Early in Shirley, the latest film by American director Josephine Decker, the writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) muses aloud about the subject of a local news item, soon to serve as inspiration for the central character of her novel-in-progress: “Maybe disappearing was the only way anyone would notice her.” The paradox at the heart of this observation lends itself as an elegant unofficial tagline for the movie’s by turns haunting and haunted meditation on the ways in which women make themselves disappear as a means of self-preservation. Decker’s sumptuous, unsettling film (from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins) brings to vivid life Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same title, which is itself a sort of poetic tribute, an imaginative exercise narrating a partly factual, partly invented chapter in the life of the real Jackson. When Shirley and her husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), open their home to a young academic (Logan Lerman) and his younger, pregnant wife (Odessa Young), the two women develop a fraught, erotically charged friendship that invigorates Jackson and her creative process. In her retelling, Decker cinematically transposes the structuring themes of Jackson’s own fiction, what the critic Elaine Showalter has described as “a sophisticated version of the female Gothic, in which houses became metaphors for women trapped in claustrophobic prisons of maternity and dependency, and prey to hysteria, madness and supernatural invasion.” On the occasion of the film’s virtual release, several months after its Sundance debut in January, the Brooklyn Rail spoke with Decker about her own creative process, and the task of constructing a fictional character in the image of a real-life titan of literary history.
Madeline Whittle (Rail): In previous interviews, you’ve described Shirley not as a biopic, but rather as a work of fiction, treating Shirley as a character—as the creative mind behind her body of work rather than as a biographical subject. I wonder if you could talk about how that line of thinking framed your approach to the material: centering the adaptive process on a novel instead of on a biography.
Josephine Decker: When I came on board there was already a script. It’s sort of liberating I guess to make a movie about a real person that’s not really about a real person. If I’d been like, “Oh, this is going to be the defining movie about Shirley Jackson,” I would have just felt much more scared. It was always so clear that we were kind of inventing a character that Shirley might have even written for one of her books. That made it a little bit less stressful in terms of fealty to reality. But then obviously we were inspired by the real Shirley Jackson, her writing, and her person. But we knew all along that she was our own intervention. I think Sarah, our writer, was who set that tone, and made it very clear that that was her intention with the way she wrote the script.
Rail: This film represents a departure for you, for a number of reasons. It’s your first feature film that was written by another screenwriter, and it was drawn from a novel by another female writer.
Decker: I think it’s so wonderful when you read scripts that you’re excited about, that you want to spend a year or more of your life on. That’s a rare thing, and I think Sarah has written such a great script that I was so excited to get to spend a lot of time with it and its world. It was almost like Sarah was inviting me to walk into a labyrinth that becomes your own mouth. And that’s what Shirley does with her writing. She takes you on this staircase that descends from one reality to another. So I felt really ready to go into that, that set-up. Yes, this was my first time working on something I hadn’t written. It’s a different process. Normally, when I have written my own screenplays, I see all the images in my head and write down words so that people will generally be able to create the images I want. And this was different because this was such dialogue-driven work, I tried to really visualize as much as I could, but then know that actually the actors’ bodies—the actors—are such important collaborators. Because they will define these words too, and where these words want to land in the room. We did a lot of rehearsal during the shoot—we didn’t have that many people in advance—so the actors could find the right space for different scenes in their bodies so they could together collaborate on where to be. I generally am very, very collaborative in my process. It was really a lot of learning on set, and trying to get to be a collective, a team, while we were already shooting, which was certainly a challenge. But also, in a way, points to why the movie ended up looking and feeling like it did, which I think is this very spontaneous and present feeling that I wanted us to really give over to the moment, because I find that’s the best way of shooting together.
Rail: That calls to mind some comments you’ve made about Madeline’s Madeline (2018), your most recent film. I’m interested in how that film is about the creative process, and about being an artist and being a young woman, and how those observations emerged out of the lived experience of the artists you were working with, and your own lived experience. Was that also a theme in the production of this film, drawing on the actual creative process as a source of inspiration toward representing the creative process?
Decker: Yeah! Madeline was a very meta film. I think the process of making it really inspired me to want to make a film that would be illuminated by that process. So that’s definitely there. With Shirley, obviously I didn’t write it but I didn’t even realize how connected the material was and how much the theme of an artist using another person’s life was present, in a way that controls the actual making of it. When Sarah and I were a few months into working on the script, I thought, “Wow, this has a lot in common with Madeline’s Madeline.” It’s funny because you’re drawn to things and you’re not thinking about why, and I clearly am drawn to things that look at the creative process, and obviously that’s a process that makes up most of my life. So yeah, I think I’m interested in it because I’m living in it, but don’t always understand it.
Rail: One of the things that I keep returning to in Shirley is how it explores power dynamics not only between the genders, in this postwar suburban setting, but also between critics and artists. Shirley’s husband was a critic, and it’s clear that their sexual relationship was tied inextricably to their relationship as critic and artist. And then we also have a relationship between an artist and her muse in the character of Rose, who’s shown to inspire Shirley and drive her work. How did you think through exploring those power dynamics through the story and also through the visuals in the film?
