At a time when movie theaters are shaking your seats, spraying you with water, and adding numbers and X’s to enhance your film-going experience, Josephine Decker is here to remind them that sometimes making a great movie is more than enough. In Madeline’s Madeline, the writer-director delivers her most exhilarating work to date as she tells the story of Madeline (Helena Howard) a teenager who wants to become the star of her drama class. Surrendering to the idea of truly becoming someone else, the young woman also finds herself in the midst of a battle of sorts between the two women in her life, her sometimes neglectful mother Regina (Miranda July) and her acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker).
Even though the film has elements that make one think of Carrie, Superstar, Persona and myriad other works, it is by its very nature so undefinable that all one can do is also surrender to the experience. Decker’s imagery flows from the screen and almost seems to jump into your eyes (the soundscape is magnificent) while Howard’s star-making performance anchors the audiovisual elements so that we never forget the humanity within them. Talking too much about the film almost feels like a disservice given how unique, exciting, and necessary its many pleasures are.
With that said, it was extremely fun and enlightening to talk to Decker and Howard about how they met, the art they love, what it was like to work together, and what the future might hold for them next.
The Film Stage: What was your first meeting like?
Helena Howard: I was at a performing arts high school and every year we went to a festival in Union County. For some reason on this day the universe decided to place Josephine in this room adjudicating actors. Everyone’s doing scenes from Frozen, some people did A Streetcar Named Desire — they broke a bottle, there was shattered glass everywhere and people thought they were so intense. I came with a monologue from the play Blackbird by David Harrower, and Josephine made a remark saying it was the best performance she had seen in her life.
Josephine Decker: Her monologue was the most beautiful live performance I’d ever seen and I burst into tears in front of all these 15-year-olds, and then she burst into tears. I think we both knew we’d be connected from that moment on. I always knew I wanted to make something about actors, but when I met Helena I knew she was the person I needed to build this film around. I didn’t know anything about the movie, except that she needed to be the center of it. When I was flogging along, editing the movie for like fifty weeks I’d remind myself when I was lost, “You’re doing this for Helena!”
Helena, did you ever feel out of place among your classmates? Here they are doing scenes from Disney, and you show up with Blackbird.
Helena Howard: I was a bit nervous, yeah. I was concerned my peers would think I was doing something that was not in the norm, but at the end of the day it was something I wanted to do, something that brought truth to me. I would never do anything that doesn’t speak to me.
Helena, there are elements of Una from Blackbird in Madeline, especially in her precociousness and how she sees herself as more mature than she is, which leads to adults taking advantage of her. Did your love for Una in any way shape Madeline?
Helena Howard: I believe every performance or portrayal helps the next. So, possibly.
Did you give Madeline any of your own traits?
Helena Howard: No. I didn’t want to give too much of myself to Madeline. I was the passenger in the car and Madeline was the driver. Subconsciously it becomes method acting, I’m unaware that I’m feeling it while I’m in the process of creating. I didn’t want to take personal things of my life and give them over to Madeline. Those things are mine, not hers.
In many ways the film shows the sometimes dehumanizing rituals actors go through to find the performance within. Josephine, were you interested in demystifying this sacred idea of “the process?”
Josephine Decker: It’s funny cause I would say it’s the opposite, it was more like “mystery-fying” the process of acting.[Laughs.] I feel acting troupes are one of these last sacred spaces in our culture. They are a space where people transcend themselves and hold the space to let each other try being someone else which is a beautiful spiritual act. In some ways I wanted to see what is this gorgeous, mysterious process actors take themselves on when they leave their bodies and become someone else? When is that done in a safe way? When does that become dangerous? We worship celebrities and I think we worship actors because they are spirits, transforming themselves constantly. There are ways that power can be used in one’s body in a healthy way, but it can also be a dangerous art form. I wanted to look at how magical and terrifying it can be to lose yourself in another person or creature.
Josephine, whenever people write about your movies, and the ways in which you deal with mental illness, they often seem frustrated by how impossible they are to categorize. I find it really funny, cause it shows how much we’ve come to want everything to be digested for us, but I wonder what that feels like for you as an artist?
Josephine Decker: I find it very funny because I just spent a whole day answering lots of questions like that. [Laughs.] Mental illness is a loaded subject for many people, but sometimes people don’t even know how to start the conversation about it. The irony is that mental illness is so slippery and hard to define — a person’s mental illness might have ten different diagnoses in the course of ten years — so it’s ironic that’s the one thing people want to pin down in a film, because it’s the one thing that’s “un-pin-down-able.” Maybe that’s why I get asked a lot about it. My decision to keep Madeline’s relationship with mental illness as open-ended as possible was deliberate. I wanted to allow her the space to craft her own story around it, but also to see clearly how people around her have their own stories, their tales about what’s happening with her.
When the characters are male you’ll read descriptions like “complex,” “profound,” or “troubled,” with women we get “hysterical.”
Josephine Decker: Wow, that’s a very good point. “These moody women…” [Laughs.]
What was your actor-director relationship like?
