Josephine Decker’s third feature film, Madeline’s Madeline, is an exquisite collision of content and medium, a story that could only be told in cinema. A fractured exploration of mental illness and the art-making process, the film is shot tightly, scored with thick and experimental acapellas and occasional out-of-sync dialogue, and edited like a deck of frenetically shuffled cards. It is often delirious, operating like a hallucination wherein the line between fantasy and reality is excitingly ambiguous—the gray area as a playground. It’s just as frequently frightening.
In July, at the Oscilloscope Laboratories office in Williamsburg, Decker told me her overall approach to storytelling here was “to give you enough narrative that you’re paying attention, but enough weirdness that you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m not gonna lay a bunch of expectations on this, I’m just gonna go along for the ride.’” The plot, as much as there is one, concerns a teen stage actor, Madeline (Helena Howard, who in this one breakout role, exhibits the range within a decade of a typical actor’s body of work), whose acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) attempts to create a narrative of Madeline’s experience. Is Evangeline a savior or a vampire? The movie wonders much the same thing about Madeline’s emotionally manipulative mother Regina (Miranda July, who is astonishing as she plays it straighter than ever).
Summer 2018 may well be remembered as the summer of the teen movie’s revolution, with fresh approaches to and perspectives within the genre by the likes of Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back), and Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post). All are in some way exceptional, though none quite as radical as Madeline’s Madeline.
One of the film’s central questions concerns whether collaborative art with an appointed leader (the director of theater and films, for example) is necessarily exploitative. Decker wonders this not just about art in general but about her own. Madeline’s Madeline was created in part by the acting troupe that also appears onstage alongside Madeline in the film (which includes Bronx Gothic’s Okwui Okpokwasili). Decker began workshopping with her actors in the fall of 2014 for seven months, then wrote the film’s script for the next year, received her financing, shot the film over 20 days in the summer of 2016, and then spent a year editing. She talked to me about her painstakingly crafted work, her representation of mental illness, and the possibility of democracy in art. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation appears below.
JEZEBEL: What was your elevator pitch for this movie? The New Yorker mentioned that you had more funding for this movie than your last two.
JOSEPHINE DECKER: Yes, yes. Bow + Arrow had been in touch, like “What’s this project?” I’m like, “It’s the sea turtle movie! This woman is an actor but then becomes a sea turtle. You know, that’s the opening scene.” And they were like, “Uh-huh. Okay. Send us the script when you have a script.” And so I wrote the script for like a year, basically, and then was banging my head against it, but getting a lot of good notes, and then finally sent a draft to them, and they liked it. They were like, “We want to help you fund it.” Funding ended up coming from a few sources, but they were kind of the first people to say, “Yes,” and that allowed us to move forward and cast the film, and have both momentum and funds.
It’s an interesting landscape for weird stuff to get made, because the landscape of film is changing so much and so often. I think there were three years when Netflix and Amazon were paying millions of dollars for any movie. That era, I think, is gone now. The ship has sailed. But I think it gave some people hope, that maybe smaller films can make money. I think the guys at Bow + Arrow and at Voyager, who also invested in our film, are interested in telling unconventional stories and raising up voices to be heard. They’re interested in art. Art as part of the cinema conversation. And that’s really rare. That’s not how most buyers at a certain budget level…That’s no longer part of the conversation.
How much does the finished film reflect your early vision of it?
It’s funny, because a lot of themes ended up in the movie. There was actually a lot more than I expected that ended up in the movie. We were going to make a movie about these three women who are making really important performance art about immigration and the prison system while they were also making The Three Little Pigs. So it was going to be about how ridiculous artists are: we think we’re gonna take on these big issues, nobody’s ever going to care, or nothing’s ever going to change by our work. [The character] Evangeline is in some ways very similar to [the original characters], in her delusions of how making art is going to do anything. I think that’s her whole thing: she’s terrified that maybe what she’s making means nothing. Which is maybe why she’s being such a bastard about the way she’s going about it.
And then mental illness was always going to be a central theme, and that was obviously deeply present. And those pig masks were the big inspiration. I was like, “I wanna make a movie that uses these pig masks.” So in some ways, they have nothing to do with the film, but I feel like they’re also deeply part of the origin, and I think you feel that when you watch the movie, that these masks are meaningful. Why? Who knows? But those were the main things I went into it with, I’m surprised that they lasted. I did think that maybe we would—this is part of my own vision—somehow talk about the prison system in a way that is so new, and then I very quickly realized that that was not going to happen, and I was probably not the one person who was best equipped to talk about that. But yeah, I think maybe what I didn’t see coming was that the film was going to be so deeply about my own delusions.
