Josephine Decker’s last two films (Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) were both exciting low budget gems that won over audiences and critical praise at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014. Decker is able to command a strong hold of everyday realism, similar to that of contemporary director and collaborator Joe Swanberg, while her main characters lose hold of their own reality, reaching a breaking point before they can pull themselves back together and push forward. Decker’s films can also be humorous and genuinely frightening works, maintaining the low budget mumblecore feel with an added touch of psychological horror.
It was a real pleasure getting to talk to Josephine Decker—who was genuine and a wonderful person to interview—a few months after last year's Berlinale and a treat to get to discuss filmmaking with a new director doing her own thing in a crowded independent scene. Uncompromising new talent is hard to come by, and in just her second feature film Decker stands out as a new and important voice for young women and young filmmakers trying to make an art film on a tight budget.
Butter on the Latch
NOTEBOOK: You seem to have a thing for oddball characters, which I really appreciate. You let us get into their headspace, which feels really honest. Where does this attraction to the eccentric come from?
JOSEPHINE DECKER: It's so funny because I don't think of it as eccentric, I just think of it as real. I came from a documentary background and the things that make documentaries sing and what makes me feel very close to them isn't a talking head talking about the subject at hand, but a person making coffee in the morning and spilling it; or when they’re walking to a meeting with too many bags. Because you are like, “yeah I know that guy, he's not perfect, he's a real human being with flaws.” Those are the things that make a character feel alive to me.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like we get to share in their personalities as well.
DECKER: Yeah, yeah.
NOTEBOOK: I'd like to start with Butter on the Latch, and in particular the opening scene where we really get into her mind and subsequent breakdown that is carried throughout the film. What is her condition that we get a look at in the opening scene? Is she bi-polar or just having a breakdown?
DECKER: That’s a good question. The idea was more that there are moments in your life when you’re not sure what reality is. I wasn't necessarily thinking about mental illness. I guess I was thinking that when something is touched in me as a woman, an intense ferocity that can kill can emerge. But with Sarah's character I was excited to explore what happens when you go through a somewhat traumatic experience. What are the stories that you've told yourself to make it livable for you, and then maybe how does that help you or not help you deal with everyday life.
NOTEBOOK: That happens really early in the film. It reminded me a lot of A Woman Under the Influence, how she gets taken advantage of in her condition and how she sort of brushes it off but still remains unhinged. Is there a trauma that stays with her throughout the film after that opening?
DECKER: That was the idea, that she's carrying that around. Actually, the beginning we shot much later than the rest of the film, so originally the film started with her in the woods walking up to that Balkan camp, but then I reshaped it to make it more about these crises, the fact that she doesn't didn't deal with it, and then later the affect that has on her relationships. So the beginning was added later, but I do think it helped, maybe was even necessary for the audience to follow what comes next.
NOTEBOOK: And when you were writing and developing the story what came first Balkan camp or the breakdown is she there to get help?
DECKER: The original idea for the film was that she just goes to the Balkan camp, she's there to attend this workshop and that song kind of gets inside of her and infuses her with this witchiness and dragon power—and then things basically get crazy. So in terms of which came first, really the Balkan camp is what inspired making the movie. I had done a documentary about that place, I really loved it and I was moving in that direction when I decided to make the film.
NOTEBOOK: Are all those people non-actors that you knew from the camp?
NOTEBOOK: And she's there with her friend and both actresses keep their first names so they are Sarah and Isolde. I love the dialogue and the exchanges between them. It’s very natural, keeping up with the rest of the film, giving us an insight into a female friendship around that age that you don't really see that often. Is this a result of your improvisational style? Could it have been as realistic without your method?
DECKER: I think the improv was pretty key in getting those moments and in fact I really missed it when I made Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. I For that film, it was nice to have that control over the narrative to get to write it ahead of time and really see the story winding, but with Butter on the Latch there is something really amazing that happens when you just let actors and non-actors play. Those ladies in the Balkan camp aren't really actors but they really invested in those roles and made them come alive and provided something really rich and dynamic. I think that the honesty of the sexual conversation in the bathroom is just—it’s one of my favorite moments in the film as well.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think it’s hard to recreate those kinds of honest interactions with your traditional script and do you see your method as a sort of workaround?
DECKER: Yes, I think that with great actors if you script from improv then it could feel improvisational when you shoot the final thing. Hopefully it will feel very rich and alive and have all that magic and randomness from improv, but also able to craft the story as a whole.
NOTEBOOK: Did the improvisational style help early on in your career and with “Butter on the Latch being your first feature film?
