In films like the globally celebrated Butter on the Latch and Thou Was Mild and Lovely, filmmaker Josephine Decker has begun to develop an intimate signature style that dabbles in magical realism, but each of her projects is wholly original. Madeline’s Madeline, which has a European premiere at Berlinale, may be her most ambitious yet, both in its scope and in the rigorous, sometimes chaotic manner in which the script was devised over eight months with a group of twelve actors.

The intense drama centers around teenaged Madeline (Helena Howard—a new talent to watch), who is bright and unusually present, but suffering from an unnamed mental illness that contributes to a rollercoaster relationship with her well-meaning mother (Miranda July). Enter Evangeline (Molly Parker), a theater director with unclear intentions who casts Madeline in her devised, art-imitates-life play.

On its surface, the film is about the play’s production, but the multi-layered story covers many other themes like mental illness and how it affects the sufferer’s loved ones, and the inherent manipulation involved in theater or film directing. Reality itself is called into question: you never really know who is controlling whom, and how much is happening in Madeline’s mind versus in the “real world”, all within the context of a fictional play that is drawn more and more from Madeline’s own difficult reality by its slightly obsessive director.

Decker, who has several acting credits under her own belt and studied theater while directing the film, is keenly aware of the meta nature of her work, as Evangeline serves as some sort of surrogate for Decker herself in the script. When No Film School spoke with Decker ahead of the film’s Sundance 2018 premiere, she was fresh off of production and very candid about the challenges of creating a devised script and the painful but ultimately satisfying path to completing the unorthodox film.

"This is not a good process. I would not recommend that anyone does this."

NFS: Mental illness is such a sensitive area and so often misinterpreted. What kind of research did you do to make sure your film would feel authentic? 

Decker: It's interesting because I feel like that was a real center of the project. I definitely read books, but so much of it was drawn from personal experience and witnessing and interviewing to some degree. Mostly I feel like the performance was built from creating a fiction out of a medley of realities. There's definitely no one person that this movie is specifically drawn from, but it came out of a lot of personal experiences.

I remember when we did a workshop and we talked about the depression anxiety spectrum and we had actors do this thing where you lined up in a row and you started out kind of neutral, and then you're just a little bit anxious, and a little bit more, and you were supposed to barely bring it up just one notch into the anxiety. So somebody is just tapping their finger maybe, and then, three people later, somebody is smoking. And then like 10 people later, somebody's crying or making some kind of noise. And then the very last person who was supposed to be the height of anxiety goes up perfectly calmly and just does this [puts fingers in gun motion at the side of her head].

It was so profoundly moving and, because there is someone that I've been close to my whole life who has struggled with this stuff, I think at the moment when this happened, I remember ... because I'd been workshopping for two months at that point, and I felt something really big come up in me, and then I left the room, and then I was crying so audibly that the actors were like, "Are you okay?" 

It just hit me, oh, this is the thing I've been so afraid of my whole life. And I remember, I'd never vocalized it. The losing someone that you love because they are tortured by their own experience, and I think that was also when I realized that we were onto something, even if it's like, you cannot ever accurately portray mental illness. 

I think this is when I was like, okay, I can do a ton of research but the amount of power that had on me was helpful to recognize, because I had been beating myself up with this question, like, can I even do this? Am I the right person to do this? And then I think I was like, "Okay, I have to let it go because there's something really powerful and profound here that people can have a deep experience of, even if it is from the sidelines of the first person experience of mental illness."

Madeline's MadelineHelena Howard as Madeline in 'Madeline's Madeline.'

NFS: It sounds like workshopping was a huge part of the script development. What was that process like?

Decker: Well, we worked together over eight months total, but maybe we met nine times over the course of that, for like a full day.

NFS: Who was the "we"?

Decker: Me and about 10 New York actors, which is too many. At first, I was like, "Fun!" and then like four times into it, I was like, "Oh, shit. It's hard to focus when you have that many people." In a way that's also reflected in the film itself—maybe [the director in the film] has bitten off more than she can chew.

