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Madeline’s Madeline: An interview with Josephine Decker
May 18, 2019
Madeline’s Madeline has been on my radar since seeing it at the Berlin Film Festival in 2018, a beautiful genre bending movie, which amalgamates storytelling, theatre performance, dance and art to produce an in-depth study of young girl Madeline (played exquisitely by newcomer Helena Howard) who struggles with mental illness. Director Josephine Decker makes watching an immersive experience by shifting the person perspective, roping in opaque dream-inducing montages and an effervescently hypnotic sound landscape, capturing the essence of Madeline’s inner world. Diving deeper and deeper into her mind the lines between real and imagination blur leaving you wondering what is performance and what is narrative. We had the privilege to speak to Decker last week to talk to us about her film.
I saw the film back at the Berlinale 2018, seeing Miranda July was in it, I was compelled to go and see it. From then till now, its taken a while to be finally released in the UK, how come?
It was released in the US in August. The deal hadn’t been closed in the UK. Then there was the whole awards season, so we missed the window. It was just timing, we signed too late to get it out in time. I’m happy its now finally coming out.
How would you describe Madeline’s Madeline to people?
My elevator pitch would be: a young woman (Madeline) is part of a theatre troupe. The director of the theatre group is devising a piece of work with a group of actors. She slowly becomes interested in this teenager and her story and wants to make it the central part of the performance. And then question becomes: who gets to tell whose story? And how does Madeline at the centre of this movie take or not take control of the story about her?
When you were trying to get a film like Madeline’s Madeline to the attention of financiers, how easy is to get them on board?
You know I definitely thought that nobody would ever fund this movie (laughs). But you know I have a really great agent with Paradigm. I remember talking to her about the film, early on in the process, trying to describe to her: ‘It’s film about this girl and in the beginning, she starts off as a sea turtle and you are watching the sea in POV but then you’re not at the sea, you’re in a theatre and it’s a girl wearing a giant sea turtle costume’. I mean its quite out there. Especially, as I would try to further explain it at the moment when performance transcends reality.T
My agent then suggested I should meet this company called Bow + Arrow, this is even before the script was finished. When the script was finished, I showed it to them, they read and liked it and they wanted to fund it. We didn’t go pitching it all over town, it was really targeted. I think you already know beforehand that certain people are not going to say yes to the movie.
The film at various points transcends the borders of a narrative, by incorporating other art forms, giving it a sense of improv. Was the whole film scripted?
Everything in the movie is pretty much scripted. However, since I had Miranda [Miranda July] and she is such a genius writer, I tried to let her improvise around scenes. She would take something written down and would rift from it. Some of the physical work, like the dances and the physical exercises, it’s all choreographed. But we did spent a good part of the year rehearsing and improvising until everyone in the team knew the drill, so when we were actually filming we weren’t doing anything for the first time.
The aesthetic of the film is stunning, there is often a hazy, dream-like quality. Can you tell us about the cinematography?
Ashley Connor our cinematography was with us a lot of the time, from early on. She was there through all the workshops, the improvs and rehearsals. Even though we didn’t necessarily know what we were creating, we knew how we were creating it. There was a real immersive quality to the whole project. ‘Immersion’ was always a word that came up all the time. I wanted the audience to feel immersed in the movie and I wanted the audience to become the main character at times. We knew we were going to have these repeated moments of going into Madeline’s mind, seeing through her eyes. Like when she is in the pig mask, we had the camera in there. Ashley created a special rig for the memory sequence, the bit about Madeline’s dream about slamming her mum’s hand with the iron. She built her own unique system of lenses that allowed us to have a look that would feel like a smudged memory. Ashley is a genius, she has a whole experimental film background, she likes to create different things with the camera, and I do to.
The three main characters at various moments appear unhinged, there’s a certain disfunction, which makes for an uncomfortable viewing.
A lot of that is editing. I love unconventional editing, to my own detriment. This is a film that asked for it. If you go into someone’s mind, anyone’s mind, we are all over the place whether or not we are dealing with mental illness. In our heads we are at seven places at once, thinking about what you going to do in the next ten minutes, in a week or what you did in the past or what you doing in the present. So, letting time have this fluid, fractured feeling was part of this disfunction that you felt.
Also, on a story-telling level I focused a lot on how the characters idolised each other. Madeline idolizes Evangeline (Molly Parker), and in a way the film does to, you would go anywhere with her. At certain point, as things venture off into questionable territory, you stop idolising Evangeline and you are ready for the rebellion that ensues.
The mum’s character (Miranda July) was originally meant to be portrayed as dysfunctional, in the script there was almost nothing positive about the relationship between her and Madeline. I originally thought that the mum would be the villain, but then when Miranda started to play her, she was so grippingly sensitive and pleasant, you felt that when she was horrible to her daughter its because you knew she had no choice.
Yes, I warmed to Miranda’s character, you understood her behaviour towards Madeline.