Decker: The critic/artist relationship is obviously stressed in Stanley and Shirley’s relationship, which I think comes through so strongly on the page, and I think works for a lot of those conversations that were about really letting these actors do their thing and be their most honest selves. So, in one Stanley/Shirley scene that’s played out around the dinner table, it’s just about making sure we captured their performances well. Elisabeth Moss, early on, noticed—we did some physical exercise, physical workshopping—and she said, “I don’t get the sense that Shirley moves very much.” And I feel like that was a really defining character trait of hers. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Stanley comes upstairs, sort of wailing about how Fred is such an ass and wants to clash and wants to be a lecturer, and Shirley has been asleep in the bed and literally does not move the entire time. In a way, it’s written like that, but it was just so wonderful to see: Stanley almost dancing in circles around the room, so frustrated, and then Shirley just lying there saying, “Well, just give him the lecture, what’s the harm,” you know. It’s so much fun. Ironically, that gets at the power dynamic between Stanley and Shirley, even though Stanley is really active, always running and running and running, whereas Shirley is the physical body that is at the center of that household, in the world. Things orbit around her, and Stanley orbits around her, and I think there’s something very defining about that physical language. And the same is true in terms of the physical language in her relationship with Rose. Rose is always bringing things to Shirley, and coming to Shirley. Shirley is in a place and Rose arrives to her.
Rail: I’m interested in how you explored and immersed yourself in Shirley Jackson’s writing as part of the process in making this film, because so much of the film refracts her own fiction: it’s a haunted house story, a psychological horror story, in the same way that much of her work occupied this uncanny space.
Decker: Oh my god, I love her writing so much. We tried to really pay homage to her writing because it’s so specific and unique and powerful, and when I found her writing I really felt I had found a mentor. She was doing with literature what I try to do with my film, which is to take you from one reality that seems very real into a subconscious reality that also seems real, but to do it in such a way that maybe you don’t even realize how you got there. I think Shirley has a very dream-like way of writing about the subconscious, and that’s something that I would love to learn to be better at in my work, and that I love to do in my work, too.
Rail: I know that the film takes a number of creative liberties with the life of Shirley, as does the novel upon which the screenplay was based, and in fact the film has some significant narrative departures from the novel itself, including the timeframe in which it’s set. What was it about that particular moment in Shirley’s life, when she was preparing the manuscript for her own novel Hangs a Man (1951), that lent itself as a vehicle for this story?
Decker: I think Sarah was really looking at this time, this post-“The Lottery” time, when all of a sudden Shirley is getting a ton of attention in the limelight, and part of it would have been negative. They’re these super famous stories, but she’s also getting a lot of hate mail. So she got a lot of attention, and I think that attention may have set off or exacerbated some kind of—I don’t know what to call it—some instabilities, maybe, in her life. She didn’t leave her house for a long time, which was the year that Sarah focused on and thank goodness she did, honestly, because it’s very hard to shoot a period movie unless you have tons and tons of money, so to be stuck in a house for a long time really helps you to film it. I honestly wasn’t expecting that. [Laughter] But it helps us because it’s very hard to shoot period movies with a large exterior. Those are not easy to do.
Rail: I know that Richard Brody described this film as your first experiment in commercial filmmaking. Did you experience it that way? As a new kind of art making?
Decker: Yeah, it didn’t strike me as so commercial. I felt the pressure of having a bigger budget and knowing that I needed to do a good job. More people were watching. My other films had been so small. Madeline’s Madeline had been the only film that I actually had producers, like real producers on. This film had by far the most people who were actually making sure I was doing my job and staying on a schedule and all that stuff. Truthfully, I think we just wanted to bring the script to life in the best way and I feel lucky that I had partnered with two producers who knew what they were getting into. Apart from the script that I hadn’t even written, it was a pretty dialogue-driven movie. It has thriller-ish elements at times, but it’s mostly about a friendship and a very strange relationship [Laughter]. And now maybe what I would try to do would be to bring a movie to life in the most cinematic way that I possibly could, and make the most bold, exciting choices, and never settle for anything being mediocre. I don’t like to make films that feel like other things, or things I’ve seen before. So when we would watch a shot and it felt like someone else’s movie I would say to the DP, “That’s not our movie.” How do you make it into your movie in a way that it feels like you’ve never seen before. Those are the kinds of choices I like to make.
Rail: I know you’re a new mom. So much of this film centers on the idea of motherhood as part of a woman’s life that exists in parallel to artistic creation, and I’m curious if being on the promotional circuit and before lockdown the festival circuit for this film as a new mother has illuminated or revealed things about the film and about the process of making it.
Decker: Oh yeah. I definitely relate to Rose, who in our movie basically looks like she never wears anything but pajamas [Laughs], and never washes her hair. That I can relate to. Oh my god, I thought, “Well, I got that right,” the sort of being non-stop in pajama-land. But yeah, I think there’s kind of a desperation for help when you’re in that situation. In the movie, Rose is really on her own. Her husband comes in when he really wants to, but he’s busy lecturing at school. He isn’t necessarily helping out with this baby, and I totally see the desperation that she would have for that connection with Shirley to continue. The idea of living on their own would be a nightmare. I think I maybe just relate to Rose more, her desire to stay with Shirley and connect with her at all costs.