I recently interviewed Brooklyn-based filmmaker Josephine Decker about her two fascinating feature films, both released within the past year. Butter on the Latch (2013) is set at a Balkan music camp in the woods and built around completely improvised dialogue, and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) is a gripping tale of loosely related characters who act on their dark impulses. Both films are intriguing character studies centered around the nuances within sexual and romantic relationships. Decker has a hand in every part of the filmmaking, working with a small team to collaboratively write, direct, produce, edit and cast the movies.
I think her work is so interesting in part because she's not an authoritarian on set. While she has a clear vision, Decker approaches filmmaking with a spirit of responsiveness that gives her films a feeling of authenticity rarely experienced through mainstream films. It's very similar to the way the social practice artist approaches
I sat down with her for an interview in March, just after she returned from the Berlinale Film Festival, where both films scored high praise.
ERICA THOMAS: How did you get your start as a filmmaker?
JOSEPHINE DECKER: My first film was actually a short called Naked Princeton set at Princeton University. It’s about a secret underground nudist society that starts up in protest against the actual ban on nudity that Princeton instituted my freshman year. It was so much fun. It was the opposite of the dark things I made afterwards. I don’t think I ever conceptualized Butter on the Latch as “my first film.” I was so committed to making my “first feature” that I went out and fundraised a lot with individuals –mostly family and friends–and then we did a Kickstarter for the finishing funds. These films don’t cost that much money in the scheme of films—you’re not raising a million dollars, you’re just raising less than $100,000. It’s not nothing, obviously, but we were able to raise enough to make something we felt good about.
Even though you’re working with low budgets it seems like you’ve done a lot with them.
Yeah, yeah. My dad, he’s so sweet, he asked, “Did this cost a million dollars, Josephine?” And he was just confused about how it could look so good and sound so professional and not have a huge budget. It was good to hear that from him because my dad is part of the reason I love movies and why I want to make movies. He’s, like, a BIG movie fan. He watches tons of movies. It was really cool to seem him be impressed with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
Your films are dark and intense and are about intimate and sexual relationships. What is it like to share your work with your family?
The good news is that I try to not share them until they are coming out in a festival so there’s already a lot of applause around it by then. I was terrified for my dad to see Mild and Lovely for a really long time. But once it got into the Berlinale festival and there was all this excitement about it I realized that it didn’t really matter anymore that the content was sexual and kind of dark. He was surprised when he saw the film. I think he was like, “Oh god, did we mess up raising you?” And I was like, “No dad, you did a great job!” Most people can never make any art because their parents don’t support them at all. I think if I had shown my dad the rough cut of the film a year ago I would have been terrified that he might have been like, “Oh god, this is a mess.” But when there are 500 people in the theater, and it’s the premiere and that’s the first time he sees it he’s like, “Wow, it’s dark and weird and fucked up but I guess people like this stuff.”
My films are definitely exploring my own ugliness. Partly I feel free to do that because I have love in my life, which is a weird and interesting conundrum.
I’m interested in how you take a much more collaborative approach to filmmaking. Can you talk about your production process?
At Berlin opening night ceremony I saw the Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ultimately that film is engaging and exciting and you’re along for a ride. But Anderson’s first two films, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, which I really loved, blew me away because they were so loose and character-driven and you really cared about these people. I just feel like something sort of happened in his latest films where like I don’t care about the characters quite as much. I think it’s partly that the filmmaking technique is getting in the way of the emotion of the narrative. Everything is so stylized, every frame is so perfect. There’s also a lot of equal weighting–medium shot, centered in the middle of the frame. Giving that much balance to every shot, you sort of don’t know as a viewer what to pay attention to. I think that there’s something really important about imperfection in terms of communicating about actual emotions. That’s my process for now. I’m not sure if I’ll feel that same way in 10 years, but for now I really love being intuitive and letting the situation tell me how to shoot it, instead of me telling the situation how I think it should be.
It’s sort of like writing. You can come up with amazing ideas but reality is always going to be so much more fascinating than anything you can come up with. It’s sort of about, as a writer, taking reality and then processing it and changing it and collaborating with it as opposed to ignoring it or imposing something on it.
Working in the Balkan music camp on Butter on the Latch was a godsend. I’m so honored that they let me shoot there because it’s like that place is just a vibrating world waiting to be made into a movie - or many movies. I was really open to how we could capture that place.
