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“Maybe When We’re Performing We Feel More like Ourselves than We Do in the ‘Real World'”: Josephine Decker on her Sundance Hit, Madeline’s Madeline

Madeline's Madeline

Three fascinating but very different actresses star in Josephine Decker’s exhilarating Sundance feature, Madeline’s Madeline. There’s Molly Parker, the exceptional film and television actress currently seen in Wormwood, who plays Evangeline, an experimental theater director who develops her work out of immersive performance workshops, challenging her company to mine their own feelings and experiences while creating new ones through the sometimes cringe-inducing exercises that can be the stuff of the improvisatory creation. Miranda July, an artist, writer, director and one of the most significant performance artists of the last 20 years, plays Regina, the frazzled single mother of a teenage daughter whose adolescent rebellions, mental illness (possibly bipolar — she’s on some form of meds), and overflowing creative spirit tax her own fragile coping mechanisms. And, certainly not least, there’s newcomer Helena Howard, who plays that daughter, Madeline. In her first screen appearance — a star-making turn — Howard grounds the film in both recognizable adolescent emotional turbulence while imbuing it with ineffable creative energies. Madeline’s is the viewpoint through which the entire film filters, and there’s a porous boundary here between Madeline’s real world and her rich interior life. Fantasies and visions abound. (Did she really burn her mother with an iron?) The differences between these three actresses are just some of many rewarding artistic collisions in Madeline’s Madeline, and they also form a subtext, as this is a film that’s incredibly wise about performance and about performative behavior — about how our inner lives and emotions are processed in ways both understandable as well as mysterious to ourselves and to others.

Living at home with Regina, whose behavior oscillates between self-pity and tenderness, and her button-pushing younger brother, Madeleine finds a kind of release in the after-school theater workshops she takes with Evangeline and a group of experimental performers. Over the course of several sessions, Regina focuses on Madeleine as the potential lead in the piece for reasons that start off seeming pure — Madeline, as portrayed by Howard, is obviously an incredible performer as well as one who seemingly needs the parental surrogate Regina offers — but are revealed to be complicated by the director’s own need to emotionally co-opt and exploit.

What’s most most remarkable about this extraordinary film is Decker’s marrying of a bold, expressionistic filmmaking style — one that eschews the default naturalism of so much American independent film in favor of unexpected lens work (the DP is her regular collaborator, Ashley Connor), overlapping interior and diegetic dialogue, brief darts into fantasy and dream, and an overall feeling of vertiginousness — with a cool, almost analytical take on family (and racial) dynamics as well as systems of exploitation. Decker’s background in performance comes into play here — as we discuss below, she knows and has witnessed the behaviors her film depicts — and it’s this knowledge coupled with pure filmmaking ambition that makes Madeline’s Madeline one of the true standouts of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker: Tell me how the film came together. I understand you met Helena at a high school acting competition you were judging and then asked her to work developing a film. But did you have the idea for this story before that?

Decker: I had this concept that I was going to start workshopping with actors to create something — I didn’t want to write a script. But that was as far as I had gotten. And then I met Helena, and I thought she was unbelievably brilliant. [I said,] “You should be part of this process, and I would like to [build] the whole work around you.” I started to think about family dynamics and, I think, in a weird way, connected with her — even though obviously she’s not a member of my family. And then the rest of it started to coagulate around those concepts.

Filmmaker: You mentioned workshopping with your actors, which is interesting because one of the main story elements in the film is a workshop with actors. However, the film seems very much filtered through the individual consciousness of Madeline as opposed to being about a group dynamic, or taking in multiple points of view.

Decker: There was an earlier draft of the script that very much featured everyone. It was still [Madeline’s] journey, but it was very “Alice in Wonderland.” I just kind of pulled my favorite weird things that each of these actors could do [and thought], this will be good, this will make a movie. I remember giving it to my manager for notes. He was like, “I don’t think that it’s even possible for me to give notes on this.” I said, “Do you think we can raise money with it?” And he was like, “I don’t know….” My boyfriend, Malik Vital, who was part of the Sundance Writers Lab many years ago, really encouraged me to refine it and get closer to one central story. So I ended up focusing more and more on Madeline and her inner consciousness rather than a walk through a magical wonderland of strange.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about some of the nuts and bolts stuff. How long was your shoot?

Decker: We did 20 days and then we did two days of pickups a year later.

Filmmaker: And when was the workshop with all the actors? Was it right before the shoot or months before?

Decker: We started the workshop with the actors two years before we started shooting. At a certain point I had so much material! It’s like we were all mushrooms and we needed more of a log to grow onto. So then I went away and wrote for six months and had this crazy “Alice in Wonderland”-y script that I really liked. And then I started to try to refine that into something that might actually try to get funding.

Filmmaker: One of the things I really loved about the film is it has a real point of view about performance — about how the act of performance can mean something very different to all the people involved in it. The Molly Parker character is an artist who has emotional issues that play into the relationship she has with both her work and the people in her piece. And you might say that Helena’s character is being exploited by her, but at the same time she’s getting something valuable from the experience. Nothing is black or white.

Decker: That’s interesting, because where did all these ethical questions really take root? When I worked in documentary I consistently felt pretty wrong about framing a real living human being’s life into a 30-minute or 90-minute experience. It’s so simplifying for any human being to be portrayed in that way. Even if it’s a positive portrayal, you are cutting out huge aspects of their life no matter what choices you are making. Films are defined through their editing, and I don’t think there’s any perfect objectivity when it comes to trying to track a real person’s life. As a person making documentary, [I would think], okay, my subjects also are performing. They’re different when the camera is playing and when the camera is not playing. [The camera] is affecting what I’m catching with them. I think great documentarians become fairly invisible, but then what you’re really reading is that subject’s interaction with the documentarian. There’s one primary relationship in every film: the relationship between the subject and the filmmaker.

