Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker: “There’s a thirst for responsibility in storytelling”

The American indie director talks about her third film, a critics’ hit at Sundance that tackles teenage mental health, race and the uneasy balance of power in an artistic mentorship.

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

First screened at the 2018 Sundance film festival, Madeline’s Madeline cemented Josephine Decker as one of the most distinctive emerging voices in American indie cinema. The film boldly adopts the perspective of Madeline (sensational newcomer Helena Howard), a biracial teen discovering her own prodigious talent as an actor while struggling with mental illness. As the rising star of an experimental theatre group, she forms a close bond with its director Evangeline (Molly Parker), which seems to serve as a constructive counterpoint to the fractious relationship Madeline endures with her mother Regina (Miranda July). But there’s something questionable, to say the least, about the way in which Evangeline pushes her young protege to channel her personal suffering into her art.

In many ways, the narrative mirrors the film’s production process. Serving as a judge at a New Jersey teen arts festival several years ago, Decker was blown away by Howard’s performance of a monologue from David Harrower’s Blackbird, and became convinced she’d found the star of her new project. The filmmaker recalls: “I was already devising something with a group of actors, but when I met her I knew she needed to be at the centre of the universe that we were creating. When we started out we had no idea what the film was going to be. I would honestly say that devising a work, you maybe need a little more structure than what we started with! But during that initial period, whenever Helena joined our rehearsals she just had this power that pulled you towards her. She became this centre of gravity that we were able to build a movie around.”

At times, the film seems preoccupied with the question of whether Evangeline is honouring or exploiting Madeline’s talent. Decker concedes that this is indicative of her own state of mind during development: “There was such a long time when I thought that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I thought, ‘I’m working with all these people, I’m supposed to be in charge, and I have no fucking idea what I’m doing!’ As we were generating more and more material, this kind of fatigue started to set in. All these actors were giving a lot of time, and we didn’t have much money. So at some point it was like, ‘You’re not being responsible, you need to get your shit together and figure out what your story is!’ And I think Evangeline goes through that in the film.”

Josephine Decker

The relationship between artist and muse here, both on screen and in real life, is further complicated by the pair’s racial differences. Decker was acutely aware of her status as a privileged white woman telling a young person of colour’s story: “A lot of this film was inspired by my previous project, a short I made about prisoner re-entry for an anthology film (called Collective: Unconscious). My test shoot became the final product, and it basically amounted to a white cast enacting the experiences of African-American men. I was ashamed that this was the version people were seeing. I had really wanted to diversify the cast, but the project deadline was too tight and we didn’t have enough money to appropriately pay. The only saving grace was that I put myself in the piece filming the performers, so it at least forced people to consider who was behind the camera and what they were looking at. The main thing I learned was to try and be transparent about who I was in relation to the story.”

In terms of the way it communicates authorial intent, Madeline’s Madeline is an unqualified success. While early surrealistic scenes attempt to replicate the chaos of Madeline’s consciousness, the film goes on to explore how her worldview has been shaped by both of her white maternal figures. And through Evangeline, Decker imparts a vivid, amusingly self-deprecating sense of her own struggles and insecurities as an artist.

The film shares plenty in common with the filmmaker’s previous two features, Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) — all three are immersive, cineliterate portraits of troubled young women. But Decker is a little surprised when I suggest that Madeline’s Madeline is more accessible than her early work: “There were so many times when I thought this would turn out much less coherent than my other films! To be honest, the script was by far the least clear of all those I’ve written. It was a thoughtful script, but it was pretty wild. So we worked really hard in the edit to create clarity; there was a lot of focus on structure. It was pretty much the opposite of my other films. With those, the stories were more or less clear, so I created a certain amount of chaos during the edit.”

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

She also sought to differentiate the film from her intense earlier work by striking a lighter tone: “With every movie I make, I start out thinking I’m making a comedy, and then it turns really dark and sexual! But I always thought this one would be funny, although maybe it takes a while to get there. I was aware this particular story would naturally lend itself to a dark or violent ending, but at some point I realised that I didn’t want to go there, so I started twisting it towards something else. Again, it was kind of the reverse of my other films, which shift towards darkness towards the end.”

The result is an intense psychodrama laced with self-deprecating humour and whimsical visual flourishes. In its blurring of fantasy and reality, it’s somewhat indebted to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, particularly in an early sequence in which Madeline ‘becomes’ a sea turtle as part of a performance workshop. “Charlie Kaufmann’s like a god to me,” says Decker. “But someone else pointed out similarities to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and I’d forgotten that I used that as a reference point in the earliest treatments. It has quite a lot in common with Eternal Sunshine — they both have this very strong sense of you moving in and out of a character’s consciousness.”

In applying the playful experimentation of her early work to a lucid, timely meditation on authorship and cultural appropriation, Decker has created something quite remarkable. Early reviewers were enchanted, with IndieWire’s David Ehrlich declaring it “One of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the 21st century”. The director was taken aback but is grateful that her self-reflective approach to filmmaking has found an appreciative audience: “I was actually worried it was going to be the opposite reaction; I thought people weren’t going to get it. So to have people really respond to it made me realise that there’s a thirst for responsibility in storytelling – especially among critics, who have to watch a million irresponsible movies!”

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