“We Have to Make a Creepy Movie in These Woods”: Director Josephine Decker and DP Ashley Connor
Since premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, the remarkably assured debut feature-length films from Josephine Decker (one of the 25 New Faces of Film of 2013), have received much praise and bewilderment throughout their international festival circuit run. It speaks to Thou Wast‘s uncategorizable nature that it played at the celebrity-touted AFI Fest, the indie stalwart BAMcinemaFest, and the heavily-genre-oriented Fantasia International Film Festival. Experimental narratives with an intense focus on the frightening extremes of sexuality, the musically-inclined films feature a remarkable blend of both visual and literary poetry; everyone from Onur Tukel to John Steinbeck gets thanked in the films’ closing credits.
As both films get set to open via new distribution company Cinelicious at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP in their new Screen Forward program, I spoke with Decker and her longtime cinematographer, Ashley Connor, about working as a team, experimental dance, and the binary relationship between sex and death.
Filmmaker: Could you speak a little bit about how you two met and how you started working together?
Connor: I shot a music video for a band, and one of the band members went to an art party with Josephine. They met and started talking, and the guy set Josephine and I up on a blind date for his birthday party. Josephine and I met there and talked a lot about gender politics and female objectification, and we just had it out one night.
Decker: It was a funny thing to witness. All the guys were like “Oh my God, women are so objectified! It’s so wrong!” Ashley and I didn’t agree. There are many ways of looking at this. One is that women are powerful and that their bodies are amazing. The objectification of people is a complicated idea. So, long story short, I knew that Ashley and I were going to work well together. We did a short film called Me the Terrible, and I was planning to pay Ashley, but she noted that she wanted to shoot it on film. It turns out shooting a movie on film is way more expensive than paying Ashley! Nonetheless, we did it, and I think it was the right move, because I had to really trust her. We didn’t have a monitor and I think I only looked through the lens a few times on that shoot. We talked about everything ahead of time and created storyboards. I trusted that she would execute well. I loved what she did so much that it was a no-brainer to ask her to come on board for Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely.
Filmmaker: How did you first hear about Butter‘s central location, the East European Folklife Center and their annual Balkan Music and Dance Workshop?
Decker: I was shooting a documentary for Sarah Small, who is the lead in Butter on the Latch. Her Bulgarian trio, Black Sea Hotel, was performing at the Ukrainian National Hall in the East Village, which is the most amazing space in the world. There’s a giant ballroom in the back and it’s gorgeous. We were shooting there, and then this brass band started playing. Everyone there knew what to do. They got up and created this giant spiral around this band. It was exciting and made you feel connected to a community, and it made me feel like I was observing 200 years [ago] in time, in a village in Bulgaria. I was mesmerized. I begged the people who had organized the event to let me make a video of it. I eventually did, and told them that I was really looking into that community for further research. They told me I should come to this Balkan camp, so that summer I did a short documentary for Balkan camps on both the west and east coast.
Filmmaker: Most of the dialogue in Butter is primarily improvised, and Ashley and yourself shoot conversations not in a typical shot/reverse shot style, but such that we are directed to a part of each person’s face — their lips, their chin, etc. Much of the film also consists of following a character from behind, being up close in their hair to the side or behind them. Can you talk about framing your characters in these ways?
Decker: Redwood Forest is a place that you want to spend your life in. The sound is incredible. Not just the fact that you can hear music, but there’s a gentle tree noise that has this feeling like you’re in Mother Nature’s hair. There are follicles coming out of the ground. Hair always felt like it was going to be a big part of the movie. It was actually something Sarah Small and I had talked about that summer. I said “Oh my gosh, we have to make a creepy movie in these woods.” We talked a lot about hair and how it would be fun to play with that idea, and then we were able to find a Balkan folk song about it. Ashley has a very sensual way of getting into nature and getting into the back of someone’s head.
Filmmaker: Can you speak a little bit about the haunting, dream-like sequence where we see an older woman with long, flowing white hair dancing ferociously in the woods in slow-motion? There’s a shot where she and co-lead Isolde Chae-Lawrence stare demonically at the camera. It’s very unsettling. Like the opening scene involving two dancers performing live on stage, this sequence feels inspired and directed by someone with modern dance sensibilities. Was this a discussion you had before shooting?
Connor: Josephine and I have a deep love for experimental film. I’m a huge Maya Deren fan, and I think she’s the only person who really had motion, sensuality, and mystery down to a science. I’ve always been really inspired by her way of doing things. On set, Josephine and I went out in the woods and found this woman who would dance for us. We had the perfect lighting, it was at the perfect time, and there she was, somewhat possessed in the woods.
Decker: We tried to see who was interested in being in this dream sequence, and so we had many beautiful ladies join us. We had two sets of them and Sarah’s set featured numerous older ladies and she was really up for anything. The other thing to note is that, between these dream sequence shoots, I left Ashley alone in the woods for twenty minutes to get a woman we were using for the scene. While I was away, Ashley went crazy shooting, and when I got back, she was about four inches from a tree vibrating near it. Ashley has a special way of communicating with nature and with modern dancers.
Filmmaker: Both Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely occasionally present an unclear, blurred image as an aesthetic choice, leaving the viewer to search for focus and clarity. The viewer wants to see more, because viewing equals clarity, or so we think.