So I think some of those ideas are from that. And then there has been working a lot on improvised films — like Joe Swanberg’s films — where you are asked to bring a lot of your own life to things, where you are supposed to improvise as a character who’s supposed to be you-ish, or close enough to you so as to be a believable human in the world. To some degree I think a lot of Joe’s early work is documentary even though most people wouldn’t call it that.

But all that is super complicated. I think most of the kind of ethical performance questions [that are explored in the film] really came up because there was this amazing group of people that I’d asked to improvise, and when you’re working through improvisation, even with very specific prompts, you do bring yourself. You’re creating a role. As we were moving along the actors were very blunt with me when they felt that lines were being crossed or blurred, or when they wren’t clear about the meaning of this or context of that. They really held me accountable to clarify my relationships with Helena and with them.

I entered this process with such an idealistic notion of how it was going to go. I was like, “This is great company of actors, and we’re all going to create together. It’s going to be so beautiful and idealistic!” And then in truth it was like, “Oh my god, I’m oppressing and exploiting everyone!” You become aware, when the lines are a little bit blurry, that confusion abounds and there’s a lot of potential for questions. I think one of the strengths of our workshop was that it created room for those questions. It wasn’t a situation where there were issues and we buried them. Issues would come up, and we would take an hour out of a seven-hour rehearsal day to talk through them. We created safe spaces and a lot of check-ins so people could share what was going on with them. I think the film is more vulnerable because the process of creation was pretty vulnerable and because the actors were so deeply a part of the work and the accountability of the film as a whole. There was a sense of shared ownership.

I can’t believe how much I grew over the course of making the film and working closely with these people. I just feel wildly grateful to each of them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the hardest aspects of the film were not that; the blessing of this movie, the gift of this movie was that — that a lot of people cared enough to hold the film accountable to this broader good. And we fucking failed all the time! It’s not like we were like a perfect movie, and that’s kind of why I made a movie like this. There’s so much failure inside of it, but that’s part of the artistic process, and people don’t talk about that.

Filmmaker: When you talk about this group of actors who had agency in the development, do you include Miranda and Molly as well? Were they there enough to be so invested?

Decker: A lot of what I’m talking about was beaten out on the ground before Miranda and Molly joined us. This was the biggest production I’ve ever done, but it was still so small, and we didn’t really have time to go through all this [with Molly and Miranda]. In a way, their participation unfolds as the film unfolds. I was reading through our press notes last night, and Molly wrote this really funny thing, something like: “Having been on a lot of traditional film and television sets it made me very nervous how much time each day went to making sure the whole cast and crew was feeling good and making sure we were all expressing our feelings about any issues that came up.” We lost time, but I think that was a beautiful part of our process. We had three shoot days when we stopped shooting for over an hour to discuss the material and how to appropriately address it.

Filmmaker: Can you give me a specific example? What was the sort of thing you’d have to stop and discuss?

Decker: In the script I had written a little bit of a more direct comment on race — just the fact that it’s a white woman making a brown girl’s story, because that was something that came up in our rehearsals with the actors, and I think ultimately [the actors] were right. They said it’s not really about race — it’s about crossing a boundary with this young woman. The said, “If we make it about race we’re making a whole movie about race to some degree, and it’s really not about that.” So we shot [the scene] with the literal “black and white” comment obscured, and we shot without it at all, and we shot with it. I think I had it in the edit in all three ways at one point! But eventually we knew that this movie is such a complicated adventure, and that the racial dynamic is ultimately really clear and visible. It would be pretty boring to have the actors comment on it during this climatic moment, which is about respecting other people’s boundaries.

Filmmaker: You referenced earlier Joe Swanberg’s films and other types of narrative films that are informed by a verite, or documentary, style. Your style, on the other hand, is visually bold, expressionist and decidedly non-naturalistic, especially in its use of sound, interior dialogue, etc. Could you discuss how you developed this kind of heightened style? A colleague said to me after the screening that you’re developing your own film grammar.

Decker: Yeah it’s funny because to me it feels like this is film grammar, and I don’t know why it isn’t everybody’s film grammar! But this movie did feel like it had a very specific voice, and Helena was a big part of that. But also, I did this meditation retreat and had a vision about a sea turtle and then it’s revealed that the sea turtle is a woman performing a sea turtle. That [became] this very clear idea: this movie would have performance, and it’s like we can’t tell the difference between when we’re in performance and when we’re in in reality. And maybe when we’re performing we feel more like ourselves than we do in the “real world.” Films that interest me the most are the ones that get into someone else’s head, where I get to become that character for a while. I’m interested in being put inside someone’s experience, so those are the kind of films I wind up making.

Filmmaker: Finally, what kind of research or ideas about mental illness made their way into the script?

Decker: [The film] definitely emerged from a very personal experience of being close to someone for a very, very long time who has struggled with mental illness — being around the ups and downs of that of that. I was also interested in family dynamics related to mental illness. You know, a child with mental illness is going to bring out a very specific kind of parenting, either for good or for bad. An adaptive behavior in a child might seem crazy but also might be the most sane way to handle a dysfunctional or complicated home situation. In a way what I’m interested in is other people’s read on the film. I put a lot of my questions in there, or I put the actions in that have a lot of questions inside of them.

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