Helena Howard: Josephine gives very free structured direction. There’s a lot of creative freedom, but she doesn’t tell you what emotion to feel, she just gives you an idea of the direction you should go to. She’d never say anything like “now be depressed!” or “cry!” that would make a bad direction I think, it would be dictatorial. Josephine guides you.
Josephine Decker: Helena hadn’t done film before, so we talked about that. She holds a lot of power as a performer, she knows how to act. A lot of my notes were about reconnecting with the story, bringing out certain aspects of the storytelling, so I mostly had to make sure all her choices were supporting the story at that moment, while giving me a range of options for the editing room. She has very good instincts, she was very open to my direction.
Josephine, are your scripts already full of the imagery we see in the final version, or does that come after you work with your DP?
Josephine Decker: Sometimes it’s both. This movie started with this image of a sea turtle starting in the ocean and then she comes out of the ocean and you realize it’s a woman in a sea turtle costume, and then you realize it’s a woman in an acting studio pretending to be a sea turtle. I said to myself: you have to put this image into film. It was about transformation, not achieving transformation, whether you’re successful or whether you’re not quite there. Ashley Connor, our cinematographer, was involved in this starting in the two-year-long incubation process we went through with actors, for seven months we would get together once a month to improvise with this group of actors. That’s why the camera feels so alive in this film. It was a bit of letting the process of the film create the product.
Movies about teenagers or coming of age films tend to have very romantic views about adolescence, but in this one we see the inner turmoil a teenage woman goes through, rather than worrying about whether she has a date for the prom or not. Are there any other films you can think of that made justice to these feelings you went through growing up?
Helena Howard: A movie that kinda did that was Camp. It’s such a good movie. Was it executed the best? No. But it showed us what it was like to be a teenage performer. It’s truthful. It didn’t fluff it up. Perks of Being a Wallflower also, Charlie has some mental issues he’s battling internally and dealing with life as a teenager as well, and how hard it is.
Josephine Decker: You know what’s so funny, my favorite film I saw in my teenage years was Babe, and in many ways it’s very similar to this movie. [Laughs.] It’s about a young person learning who they are, that they can stand up to authority and be their own person, make their own rules and hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than the “adults” around them. I fucking love Babe so much. I also loved Amélie and The Last Unicorn but a lot of teen films didn’t speak to me. I loved Clueless, I was obsessed with Dirty Dancing, but Babe — which has been my favorite movie for 20 years and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be displaced — it’s about the triumph of a single human spirit against all odds. I would never in a million years say Babe inspired this movie, but it’s one of the deepest influences in my own life. I’ve seen it over 100 times.
Your love of Babe makes the cow in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely suddenly make total sense.
Josephine Decker: [Laughs.]
I was so happy watching the film because it’s about a young woman of color, which is something we don’t get to see very often. I can not wait to show it to my sixteen-year-old niece, for instance, because few things in 2018 are as empowering as this. I’d love to hear more about what this means for each of you, and Helena I’d love to hear who were some of your idols growing up.
Josephine Decker: Thank you for mentioning that. Truthfully I was blown away by Helena and her power. It was like, “You–let’s do this!” I think those subtle power and racial dynamics were involved even in the creation process. I had to learn what it was like for me to tell her story, instead of a white teenage girl’s story. I was worried I wasn’t able to do it justice, and I think that’s why the film is what it is. It asks: how do you tell a story that’s not yours? We spent two years working on it before we shot it, then I spent a year and a half editing it, and in a way, weirdly, race is a part of the film. It’s also about the connection between these two women and how that could be destructive or deeply moving and creative. It’s so exciting for me to hear you bring it up. This movie would not be as meaningful without this specific person as the lead. I am so happy it was Helena.
Helena Howard: Growing up I didn’t look at people like that, I came from a household where I grew up very open-minded. I see people as human, that’s their race, and then they happen to be multiethnic. My whole life I would always have to check off “other” in race, so having to identify as “other” really hurt when I was at a young age. I used to watch old films, classics, the types of dramas I watched weren’t cast with African American or Latin actors, so I don’t know. I didn’t have that idea of idols growing up. Instead I was teased for being multiethnic, so I didn’t really want to be black, Cuban, or Cuban American. Even though I was trying to make people see me as that part of myself, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Helena, what roles are you looking forward to playing at some point?
Helena Howard: One day I would love to play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. I love ‘Night Mother, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, I’d love to do Blackbird. [Laughs.] I have so many plays…oh my gosh, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Martha or Honey?
Helena Howard: Either? Both? I’d also love to do Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and one of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays This Property is Condemned.
Josephine, maybe one of these is your next project together?
Josephine Decker: One of her favorite plays I’d never read until she told me she was really into it was Equus, and that is the craziest, most interesting play. It would be interesting to look at that play with her maybe playing the boy’s role.
More farm animals!
Josephine Decker: Yes, there’s a theme [Laughs.]
Madeline’s Madeline is now in limited release.
Note: These interviews were conducted separately and combined for clarity.