Berlinale 2014: Josephine Decker on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch.
At every festival, there are “did you see that?” moments which create a buzz among audiences and critics. One such early example at this year’s Berlinale came midway through Josephine Decker’s hypnotic, farm-set thriller Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, when the point of view of a violent, ambiguously-rendered sexual encounter suddenly switches to that of a cow, through whose eyes we see the next few scenes. It’s a playful, idiosyncratic touch which recalls the chimp’s flashback in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, although it would be wrong to attempt to draw obvious comparisons between Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Decker’s other film — a surreal tale of friendship gone wrong at a Balkan folk camp, Butter on the Latch — with anything else: they are strikingly original works which herald a new voice, and are both screening in this year’s Forum section.
The films’ director, Josephine Decker, has previously made shorts, acted in films by Joe Swanberg, and gained some notoriety for stripping naked in front of Marina Abramovic at MoMA on the last day of The Artist is Present in 2010. She was also recently named one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of 2013. I spoke with Decker ahead of the public premiere of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
Filmmaker: Congratulations on having two films at the Berlinale. It’s unusual for a director to have two films playing at a festival.
Decker: Thanks. I submitted Butter on the Latch as a rough cut last year, and they didn’t take it. We eventually premiered it at the Maryland Film Festival, and it was much better than the first rough cut. That was eight months ago. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely wasn’t done yet, but this fall we finished the edit — a little past deadline — and we sent in the final version.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about having your films seen at a festival, where there will be film fans, but also sales agents, critics, programmers?
Decker: It’s a good question. I haven’t seen [Thou Wast] with a big audience yet. You said that, and I got really nervous. In general I’ve loved festival audiences because they’re smart, they ask questions and they want to know… and maybe they are watching with a more critical eye. But maybe they’re watching with a more forgiving eye because they’re comparing it to other micro-budget indie films rather than, say, your film versus Batman!
Filmmaker: Despite the two films’ obvious differences, do you see an overlap?
Decker: I initially wanted to make a film that was half based on an American folk song and half based on a Balkan folk song: two shorts. But Butter on the Latch became its own thing, and I can’t just go straight to an American folk camp from a Balkan folk camp! Then I was reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and it all came together in the script. Once Butter on the Latch was made I never imagined it being with another thing.
Filmmaker: And how did you balance making the two films?
We shot Butter on the Latch and then I was just finishing the edit when I went into production on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely in 2012. Then I was trying to edit both films at once. I was putting the finishing touches to Butter but I’d just started editing Thou. When it’s a new project you give it all your care and attention. I really wanted to get Butter out there but my time was being eaten up by having a real job that pays me and then two movies of my own.
Filmmaker: At what point for you is a film finished? Would you describe yourself as a compulsive editor?
Decker: Oh my God! I don’t know… I wish I could say two edits. That would have been nice, and it wouldn’t have been haunting my life for so long. Joe Swanberg [who stars in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely] inspired me so much. He is so good at editing something and moving on really fast. I can work on editing forever. Sometimes I realize I’m not making it better. But for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely about a year ago we’d been editing for four months and I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t the quality I wanted. I started working with this editor called David Barker… he’s also a psychic. When you sit down to talk with an editor about what you want to do you’re usually referencing other movies, but he, for the first two weeks we worked together, just asked me questions: “Why is he listening to that music when he’s driving around?” “What was your intention with this?” He’d ask me exactly what I was trying to convey with dialogue. What became clear was that all of these ideas that I had about the movie weren’t in the movie. When I started working with David, we made Akin [Swanberg’s character] more serious. We gave him more edge. It was exciting to realize how dramatically you could shift a character in the edit. We also re-ordered the film a bunch.
Filmmaker: What kind of things stood out for you as priorities during the edit? Pacing? Tone?
Decker: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely really used to take its time. It used to be 99 minutes, and I don’t think anyone would like to sit down with it for that long! More important than pacing were the things David brought out in me: “What is the soul of the film?” “What are the boldest choices you could make?” “What will create a question for the audience?” We were constantly escalating and creating gaps that the audience has to be clever to fill in. Sometimes I was like, “David, you’re making a smart movie and not all audiences are going to be patient!”
Filmmaker: How was your experience of Kickstarter for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely?
