Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” is one of the most exciting movies of the year, immersing the audience in a exhilarating cauldron of daring theatrical roleplaying, teenage rebellion, and swirling, innovative film grammar. It’s an experiential arty indie film about the blurring of the boundaries between art and life and it pushes its experimentation and pretentious right to the edge of exasperation. But there’s also a thrilling passion in this kind of whimsical radicalism that teeters on going off the rails, but anxiously, and electrically stays on course.
“Madeline’s Madeline” centers on a theater director’s (Molly Parker) latest project which takes on a life of its own when her titular young star –a breakthrough performance by newcomers Helena Howard — takes her performance too seriously. And when her mother (Miranda July, an actor/director who’s own envelope-pushing films seem to inspire the movie) becomes involved, Madeline’s performative experience becomes more difficult and confusing.
Portraying the unraveling of a talented, but mentally fragile, young actress, “Madeline’s Madeline” is both timeless – channeling the primal and spiritual roots of acting – and timely – addressing difficult issues like the thin line between exploitation and art-making as well as the politics of who deserves to tell certain stories.
READ MORE: Helena Howard Is A Fury To Behold In Josephine Decker’s ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ [Sundance Review]
We recently sat down with Josephine for a fascinating conversation about the intensive work with the Pig Iron Theatre Company — “a space for rigorous experimentation, playful theatre-making, and long-lasting collaboration”– that led to the film, how collaboration can lead to self-discovery, and finding the primitive within the human.
I read that the genesis of the project was meeting Helena. How much of the idea did you already have, or did you develop it collaboratively with her?
The main idea was to make a movie through the process of improvisation. I wanted to write collaboratively with actors through improvisation to create the script and then film it. Because I had kind of improvised my first feature and scripted my second, so I wanted to those ideas combined. The concepts were just around exploring mental illness, the parent-child relationship in terms of mental illness and also exploring art and the process of art-making.
I had taken Pig Iron Theatre’s summer intensive the summer before I met Helena and it was just amazing. There was a crazy clown intensive. To create a clown you really have to shed all of your layers, you have to be so honest with the audience. After three weeks, I just felt like I saw another side of all these people I had been in ten-hour daily classes with and I was, “Wow, there’s a whole other part of you that I don’t even know if you knew was there, that comes out in performance” and I got excited about the way that performance can strip away… maybe make you more yourself? And I was curious about how that can be safe or dangerous, those were things I was really interested in exploring.
Were you hesitant to work with a teenager or did you embrace that challenge?
I think I was really excited about it. She was so clearly gifted and also I love teen movies. I thought “Twilight” was really fun and also the movies you grow up with are teen movies…
They can be very raw or direct…
Yeah, exactly! You’re in this very specific, very chaotic part of your life experience that I think also resonates with anyone, asking ‘Who am I?’
Being a teenager is all about exploring different roles and then you kind of kick that into hyperdrive by putting her in this context.
That’s so true. I never thought about it like that but it really is all about role-playing.
I think actors experience this thing where people really project onto them what they want to see or what they want to take away. That was definitely the case with Madeline, where her Mom is deeply projecting onto her experience, saying “You are so sick” and “You are not able to take care of yourself” but then Evangeline (Molly Parker) is saying “You’re the star of my thing” and “You can handle this very difficult task” and ultimately she’s in this position of asking, “How can I take care of myself?” Her journey in the film is kind of her learning her own boundaries and sticking up for them, which is definitely a teenage experience, but also a lifelong thing, I think I’m still learning to stick up for my own boundaries.
Once you did meet Helena, how much did she bring to the character?
The truth is we worked together for so long. It was about seven or eight months of meeting one weekend a month, sometimes it would be the whole weekend, two eight hour days, or sometimes just one day.
Is this just you and her?
It was the whole troupe, around 10 to 12 people usually. By the time that that period was done, I just knew her really well. She’s also really gifted and she has so much fun, she can turn into so many different characters, but she also can have a really loud silence. She’s such a presence and she’s able to say so much with so little. I think a lot of Madeline was just letting her be in the frame – inside of all these other stories that are being told about her, she’s kind of in this space of figuring out what is the story that I want for myself.
Because we spent so much time together before shooting, we had developed a level of trust between the two of us that I think was unusual for a teenager and a director and I think that she was really able to let herself go places. But she’s also a person who goes there, she’s deeply a person who’s going to give her all, she loves performing. It was a joy for her to get to explore that.