How much of a proxy is Evangeline for you, vis a vis what you just said about the functional futility of art?
She’s very much a version of me, and I don’t think she’s the good version. I’m glad I’m not her. I was really afraid of turning into that, I guess you could say. And that’s probably why the movie ended up being the way it was. I think the things that feel true are feeling lost along the way and really wanting to be a good leader to people and maybe, at times, shutting down deeper conversation because you’re too intimidated by the largeness of what you’re holding with other people’s expectations of their lives. I think I use art in a way as a medium, as a way to really get to know people and a way to get to know experiences that are not mine. I love that about making art. I think it’s also really complicated, that can lead to situations that are unhealthy.
Also I know that’s a large part of how the indie community makes art. A lot of us didn’t start out working with famous actors. We’re working with friends and we’re like, “Hey, let’s put this part of your story on film.” And that can be exciting, it can be revelatory, it can be totally life-changing to be part of setting yourself in a new light. It can also be deeply exploitative and manipulative. So I think I wanted to critique all that, look at it, and still do it. Fuck, it’s a lot! It’s a complicated set of circumstances. But I feel that if I ask all these questions about ethics of art-making, I felt like the only real way to deal with it was at least put those questions in the work, so that the audience could be part of the conversation with me about what are the right answers. I don’t know.
It seems like the movie does resolve the conversation to some degree in its climax by arguing for democracy in art-making. Was democracy part of your process? Did that facilitate your ability to make this stuff without feeling like an exploiter? Or did you not resolve that whatsoever?
I feel like it was both resolved and unresolved. My own process with these amazing humans who are part of our acting troupe, I mean, those people sat in a room with me for a really long time, basically one weekend a month for seven months, trying to figure out what we were making. And I think there was this collective desire to invest, and to create a sense of ownership over the product as a whole. And I think there was a shared ownership of the project, in a way, because we did debate it together for so long. But also it’s completely problematic that ultimately, I was the director and had a lot of control over how things were going.
I think that was a lot of what we were working out, this slow realization that all of us were having, which is that: “Somebody needs to steer the ship. That somebody’s obviously going to be you, Josephine. And then what are the rest of us to you, and for you?” I think that the democracy that we encountered was this almost collective disappointment that this movie wasn’t going to be made somehow by 12 writers. You know, we weren’t all going to be writing the film. We didn’t have money to pay everyone to do that, and I didn’t know how that process would necessarily have worked, although I do think there’s a reason that television is so good. I think a writer’s room, having a lot of people writing together, is actually great. So I think, in a way, that that was how democracy played out with us. We invested a lot of time, and it finally came to the point where we realized that somebody needs to write the script, and go do this, and then it was such a shame that just one person had to go do that, which was just a limitation of the resources and the time that we had.
Also, the other aspect of the democracy that did come out was feeling like when there were boundaries blurred, or potential difficult areas that were either crossed or ignored, there was a group of people who were like, “Hey, whoa, let’s look at this. Look at what this means for all of us. Make this together.” And that was really exciting. It was exciting to be a part of a process that could hold that kind of feedback. That aspect did feel like we were all making something and writing it, because I think when you’re held accountable for the work that you’re making, it makes it better.
So often, these elements of the process of filmmaking are taken for granted. Usually, you have a man who’s often in complete control, sometimes to the point of terrorizing people, especially women. So just to have this aspect not only be thought about, but then become central to the art itself is fascinating. It fits well into the widespread rethinking of culture, process, and standards that’s underway.
Right, yeah. I think that was one of the reasons why it felt really important to put all of that in the work. I was like, “Nobody’s fucking talking about this!” All of us are going to work everyday in these environments that don’t hold space for feedback, at all. In fact, they’re built on having zero time [for that]. I mean, film sets are so rushed. I think there are amazing producers who take care of the people that they work with, but I think ultimately, it’s so about the product, and about getting the shots, getting your day, making your day, that it’s really easy to ignore the people, whereas theater is the opposite. I think people are very much like, “We’re going to be onstage together every night for months. We have to fucking take care of each other.” And I think I was really excited by that influence.