Decker: Kickstarter was great. I’d never done crowdfunding. It was much harder than I thought it would be but it was also a joy to think “Wow, I can do this! I can get on here, ask people for money, get press.” I felt really lucky that people were getting to hear about it. To start with, everyone who donated was someone I knew, and I was like, “Shit!” The way that these things take off is when it’s not someone you know. And then in the last week it got bigger and went faster.
Filmmaker: Was there much of an overlap in creative teams?
Decker: Actually the only crew on Butter was me, the cinematographer [Ashley Connor] and a sound guy. So in a way you could say some of the crew who worked on Butter worked on Thou because they were the only people there.
Filmmaker: What camera did you use?
Decker: We shot on a Canon 5D.
Filmmaker: It looks great. Your cinematographer has really pursued the “shallow depth of field” thing.
Decker: Yeah, I like that a lot. She’s really a master of just going for it. My executive producer invited me to an art opening in New York about five years ago. I met this painter, and we hung out. I checked out his website – his name’s Brad Kunkle – and his website was the exact visuals that I want in my movies. He said, “You have to meet Ashley,” and this real darkness with this crisp, glowing color coming through — Ashley was responsible for that.
Filmmaker: And it really worked out!
Decker: Oh man, it worked really well! We joked that our collaboration was like getting married to your childhood sweetheart. I didn’t get to make a bunch of movies with somebody else. I feel weird committing so deeply! But why bother changing? It’s really hard to develop a collaboration, and we do know each other well. I know what to expect of her.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a “scene” in New York of prolific filmmakers swapping roles, acting in other people’s movies. You’ve acted in Joe Swanberg’s movies, he’s in Thou. You were in Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding. There’s overlapping roles. What’s your take on it. Is it a bit inward looking? Does it even exist?
Decker: I’m glad you’re asking me that because I think about that all the time subconsciously. I was very unpopular in middle school. I had like, no friends. We moved when I was 10 so it was terrible. It was not a fun time. Maybe because of that I have a mental paradigm where I will never been cool enough to hang out with the cool kids, and so it still shocks me that Onur would cast me in something, or that I’m working with Joe. I don’t know why they’d wanna hang out with me… the uncool kid at school who’d get signs put on her back! I never feel like I’m part of the scene because I always feel left out. For a while I’d wanted to be a part of that scene. But the irony is my films are a bit different.
Filmmaker: They’re not based in New York, for one..
Decker: Yeah. And I’m really interested in what the female filmmakers are doing. For instance, Green by Sophia Takal — I’d made Butter, and Green came out maybe six months after we’d shot it. And I remember thinking, “Oh shit, everyone’s going to think I saw Green and responded to it.” But I hadn’t even seen it yet. I just had this vibe that they were going to be similar. I saw Sophia’s movie and I loved it. I think the movies are similar. I finally saw it after Butter got into its first film festival.
I feel more in common with the female than the male filmmakers. In terms of filmmaking style, I love guys like Joe [Swanberg] and Nathan Silver who are like, “I’m just gonna fuckin’ churn this out!” It’s like giving birth really fast! I’m going to say something gendered that maybe isn’t, but I think that women can take a lot longer to make their movies. That’s the pattern that I have seen from a very small sample size. The men I know that are making movies will churn them out pretty quickly, and the women take like two-to-three years; for the men it’s six months to a year. That’s kind of a big difference actually. People say that there’s less female filmmakers than male. I think it’s the same, but there might be less movies, because there’s something about raising the baby of your film, right? I don’t think that men get it wrong; I love Joe Swanberg’s movies. I think he’s good at what he does. I’ve always wondered about this — the girls I know who work on films spend years trying to figure them out.
Filmmaker: Both films, in particular Butter, are propelled by a strong sense of female sexuality, which is refreshing in a male-dominated film world. It’s a terrible question, but to what extend do you see yourself as a feminist filmmaker?
Decker: Well, my first documentary was about bisexuality, and we talked about what you mean when you put a label on someone. “Bisexuality” can mean a million different things. Yet I thought it was important to use the word, because every time someone gets to know someone new who has that label, that person is seen smashing the boundaries of that definition. In that way, I’m totally a feminist. I love the word “feminist,” definitely. People get really sensitive. I remember seeing an interview with Natalie Portman, and they asked her if she was a feminist, and she got really uncomfortable and said “I don’t think of myself that way.” I was like, “Really? Why? What it so scary about that word?” I don’t there’s anything bad about feminism. I think it’s about creating incredible communities of women supporting each other and trying to get their work out there as much as men. It’s about resolving the inequality.