Given who she was in the circumstance and the knowledge of the past dealings with her little girl, she acted out of fear. She made unsafe decisions because she is so co-dependent on Madeline. I learned so much about the character from Miranda’s portrayal of her. I thought the mother would be more of a villain than Evangeline, but she turned out to be the most relatable character. We ended up going back to do pickups because we realised, we needed to show more love in the relationship with her daughter.
What are pickups?
Re-shoots. Big movies sometimes re-shoot the first part of the film. They are super helpful, cause sometimes you don’t know how things are going to turn out until you get into the edit room. So it’s good to have those extra bits so you can then add them to enhance the characters and the various narrative points.
For me, I never warm up to Madeline. She was stunning to look at and I understand that she was a teenager going through mental illness, but her behaviour left a bitter after taste.
There were early drafts of the script where Madeline was almost like an angel and all these bad things were happening to her. She was like this tragic figure… and I thought this is bullshit… Nobody has such little agency especially as someone as smart as her. As I was writing, initially there was supposed to be a gruesome ending which could have exploded into violence, but I wanted Madeline to evolve beyond that, into something more creative. So, I think figuring out the ending made me realize a few things about the beginning. That Madeline is a very creative, ecstatic person, completely open to her whims, which is what is gorgeous about her but also terrifying about her. Partly because of her relationship with her mum, this complex co-dependence thing, she becomes isolated from her peers because her mum is obsessively creating an enclosing sphere around her.
My feeling whilst writing was not to resist ideas that were coming up, that I did perhaps want her to be a person you on occasion root for, but then you are like ‘hey, you saucy bitch you can’t do that’. It’s a more dynamic, more human, more flawed.
The camera feels like its constantly in motion with constant switching from observer to Madeline’s perspective. Why did you choose this filming method?
To some degree for me and Ashley (cinematographer), we both feel that the camera holds the spirit of the movie. So, you are seeing through the eyes of the spirit. Sometimes the spirit is the main character and sometimes that spirit is around the main character or holds the whole world of the film. But I think Ashley uses an embodied way of shooting and its exciting, especially for a film like Madeline’s Madeline where the camera perspectives change; ‘when am I fully myself? When am I somebody else? Or when am I performing for someone?’. This needs a camera that can move from breath to breath, spirit to sprit or from one reality to another. Filming in this way, I believe makes the movie feel alive. I love an alive camera. I love a camera that follows what an actor is looking at, focusing on them looking outward rather than what the director wants them to look at. I do think sometimes it can be a little much, but for this film it felt very appropriate.
You use a lot sound effects in the film, like cat noises or bubbling hot water. What was the use of those?
So, I work with this amazing sound designer Martín Hernández. He has done a lot of amazing work. He’s been nominated for Academy awards for his work on the Revenant and Birdman. I was really lucky to work with him. We worked together on my first features and now Madeline’s Madeline. It was specifically in the moments where we are inside of Madeline’s mind. We used him a lot in the editing and he brought so much out to the scenes. I think the film makes so much more sense with his sound design because it becomes a helpful clue for the audience differentiate when it’s imagination and when its reality.
Is there a common theme in your work?
If there was a common theme, it’s a female main character. I guess I’m drawn to that, cause its a world I know well… being a woman. Beyond that there is not one thing. There is a lot of shit going down in the US right now, so I’ve been thinking about how to address that, maybe through my work or some sort of activism outside of my work.
Madeline’s Madeline was exciting cause in some ways it raised questions about race, politics and power came to light in the rehearsal process. When you get these amazing people to collaborate, incredible things come to light. I would love to do something more collaborative in my next project.
Actually, reading some of your interviews the question of race was often raised. For me it was not something I picked up immediately, I thought the movie’s demographic was representationally diverse, reflective of how New York actually is.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I mean obviously race has a prominence in the movie, the diversity, Madeline’s is mixed race, her mum is white, her dad is black. Evangeline’s husband is black. You get glimpses of the characters’ extended families. All the actors were an ethnically diverse mix. These were specific choice for specific reasons, but I didn’t want to primarily focus on race throughout the movie. A presence but not an obvious one. It becomes more of a thing towards the end when the group is critiquing Evangeline for the exploiting of this young girl’s story but also questioning Evangeline’s motives; who does thinks she is to tell her story? or that she thinks she even can tell her story? That’s the only moment when the race issue comes to prominence.
What are you working on next?
I’m almost completely finished with a film called Shirley (starring Elizabeth Moss) and Michael Stugahrt. It was really special thing; I got the best actors. I’m finishing that. Then I have another feature and some other stuff I want to write.
So, you are all set? Things are happening for you?
Sort of. Nothing ever just happens. You have to make a lot of things happen. Its definitely getting easier to raise money and that’s a blessing. My first two movies, I was really pounding the pavement to get the money to do that, as well as putting my own money into it. It’s nice not to be going broke. It has taken a long time. I’ve been working for fifteen years. But, now I feel blessed to be able to do projects that I’m excited about and care about.
Madeline’s Madeline is out now in cinemas and on MUBI.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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