For almost a decade, Josephine Decker has been American cinema’s best kept secret, known only to critics and such celebrity champions as Martin Scorsese. Indeed, Scorsese has just served as an executive producer on Decker’s latest feature, Shirley.
“Marty – he came on towards the very end. He had some really fun notes,” says Decker. “He had seen my film Butter on the Latch at First Time Fest and loved it. The organisers, Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward, put him in touch. It was really inspiring to have the opportunity to get to know him. What a wonderful human with so much energy. He’s so loving and generous with his time. He always makes you feel like he has all day for you when he’s the most in-demand director of all time.”
In addition to her three formally thrilling, narratively daring, frequently unsettling features – 2013’s Butter on the Latch, 2014’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline – Decker has directed a documentary on bisexuality, worked as a camera operator and a costume designer, and has acted in some 18 films.
I thought to myself: Maybe I could make a $15,000 movie
“In college I was mediocre at everything,” she laughs. “I was a pretty good writer. I was a pretty good musician. I was a pretty okay costume designer. I was an okay photographer. But as a director, all that other stuff came in pretty handy.”
Inevitably, the Texan has collaborated with prolific micro-budget mumblecore-master Joe Swanberg. She starred in his films Uncle Kent and Art History. He starred in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
“I don’t think people thought movies could be made the way that Joe makes them,” says Decker. “And it’s so exciting because then other film-makers see his work and say: ‘Let’s make a feature film for $10,000.’ I was trying to raise $1 million to make my first feature which I wanted to be a fantasy film. I realised that wasn’t going to happen. And I thought to myself: ‘I just worked on Joe’s film. Maybe I could make a $15,000 movie.’
“I had made a documentary the previous summer. I knew I could work low budget and pick up a camera and shoot. So, Butter on the Latch was inspired by the experience of working with Joe.”
Decker’s fourth film, Shirley, written by Sarah Gubbins and based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, is a trippy, intoxicating biopic of the author Shirley Jackson. The fictionalised film follows newlywed academics Rose (Assassination Nation’s Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) after they are invited to stay with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, Prof Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Before taking on the project, Decker was only familiar with Jackson’s short story The Lottery and the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The film Shirley, says the former literature graduate, was a chance to deep dive into the spooky Jackson oeuvre.
“I read The Haunting of Hill House and as much of her novels and short stories as I could,” says Decker. “It was fun homework, you know? I feel like every movie is the climax of everything you’ve ever done in your entire life. So every choice, every bit of research, everything we read all got poured into the film.
“It was really exciting to make a film that had that much specificity. Our production designer had incredible descriptions of Shirley’s real house. And then there’s all the stories about Shirley baking and that leads you to think that the kitchen isn’t always clean. You’re not sitting there with a 90-page script having to fill in all the blanks. There’s a whole lifetime of Shirley’s novels and stories and then her biographies to build a world from.”
The dynamics of female friendships are powerful, dangerous, violent and fun
That homework tells in every shot. Crafted in the style of Jackson’s writing, Shirley plays with doppelgängers, eerie compositions and – in common with Madeline’s Madeline – the parasitic business of musedom. Additionally, it is – in keeping with the Decker house style – a work of messy erotica.
“Messy erotica,” says the writer-director, laughing. “I’ll take it! The dynamics of female friendships are really fascinating and powerful and dangerous and violent and fun. I was still editing Madeline’s Madeline when I got this job. And Sarah [Gubbins] came to an early screening and said: ‘There’s some serious crossover here.’ A woman needing another woman for inspiration. I wasn’t aware of it.
“I was just so lucky to have Odessa and Elisabeth who were open and willing to try things. That scene of getting in the dirt? That wasn’t scripted. Odessa is willing to explore anything, to be physical in any space. And Elisabeth has this entire mysterious universe inside her.”
In a movieverse dulled and de-fanged by wrong-headed demands for “relatable” characters, Elisabeth Moss’s Shirley Jackson is an electrifying antidote. “Shirley! What are you writing now?” asks one party guest. “A little novella called none of your goddamn business,” she snaps back.
“How can you be bold and complex and brilliant while you’re navigating a world that looks down on you? Looks down on women in general?” says Decker. “It was a really hard time for women. I think one of the reasons why Shirley’s writing was so famous was that she was saying a lot of the things that women were feeling. She was writing about motherhood in women’s magazines in ways that were comedic and raw and fractured. She doesn’t care about the patina of social graces.
“The character of Shirley, as she was written by Sarah Gubbins, is intoxicating. She talks the way you wish you could talk. She’s not going to try to impress you. It’s still very thrilling to see a woman who doesn’t care about the niceties of society.”
The jolly, easygoing Decker, who crafts brilliantly complex, surreal, intriguing portraits of women (and who once disrobed at Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective The Artist Is Present), is nothing at all like the tortured artists who inhabit her work. Although her dad introduced her to Russian master film-maker Tarkovsky at the age of nine (Andrei Rublev, no less), the film that inspired her to pick up a camera in earnest is something of a surprise.
“The movie that really convinced me that I should be a film-maker was Monsters Inc,” she says. “I ended up watching it so many times with great joy at the end of my college career and laughing my head off with my college roommate. I remember her saying: ‘You need to make kids’ movies.’ And then of course I make Butter on the Latch.
“The thing I love about kids’ movies is that they are incredibly entertaining. You feel every emotion. You laugh. But my next film is The Sky is Everywhere. It’s a young adult film. So I’m working my way to Monsters Inc.”
Shirley is on Curzon Home Cinema from October 30th.