I had worked with Pig Iron Theatre a bunch and I spent a year in their physical theater program also preparing to direct this. All of that work is devised with actors, and I just was really committed to finding something that way. 

I think in retrospect, it would have been good to have a little bit more of a clear trajectory when we started to really know what we're building off of. I was like, "Okay. I'm interested in the Three Little Pigs, and mental illness and I really want to work with this teenage actress, and it's about performance art, and the fantasy that anything we do matters when you're an artist," and so it was all over the place. 

“I burst into tears and said, ‘That was the best performance I have ever seen in my life.’”

NFS: You had themes, but no structure?

Decker: We did so many improvs and honestly the improvs that came out of it were amazing, and many of them are not in the film. But I think the main thing that did happen over the course of that time, is that we created spaces to also talk as a group and discuss what's happening and how people feel about what's happening, and what are the issues that are arising, and what are some of the contradictions in even the process itself. 

NFS: In terms of process, do the workshopping and the script have a conversation back and forth, or did you workshop for eight months and then sit down and start writing the script?

Decker: That was pretty much it. I workshopped it for eight months. This is not a good process. I would not recommend that anyone does this, but we worked on it for eight months, and then I was like, "Oh my god, I'm just lost. I have so much material and I'm lost," and then I started trying to write the script.

Part of it was that I was in full-time theater school while I was doing the workshops, so I had, in a way, a full-time job. So I would go on the weekends and workshop with the actors and we filmed everything and then we would transcribe and we would kind of note, okay, this is a really strong scene, we should use this.

And then I would try to cobble together these scenes but it was in my two hours a day maybe that I was free, but I also was trying to pay for myself to be in theater school so I had paying jobs. There just wasn't time to put the pen the paper, really.

So, then after all that workshopping, I think I started worry that I'm spinning everyone in circles and that people are needing a little more clarity on what's happening here so that we feel like we're working toward something, not just coming in here and having a lot of fun and then being like, "What are we making?" So, yeah, so that's when I started to buckle down, just really kind of figure out a central line. 

The first draft included a lot of the improv, and it was very Alice in Wonderland-y, and I still love that movie, and maybe I'll make that someday, but it didn't really have a central through line. I ended up focusing more and more in on Madeline and on her specific experience with her family and how that translated into the theater space as opposed to a more mystical version of her.

Madeline's MadelineDirector Josephine Decker and Actor Helena Howard attend the World Premiere of 'Madeline's Madeline' at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Tiffany Roohani © 2018 Sundance Institute

NFS: I really appreciate your candor about how that process was not perfect. Your casting, especially of Madeline, was so crucial. How did you find her?

Decker: Oh, yeah. She's such an amazing actress. I was at a teen arts festival, this was to judge a bunch of actors performing, and a lot of the pieces were lighthearted and there was a lot of musical numbers, there were a lot of numbers from Frozen, which had just come out, and then she got up and did this really intense monologue from Blackbird, and I burst into tears and said, "That was the best performance I have ever seen in my life," and then she burst into tears, and then the next person came on stage and did their comedy routine. It was really weird, but I just was shaken by her power as a performer, so I was like, "We should really make something with you."

And it was really obvious, even when we would start improvising together. There was a group of adults working with this teenage actress, but she brought such a strong presence.

NFS: At what point in the workshopping/screenwriting trajectory did she enter the picture?

Decker: She was there the whole time. She was at almost every workshop.

NFS: So, when you met her, you weren't casting for anything?

Decker: I was just trying to figure out what I was doing next. She was really the beginning of the whole casting process. I met her first. I met her two months after the Berlinale, in 2014, and then I started rehearsing with all the actors in August of 2014.

"It's like trying to stop the freight train, and you're just one guy in front of it being like, 'We're rerouting so can you just turn left?'"

NFS:  It's just such a different process than I usually hear about, which makes sense because your films are also different.

