by Steven Prokopy
Few offerings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival announced themselves as a truly new type of filmmaking the way writer/director Josephine Decker’s MADELINE’S MADELINE did. The story involves a teenage girl named Madeline (newcomer and force of nature Helena Howard), who has made her way into a physical theater troupe in New York, led by driven and occasionally manipulative director Evangeline (Molly Parker), who is so overwhelmed by Madeline’s willingness to try anything to make their current production shine that the show ends up being a thinly veiled version of Madeline’s unstable life and mind. This development does not sit well with Madeline’s overbearing mother Regina (Miranda July), especially since she knows better than anyone about her daughter’s troubled history.
Although the two women rarely share screentime, Regina and Evangeline engage in a tug-of-war over Madeline’s life and means of expression. Is Evangeline appropriating this young girl’s life for her own success? Does her mother have the right to stand in her daughter’s way if she wants the lines between her life and artistic expression to fade away? If Madeline’s goal is discovering herself by engaging in this process, how does it help her if she loses or damages her sanity along the way? The resulting work is sometimes shocking, emotionally raw, and features a central performance from Howard like no other you will see this year.
Decker has spend many years working on MADELINE’S MADELINE, a living, breathing work of art that changed as each new contributor came aboard, especially Howard, who borrowed from both her life and the filmmaker’s. Decker has been directing documentaries, shorts and experimental features since the early 2000s, and also has been doing a great deal of acting for most of this decade, including having key roles in early films by Chicago’s own Joe Swanberg (an executive producer on MADELINE’S MADELINE). We had a chance to chat with Decker recently to talk about the evolution of the screenplay, the use of improv in the film, and finding her powerful lead actor.
Question: Describe working with Helena on creating and fine-tuning her character.
Jospehine Decker: The character of Madeline was a weird conglomeration of people in my life and people I had questions about, as well as myself. I had to really put myself in that character to figure out how to write it. Truthfully, Helena brought so much insight, understanding and thoughtfulness. She worked really hard to let Madeline be as natural and clear, in a way, as possible. She felt that Madeline was going through some stuff that was quite overwhelming, and Helena herself let it feel very real over the course of the shoot. It was fun, but it was also really challenging for her to play a character who was struggling some much—challenging in that it was painful.
I can’t think of a better collaborator for you on this movie than Miranda July; she seems to be made of similar stuff. What did you learn from working with her as a collaborator and an artist?
JD: Miranda and I have become really close friends. She’s a stunning artist, and I’ve looked up to her, I feel, my whole life [laughs]. That’s a bit of exaggeration because I think I started hearing about her in the early 2000s, but she’s so insanely brilliant, so funny, and insightful. What did I learn from her? Gosh, so many things. She’s deeply generous, so I learned generosity. She also really trusts herself. She has this wonderful balance having done a lot of performing; she’s very comfortable in front of an audience. I some ways, I’ve gotten to be more free in public. When you have a role model who is so open and amazing, I think it rubs off and gives you permission to be your fullest self. She’s constantly opening up her own inner questions, and being around that, I feel free to be constantly questioning as well.
You make a strong case that sometimes the best artists are also mentally unstable, often resulting from parental relationships. And making art/acting gives that instability a voice, even if it doesn’t substitute for therapy. How did you want to approach Madeline’s mental health history, which is such a deeply personal thing for anyone?
JD: I think I was struggling with my own questions about mental illness, and I had a lot of them. I was wondering where does mental illness come from, and is it deeply influence by the environment that you’re a part of. What are the things that exacerbate it? What are the places where you feel safe? What are the places where you don’t? I didn’t have an agenda necessarily for dealing with mental illness; it was just something I’ve been close to my whole life. I don’t personally struggle with mental illness, but I’ve grown up very close to someone who did. It was one of those things that I was eager to understand. And while I was making this, that person I was really close to was actually hospitalized for mental illness, so it was a big inspiration for the project. A desire to care for that person and to understand them and to go deep into their brain was a strong desire, and at times, I think I underestimated what a guiding force that was and how scared I was of losing that person.
People often think of using improv as a tool for comedy, but in the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with films that use it to tap into dramatic and emotional truth—as your executive producer Joe Swanberg does frequently. Where did that potential first come to light for you, and talk about using that device in this film?
