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‘Flames’ Filmmakers on Emotional Exploitation, Nudity, and the Complexity of Collaboration

Written by Diana Drumm on May 2, 2017 

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At the Tribeca Film Festival, press photographers lined the Flames red carpet expecting the likes of James Franco and Greta Gerwig. Instead, they were greeted by filmmakers Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker as well as Flames cast members wearing printed-out masks of said celebrities. In a way, this stunt acts as a great introduction to the tone of the film, a documentary that explores and expounds on Throwell and Decker’s relationship over the course of five years in very intimate detail (from funnily-posed sex to a post-dating therapy session to the editing room of this film). I got to sit down with Throwell, Decker, and their long-time DP Ashley Connor to discuss the intimacy of the film, how nudity isn’t necessarily the most revealing thing, and the line of exploitation both on film and in a relationship.

The Film Stage: This is an understatement, but Flames is a deeply intimate film. How do you feel about sharing all of this with a public audience?

Zefrey Throwell: Did your mother ever catch you masturbating? I remember once when I was 13 and I was in the thick of it. I couldn’t touch myself enough. I remember she just came in the room, and why I pulled the sheet back… Who knows, right? I was really in the moment. It was dark, and she opened the door, and the light shoots through. It was like a goddamn B-movie that highlights me jerking off. I was just like, “AAAAH!” She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me and went “huh” and shut the door and never talked about it. This is what I feel like that film is for me, that moment of “AAAH!”

And Josephine, you had your mom at the premiere…

Josephine Decker: I don’t know if I’m going to know how I’m going to exactly feel about sharing all of this for a while. It’s very exciting right now. We’re all celebrating and we’re getting a lot of positive attention. And I think next week, I might be like, “Oh my God, what have I done?” It’s scary. It feels like we’re sharing the kinds of things I wish I already saw a lot more in the world. So that part doesn’t feel scary. I definitely feel like I can stand up next to the movie and feel proud of it. But I do feel very exposed.

In the film, I loved the use of nudity, from playful to anxious, as an extension and expression of experience. What are your thoughts on nudity on film, in this film in particular?

Ashley Connor: You can’t get these two to wear clothes. I’m shocked that they’re wearing clothes right now. I’ve never met two people — and this is from prior to you two getting together — that they’ll just get naked and pretty much have zero reservations about it. We were shooting Butter on the Latch. There were six of us: three actors, Josephine, me, and the sound guy. They were going to simulate having sex and basically at a certain point, they were feeling a bit uncomfortable. So I was like, “I’ll take off my top.” And I had to run up a hillside. I was just in my bra. Josephine, I think you were naked. The sound guy was not, but he was having a good time and there were boners everywhere… I think this translates into the film, within a larger sense, nudity is the least revealing thing in the film. It never gets clinical, but it’s one of those things that’s just like a celebration of bodies in a way, but also that’s not the rawest thing of the film. Watching it, it’s painful in so many other ways. The nudity feels like the least saucy part of it. I’ve seen you guys emotionally naked in far worse positions than you guys having pleasurable-looking sex.

Josephine Decker: I really thought she was going to tell a different story about Butter on the Latch, which was that we shot this climactic kind of sex-death scene in the water and we’d been out in this riverbed for hours. We finally got the shot. The actors were freezing. [Decker claps.] It was great that we finally finished it. And then we had to do this other scene where we were running up the hill. I had felt so relieved that we had gotten that scene that I’m still literally talking to them, directing the next scene, and… I stood up in the river and squatted down and started peeing while I’m talking. I was just so comfortable and excited and also knew this had to happen. There was no time in the schedule for this. It didn’t even process until after talking and talking and I just see all of their faces.

Ashley Connor: The amount of times you and I have seen each other pee, it’s in the hundreds at this point. We’re having a conversation and someone just goes. Just keep going. It’s boring at this point.

Zefrey Throwell: There’s one scene that unfortunately got cut from the film that is Josephine having to pee so bad in the Maldives. She was running up and down the beach. There was a palm tree right there and she has her skirt up and her panties down. She’s looking and tourists keep walking by. She keeps going back and forth and finally is like “Fuck it.” Some guy walks by in the background. It’s so good. I’m sad that didn’t make it in.

Jumping off of that, what other scenes didn’t make it in that we, the audience, might have enjoyed? It’s a really boring question, but I know you’ll have a really great answer.

Josephine Decker: It’s a miracle to me that I walked out of that screening and women were like, “God, that asshole!” I was like, “Great, I’m glad that you saw he was an asshole.” Because he took out all of the parts where he’s actually being really mean to me. Like when he slaps me, he started that slap fight. In the film, he took out him slapping me first. There are so many times… He was the editor and director of this film. I think you made yourself look bad enough, enough that people still managed to hate you by the end. I didn’t spend the years with the footage that Zefrey did. I spent a good amount of time with the footage, but not nearly as much. Probably one one-hundredth of how much time you were spending with everything. So in a way, I don’t know as much of what got cut, but my overall feeling is that Zefrey could have been more of a jerk in that movie.

Zefrey Throwell: There’s so many scenes. There’s Josephine singing under red lights with full accordion background, like a 14-accordion band, and her onstage singing “Bad Romance.” We have hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, because of this saint sitting in the seat here [points to Connor]. As far as being a jerk, yes. Yes, I was a jerk. But I think this is one of the things I enjoy about the film. Cheating is a reality, right? I don’t think it’s a good thing. I don’t think I did a good thing. I’m ashamed of what I did. But I know I am certainly not alone in the world. For other people to see this on screen, this can be cathartic as well. When I talked to men and women about it, it’s such a shameful thing, in American society particularly… There are worst scenes we could have put in, but plenty for yourself, my dear.

