really talk about in public but more people should. I wanted it to feel like a very impulsive thing that a teenager does because she is exploring her sexuality with a complete stranger. She feels safe to do this and she knows that this stranger is not who she says it is, so it can totally be this one-off thing. I like connecting strangers, people who have these encounters that turn into something more under these certain circumstances. I also wanted to have this intimate moment between two women at a party because I actually find parties to be the opposite of intimate. I wanted these two girls to get together because they each want what the other has; I thought that the best way to do that would be through a sex scene because it is one way that people can connect. I guess it was a more of a romantic inclination than just a sex scene.
Decker: I love that it was a way for these two women to connect. For Butter on the Latch, I loved that Indiewire wrote that it was a “wild, sexy romp you have to see to believe.” That was like the highlight of my life but I was like, “Wow, sexy?” People would come out of the film saying how sexy it was and I was like, “Really?” There is kind of some sex at the end, but most of the film is not sexual besides very frank talk about sex. What I realized, though, is that being a female filmmaker making a film about women connecting is very intimate. Women’s relationships have a level of intimacy because we talk a lot about sex. It always surprises me how soon after I start working with a woman that we are talking about our love lives. As we’re saying, “Oh, can you get me that edit?” we’re all of a sudden saying, “How are things going with that guy? Did you go home with him?” and it’s like, “I just met you and we’re talking about our sex lives!” But I think that it is a way that we connect. Many female friendships border in this confusing place where they could turn sexual but most of the time they don’t. I think we know that as women, but men who are starting to see images created by women about that kind of intimacy see it as sexual whereas we see it as normal. It’s just two girls talking about sex. They might as well be by the water cooler. But then, a magical thing happens when that kind of intimate talk does translate into something more: there’s an incredible amount of tension in that. I love to explore that feeling in my films – when does intimate talk become more than that? …. And clearly, you explore that too!