Josephine Decker may be leading a revolution. When Richard Brody exalted her second narrative feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, upon its premiere at Berlinale this year, he suggested that her films point ahead to a “new grammar” that functions as a “reappraisal of narrative” structure. It’s definitely true that inspite of their modest budgets and gentle, lyrical weirdness Decker’s films often seem revelatory: they’re freewheeling and completely uninterested in being like anything you’ve ever seen. When NoBudge called attention to her Kickstarter campaign for Lovely, (starring frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg) it was mentioned that her films aren’t “film festival weird – they’re actual weird.” Parts of Lovely occur from the point of view of a cow, an experience Decker says made her interested in creating a series of science videos from the points of view of different animals. (cont'd)
Teaser for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely below...
Her first film, Butter on the Latch, played alongside Lovely in Berlin after getting attention on a limited festival circuit last year. It’s similarly experiential, and definitely weird: a psychosexual nightmare that takes place at an actual Balkan folk camp in the California wilderness. Decker’s creative partnership with cinematographer Ashley Connor, which pertains to both films, is seemingly struck with a deal that no amount of bold experimentation is off limits, making for a visual experience that’s immediate and unique.
How was the Berlinale experience? It’s a pretty rare, awesome experience to have everything you’ve worked on in the last few years being celebrated at once.
It was so great. It’s funny, because everyone’s like, how was it? Was it weird to have everyone recognize and congratulate you? And no, it just felt amazing! You spend so much time as a filmmaker being alone in a room working on something and thinking that no one will ever care, and then to have anyone connect with it is so great.
Were you concerned about marketability beforehand at all? Both films sort of fall towards the longer end of that nether region between being a short and being a feature that distributors tend to shy away from. Was that a concern while you were editing, or after, or whatever? That people wouldn’t be receptive to that?
Yes. Well, Butter on the Latch was frustrating because I thought that was going to be a short film; that’s what I was setting out to make. It’s funny -- I was on a shoot for the United Way this morning, I produce things for them sometimes and Ashley [Connor] shot this one. And I kept filming more and more footage, and Ashley was like, “God, you’re such a documentarian.” Everyone’s like, how did you shoot Butter on the Latch in six days? And Ashley’s like, “you don’t know what Josephine’s like. She films everything.” So I think I way overshoot, and for the short it didn’t feel right to cut it down as it wouldn’t have held the whole story that I ended up shooting. But during the shoot I knew I didn’t have enough time to actually make it a feature. We did a few pickups later, because it was like fifty-eight minutes.
Right, yeah, that’s like the film festival death knell.
Yeah, we were like, who’s going to program this? So we added the beginning section, and I think that actually made a huge difference as far as making the movie better.
So as you edit your films, since there’s this abundance of footage and, it seems, like a million different ways that you could put it together since both films are structured in such a unique way, how do you know when to just quit and call it done?
I still haven’t really felt that Butter on the Latch is one hundred percent done. When I saw it in Berlin I thought, “oh, maybe I want to take out three minutes again…” So I’m still editing that in my brain, which is really not good. I should really stop. Lovely, I only know that one’s done because it’s like trial by exhaustion. I’ve literally tried every possible way to construct the movie and I really do think that this is the best possible way to make the movie with all of the material that I had.
Is it liberating to edit like that? To sort of puzzle piece it together and find the best combination? Or is it super frustrating to get to the edit and realize that there are a million different ways that you could put this footage together?
I feel like always, with any movie, there’s a million ways that you could put it together.
In addition, though, you edited Butter on the Latch by yourself, which is a pretty stressful undertaking for any director. But under the circumstances you just described, I feel like I would drive myself crazy with all of the options.
It does. I feel like I’m going insane sometimes. Sometimes I worry about myself because you can get to a place with editing where you feel like a dog that’s been left at home for too long; where they chew their skin until they just have patches of hair left. I feel like I’ve edited to a point where it’s no longer healthy, where I’m no longer cleaning the wound and instead devouring my own flesh, which is appropriate, I guess, for these movies. But yeah, I worked with Steven Schardt and Dave Barker on Lovely, but I was always the one with my hands on the keyboard. I think ultimately it would be a healthier situation for me to get an editor. You get farther faster and they see the things that aren’t working faster than you see them. At the same time I love editing. I’m actually editing a friend’s film now, and it’s just reinforcing that I really like doing this, and that I think I’m good at it. I’ve done it for a long time.
How involved are you with the other technical aspects of post? The sound design in Butter really stood out to me as some of the best I’ve heard in a low budget film. It’s so exact and layered -- there’s a definite tendency with no budget indies where that’s the last thing on the filmmaker’s mind, and it shows.
What was it exactly that you responded to? I’m really curious.