Connor: Well, I recently had eye surgery, so now I can see all the time, but I’ve had glasses since I was six. Back then, I’d wake up in the morning and do things without my glasses on, and I’d be pretty blind. I’m very comfortable getting up close to things. There’s a sense of discovery that comes with that and it’s something I’m really interested in in my work. The 5D DSLR camera kind of speaks to the shallow depth of field that I enjoy. I was able to really use the focus as a way of discovery in trying to make the audience work a little bit. Sometimes I’m probably out of focus. We talked a lot about creating the film as a visceral experience, and discovering what the characters are feeling through the camera work. It’s one thing to just show an audience member something and it’s another thing to try to get them to feel. That’s what interests Josephine and I. That kind of camera work can really create an experience for a viewer, instead of just showing it to them.
Filmmaker: In large part, do you see Thou Wast Mild & Lovely as being a film about the act of seeing? You implement an animal POV, a lead character, Sarah (Sophie Traub), who peers at Akin (Joe Swanberg) through the wooden panels of a barn door, a scene in Sarah’s bedroom where a porcelain horse observes her as she experiences frantic sexual elation, etc. Was that observational approach something you always saw Thou Wast as incorporating?
Connor: I think Thou Wast goes through different stages. One of the things that emerged while we were shooting was this idea that the viewer really wants to be with Sarah, when she discovers her sexuality and when she starts opening up through different experiences. In the sequence in which she lies in the grass, the whole cast and crew were lying with her rolling around. Although the film becomes a bit of a horror movie in the third act, a lot of it involved building out ways of being with Sarah and the way she uses and interacts with the world.
Decker: Intimacy, immersion and intuition are our three “go to” words. I don’t care for really static, observational shots that proclaim “I’m going to look at a character while they do something” instead of thinking about what they’re feeling inside of their world. It can be judgmental or it can be sentimental. Separate yourself from the characters in the film or separate the audience from the characters in the film. I’m always interested in what it means to live someone else’s life. That’s one of the things that makes me excited to make art, to make movies, and to be in someone else’s world. That’s definitely what we’re trying to go for when making choices regarding the camera and every other thing about the film.
Filmmaker: Watching the films back-to-back, one gets the sense of a shared idea of sex equaling death, or sex in someway involving death. That’s made explicitly clear at the end of Butter on the Latch, and in Thou when the lead puts a frog down her shirt, bites its head off, and Akin subsequently comes on to her. There’s also a sequence late in the film involving murder following a sexual encounter. Do these films, in your opinion, possess a binary relationship between sex and death?
Connor: Josephine and I talk a lot about the grotesque and the inherent violence of being a woman. This doesn’t refer to violence in the sense of domestic violence, but in connecting with your body. We don’t shy away from the violence of life.
Decker: Sex is a place of extreme vulnerability and that’s also what gives violence a lot of its power. There’s a lot of natural crossover between the two. When you’re in a place of being very vulnerable, the situation can go toward pleasure or it can go toward pain. There can be a bit of both in each. Pain can be pleasurable and pleasure can be painful. I haven’t found a great answer to that question yet. I think most of sex is experimentation with violence to some degree.
Filmmaker: Does the color red also influence that as well? There’s that red ribbon that Sarah uses to tempt Akin with, and those two beautiful shots of Akin staring at the red barn in the distance as the camera pulls in. And of course, there’s the well-used theatrical motif of red equaling blood.
Decker: It wasn’t necessarily on purpose. Sometimes these things creep in subconsciously, and I always feel like an audience can see your film a lot more clearly than the filmmaker can. I wasn’t like “Oh, we have to shoot red more!” I actually wanted to shoot this grey barn, but it was weirdly placed and didn’t look quite right for the film. And the ribbon I got was just so sensual. I mean, who doesn’t love a red ribbon? (laughs)
Connor: Josephine’s films allow you to engage with this idea of darkness. She really opens that door in a comfortable way to let people explore parts of their inner world.
Filmmaker: What’s the collaboration process like now that you know each other so well? Josephine, I also noticed that someone else you’ve known for a while, your sister, Emily Decker, helped cast Thou Wast.
Decker: Yeah, Emily just saw the film in Los Angeles! She’s a very intuitive person. I wasn’t going to be able to afford a famous casting director for this film, and it’s so important to bounce ideas off of someone you trust, and Emily had a great eye. She’s also a social worker, so I assumed she would be able to tell if someone was crazy! With Ashley, there’s a lot of fun involved too. I give her a lot of room to play. I think that’s really important in films, having the room to experiment and play, not necessarily having all the answers going in.
Connor: I can’t work with most people the way I work with Josephine. We have this relationship that’s built on trust, questioning, and mutual respect. Josephine allows for me to fail and yet never lists it as a failure. As Josephine has said at previous screenings, you only need the footage you have. Josephine is very much capable of working with what we have. She’s really open to participation and working outside of the usual narrative box.
Filmmaker: How did the idea of releasing the two films jointly come about?
Deckier: Adam Kersh, who is our publicist, is a brilliant and loving and gentle soul. He’s always been very adamant about releasing the films together. He’s been doing this for a long time, so I really trust him. Originally, Cinelicious and I were talking about releasing one after the other, but the films came out together at Berlin and that really helped each film. Putting them out together theatrically in New York helps bring awareness to each project; with the more press one gets, the other gets too. Honestly, the films were originally conceived as two parts of one whole. I thought they were going to be two halves of a feature, with Butter on the Latch being a Bulgarian folk song and Thou Wast being an American folk song. They would be one feature film, two thirty-five minute shorts. Since each film then took on a life of their own, releasing them together made sense to continue that thread of exploration, to see how they would do side-by-side.