Director Josephine Decker laughs when New Times describes her latest film, Madeline's Madeline, as grounded. "It’s funny that you call this work grounded, because the truth is I thought this was the least accessible film I was making. I thought I was making something crazy, intense, and maybe poetic — something that was a lot like 'Rhapsody in Blue' and followed musical motifs more than narrative motifs," she says.
For some viewers, the dreamy wonders of her films (especially Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) are an instant turnoff. For others, the film she was "shocked that anyone could understand" will spark interest in one of the most fascinating filmmakers around.
Madeline's Madeline is more chaotic than calm. It exists within the mind of the titular young woman (played by Helena Howard) trying to deal with exterior forces, the most influential of which are her well-intentioned but overbearing mother (Miranda July) and the director of her physical theater troupe (Molly Parker). "The manicness of the film is ultimately grounded in Madeline's perspective," Decker explains.
"I was trying to understand what it means to feel like you are your own unreliable narrator — that you don't know if you can trust your own mind and that feeling of being unmoored and trying to then latch onto other people, but finding that they are unsafe territory as well and may be unstable in their own ways. It's about investigating the challenges of being a human — touching on mental illness and being a teenager and being a human and not knowing where to land."
But it's not all about Helena Howard despite her magnificent presence in her debut film role. "Our three central actresses [Howard, July, and Parker] were stunning and talented in many different ways," Decker notes. "I think each of these women read the script and brought to it a sensitivity and possibility that I never could have, and I just try to live with them and share my thoughts on the script and these people — their essence and their energy — to help them see what I see.
"Miranda made Regina so much more loving and exciting than I ever could have imagined her. I thought that mom was going to be the villain of the movie. And Molly's portrayal of Evangeline was so much more complex than I could have ever hoped for. It was a really exciting discovery that the film felt like it changed constantly, and these three women and their relationship to each other was not remotely what I had intended, and that was beautiful."
If the process sounds collaborative, it's because "the strength of Madeline's Madeline lies in the collaborators," she says. This process of collaboration comes in part from her experience with Pig Iron Theatre, whose members "create all of their work through a devised process, meaning they improvised with their actors, usually off of some kind of structure, to create a piece."
Decker notes she worked with "an extraordinary group of people who poured their guts out to make this movie," including Howard, Liz Rao, Eva Steinmetz, Dana Eskelson, Felipe Bonilla, Lisa Tharps, Charlotte Hornsby, Sophie Traub, Kaneza Schaal, Sean Carvajal, and Sharon Mashihi. This compliment also extends to cinematographer Ashley Connor, who is "a fucking genius who loves to take huge risks and is always pushing to get more inside" the characters, Decker says.
This same process is actually featured heavily in the way characters in the film draw from one another to create a work of art. That's especially true of the director character, Evangeline, whose relationship with Madeline borders on exploitative. "I think artistic collaborations are a lot like relationships between couples. You put up with each other and you enhance each other's lives, and you bring out the best and worst in each other at times. Great collaborations do a lot of that, but ultimately, there's the possibility of a great, deep intimacy that's often worth it."
The relationship between director and actress was a self-reflective one, based on her own experiences while making Madeline's Madeline. "In the process of improvising the film with the actors, I started questioning how a director works and how intentions can differ from reality, so Evangeline became a character in the film that she was never going to originally be," Decker admits.
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"I originally wanted to make a Three Little Pigs movie about three women who are kind of making useless performance art about major issues, and in a way that's kind of what I did, I guess," she laughs. "But I sort of threw myself in there because I think I just saw how deep my own blind spots were and how little I knew they were there. Thankfully, this extraordinary troupe of people allowed me to grow in front of them."
If Madeline's Madeline and Josephine Decker herself sound like they're nonsensical in the way they approach filmmaking and storytelling, it's because of a principle that a quote from the film sums up beautifully: "It's not about making sense all the time."
Says Decker: "I don't believe in logic as a guiding principle in art-making, and I think it's very challenging when I try to make art with people who are logical. I'm making a new film now about Shirley Jackson, and there's a script that someone else wrote and I have to stick within certain boundaries while also having to somehow insert into this world the kind of mystery and unknown emotional-intuition stuff that makes me the filmmaker I am. And I'm excited to be making some nonsense inside of some sense."
Madeline's Madeline. Starring Helena Howard, Molly Parker, and Miranda July. Directed by Josephine Decker. 93 minutes. Not rated. Opens Friday, August 31, at Bill Cosford Cinema, 5030 Brunson Dr., Coral Gables; 305-284-4627; cosfordcinema.com.