Madeline’s Madeline is an experimental drama from Josephine Decker, her third feature following Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. It revolves around three central characters: 16-year-old actor Madeline (played by newcomer Helena Howard), her mother Regina (Miranda July) and her theatre director Evangeline (Molly Parker) whose non-conventional methods push her to increasingly blur the lines between her character and her own identity. The experience of the actors in the theatre troupe mirror that of the actors in Decker’s film who also were encouraged to take on an improvised approach in what emerges as an aesthetically and narratively, bold and daring manner of filmmaking that transparently reflects on its own process of creation.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with the director ahead of the film’s screening in London to hear about the inspiration behind the film and its making.

Madeline’s Madeline is quite a hard film to summarise: how would you capture what this film is all about?

I usually say that it’s about a young woman who is part of a theatre troupe. The director of the troupe is devising a piece collaboratively with a group of actors, including this teenager. More and more, the director is interested in centering the story around the teenager and it becomes about the teenager needing to decide: how do you take ownership over your own story? I think the central question of the film is: who gets to tell whose story and how?

It’s not a conventional film in lots of ways, particularly the narrative arc and the look of it. I understand the process of creating it was also non-conventional. What sparked the idea for the film and what was your process and journey to getting it on screen? 

We rehearsed with the actors for six months – about a weekend every month we’d spend together. I’d worked with this theatre company called Pig Iron Theater on and off since college and they helped me run these workshops where the actors were improvising a lot and we created a lot of material. At the end of the six months I then went away and wrote the script for a long time. It was a very collaborative and exciting process.

You have the actress Helena Howard right at the centre of the story – was that a bit of a risk as in she is a new face to the screen? How did you discover her and how did you build the story with and around her? 

I discovered her at this teen arts festival where I was judging an acting competition. She was so good that I basically chased her down the hall after she performed. It was like, ‘please let’s work on something together.’ She is such a special presence. Originally, we had two teenagers involved but for most of the time she was the only teenager coming to rehearsals and she had this quality where we’d almost go silent when she would walk in. She kind of holds a space around her. We knew that we were touching on something profound just by working with her. I think all the actors felt that there was a real sacredness around wanting to hold her and do justice to the story that we were telling together with her. So that was really cool. It was really beautiful. I think we rose to the project of that in a beautiful way.

And then what was the process of bringing Molly Parker and Miranda July on board? Did you have those actors in mind from the beginning and how did you get them to work so well together? 

Well with Miranda it was funny. We’d had all sorts of ideas about the mum but we were at that phase of casting where, you know, there’s a budget that you need to make the movie and you need the financiers to think that you’re going to actually make that much money back. So you need a certain level of cast to convince them. I was meditating one morning, and I was like, ‘who’s going to get this? Read it and say yes and be cool and gets my work and would be good for this part?’ And then I was like, ‘Miranda July!’ It was kind of a miracle that we were able to get to her. We reached out to her agent but I think still to this day her agent never ever even told her about the project. I knew I had to get to her personally – there just had to be a way. After a whole day of calling people and talking to my producers, I walked into my roommate’s room and I was like, ‘all I need is Miranda July’s personal email address.’ And she was like, ‘oh I have Miranda July’s personal email address. I won a prize from her eight years ago and she personally emailed me.’ So I write to Miranda and then she wrote back pretty quickly. And she said, ‘well, you know, I don’t usually do projects that are not mine, that I didn’t originate. But maybe we can have a coffee and talk about it?.’ She had no idea that I lived in New York and she lives in LA. I called my boyfriend and said, ‘she wants to meet up to have coffee. I don’t know what to do.’ And he’s like, ‘fly to LA. Tonight. Get on the fucking plane.’ So I wrote her back and was like, ‘do you want to meet tomorrow at like 2.30pm?.’ And then waited, waited, waited. At 11pm she was like, ‘sure.’ So at 11pm I bought a ticket for 7am the next day to fly to LA to have coffee with her – and it worked! 

Molly was a blessing but totally different. There was somebody in House of Cards who I needed to look at and I couldn’t find them on IMDB so instead I ended up watching a whole season of House of Cards. Molly was the central figure of that season as Jackie Sharp when she was having her presidential moment. I got to the end and I was like, ‘oh my god, Molly Parker can do anything. She’s so good.’ So I called our casting director and said, ‘what about Molly Parker?’ It was so obvious, watching her play that character, I thought she could be such a great Evangeline. She’s just a masterful actress. She’s just been doing it so long and knows herself so well. It was so fun getting to know her over the course of the filming too. She brought so much comedy to the end of the movie. It was really a pleasure.

There are some real moments of intensity in the film – did you find any parts of filming particularly challenging? 

Definitely. I mean, a lot of a movie was challenging, the subject matter is challenging. And I think Helena was pretty young – she’d just turned 18 when we shot. It was a lot to ask her to do, to kind of go there, in all these really complex psychological scenes – and she really went there. So I think the challenging thing was, for both of us, both me and Helena, to know how to go far enough but then be able to bring ourselves back so that everyone felt safe. And so it took a little bit of working to find that safe space for her to feel like she could move into a really transcendent place. The whole ending sequence we had a lot of fun working on because that was so playful already. And I think a lot of the actors have comedic impulses, like Sunita Moni who plays assistant Mags – she turns the lights out with that hand at the end. She had a lot of good, funny instincts.