I mean, that it was good, for one thing. It’s a great mix, but beyond that you get to the point where you can then make choices that really stand out, like things that are really inventive and creative, like the weird, psychological montage stuff, which matches your editing style really well. Also details like when Sarah wakes up in the beginning and there’s all of that tape on the floor, which is really loud in the mix and almost kind of disturbing.
Honestly I think most of that is just hiring good sound people. There’s nothing alive to me about just putting a Zoom recorder in the room with the actors. I’ve never shot anything without having a sound person on set who was really committed and knew what they were doing. That tape, actually, was just there and Hiram Becker, the sound guy, told us to leave it, because he liked the sound. So I think it’s just having good collaborators.
Do you have that sort of creative collaboration with all of the technical members of the crew? I’m thinking mostly of you and Ashley. Was the look of the film more from her or did you talk a lot about it beforehand?
I actually think on Butter it is more her. I was so stressed out I could barely think of anything beyond, “can we put these actors in this scene and shoot it before the sun goes down and everyone comes out and eats dinner here?” So I feel like that one I gave her free reign. And then on Lovely she had since shot lots of other stuff and had an even better eye, and I had an even better sense of working with her. A lot of Mild and Lovely is what we called the “Ash cam,” where I would just say, “shoot this scene however it feels right to you.” So in a way it was my decision, to say, “this is your free-form time” and then we had other scenes where we shot listed. She also didn’t have a gaffer or anything, so she was on her own trying to figure out how to light the kitchen interiors.
It was very much a deep collaboration, but it’s also defined by a look that I wanted it to have. I wanted it to be very close to the characters the entire time, except for the end, and that you couldn’t escape from the film. So Ashley’s a deep collaborator, but there are also plenty of times where she just totally ignored me and shot how she wanted to. But I think that’s also why it’s such a great collaboration. We have incredibly similar visions and passions, but also we argue a lot and have different ideas about how to shoot something. And she’s often right, honestly. She does this for a living and she knows the angles we need, and where to put the camera, and what the blocking should be. I really like that she’s so active and cares as much as I do.
It’s so inventive, the way that she shoots. There are so many limitations on that camera, that, again, I feel like a lot of low budget filmmakers just sort of accept because they feel like they don’t have a choice, like, “welp, we’re shooting with a 5D so it’ll just look like DSLR footage.” In both of your movies she tries so much crazy stuff, and I think that’s part of what keeps it feeling so fresh.
Oh my gosh, when we shot the sex scene, she took the lens off the camera and was holding the camera in one hand and the lens in the other, so the sex scene is all sort of wavering and coming in and out of focus, and there’s black space on the edges, and I love it. Joe couldn’t act in that scene because he was so excited by what she was doing. He kept looking over at the camera and I’d have to be like, “Joe! Act!” But it’s beautiful! I think it totally creates the energy that we wanted to have for that. It’s like you’re seeing though a dark veil.
Your films seem really preoccupied with the physical human form in a performative sense, like performance art, almost more so than cinema, so I’m really curious as to what your past relationship with film was. What made you want to become a filmmaker, and are there filmic influences that you would talk about with Ashley? Because I think part of what makes your films seem so unique and immediate is that I couldn’t connect them with any other films that I had seen.
Oh, that’s good!
That’s really good! That’s great! It just made me wonder about the type of films that you were interested in, and if you had any influences.
That’s a great question, and one that I was kind of blank out when I’m asked. Because the films that you’re interested in making are always different than the films that you like and the films that your film is like. I actually got into filmmaking because I loved Pixar movies. I wanted to make awesome kids movies that had like a ton of action and adventure and were really funny and made you cry. But then when I started writing obviously that didn’t happen. The realization that I wanted to be a filmmaker happened while I was watching Monsters, Inc.
Is that still something that you’re interested in?
Down the road? I would love to make a kids movie eventually, especially once I have kids I’m sure I’ll love to make a kids movie. Now I think I’m just interested in something else. I’m also just really afraid of making a movie that costs a lot because it’s terrifying to have investors that expect money back, and the pressure that goes along with that.
Was there a huge difference in making Lovely from making Butter, obviously without going into budgetary specifics, in terms of amount of crew and what was available to you?
It was a pretty big difference, which isn’t to say that production cost that much on Lovely, but that’s just because everyone’s a saint and worked for nothing. But with Butter on the Latch it was just me and the sound guy and the DP, and not only that, but we were in a crazy environment where there were hundreds of people, so there was a lot to manage. And then on the other film we had a much bigger crew but much more control. We were just on a farm in Kentucky with no one else around.
But on the other hand, the doc style way Butter was shot in the Balkan camp is like, instant production value. I’m sure that kept costs down.
Yeah, I thought if I had had to really “make” that film it would’ve cost millions of dollars. To find extras who know traditional Serbian music or whatever? In terms of enjoying the process, I think I enjoyed myself a little less on Butter on the Latch. I had to run around in the morning and wake everyone up. I would go to bed last and then wake up four hours later and walk a mile to wake people up. That was hard. It was nice to have an AD, so when everyone’s tired and miserable they’re all mad at her instead of me.