JD: I grew up as a musician and dancer, and I think improvisation is something that you are hovering next to all the time, even though I was playing a lot of classical music on the piano and dancing ballet and wasn’t necessarily raised to do that. But when you care deeply about those more physical arts, improvisation is something you just end up doing—dancing around the house or whatever [laughs]. So that’s Part One of improvisation. I’d studied with Pig Iron Theatre in college, and they taught me basically a lot of about using improvisation as a method for creating work. They create devised theater [also known as collective creation]. At the time, this was 2003, they were calling themselves a dance clown theater troupe, and they developed work by having a topic, improvising regularly around some topic or central structure. I worked with them on two pieces. One was called “A Lucia Joyce Cabaret,” which was about James Joyce’s daughter, and it was a musical that took place in her mental health sanitarium; it was pretty cool and crazy. And I also worked with them as an assistant writer on this play “Chekhov Lizard Brain,” which is based on a Chekhov play. Working with them, I really saw this possibility that seemed so exciting to me, which is you could create work by dancing with your actors, basically. The actors become writers, the director becomes a writer, the creation of the piece is so deeply embedded in the bodies of humans who made it. I found that incredibly exciting as a way of making work. I remember I made a play when I was 23, 24, with my friends, and we did it in a devised way.
I worked with Joe Swanberg on a few of his films in 2010, and that brought be back to those roots. My film BUTTER ON THE LATCH was deeply inspired by working with Joe and remembering “There’s this whole process, and I can make fiction films using this improvising process, even though MADELINE’S MADELINE is the first one did use this process. I made MADELINE’S MADELINE in a weird way, using a devised theater process. But improvisation has been important in all of my work.
My feelings about Evangeline changed over the course of the film. In the beginning, she feels like a force of good for Madeline, but she ends up being as controlling and manipulative as her mother by the end. She may be the closest thing to a villain in the movie. How do you see her?
JD: It’s funny, when I was writing, I really thought the mom character was going to be the villain, and then Miranda July is just so lovable and brought such a simple sincerity to that role that I was like “Maybe this character is wonderful and not hatable.” With Evangeline, there’s such a turn in her; I knew she was the villain of the film in some ways, but I think I thought the mom would be worse. But truthfully, Evangeline becomes the darkest thing Madeline encounters in the film, so I had to work to not nail her to the cross too early, to let her be complex, and let some of that cruelty, manipulation and neglect be a discovery and a balance to the other parts of her personalty—I think she’s also generous and loving and really wants to do the right think. But she also wants to feel successful in these different ways, ones that are probably painful for her.
Is Evangeline a version of you, and is the story of creating this performance piece a version of how this film came together?
JD: Evangeline is basically the version of me that I don’t want to become [laughs]. She’s like a version of me if I ignored all warning signs and just plowed through to the end. I think over time, I realized that Evangeline is deeply not me; I think I’m a pretty thoughtful person. But there are moments during the process of creating this movie that I stepped on boundaries and overstepped lines, and tried to quickly correct when those things happened. It was a complex film to make, and I wanted to draw from all of our collaborators. I wanted to draw from all of their lives and their improvisations and this collective brain we created by rehearsing for a year with these actors. At moments, I was trying to do something deeply collaborative but ultimately I was the writer and director; I had total control over the end product. In a way, that’s in imbalance of power, and it’s also not even what I realized I was signing up for. Somehow I thought I was going to write this together with everyone, then over time it became clear that while we were all improvising and creating together, the ultimate task of pulling it together was mine, and my position relative to the group was therefore authoritarian [laughs], even though it was disguised as collaborative.
But we had a lot of amazing moments to connect. We did these things called “check-ins,” where everyone speaks about what’s going on for them, and you hold silence around that, and every single person has a chance to share. I felt like, in those moments, I really go to understand what the other collaborators were thinking about and going through. That’s why the film became the film it is, because I was listening to these amazing voices and these people who were sharing how this process was affecting their lives, this process of improvising together. That I felt so exciting and unusual and growth oriented; it felt like “These are the conversations I want to be having all the time. Why am I not? What have I learned from them? They bring up so many questions that I want to have answer to, and I felt like those questions became the center of the film.