Decker: Gosh, I remember when I was first starting, I remember somebody was saying like, "Your process is something that you never quite find as a filmmaker." And I was like, "Well, I've found mine on this movie," and then,  cut to two years later, and I'm like, "Oh my god. That is not something I would recommend to anyone," however it was also luminous, amazing, and made our film, I think, what it is—something very different and unusual and exciting, I hope.

I'm really excited to direct some films from scripts now, but I hope I'll go back to the devised work thing later.

NFS: Was production more standard that the screenwriting process?

Decker: It was the most standard production I've ever been part of, but part of that was that it was the biggest. The last two films—Butter on the Latch had three crew, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely had seven or 10 at the most. The Madeline’s Madeline crew was maybe just 22 people, but that's too many people doing too many roles for me to be able to instruct everyone or change things part way through, so it was really frustrating in a way because I've always had a lot of flexibility and so it was one of the hardest things for me to adapt to as a filmmaker: if I wanted to change something, there were so many people who were already going towards the other thing.

It's like trying to stop the freight train, and you're just one guy in front of it being like, "We're rerouting so can you just turn left?" Or maybe like 10 freight trains. But yeah, so it was more standard honestly than I would have liked it to be but I think was still pretty “un-standard” for any other film process and there's a lot of the physical scenes that are fully improvised in the moment.

Working with Miranda [July]  who is such an incredible writer, I really let her improvise a bunch. She's such a fucking great improviser, so it was the nice way to give her some space and also help her bring her many talents to the film.

Madeline's MadelineHelena Howard as Madeline and Molly Parker as Evangeline in 'Madeline's Madeline.'

NFS: Then in post, the way it's cut, it feels like there's some sort of spontaneity. It doesn't feel as scripted as some, almost as though you had to shoot it like a documentary to get so many cutaway moments.

Decker: The date scene was completely improvised. Yeah, all the street scenes are pretty much improvised. And then, we shot Evangeline's party at her house. It was 18 pages of script, which was so much, and we had two days. And we could tell halfway through the first day that we were just not going to make it. And I remember being like, "I will die if we try to shoot 18 pages in two days." 

I was like, "We just need to have a party where people interact, and we'll just say, “Go”, and then we'll do this scene and if your camera’s in the right place, it’s in the right place, and if it's not, fuck it," you know what I mean? Because we really didn't have enough time, but actually that was one of the most fun parts of our shoot because it was one of the few times where we had a problem to solve, and we were actually able to adjust to it.

And it gave me back that freedom, and also my favorite part of working with [DP Ashley Connor] is when she doesn't know what's going to happen.

NFS: I wonder how she feels about that.

Decker: I love Ashley so much, but when she knows what's going to happen, she starts to make choices that are “normal” film choices sometimes. And so it was great to be back in a space where she's improvising also and then she's a fucking genius. I mean, she's a genius all the time. The shots that she sets up are also insanely gorgeous, but like me, she's like a responsible working woman who also wants to get the coverage, get the scene done and that can be very at odds with creativity sometimes. 

And so it's so nice to be like, "We have a big problem to solve. Here's a bunch of actors in a room, and you," and I had to leave so I wouldn't end up in a shot, but that is when I feel like things are alive, and there were a lot of fucking people in those scenes. There were like 20 people, and it's some of my favorite stuff because it just felt like, then there was a real life, it's not some stupid party in those movies, when those people were told to cross by the AD, and there's a perfect focus on the far side of the room.

“You should probably not start working with a brand new editor 10 days before you're going to lock picture.”

NFS: How did you manage this doc-style coverage in post?

Decker: It took a long time to edit the movie. It wasn't so much the doc style stuff. It was hard to land on a structure that felt organic to the kind of multiple worlds. There's a family home world, there's a theater world, and then there's a very interior world that's hers, and balancing those worlds took a really long time.