One of my favorite things about the film is that when she’s walking alone in the grass you’re hearing other people practicing the music. That’s just something that was always there. At first the sound guy kept asking, “How am I supposed to record sound? There’s all this background noise! You can’t ever get clean dialogue.” And I was like, “No, that’s the point! Let whatever’s coming in come in, because that’s gonna feed the film in a different way.” I think it really did make a big difference on the film as a whole to not try to get clean sound but to have every conversation overlaid with music that we had no control over. That kind of thing excites me. It’s almost a very interesting sexual thing, you know. Filmmaking that kind of relates to some degree of top and bottom. I love that as a director I’m simultaneously in control and yet the loss of control is as important to the process. It’s like I’m being more submissive to reality.
Your films seem to have a really loose structure and to be responsive to the actors and the locations. Do you script? Do you have shot lists and a post-production plan in place before you shoot? How much of your finished films are planned before you start?
I do have a shot list. It’s usually not followed very closely. The importance of shot lists is knowing the mood of the scene. That’s important to setting up the tone of the film overall. Then once you get to the location, everything is always different than you imagined it. The shot that you had figured out in your mind either doesn’t fit the surroundings or it isn’t the best way to capture the emotion of the moment. That’s what I love about Ashley Connor, my DP [Director of Photography]. She’s very intuitive. We’ll talk through everything for hours before we go out there and we’ll have all these ideas and then when we get there we’ll change all the blocking. We’ll change everything to fit the environment. I’m just going to say I feel really grateful to be a woman, because I feel like there’s more openness and availability to work that way.
It’s a funny thing because I don’t think of myself as a snappy, quick-witted person. If someone insults me it it takes me like two days to come up with a comeback. But I’m simultaneously very fast at adapting. So if a situation isn’t ideal, very quickly I’m able to be open to another possibility and to make that work usually better than any of my original ideas could have worked. Filmmaking is sort of about knowing about your own strengths as a human. I don’t know that everyone would enjoy or feel comfortable making films the way I make them but I love making them in that way.
Yeah, plans are good, but it’s good to be willing to throw them away sometimes.
I just had a great conversation with my friend who’s a social worker. We were talking about drinking versus not drinking. I really don’t drink that much in general but I’m always creating these ultimatums where I tell myself that I’m never ever drinking again. And then I’ll go out and have two glasses of wine and be really mad at myself for not sticking to my ultimatum. And [my friend] was like, “Well, Josephine, maybe that’s good because you don’t want to be rigid. You’re living in a space of moderation and that’s what’s good.” And I said, “Yeah, but I love discipline.” And she said, “Discipline and rigidity are very different things.” Discipline and structure are incredibly important, but rigidity is the thing that will bite you in the ass every time.
That’s what my goal is with filmmaking–to be disciplined and to have structure but to still have tons of flexibility.
When you’re working with actors, how much of their dialogue is scripted and how much is improvised?
All the dialogue was completely improvised in Butter on the Latch. We had a treatment about five to ten pages long for the film. Then we actually did a collaborative rewrite for the ending. We realized that we weren’t even clear on who actually exists within the film. We were able to remap the ending to reflect that discovery.
Then Mild and Lovely was all scripted. There were a couple of scenes that were improvised, namely the one where the horse was hurt at the very beginning of the movie. We were scheduled to film at that barn that day and the owner of the barn told us, “I’m sorry, I know you guys were planning on coming but one of our horses was just really badly injured.” My producer, Laura Klein, she’s so good, she was like “Oh I’m so sorry, I completely understand... Can we film it?” It’s a really emotional scene. It was really emotional for the actors too because they’re actors, not farmers or ranchers. It was a really new experience. Sophie Traub, who played Sarah, was really struggling between being the character, who would be a little more used to that, and being herself who was totally stunned and horrified and really emotionally moved by seeing this horse who was hurt. So anyway, that scene was improvised.
What happened to the horse?
The owners were going to put it down because it was like a $300 horse and that’s like a $3,000 vet bill. But then we shot there and everyone was crying. [Actor] Robert Longstreet actually offered to pay for the vet bill but the owner didn’t take him up on it. They ended up bringing the vet out, they stitched the horse up and the horse is fine! So, there’s a happy ending.
You give the female characters in your films a lot of sexual agency. Why do you feel it’s important to address this kind of content and write the characters in that way?