You also had a Kickstarter campaign for Lovely. What was your experience with crowdfunding?
It was great. It’s an incredible tool. I didn’t know how hard it would be until I started. The problem with Kickstarter is that the people who are going to give a few thousand dollars otherwise are more inclined to give less money, just because it’s a Kickstarter. Because it’s open and visible crowdsourcing, like two hundred dollars seems like a lot of money. By the time the campaign was almost over, though, I had enough people helping me run the Kickstarter that we started getting press and that helped tremendously. The first two and a half weeks were all people that I knew, all of my friends, and I was like, “aw shit.”
I was curious, given your past history performing in Joe’s movies, if you ever had the idea to appear in either of these films. I feel like in a sense it’s almost expected of low budget filmmakers.
I definitely didn’t want to be in either of those movies. I’ve been thinking about being in the next movie, which really makes me nervous, because I think you’re more open for criticism if you do that.
Yeah, I think so too.
And rightly so! Because most filmmakers are not great actors. I mean, I think Joe’s great, that’s why I cast him. But I see some films where I’m like, oh, you should’ve focused on one or the other. And it’s not even that the next movie is more personal, it’s just a role that I feel like I could play or would want to play. The other roles never felt like they fit me, so I never thought about that. But sometimes I think, in general, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea. I thought Sophia Takal’s performance in Green was amazing.
Is your process working with the actors extremely collaborative or more exacting? You worked with a script on Lovely, right?
Right. It was very collaborative on both. On the first we were all writing the film together in a way, but I think the second one was collaborative in a different way. I was really excited about Richard Brody’s article because he said something like, “she doesn’t observe behavior, she invents it.” Even working off of a script there were moments that we would come up with actions or behaviors on the spot that ended up making the scene. We didn’t really have any rehearsals beforehand.
I’m not really interested in having a more exacting style of directing. It’s always good to be in control of your set, but I want to give people the space to try things and fail or succeed and make it their own.
Speaking of Richard Brody, I was curious of what you thought of that review, where he talks about how Lovely is part of a movement of a “new narrative grammar.” Was that something you responded to at all?
Oh, I loved that. My movies are so weird, and you’re right that it doesn’t fit into certain ideas about film and aren’t part of a clear genre, and I’m just making what comes to me, which is oftentimes more influenced by music or literature -- I love Steinbeck, obviously -- than by film. But that also means that a lot of people are like, “I don’t get it; fuck you!” So the Brody piece helps in the sense that it contextualizes it as something that’s going on, and that’s really helpful, I think. It basically says take her seriously, because it’s not just about her, it’s something that’s happening and acceptable in cinema. I don’t think Shane Carruth or Leos Carax have the same influences that I do, but sometimes there’s just something in the air that you’re responding to. It’s nice to have perspective of what you’re doing in the case of something other than just yourself.
Do you have a sense of your own voice yet as a filmmaker, and the creative and aesthetical qualities that unify your work?
Well, I think I grew up a lot over the last year in terms of my understanding of cinema by working with David Barker. I learned something that was important about what you keep from an audience and the way that you ask an audience to fill in the gaps between two scenes, when two scenes don’t necessarily feed into each other. I think that way of storytelling has sort of become ingrained in me. Now I watch movies and look for that. I’m teaching a class this spring at the School of Making Thinking about magical storytelling in film, and I’m teaching Rosemary’s Baby, Babe, Buster Keaton’s The General, and The Fifth Element.
Those are all great movies. And I think what you said about the editing style is kind of exactly what Richard Brody is talking about, too; that narratives can be told in a more withholding, ephemeral way. I’m not sure what exact films he mentioned, but stuff like Upstream Color, or Amy Seimetz’ Sun Don’t Shine all sort of utilize a similar structural vocabulary that you do in different ways. Not to paint you into a corner, but yeah, I think that context is interesting.
Yeah, definitely. And in Rosemary’s Baby the cuts are so exciting. Nothing is what you expect. Which is what the movie is about, and I think good editing reflects what you’re saying in the movie. I feel like I’m making movies that are edited in a way that asks the viewer to take risks along with you and work, I guess, while you watch. I’m really interested in immersive experience. I loved shooting from the perspective of the cow [in Lovely]. I think the next movie I make I want a lot more of that; entering the perspective of some other being. Those are things that are kind of interesting to me.
And one thing that was really great about having both films in Berlin was that having them back to back was very validating in terms of my voice. If everyone had been like, “fuck that,” I think I would’ve just been, like, maybe I’ll just make a normal narrative movie! I want to fit in! But the fact that people are responding deeply and viscerally makes me want to push further and explore my voice more.