This is maybe the first movie where I think I know enough about structure now, that I know when it works. I would always get really specific. I was like, "These six minutes, I'm not urgently waiting for what the next thing is going to be.” I became obsessed with the six minutes that weren't working, even if the whole rest of the movie was working. 

I edited with Harrison Atkins for about four and a half months, and then he had to go work on a Netflix show and also we had really run out of our editor money, and then I was like, "Okay, cool. I'm just going to work on it for like two or three weeks by myself." But after about three months of me trying to work on my own, I told the producers that I was mentally incapable of continuing to finish the film by myself because I was way too close to it, and that we had to find money to hire someone.

So, actually one of the producers Liz Rao, who is amazing and the sweetest woman on earth, and a very intuitive editor, worked with me for five weeks, and then had a family emergency in China, like a week before we were going to finish, and so we had to stop.

Then I had my friend David Barker come in for 10 days, which you should probably not start working with a brand new editor 10 days before you're going to lock picture. David is a genius, and he added a lot in those 10 days, but we changed so much and I was so exhausted at the end of the 10 days that I couldn't even see it.

Madeline's MadelineActor Miranda July and Director Josephine Decker attend the World Premiere of Madeline's Madeline by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Tiffany Roohani © 2018 Sundance Institute

So, then I took a few days off and then was it was like, okay, I basically have four days to just lock this picture, partly because we were on a schedule with our sound designers. I looked at what we did. I was like, "I'm not happy with this," but then it really actually came together. My friend Joe Nankin who is a young editor, he basically just came and sat with me through the very, very end choices, and it was so helpful because he kind of was just able to make things work and see things to group together.

It was also that we ran out of money. I mean, I can't even tell you how many times we ran out of money.  From day one we were running out of money, and we ran out of money in the edit. We ran out of money on set. We ran out of money after we edited. We ran out of money for sound. It's hard to make a movie when you don't have enough resources.The people that it drains, sadly, are the key creatives like me who is editing alone and not getting paid for six months or whatever.

NFS: It's important for our readers to hear that you finished the film and here you are at Sundance despite all of the challenges.

Decker: That's true. That's a really good point, I almost forgot about that.

"When you swallow emotional problems on a shoot, the film can suffer."

NFS: You are a director as well as a performer, and an actor. In the film, there’s a through-line about a director’s creative manipulation and exploitation, and then, you're in these roles in real life kind of doing the same thing to your own cast.

Decker: Yes, oh, completely. 

NFS: It's kind of meta, but how did you get the most of your actors without manipulating or exploiting them?

Decker: Well, I would say, the main thing is to listen. That was the biggest thing that I learned, was listen even if you're afraid of what's going to be said because once it's said it's not scary, and also once somebody says it they feel a level of power over the situation as well.

There was a lot of time for the actors to give feedback about the process, and I think that made the film definitely better. It made me a better director and thinker, and it made me just a little more aware of all the very many, very, very subtle layers that power and privilege play out in ways that you can be really blind to. 

It seems that when you swallow emotional problems on a shoot, the film can suffer. I think it also can suffer from indulging too much in like, "Oh everybody has to be happy," and you don't necessarily get a lot done that way, but a good balance is really important. I think having clarity about what you're doing and then communicating that, never being shy about saying anything that might disappoint people. I know I struggle sometimes to not disappoint people and I think that's maybe more hurtful than just being really honest and clear about what your intention is with each thing.

NFS: Now that you’ve been through all of that, how are you feeling about the project?

Decker: Our movie is hopefully going to do well and people will respond to it really well, but I think it's almost obvious, even from our synopsis that we're not trying to be the most commercial product here.

But what feels exciting about it, is that it feels like a launchpad for this opportunity for myself, Helena, and even though Molly and Miranda are such accomplished, amazing performers and creators, I hope that the movie brings opportunities for all of us to do more things. It's stylistically so specific, but I feel the kind of projects that I hope I get sucked into, they'll be like, "Well, no one could do this, but we thought maybe you could because of your weird movie that you made that's in Sundance.”