I’m so glad you saw that! And also no one else has asked about that! It’s not even that I write thinking of that necessarily. It’s not like when I’m writing I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m going to give this woman sexual agency.” I think my own sexual agency just naturally emerges when I’m writing characters. It’s so funny that when the cast and crew flew out for the Berlinale Film Festival, I looked around and thought, “There are a lot of strong, independent women running around this film festival thanks to these two movies.” It was really cool to realize that all the people I had chosen to collaborate with were really strong, powerful women—and in totally different ways.
When I was first writing Mild and Lovely I actually had a lot concerns about the way the lead character Sarah was given sexual agency. I was worried about how people would read her. There’s a scene where it’s sort of clear but sort of not clear whether the sex she has is something she wanted or not. I was really surprised that no one brought that up after the fact as a question. I was really worried that it would be a question of whether she wanted to have sex with him. But the film does answer that question for the audience in a way.
To me, women’s sexuality is all very different and what we like is very different. That’s something I learned with the documentary I made, Bi The Way. Some people like to go have sex with someone of their same gender in the woods and that’s the thing that turns them on the most. And then some people like to have sex with someone they’re married to in the missionary position for their whole life. The things that make people comfortable are totally different for everyone. I’m really just exploring the things that I’m curious about or question within my own sexuality. I think those are what end up going into the films.
I like exploring the darkness in people through character. Characters like Kate from East of Eden—she’s so evil, she’s like the worst person ever portrayed in literature. And I loved it. I loved it. There’s something about her portrayal that just resonated with me in the same way that Antichrist, the film by Lars von Trier, resonated with me. I love Lars von Trier’s films.
I totally see his influence on your work! I feel like you can really see references in both Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch.
I just realized that his films have really influenced me. Everyone’s always asking me who my influences are and it’s hard to answer because I’m too close to them. I watch a million movies and I’m influenced by all of them but with von Trier’s film Antichrist I walked out of the theater and feeling totally excited. He’s just really honest. It’s interesting that some men have asked me, “How can you write male characters so well?” It’s actually just that I’m writing about women really deeply and about my deepest fears about men. I think I’m touching on something that’s true to the human experience. With Mild and Lovely I was looking at the place inside me that’s powerful and sexual and manipulative sometimes to find out what happens when you take that all the way to it’s conclusion.
It can be scary to approach topics in your work with questions rather than answers, when you aren’t trying to say something but trying to ask something, but it can lead to much more interesting work. I really like that space of ambiguity.
Yeah, my mom’s always asking, “What’s the message of your film?” And that’s usually something someone says when they really hate your movie. Because either they didn’t get the message or they don’t like that it doesn’t have one.
What else do you want to say about your film that no one is asking you about?
The things I still want to change. Even though Butter on the Latch has gotten lots of great feedback, I’ve never felt like it was done. I don’t know that you’re ever done making your movies. We sold out all the screenings at Berlinale, which is incredible, but still when you watch it with that many people, the things that you feel aren’t working are that much more clear. Even though sometimes you have to give in to that feeling. Embracing imperfection is still something I have to work on.
In Mild and Lovely, you don’t really have anything to latch onto for the first 20 minutes of the film until the sex scene happens. You’re wondering, “Who is the main character? Who am I supposed to care about? What’s even happening?” I think all of that confusion is really important for the film but it was really hard for me to accept that there would be 20 minutes of the audience feeling confused. At first I didn’t know if I could do it because I thought people might just turn it off. But then once that scene happens I feel like the film gets really gripping and doesn’t release until the end. Even then it’s not really letting you go.
Ultimately, there’s nothing that I want to say about the film that isn’t already in the film. I mean, I’m glad I’m doing interviews because then people hear about the movie and go out and see it but I would be perfectly fine saying nothing about the movies. The point of having a movie that’s full of ambiguity is that you want the audience to have their own experience with it.
What’s next for you?
We’re planning on releasing Mild and Lovely in Germany and Poland. I don’t know yet about distribution in the US yet. So, fingers are crossed and conversations are being had. We’re knocking on wood.
For my next personal project, I really want to make a film about these three girls in New York making a theater piece about the three little pigs. But then they slowly realize that this story is a metaphor for immigration and the prison system and they try to explore these bigger topics through their little weird clown piece that they’re making. I think it actually might be a comedy which would be great after making these two really dark films. There’s so much potential comedy in assuming that with your crazy performance art piece that you do at some weird underground theater, that you’re going to conquer what’s wrong with the American prison system. That’s ultimately what I feel like I’m doing–trying to look at really big issues with my art.