This and your previous films are very bold and daring in the way they are put together. How would you characterize your filmmaking style? Do you feel you’re very much informed by the filmmakers or did you have any in mind when making this film?

I studied literature and music really intensely when I was younger and so I think most of my influences come more from either literature, music, visual art or poetry. Specifically for this film I studied Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – I listened to it like 40 times trying to like understand the musical structure because I wanted the film to have a structure that felt very like a song. And so I was like, ‘okay, how does Rhapsody in Blue work?’ Because he makes you want that refrain so badly, he teases it for so long. I kind of it mapped out to know what came when and then used that map to be like, ‘the cat needs to come back this many times, the pigs need to appear this many times.’ It seems like those masks are all just random but in a way I feel like they were very much connected to the characters. 

I try really hard not to replicate other filmmakers when I’m making something but a filmmaker whose work I would just like drop anything to go see is Andrea Arnold. I think she’s such a brilliant genius. I really got to know her work after I’d started making movies but I just felt like it was so exciting. It feels presumptuous to say I have anything in common with her but I can tell that we both have an obsession with immersion and feeling and touching, like putting a visceral-ness into the films. And she does that with sound and with the way she uses the camera. I just love her movies so much.

The film seems to focus on the line between performance and reality and the imagination as well as the complexity of relationships. What were some of the key themes you wanted to tackle in the film and what might you hope for people to take away when they leave the cinema?

Going into making the film, I was really obsessed with this question of, when is performing a more authentic reality than reality? And what is the space you get to be the most of yourself in? For Madeline, towards the beginning of the film, she’s getting to express herself in a way that’s very cathartic through these improvs, and working with Evangeline and the troupe. And then that becomes more complex and more scary as the film goes on. In terms of what I hope people take away from the film: poetry in my life has been a huge influence. My dad’s a poet, and I think what’s great about a really good poem is that it leaves you with such a strong feeling. You almost don’t know why. It feels like, in a weird way, that you built the poem with the poet, even though that’s impossible. In great poetry, there’s something like lightning moves off the page and into you and it kind splits open your spirit, something about you feels more true after you experience it. That would be like the highest level of experience. But, you know, the goal for me with an audience is to give them give them an experience that maybe without knowing why they’ve gone somewhere and they’ve found something authentic in themselves, that it’s not that they necessarily understand better, but they have a deeper experience of after having seen the film, and that there’s enough openness and poetry around that so they have their own journey of finding their way to that kind of level of insight or light, whatever it is.

It seems there’s been a shift over the last couple years with much more support and bigger platforms given to female filmmakers plus a much more diverse array of female characters on screen. How do you see that broader landscape? Do you see it has improved or do you feel like there’s a bit of a way to go to open things up?

I mean, all of my female director friends are working. That is so exciting and rare. And they’re working on big movies. That is so cool. We’ve all been putting in our dues for a long time but I think it’s really heartening. I feel like the #metoo movement changed a lot. I feel it in my personal work and life and how pitches go now. It’s also related to this whole landscape of media now: there are so many outlets and there’s so much need for creators, more than there’s probably ever been. To be responsible I think media companies are thinking like, ‘do we have voices that we normally aren’t getting shown?’ So I think women and people of colour are really getting opportunities that were not available to them until relatively recently. There’s a lot of forward momentum. It’s all about representation behind the camera. Because it’s, you know, one thing to have female characters in movies directed by men but I think if people are doing a good job of hiring women to make projects, by nature, the way women are portrayed will changing. And that seems really exciting. The more women behind the camera, the better. I hope that that fad stays. Though I also think there’s still such a long way to go and it’s can be so disappointing. Like, the Oscars this year – there were so many great movies by women that came out last year. I just found it kind of shocking. 

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

Well I’m just finishing a movie called Shirley, about Shirley Jackson, the American writer who was writing in the 30s, 40s, 50s. The movie is written by Sarah Gibbons, who adapted I Love Dick that TV show on Amazon and we’ve got Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stulberg. So we’re just finishing that. I’m excited. 

And Madeline’s Madeline is already out in the US what have been the initial reactions?

I mean, good. Yeah, it was kind of shocking. Like, this is such a hard movie. I really didn’t know if anyone would ever see it. And then I went to Sundance and critics were really, really into it. Like, in a way that I could never have expected. And so I feel really excited and honored that it was received so well. I really feel it’s been a blessing, this is a very little film and we were nominated for Best Picture at the Gotham Awards with like, The Favorite and, you know, Barry Jenkins’ movie. It was just amazing. An incredible run for our movie. 

Very much deserved! Thanks so much for sharing all that with me.

By Sarah Bradbury

Madeline’s Madeline is in UK cinemas from 10th May 2019.