DECKER: I think that’s why people like the film. If I had written that film it wouldn't get any attention. The improv really made the film feel like it was connecting with people on an authentic level.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think Sarah is running away from when she goes to the camp and later when she runs away from Steph? Are we watching her lose her mind?
DECKER: For me, I have this way of running away from moments that feel very intense, and sometimes I think you can layer things onto a moment. For instance, right now I'm in England and I'm dating a guy who lives here and I feel like sometimes he'll just say something and I'm like, “oh my god I have to run away.” I just think that we have these triggers that happen to us in our lives and we have these enormous responses to something really small. So in a way I do think the film is about madness, but I also think we don't really know what she's running away from, just that she doesn't want to confront that part of herself. I think that’s what causes all this chaos, the general idea being that if you don't look at those things that seem to scare you they just get scarier.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
NOTEBOOK: Let’s get into Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. You mentioned writing a script for it and it wasn't as heavily improvised how much of the film did you end up changing?
DECKER: A lot has changed. I was really trying to edit to the script, but it wasn't really working and even in writing the script I wasn't sure if I had the right order for those scenes, but I knew I wanted those scenes. Then David Barker came on board and we really re-wrote the first half of the film to better set up the second half. We used every scene that I shot but in very different ways and started crafting those nightmare scenes and it was something that felt very organic to the film. I was editing them from the very beginning but they weren't in the script. It took David saying, “JD, these are very good,” and I should follow this and that. It felt very exciting. So it’s great to have a good editor on your team, it is really important.
NOTEBOOK: And about those collaborations I was a big fan of yours before you made these films, a fan of your work acting for director Joe Swanberg You got to direct him in this movie and it really might be my favorite performance of his. Because he has been an influence for you and what was it like working with him?
DECKER: Huge influence. Working on his films as an actor you just felt like you were watching a guy making great work for nothing. He was making these movies for $10,000 dollars or less. I'm not so sure if I'm supposed to say that, but anyway it was really low budget. He had this attitude of “just let’s do it,” and by the time we finished shooting he was finished editing and then he would just move on and work on another one. It really inspired me to be less of a perfectionist with my writing and with my films and just know that I was gonna make a lot of movies in my life and I don't have to feel like I'm gonna make one and it has to be amazing. You learn so much with each project that it actually behooves you to make more projects and see what works.
NOTEBOOK: What was it like when you were telling people about the film and talking to the actors about the whole oddball nature of the characters and the whole farmers daughter story? How did you explain it?
DECKER: That was a little complicated. I remember calling Joe from this artist residency. I had cast him and Robert Longstreet before I even wrote the script, and I thought we were going to improvise the film, but Robert said, “I think you should write it,” and something clicked and I was like, “okay, I think I should write this.” So I started writing it with them in mind, and it was very exciting. I was using things, like I added beer because Joe makes beer, and Rob plays guitar. I was trying to use things that they directly do with their hands. So I remember calling Joe from the artist residency when I was starting to write the ending and I was like, “oh my god this gets really dark and sexual.” I called him and said, “I really just want to run this by you, this is what I'm thinking, it’s a little intense,” and he was like, “Josephine, I will not say no to you, you went all the way for my films, I'll go all the way for your films.” It was really nice to have that permission up front. After that I finished the script and sent it to friends. The hard thing was I actually lost the original actress for the part of Sarah. I had already cast a friend of mine and she read the script and was like, “it is way to sexual, I can't do this movie.” That was a dark moment because I felt like I violated someone with my work and all those fears you would have about yourself as an artist came up; but then it was great cause I found Sophie. I sent out a casting call and found her and I couldn't be more grateful, she's an incredible actress. I want to work with her on like every movie.
NOTEBOOK: The character is named Sarah again why is that?
DECKER: It feels like a totally different Sarah right?
NOTEBOOK: Yes, this one is so free.
DECKER: Yeah, I definitely did that on purpose. in a weird way, Sarah in Butter on the Latch is so complicated, like, really deeply complicated, that her name is almost ironic, and on “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” I thought, “what is a plain name that you would name your daughter on a farm?” And it was exciting to me to use that as a reference between the two films.
NOTEBOOK: So has Sarah ever left her daddy's farm?
DECKER: I guess the idea is that she's probably hasn’t gone very far from there. She's pretty isolated and doesn't have much interaction outside of that space.
NOTEBOOK: And is Akin the farm hand the so-called lover she's been waiting for or is the voice over and tied to her orgasmic connection to the farm itself?
DECKER: Yeah. what was your interpretation of who the lover is?