Josephine Decker: I’m sure.

Ashley Connor: I look at it as pretty balanced. Obviously, you guys carry a lot of weight around with you and how you guys interpret the relationship, but for me as the third party, I look at it as pretty balanced.

At last night’s Q&A, Josephine, you mentioned that you felt exploited. Would you expand on that?

Josephine Decker: How do I put this? My mom does not like Zefrey very much, because Zefrey likes to make art that is some form of manipulation. It’s usually manipulation of expectations. Sometimes it’s a more dramatic manipulation like when he impersonated a lawyer, which I am pretty sure is illegal, and offered legal advice to people in a mall.

When did that happen?

Zefrey Throwell: That is something you get a small slice of in the film. Me walking around in a tan suit. Do I look like a tan suit kind of guy? This was in the middle of a performance of giving free legal advice in a Dallas mall, which was looked upon as criminal activity by her mother.

Josephine Decker: Yeah. Well, it is criminal, I think.

Zefrey Throwell: What is malicious intent, though? This is really what the law is. Was I misleading people consciously or are we having a good time?

Ashley Connor: What I think you’re hitting on with Zefrey’s work and where I’ll argue a bit with you, Josephine, is that you decided to participate in this. It’s one of those things where you talk about the strip poker game, where you went and suddenly, you were like “I’m not comfortable getting naked,” but that’s precisely what the performance was.

Josephine Decker: Yeah, but I didn’t know that.

Zefrey Throwell: But it was strip poker… When I say “strip poker,” what does that mean?

Poker where you strip, but I do believe you can call “out.”

Ashley Connor: I believe you felt severely uncomfortable, but it’s one of those things where you volunteer for something and then you’re like “Oh, wait, hold on. This is what it’s going to actually be?” And that’s the beauty of the film, too. You guys volunteered to film yourself in this relationship, and it’s hard. It’s very painful. It shows everything and more, and everything we try to hide about ourselves. That’s scary, and that can be upsetting. But I think what Zefrey’s work does… Can we talk about the photoshoot last night? … All of these photographers were very angry that he called a press line and mentioned all of these celebrities that were going to be there.

Zefrey Throwell: We got this hot red carpet, alright? All the way down the line. All top-tier stars coming to our premiere.

Ashley Connor: He mentions like literally all of these people. Then all of these photographers come and it’s just Zefrey has printed out masks of all of them. After the photoshoot, all of these photographers are like, “What the fuck was that? Are these people not coming here?” It’s like [points to Throwell], “Yes, you’re an asshole! Yes, you did a shitty move!” But also these people only care about this completely ridiculous thing about celebrity or what makes a premiere hot or not. You really exposed that in a way. I don’t think they walked out of there thinking, “It’s kind of ridiculous that I don’t care about artists, but I care about James Franco being at a premiere.” I think you reveal that even though you are complicit in the sense of “I’m going to make an asshole move.”

Zefrey Throwell: In the midst of it, no shit, my fly busts and my pants are just open. It doesn’t get any richer. It’s crazy.

Josephine Decker: But coming back to this question of exploitation… I would say any project you sign on for might have twists and turns along the way. Almost any filmmaker at some point might feel exploited. For instance, I think that’s something I deal with. I love this boundary between documentary and fiction. I’ve built a lot of my work around and off of real people in real settings. That does often get me in trouble. But maybe the difference between me and Zefrey is that I try to anticipate the places where people will feel uncomfortable, have conversations with them about it. Whereas at least when we were dating, and I don’t know that you’re still like this, Zefrey would create a slightly manipulative situation. He wouldn’t outline it, so your expectations aren’t what the actual project is. We weren’t able to have the conversation at that time where I could say, “Hey, I feel exploited and unsafe.” He didn’t hold space for me to air my feelings and be like “Oh, I’m very sorry and maybe we can accommodate that. If you want to drop out of the piece, that’s cool.” He’s just like, “You feel exploited? This is the piece. Get the fuck out! You are ruining my piece. You committed to this and you won’t do it.” So that’s the line.

Zefrey Throwell: That’s not how it happened.

Josephine Decker: How did you think it happened?

Ashley Connor: You can’t deny someone feeling exploited.

Zefrey Throwell: Totally. I asked you multiple times if you wanted to leave. Pleasantly.

Josephine Decker: I did leave.

Zefrey Throwell: Yeah, eventually. But not before staying through… Anyway. Exploitation is one word also to call pushing a boundary. Right? You can’t actually move forward without taking some chances. Taking chances is uncomfortable. Did I push Josephine too hard? So she felt unsafe and manipulated as you would say? Sounds like it. But I think we landed in a place that’s pretty special where you get to see real emotions.

Ashley Connor: It’s very Herzog-ian. A lot of his work, and what he said after Little Dieter Needs to Fly, asks, “Do you want the truth or do you want the emotional truth?” What is truth if I make him run around in this one action and get this one thing? If I fed him a line, is that more truthful? What are we getting at with these truths? Is it real? Is it not? Does it make it any less of a documentary? And then we get into the politics of documentaries or hybrid-docs. I think that’s a far less interesting conversation than making you emotionally get there, regardless of the means.

Josephine Decker: What I learned in the book “Facing Love Addiction” by Pia Mellody is that two people participate in any relationship. The abuser and the abused are both in some way enabling each other and enabling this relationship to happen. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should just acquit abusers, but there is something where Ashley was right that I said yes, I would be in this film, and I said yes to dating Zefrey, and I said yes to be in this film even though… I had a really fun time at the Q&A. I was really excited. And then I went into the bathroom and suddenly burst into tears, unexpected to myself. There’s a complex series of emotions that goes into any dating relationship, and certainly any collaboration, too.

Flames premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.


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