Speaking of Evangeline, Molly Parker is one of my all-time favorite actors—and she might be my favorite Canadian. How did you land on her for this film, and how was she as a collaborator?
JD: I was in love with Molly Parker via “House of Cards.” Ironically, we were looking for…I can’t even remember what other part we were looking at someone else for who was in “House of Cards,” but I watched one episode that that person was in, then of course, I stayed up for the next seven hours watching five episodes in a row, and Molly Parker was in all of them. She’s so good, and I grew to trust her; it’s amazing how television does that—you spend a lot of time with someone. She’s such a craftsman. It’s amazing, we would all be watching her and saying, “Molly Parker has so much control over her face.” She can call things up instantly; it’s remarkable. She has such a strong background in television, and she worked so long over so many seasons, she’s also just a great director of herself. I felt I was lucky to have a partner in figuring out Evangeline. She really knows how to craft a character and give that character an arc, so I was constantly learning from her. And she know her way around a film set; she’s just a lovely human being.
How did your experience as a documentary filmmaker impact the way your approached this movie and its search for truth?
JD: I think my background in documentaries and in acting affected the film a lot. I worked on a lot of low-budget, indie films as an actress, and…let’s just say, I’m not surprised that the #MeToo movement happened. Especially on these smaller film sets, it’s hard because it’s intimate—besides the fact that I acted in a ton of movies that had sex scenes—and a lot of them of improvised and you’re pulling from your own life and your own creativity. I wanted to make work that was a response to, at time, feeling out of control of those moments or of how my story was going to be used. Also, as a documentary filmmaker, I worked on a film called BI THE WAY and I was working with a co-director; I think there were moments where I felt we did not handle our subjects’ stories with the greatest of ethics. You get into an edit room…I was really young, I was kind of learning from others, but I’d come from a journalistic background. I was lucky when I worked at ABC that the people I worked with had a lot of integrity journalistically. What someone said was what someone said. You could remove the “um’s” but that was about it.
But in that movie, I think I saw the other side of indie documentary making, which is you need to make the story that works for your film, and it’s very easy to put someone’s life out of order, and I got really disillusioned about filmmaking after making that. We lost some creative battles about how we were going to handle our subject’s lives, and I felt very guilty and bad about the way they were represented and that I participated in showing them in a light that I didn’t necessarily think was true. MADELINE’S MADELINE is like the weird energy of all the growing pains and mistakes I ever made in my life; I had to make this movie.
Can you ever imagine going back to a more traditional style of filmmaking after this experience?
JD: I don’t think I’m going to use this process all the time. I’m making a film about Shirley Jackson [called SHIRLEY], the writer, and Elizabeth Moss is starring in it, and it’s so great. But there’s a straight-up script, and we’re shooting the script, so I’m using a more traditional process. I was actually aching for a more traditional process after MADELINE’S MADELINE because it was so personal and so complicated; I just wanted to do something that was written down that didn’t involve anyone’s lives and blood, sweat and tears for years. I think I’ll try out a bunch of different processes in my life. I don’t know that I’ll be sticking to one forever.
What have you learned about the film that perhaps you hadn’t considered from the response to it from critics and festival audiences?
JD: I always try to make work that, when people leave the theater, the movie isn’t over, and they have to complete the movie in their minds. That’s been really important to me, at least in the work that I’m writing myself. Yeah, I want the movie to not end, and that way, it becomes a conversation that people, when they leave the theater, can have with themselves or with each other. “What did it mean?” “I think it was this” “I think it was that.” I worked with an editor who talks about creating a space for the audience and letting the audience fill in the gaps, so I try to trust my audience and try not to answer too many questions for them but leave them with questions that I hope they help me answer.
In terms of the critical response, I could never imagined in a million years that the film would be so critically acclaimed. I was pretty sure that I was making something so esoteric that no one would ever see it, but one of the things that did become clear over the last year was asking myself questions about exploitation and appropriation that are also quite culturally relevant at this moment. I don’t know that I realized how culturally relevant this question would become. Right now is a great moment for artists to consider how their process affects others. I think we saw that in the #MeToo movement. But also, there are a million ways we can exploit each other on film sets, not just via sexual harassment but via other ways as well. I guess I was asking myself these hard questions about my own process, and what I grew to learned based on the way the film was received is that these are questions that a lot people are interested in asking around art.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”