You could tell there was this level of trust and she felt safe, but it’s kind of funny since at the same you’re showing Evangeline and this bizarro, bad version of a very similar relationship. Did you already have that contradiction in mind or did it come…
I would say that was deeply born out of the experience of making this work with this troupe and with Helena, and feeling like I was an idiot (laughs).
Like all of my ideas of how this was going to go were pretty idealistic, and the actual reality of the process was that the dynamics were really complex. We had a wonderfully diverse room of people who were also, thank goodness, honest enough with me that we were able to look at some of the failures and flaws in the process.
So I think putting Evangeline in the movie was a little bit because I felt that I learned so much in the making of this movie that I thought I had been quite an idiot along this process and it would be nice to put a few of those problems into the film so that other people can share this conversation around how do you make art ethically and how can you make art collaboratively? And if in a way collaboration is the most exciting or democratic process of art-making, how is that not exploitative or like a dictatorship? (laughs) I don’t have the answers, that’s why I made a movie and was like “Look at this and tell me what you think, because I don’t know!”
How would you say you balance fostering collaboration while still protecting your personal vision?
Truthfully that was hard and something that I’m learning more and more about myself is that I love input. I love, love, love input. That’s the thing I love about making films the most is collaboration, all these voices coming together, all this creative strength from all angles of people who are good at different things.
The first drafts of the script were very “Alice in Wonderland,” weird adventure after weird adventure that were all kind of based on the improvs we had done. Eventually I had to let go and focus in on the stuff that was most exciting to me personally, because I had to admit, “I’m writing this, there’s no movie that has twelve main characters, well maybe “Short Cuts”…’
There have been a few tries…
It’s hard. So if I’m really centering it on this main character, what is her journey? I had to really try to forget that we’d spent all this time workshopping all this stuff. In a way, what came out was that the stuff that was the most resonant and meaningful to me from this journey that we’d taken with all the actors, were these deep conversations that we’d been having around the ethics of making and looking at our own process deeply and that became its own backbone to the film.
Do you think you could have made this movie without your own acting experience?
No. I think this was deeply grounded in both my experience in acting in other people’s films and my experience in going to this performance intensive, spending the summer in this kind of clown…it’s called Pig Iron’s Summer Intensive.
I’d love to hear about that.
I did their summer intensive in 2013 I think, and we did neutral mask commedia and then clowning. It was transformative for me in that I felt like I was using my body in new ways, but it was also just seeing the impact it had on these people who were really unraveling, unspooling these aspects of themselves. It was so exciting. I’ve always had this feeling that there is a dearth of sacred spaces in our culture right now and that we are deeply craving community and transcendence and we have almost zero avenues to reach that.
We don’t practice ecstatic dance, we don’t have rituals as part of our culture, religion has faded and I think one of the true last bastions of spiritual practice is acting troupes. Because they are a small group of people who regularly encounter each other for many, many years, they are about exploring the other, it’s a very spiritual thing and they encounter all these parts of each other. They have to hold that with love if you’re going to continue to be relevant over a long period of time, you stick together I guess you could say.
There was this incredible voice teacher that came from France who was also all about unlocking your primitive voice. Oh my God, I was obsessed.
How intentionally were you channeling that with the animal masks and some of the chanting, what kind of mindset were you trying to put the audience in with those scenes?
It’s so funny, you know how some things just feel right for a movie even though you don’t know why you’re doing them. All of these choices, we thought about how can music emerge from the body? A lot of the music in the film is music that…
There’s so much breathing.
There’s a lot of breathing, a lot of purely vocal music, there’s a lot of the actors themselves making the music of the movie just with their own bodies. The funny thing is that the animal stuff… I was just so inspired by those masks, I think a lot of actors study mask work and there’s something about accessing your inner creature, and putting that creature in different forms, being a lion, or a spider, or a cat, that you kind of talk to the history of evolution and all of those creatures are in some ways inside of you.
My last interview said ‘What’s up with the animals?’ I don’t think it was intentional, like I really wanted to make a movie with animals, but I was really inspired by those pig masks and I really wanted to put them in this film. My friend made those masks and I just thought, ‘This is a movie! I have to make a movie about these masks!’ But I didn’t really know why. I think they’re so human in a certain way and something I’m desperately interested in is when is the human inhuman, and how do you allow the inhuman parts of yourself out, because those are the parts we’re most disconnected from.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is in theaters now in limited release.