NOTEBOOK: At first I thought it was a recurring role for the farm hand, like she sees the farm hand because of her isolation in a sort of abstract. Every year there’s a man who has this other life that comes into her world and makes it exciting. And then I started to really think it was a bond between her and the farm, and then her and the animals, as you get to peek into her world and see her through this animal lens it seems she doesn’t see herself as that much different from the farm animals. By then, I shifted to the point where this is more an earthly connection to the farm itself.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
DECKER: Yeah, I definitely was thinking of it as something broader, but I hate saying this stuff because I want everyone to have their own interaction, their own experience. But I was definitely thinking of the lover as something larger like death or God. I'm religious; you wouldn't necessarily know it from these movies, but that felt like it was palpable already, this transcendent connection she has that could be nature, death, or God. But I also love that the way it came into the film. It could be considered a person at times as well, but everyone has a different experience. Some people think the lover is Drew, the wife character, that it was her the whole time. That’s pretty good, actually. That’s the main thing: when you make a film, eventually the film starts to make itself and you are not in charge anymore. It’s like the film starts telling you what it wants.
NOTEBOOK: I love the way you told this farmer’s daughter story usually its tied to something silly or fetishistic but you really let the story evolve on its own and it gets underneath this taboo and takes us to a place that’s very real. What influenced your approach in how you told the story?
DECKER: I love magical realism. I love García Márquez and the work of Jorge’s and I just think all of those Latin American filmmakers are pretty amazing too. I love the dark realism of Pan’s Labyrinth or Children of Men, so the script itself was really poetic. It's very funny actually: it’s the opposite of most scripts where you have to spell everything out; when you have a poetic script there's no clear way of telling the story. Like that hands in the sky sequence. We were like, “what are we going to shoot for this?” But it gave a lot of play for [cinematographer] Ashley [Connor] and I to make all these decisions on set. I think that’s something that is very important to me about filmmaking in general. Sometimes a script can feel like a dictator and actually I think a script should be like a life coach. It should be like, “go follow your passions and here's some rough ideas,” but it’s better when you get on set and feel the magic. That was the thing I really liked about it, there was so much left open in the script that we could really just play and that was a large part of our process. The scenes are all scripted, but in terms of making choices visually it was a lot of playing, and in terms of influences we didn't look at other films. It was more about what are the feelings that we want to have in these scenes, how does this character feel about that person and how can we represent that in film.
NOTEBOOK: What should the takeaway be for the audience when it comes to the nastiness and depravity and its close proximity to the farm life and what happens later in the film? It had the lasting impact of a good horror movie when I look back on the film.
DECKER: I hope that the takeaway is different for everyone. I certainly didn't want to make a film where there is a takeaway, but rather that it felt like, “oh my god I just went through something and I feel complicated. “
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this style of filmmaking as one you’ll continue to use in the future?
DECKER: Kind of. I think in a way what’s nice about having these films done so well for this level of budget is that I feel I have permission to continue in the style. I don't feel like I have to conform because nobody liked my weird experiment. People were said, “wow this is something new and it feels like you have a vision,” so it feels nurtured and I can take more steps in that direction. At the same time, I would love to make lots of different kind of work, and I feel like this is one trajectory of a kind of deeply immersive, viscerally experienced work. I'm also curious about doing something very different, naturalistic, and realistic, but I think that will take a while. Also, it would be nice to make a comedy and hopefully my next film will be a comedy just to balance things out. I would love to have all of these things in my work: the darkness and the light, the tragedy and the comedy. We’ll see what happens next.
NOTEBOOK: What is happening next for you?
DECKER: I'm working on a feature film that is an Eternal Sunshine of the Sunless Mind like approach to bi-polar disorder and treatment, where you have to live in the minds of cats and sea turtles. It’s also about where art has the power to make a difference in the worlds’ issues. I'm also putting together a web series with Emily Carmichael who is another female director in Brooklyn. Both of these projects are originating through improvisation with actors. I've been work shopping my films this fall with something like 15 different actors and we've been meeting up, creating work and I'm writing from that work. Sometime in the next year we will start that film. The web series will also draw from that; I love creation with actors and I feel like that is my next step to involve other people in my process.
NOTEBOOK: I think there is this misconception of the artist in a bubble and it’s not like that at all. For you, there seems to be constant collaboration.
DECKER: There is! I already feel frustrated that directors get so much credit. I mean, you do a lot I mean at this level, you do a lot as a director. I think a lot of directors don't do that much, you know when you get to a certain level you're influencing the style, but God, you have to rely on a lot of other people. That's one of the beauties of working in film I feel lucky to be in that collaborative world but now I want to make it even more collaborative and work with actors to develop their characters from themselves. I'm looking forward to that.