When Josephine Decker, a low-budget Brooklyn filmmaker receives rapturous praise for not one, but two of her arthouse projects from the unsparing critical body gathered at the Berlinale, it would be fair to assume legitimate talent is at play. Packing on that praise, Greta Gerwig soon became a vocal admirer, while The New Yorker’s Richard Brody hailed the little-known artist for contributing to a “new grammar of narrative.” Prior to the German love in, Josephine Decker was best known for playing in the films of DIY luminary Joe Swanberg and for being escorted out of the MoMa in her birthday suit during Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” performance. We tipped readers off to her films “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” back in February. The latter is a profoundly unsettling, East of Eden-inspired psychosexual thriller set on a remote Kentucky farm, but that’s way more linear and clear-cut a logline than the film ever provides. Ostensibly about the simmering tensions and lingering desires between a whimsical young woman (Sophie Traub) and the withdrawn hired hand on her father’s farm (Swanberg), the magic realism-imbued Thou Wast considerably bends the storytelling canon to explore a woman’s lyrical inner world. We caught up with Decker at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival to chat about the Hitchcock way of shooting, the rise of Mexican directors and adapting an 83-page poem for the big screen.
You studied literature at Princeton before switching to narrative filmmaking. What drew you to cinema?
In a way, my dad is a poet, and he’s really into international cinema. One of his favorite directors is Tarkovsky, so that kind of cinema was around growing up. But as a kid I was exposed to more commercial cinema; I had to actively seek out the weird stuff, as I’m from Texas and there wasn’t a huge international filmgoing community. But I would say that my deeper influences are really literature and music. I played piano when I was young and thought about doing it semi-professionally – playing in orchestras or bands. It was also a way to express things I didn’t know how to otherwise. Sadness, terror and anger – basically, all the things Beethoven was touching on.
In Thou Wast, the perspectives keep shifting as you take us inside characters’ twisted and titillating minds. That struck me as being more akin to literature than film.
Absolutely. That’s definitely what I’m working towards in my films: how do you create an inner world for the character? Often, in screenwriting classes, they’re like: “only write what the character’s doing, never what the character’s thinking.” But what the character’s thinking is usually much more interesting, so I think there’s a way of expressing that through music, sound and the way the character is portrayed. It can be really evocative.
Was your cast in any way thrown off by a script that had more cues about characters’ inner thoughts than physical actions?
When Joe [Swanberg] showed up on set, he was like: ‘Josephine wrote an 83-page poem, and now we’re going to make it into a movie!’ (laughs) I tried to leave all the images that were in my mind in the script. If there’s a line like “the land is her lover,” for instance, it’s nice to have a script that isn’t so didactic, that leaves a lot of room for improvisation and play. I think a lot of times, there’s a Hitchcock way of shooting where you’re basically just lining up cattle for slaughter – actors stand here, move your head this way, say your line. Even though I fucking love Hitchcock, the way I make films is much more intuitive and leaves much more room for experimentation and explosion, maybe.
You’ve performed in a few of Swanberg’s projects. What was it like to have the tables turned? Was it beneficial to have another director on set?
Definitely. Thou Wast was only my second feature, so I was really learning as we were getting coverage. Joe had just finished shooting Drinking Buddies and he told me: “you just have to pretend you know what you’re doing and then go for it, because people will believe in you.” Perhaps the most important piece of advice that he reiterated to me was: “Everyone here wants to make sure you’re happy with what you get. Don’t settle for something you’re not happy with, because then we’ll all be depressed.”
In Thou Wast, the characters’ lush fantasy sequences are key to the threateningly erotic mood you build up. Yet I read that your editor had to convince you to include these. Why was that?
I was really looking at Joe’s way of working – he makes these films for nothing, and one of the reasons is that they’re super naturalistic and grounded in the performances of non-actors – people who are improvising something very close to themselves. I think that’s why he works so well. In a way, I feel like I now understand my strengths better than I did before those two features. At the time, I was deeply impressed and excited by the way Joe makes films, I just wanted to do stuff and I understood that fantasy films cost millions of dollars. How would I make a fantasy film on these low budgets?
And yet that’s exactly what you’ve been doing.
Yes. In a way, so much about our perceptions of each other in real life are based on fantasies we have. The fantasies are sometimes even more real than reality itself, so the Thou Wast script was about that: the fantasies and ideas that characters have about each other. It was nice to then find a way to visually describe those ideas a bit more clearly by giving them the space of nightmares.
Your body of work is being lumped in with Shane Carruth’s hallucinatory Upstream Color and Leos Carax’s chameleonesque Holy Motors. What do you make of these comparisons?
Well, Leos Carax is a genius so I’m always happy to be lumped in with him. I think beyond being in the company of really great artists, what’s most exciting for me is receiving praise for something that I’m so passionate about: bending storytelling and magic realism. That’s why I was interested in fiction at all. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in high school, and thought the book was what I had been looking for my whole life. It framed reality in the way that I felt it. It was so exciting to then discover there was this whole movement from Latin America.
When all the Mexican directors were becoming the greatest directors in Hollywood – Iñárritu, Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro – I felt it was because they were accessing something that Americans weren’t: this fantasy world that lives around their politics. I think there’s a general feeling that a certain kind of story isn’t being told – less glossy, with less of a happy ending, but that also offers joy, wonder and a deeper experience. I guess American cinema has been disconnected from that for the last 10-15 years. I’m generalizing a lot, but I’ll just say that I’m happy to be making my magical realist movies and to have a context in which to understand them!