Josephine Decker casts a witchy spell with her new film 'Shirley'

As Sundance comes to a close, I’m pleased to share my first of many interviews conducted at the festival. On the heels of her acclaimed film, “Madeline’s Madeline,” director Josephine Decker spoke with me about the out-of-body experience I had while watching her film “Shirley.” It was like there was some kind of magic drawing me in, with the stringy score by composer Tamar-kali. and the story centering on Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), author of The Haunting on Hill House and The Lottery. The film placed me in an intoxicating spell that still has yet to wear off.

Josephine and I talked about the sorcery and witchiness that characterized the genius of Shirley Jackson, as well as the visceral space between characters, which is illustrated through the movement of the film.

This film, in my mind, is a masterpiece, and I am so happy that Shirley Jackson is back onscreen, after the various adaptations of her work, such as Robert Wise’s 1963 classic, “The Haunting.” I’m also very excited about the women behind the film, including Sarah Gubbins who adapted the screenplay based on the book with the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, who worked together to ground a collective female voice. Congratulations to Josephine on winning the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking for “Shirley”!

Josephine Decker, director of Shirley, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eric Rudd.

REBECCA MARTIN: I’ve only felt this way once before when I watched a film, and that was “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

JOSEPHINE DECKER: Oh my gosh, that’s like the best movie ever made.

MARTIN: I had an out-of-body experience watching the campfire scene in that film, and I had a similar feeling while watching your film. What drew you to this project?

DECKER: Sarah Gubbins had written a really wonderful script. Her script was so beautiful and very singular. It’s funny to hear you say what you said about “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” It’s amazing to be so drawn to a period film. I’m not normally drawn to working on a period film.

MARTIN: But it’s so fresh and modern. When I watch the film, I feel it in a way where it feels like it’s happening now.

DECKER: A part of the immediacy is that there is something very haunting, and haunted, about this script, which is also true of all of Shirley’s work. It’s something I’m always interested in investigating. How do you grasp that presence that’s outside of those characters? I feel there was a presence to the script that was very otherworldly, and in the movie, we tried to bring that out.

MARTIN: I felt that way with those quick motions, which was reminiscent of “Madeline’s Madeline”. It’s almost like there are three parts to Shirley’s story: one is Odessa Young’s character Rose, then there’s Shirley, and then there’s this fictional, magical bit that’s contained in that space between. And I just love those scenes where you see her, but not her face, in the woods

Could you go into what you were trying to do with those girls on campus? It seemed to me that it was coming from Rose’s point of view. The perspective reminded me of “Madeline’s Madeline,” and I was wondering if you could expand on your intentions.

DECKER: It’s funny that you ask about the girls on the college campus. They used to be in the movie more, but we had to cut many of the scenes out. I loved them. 

MARTIN: They were great. They added just an extra little bit.

DECKER: It’s interesting, because I think there are different layers of sorcery in the film. And there is a witchiness to Shirley, a witchiness that is kind of manipulating and abusing, but also lifting up Rose. I really think the sorcery is about Shirley working on a part of herself, trying so hard to find something. And I think finding a character is similar to finding a part of yourself you didn’t know that you could connect to. That is why the connection with Rose is so strong. She’s kind of integrating herself. 

The women on campus represent another layer of the sorcery in the film, the concept of women at that time, what women were allowed to do, the women that broke those boundaries. There was kind of a magic to them and a witchiness. Bennington College, in the 1940s, was like this hot bed of sensuality. It was an all women’s college with all male professors, and they would just have orgies. They’d deliver handwritten invitations in glitter to these orgies. 

MARTIN: The Shakespeare Society?

DECKER: The Shakespeare Society is an invented thing, but it’s drawing from a reality. It was at these women’s schools. It wasn’t all the prim and proper 1940s and 1950s, it is this underbelly of sexual discovery, which is still on college campuses today. Maybe formalized a little bit more for that time period.

Part of the withchiness is that Rose is maybe not aware of that world. She is not having that college experience. She’s gotten married, she’s having a baby, and she’s stuck in a more traditional arc. She’s taken out of the educational realm because she got pregnant. She’s pursuing this thing as a housewife, but her other trajectory, at least in her backstory, was that she was a college student of Fred’s and they got together, and she had to drop out. She’s struggling with that.

There’s the witchiness of Shirley–she’s a creatively unfulfilled woman as miserable as that can possibly be. There’s also this witchery of these women on campus who are able to express themselves both sexually and intellectually, in a way that she isn’t. So I think that having those two presences in the movie show the different parts of being a woman at the time. 

MARTIN: I noticed that there was a play on mental illness and insanity. A theme that I felt ran through was the idea of “lost girls gone mad”. Lost girls losing their place in things, and because of that, losing their mind a bit. We see that in Rose’s transformation. Could you comment on that?

DECKER: I feel like this is best answered by the film itself.

MARTIN: Yeah, maybe this is more about interpretation. In terms of onscreen representation, what were you showing us, the viewer, that had not been shown before?

DECKER: One of the things I love about this film so much is that Shirley is such an unconventional character. I haven’t really seen a character like her onscreen before. It’s such a pleasure to get invested in somebody who is so wonderfully awful, you know? 

MARTIN: Right, yeah.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.

DECKER: I think that is what drew me to the film the most, that kind of character. I was also invested in Rose, in her trajectory. There is a sense of personal discovery. How do you stop being someone who is doing what other people want for you, and how do you start being someone who does the things for yourself? Even though I don’t have a lot of pressure to be a housewife in my life, thank god, I did grow up in Texas, and I think that I had given myself a lot of pressure about–well, honestly, not just being a good, polite, kind woman, but also about being successful. I didn’t want to be like a Texas woman, I wanted to be like–my mom is a really awesome powerful woman, and I wanted to be a very successful woman too.