Your crew was almost entirely made up of women. Was that a conscious choice or circumstantial?
I think the people who were drawn to the script were women, and I think also the people who we thought were gonna have an easy conversation about what we were making, like a very intuitive conversation, were also women. So it was both the people I was drawn to and also the people who were drawn to the movie. But it’s not always the case, because the truth is there are way more men making, doing all these jobs. Maybe I should say, there are the men who have much more experience, because they’re getting bigger projects.
Does giving women those jobs, or being a woman who directs movies in the first place, feel political to you? Or at least important for progress?
It doesn’t feel political to me because it’s just my job, my life, but on a larger scale, when I’m teaching or working at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and also I was teaching at CalArts this semester, it feels really important. There are a lot of stories that go untold by many women, and I think I’ve really found the movie to be such a joy, because you’re getting people to feel confident, to express their voice and their story and their unusual way of seeing the world. I think supporting them to push their voice, their uniqueness, both in what kind of stories they’re telling and how personal those stories are and how they tell those stories, is really important to me. I think that teaching is very political, because you’re raising up the next generation of voices that people hopefully will be paying attention to, in this medium and other media. I’m invested in telling the stories that I haven’t always heard, especially about being a woman, whether that’s about female friendship, or having children, or maybe fearing your own child, or fearing your best friend. It’s looking at these lesser-told parts of what it’s like to be human, but it happens to be usually what it’s like to be a woman.
The most arresting thing about this movie, to me, is that it feels like something that only cinema could convey. There’s not even really a way to explain it succinctly. You just have to see it. Was that part of the idea?
Ashley Connor, our DP, was part of this whole rehearsal process. She was there, learning how to be a sea turtle like everyone else, being on the floor with our theatre director, and was doing conversations with our whole cast and crew, because I was like, “She needs to know how to inhabit another person’s body.” It’s acting, but it is also, I think... the process of making movies is, in a way, the process of letting go of yourself, and moving into some kind of collective knowing, or unknowing, I guess—when an actor accesses something that you’re like, “Whoa. I know that that’s not the known.” It was exciting that Ashley went there with us and explored that with us. In a way, I think that we knew we were setting up something where the filmed medium was going to be very much a part of the experience. This immersion into point of view and into other worlds that, when an actor goes there, you, the audience, are also going there. That felt really important. So Ashley and I, we talked about the more technical aspects of filming those things, and how to really give the audience the experience of becoming, I guess you could say.
What’s the reason behind keeping Madeline’s mental illness unspecified?
I grew up close to somebody who struggled with mental illness, and I was concerned that if we specified the mental illness, people would get really stuck on it, and they would be like, “Well that’s not how that plays out.” “Well, I had this experience…” And my experience of being close with that person was that the diagnosis changed every five years. It was a totally different diagnosis, there were often multiple diagnoses at once. And at the heart of it, it was just a very erratic emotional experience. It’s something where you’re like, I feel safe one second and then the next second I don’t feel safe, in my own skin, basically. And there are triggers that come from outside, and there are triggers that come from inside, but often, you don’t know that you’re gonna feel great in every moment.
And so, I was mostly interested in allowing us an experience of Madeline that felt like she’s not standing on stable ground. And part of that is definitely the people around her, and it was also part of what I was interested in looking at. It’s like, how much of Madeline’s mental illness is her safety response to this unsafe environment that she’s in? Whether it’s with Evangeline, who’s using her, in a way, or with her mom, who’s completely… has just shoved her own narrative onto this young woman. I think it was important to have that, to give Madeline the sense of being at the whims of these two ladies, but also sometimes she’s pulling the rug out from under herself. She has a lot to battle against.
In July, Helena’s mother started a GoFundMe to keep from losing her housing. Were you aware of Helena’s situation?
Yeah, I mean, I gave to the campaign…
It’s always wanting to be sensitive. I asked her, “Are you cool with me posting this on Facebook?” Her mom emailed it to me and some other friends, and I was like, “I’d love to put this out there, but not make it feel like this is a violation of your privacy.” And she was like, “No, we really could use the help. So please do spread the word.” Helena and I have become really, really good friends. I met her in 2014; we shot in 2016. I think I know a lot about what’s going on in her life. Just trying to be there as much as I can for emotional support, and be a good friend, and help her when there’s a moment... And clearly, her mom brought her in a place where she was like, “I’m asking more publicly for help.” So it was easier to try to be helpful.