But somehow, there is always an idea of yourself that you have, an idea of the best version of yourself. It is an idea distant from the actual self that you are being, and then connecting with the actual self is so empowering because you don’t have to be anyone but that human. Even though we are thankfully beyond the time when women are forced to be housewives, we’re still in a time where ideas of ourselves are very strong, but it’s still difficult at times for us to be the superhero women that we already are. I really invested in that in Rose’s trajectory. I related to her a lot in that she was finding out the possibilities for herself, and the possibilities for being more embodied, more in touch with her own desires. The fact that she becomes maybe more self-destructive as the film goes along, could be seen as a bad sign, but also in the context of our story, it can be seen as an illustration of how growth is painful.

There’s this growth that Rose is going through in the movie. I don’t really know how to qualify whether the ending itself is happy or sad, but she has grown a lot, and I think that’s powerful and important. I think that would be the thing if I was trying to think of what I was saying or investigating. How do you become the person you are? Shirley too is dealing with that–there’s an idea of her and her novel and how good it’s going to be that is from Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), and then there is the actual woman who is struggling. I feel in that last scene of “Shirley,” you really get at how important and how vulnerable it is to be an artist.

MARTIN: I think it’s really cool that you have a female composer (Tamar-kali). I saw that she has worked on several amazing films, including with Dee Rees (“Mudbound”, “The Last Thing He Wanted”). With the recent Golden Globe win for “Joker” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, it’s sad that it’s taken so long for female composers to get recognized, especially women of color.

I think it’s really badass to have a female composer, and the music is so strong in this film, so stringy, and that’s really where the chills bit comes from. That’s how it parallels with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” with the strings. The rapid strings captures the madness and losing the mind and finding yourself. Did you work with her on the music choices?

DECKER: Yeah, I’m glad you pointed out that she’s a female composer and that it’s not usual for female composers to be elevated. I was on a BMI panel yesterday, and there were so many people on the panel, which was already kind of funny, but then Tamar-kali was the only female composer. There were like eight or ten composers, and she was the only female composer, and I was like, “What?” You’d think there’d be more women. 

We’re at Sundance where people really think about things like representation, and yet out of ten composer on this panel, only one of them is a woman. I thought that was fascinating. Also, something is going on with the hiring of composers, and I think I noticed that when we were hiring. Men have just had a lot more opportunities to compose features, and especially for a certain budget level. It’s hard to get a woman approved who has never done a feature before. I had to get other people who I chose approved by a lot of producers and financiers and if they haven’t worked on a feature project, there may understandably be some hesitation. But then who gives them the first chance to do a piece?

MARTIN: It was amazing. The score reminded me of “The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorsese, who was a producer of “Shirley.”

DECKER: That’s great. I have to say that Tamar-kali is unbelievably great. She’s so flexible. It was really easy to have a conversation with her, and that’s what you want in a collaborator. She was never like, “No!” She was always open to ideas, and it felt similarly to how the writer Sarah [Gubbins] and I work together, and same with Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, the cinematographer. The only constraint that we had was time, but otherwise, we were really on the same page about the language of the film. We were wanting to ground the female voice. I love Tamar-kali’s voice specifically and she went pretty wild. She would do a cue, and I’d be like, “Can we make this even wilder? Like when Shirley has a vision while in the bathtub?”

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.

MARTIN: Oh my god, that scene was amazing and terrifying. With every role, Elisabeth Moss just seems to transform. What was it like directing her in the role of Shirley Jackson?

DECKER: I wanted to work with her because there is never a moment in her work that I don’t believe. She doesn’t put anything on as an actor. You never feel her acting, because she’s so authentic in what she is doing at all times. When we found the character of Shirley together, Lizzie made her so rich and complex. There were so many moments while watching her on the monitor where I would just be melting. To get to work with this level of actor–I felt that way, in a sense, about all of our actors–Lizzie and Michael are just masters of their craft and have been doing this for so long.

Lizzie would just find things that were so ineffable. You can’t give a note to an actor and have them find that thing. You can support them and you can create a space that hopefully allows an actor to encounter some aspect of themselves, but she is just so wonderfully subtle and present in her performances and I was routinely blown away. We all were. The dailies would come in and we would be like, “Elisabeth Moss, oh my god!” I want to add that Odessa is really wonderful. She is the eyes through which we see the film, and we wouldn’t care about the film if we didn’t care about her trajectory. One of the things that was most exciting in finding her for that part is that there was a feral wildness in her.

MARTIN: I could feel that. This is a movie that makes you feel

DECKER: I’m glad that came out.

MARTIN: I felt that with her. She was so full of passion at the beginning. You have that train scene and then they get there and it’s just interesting to me how she changes internally during the film. One more question: a lot of our readers are emerging female filmmakers, so I was wondering if you had one bit of advice for them?

DECKER: Say yes to yourself as much as you can, even when you feel the most doubt. If possible, try to surround yourself with people who also say yes to you because there are always going to be people who say no. There are probably more of them. When you have a big idea or a scary idea, and if your gut says that it’s right even when other people are saying no, then just stand up for it and defend it. You know the story that you’re telling better than anyone, because you are the director of this movie. It’s important to trust your collaborators. Communication is vital, but also know that you have permission to be right. 

MARTIN: I like that because women often have to be more trusting of their voices.

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